- “The Changing Same”: Black Women’s Literature, Criticism, and Theory
Deborah McDowell began writing “The Changing Same” in 1984. During the decade between the inception and the publication of this book in 1995, literary studies “underwent a wrenching upheaval” which McDowell describes as “a ‘paradigm shift’ from the ‘Age of Criticism’ to the ‘Age of Theory.’” The historical value of the nine essays collected in this book is the immediacy with which they register the transformations in black feminist criticism that occurred in the course of this volatile decade. “The Changing Same” attempts to chart a history of black women’s fiction as well as of the interpretation of this fiction, but a history without teleological or evolutionary assumptions. McDowell claims that her selection of authors and texts is entirely “arbitrary,” but no selection ever is. The book focuses on three “central or defining moments” in the history of black women’s fiction—the Women’s Era of the 1890s, [End Page 833] the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and the “second renaissance” of the 1980s.
The sections concerning the Woman’s Era and the Harlem Renaissance (each containing two essays) focus on Emma Dunham Kelley’s Four Girls at Cottage City, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun, and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing. Despite McDowell’s best intentions, an implicit evolutionary narrative of black women’s literary history governs her readings of these earlier novelists, whose handling of black feminine sexuality appears conservative when measured against the presumably fuller and more liberated sexuality explored by contemporary women novelists such as Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. McDowell herself is all too well aware of these hidden evolutionary assumptions, as is clear from the italicized commentaries appended to each of her previously published essays. These sections, usually written a few years after the essays were initially published, provide frank autocritiques of McDowell’s earlier critical stances. These retrospective reflections on her own work, conducted from the vantage point of later developments in feminist and literary theory, offer a marvelously compressed history of black feminist literary criticism over the last decade.
One significant strand of this history may be clearly traced through McDowell’s changing perception of the value of recovering historical and cultural contexts to aid our appreciation of earlier women writers. Contextual evaluations of earlier women authors often tend to get caught in an impasse, where we either judge these writers as falling short of contemporary feminist expectations, or we reinstate them by rationalizing their shortcomings as inevitable reflections of the limitations imposed by their contexts. Stressing the importance of recognizing that context cannot be retrieved as a whole cloth, McDowell argues that, however hard we strain to read earlier writers within their own contexts, our reconstruction of these contexts will tell us more about our own contemporary investments in the past than about the past itself. McDowell illustrates this point by analyzing the contemporary ideologies of emancipatory and expressive sexuality that colored her own critiques of the novels of Kelley, Harper, Fauset, and Larsen.
McDowell’s book is difficult to critique because it contains its own deconstruction (in the italicized retrospective commentaries on previously published essays). Perhaps the only significant blind spot of this book that McDowell does not address is her unqualified celebration [End Page 834] of recent black women writers such as Morrison, Walker, and Sherley Anne Williams. McDowell uses two different methods of reading for contemporary and earlier writers, and she nowhere accounts for this difference. Contemporary novelists are uniformly acclaimed by McDowell for their subversion of contemporary ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality; in this sense, McDowell fails to apply her own insights about the complexity of contexts to recent novels or to her own investments in reading these novels as exemplary instances of full textual resistance to contemporary ideologies.
Most of the nine chapters that look at specific novelists from the three renaissance moments of black women’s literary history are versions of essays published during the last decade. Because many of these essays have had...