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  • U.S. Women Writing Race
  • Katherine Adams

By focusing on the production of racial meanings by women, this special issue of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature takes an uncommon approach to a common pairing of terms. It asks: what do we learn about the category of race when women write it? What do we learn about the category women?

For excellent reasons, Americanist literary criticism tends to be more interested in the unwriting of race. Sensitive to the extraordinary violence performed by racial discourses—including, many argue, those generated on behalf of identity politics—we value writing that denaturalizes racial concepts and disrupts their effects. This emphasis on writing against race is, perhaps, especially pronounced in scholarship on women writers—work that is often informed by a feminist concern with resistance to oppressive paradigms, or, more troubling, by a persisting critical habit (one identified by Lora Romero two decades ago) of imagining women writers as removed from power and from white masculinist hegemony, innocent, unimplicated, and critically objective.1 A similar and potentially related tendency is evident in feminist scholarship on intersectionality. Sociologist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term "intersectional" in 1989 in the context of her ground-breaking research on how race and gender interact in employment discrimination and violence against women.2 Twenty years later, a large portion of the work that calls itself intersectional analysis (much of which also comes out of the social sciences) still characterizes race—along with gender, class, and other such categories—solely in terms of structural oppression. In a recent collection on intersectionality, one essay defines race and gender as "axes of domination," another as "social divisions," and a third as simply "inequalities."3 This is not to discount the important scholarship that approaches intersectionality through ontology and epistemology—here the influential founding example is Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought (1990).4 But while standpoint theorists and critical race scholars have thoroughly examined how race combines with gender and other forms of social identity to structure practices of knowledge and agency, they have not often concerned themselves with how intersectional subjects carry out their own racial projects.5 In feminist studies of intersectionality, race and gender are still largely framed as things that happen to us.

The essays collected here demonstrate the benefits—for both literary [End Page 237] criticism and research on intersectionality—of asking how women make racial meaning. Four offer critical analyses of fiction and poetry by U.S. women writers; one looks back on a career of writing and reading African American's children books; and the concluding piece, a new entry to TSWL's archive section, moves outside of U.S. contexts to examine women's testimony for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All six arguments show that when an analysis takes women's production as its beginning point, there is little danger of reducing race or gender to injurious forces that act upon unified Cartesian subjects from without.6 Here race is never merely a false construct that writers strive to discredit, but an ineluctable medium of self-becoming made up of cultural practices, social interactions, and the everyday inhabitance of embodiment. One outcome of this perspective is a more fully realized investigation of woman writers as intersectional subjects: both producers and products of racial meaning, not legible through an opposition of compliance versus subversion. Another is a more situated, less totalizing understanding of race—one that, for example, underscores its diverse uses and effects. To be sure, all of the essays are concerned with understanding how concepts of race oppress and exclude, but they also show us race functioning as a mode of pleasure, play, and emotional intimacy. We find race used to reify difference and naturalize hierarchy; but we also discover how its introduction can destabilize fixed orders and established narratives. These essays also bring into relief the diverse vocabularies and locations within which race take place. They indicate race as enunciated through the languages of nationalism, eugenics, consumerism, cartography, translation, jazz composition, lyric poetry, and early modern drama, and as it emerges from the geographies of the body, the hair salon, the front yard, the utopian city, the...


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pp. 237-246
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