- Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition
Cheryl Wall has established a strong profile within higher education and literary scholarship, particularly in terms of her studies of Black women writers in the United States. Wall has published several well-regarded critical editions and original works highlighting the contributions of women writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. I first became acquainted with Wall's research through her highly influential 1990 anthology, Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writings by Black Women. This collection featured essays written by many of the most distinguished scholars in the field: Abena Busia, Barbara Christian, Mae Henderson, Gloria Hull, Deborah McDowell, Hortense Spillers, Claudia Tate, and Susan Willis. With her latest book, Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition, Wall offers a single-author volume of essays dealing with writers including Lucille Clifton, Gayl Jones, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Alice Walker. Her premise is at once concise and profound: "One cannot embrace the future until one has confronted the past" (115).
In this book, Wall conducts an inquiry into the ways in which well-known Black women writers negotiate vital relationships with literary and cultural precursors. To render vivid this notion of collaboration with one's predecessors, Wall draws a parallel between musical and literary processes of influence. "Worrying the line," a phrase borrowed from blues music, serves as a unifying concept for her study. This principle of recurrence involves the ways a given element within expression—a note, phrase, or other element—may be both intoned and altered over time. One who "worries the line" in music revisits and modifies an earlier utterance to match a new situation; similarly, in literature, to "worry the line" means to inflect a familiar (and, in a figurative sense, familial) text with renewed relevance. Such artists may underscore, clarify, contest, or supplement the artistic traditions that, taken together, constitute a musical repertoire or literary legacy. The line in question may be a line of a song, a line of inheritance, a color line, a lyric or phrase from music, a verbal fragment, or even an entire literary tradition. Both in terms of the stories the authors and their characters tell, the idea of "repetition with a difference" (16) [End Page 163] also conveys a shared preoccupation with genealogy and lineage. In this figure of the "line," Wall finds an evocative image for the role historical memory and cultural inheritance play within Black women writers' narratives.
It is not unusual for African American writers to perceive their own writing lives as part of a longer story, one spanning generations. In The Man Who Cried I Am, John A. Williams features a character who understands his literary inheritance as a threshold to achievement, but only if he can leave the past behind. In this novel, Marion Dawes tells Harry Ames, "It is the duty of a son to destroy his father . . . you're the father of all contemporary Negro writers. We can't go beyond you until you're destroyed."1 Standing in sharp contrast to this outlook, mandating progress through destruction of the male ancestor, is Alice Walker's womanist journey in her by-now famous essay, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens."2 In her literary foremothers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Walker finds strength rather than constraint, a rich literary past in which to bask and on which to build. This view proves more characteristic of the outlook of many contemporary African American women writers. The tendency is toward rescuing rather than refusing antecedents, even in instances where their work demands adaptation.
Wall's analogy to music serves to remind today's readers how precarious the connection to a collective past can be when life-giving stories must pass across generations of historically disenfranchised people. For example, African American folk forms, from work songs to quilts, had, of necessity, to encode (in ways discernible only to knowing ears and eyes) guidance about enduring or escaping the...