- Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings
Framed by a self-consciously political agenda set out in the introduction and reiterated in the epilogue, and with a feminist understanding of the political as personal, Donna Aza Weir-Soley sets out to reclaim the right of black women to their sexual and erotic expression untainted by the stereotypes and disparagements that have historically confined them. Caught somewhere between the prudish concept of the “ideal woman” of the nineteenth century and the brazenness of hip hop music videos and other manifestations of the black female body currently in vogue, black women have been left to negotiate the difficult terrain between freedom of self-expression and the appropriation of their sexuality by the marketplace. Weir-Soley’s underlying premise is that the divorce in Western cosmology of the body and the mind, the physical and the spiritual, leads to disruption and imbalance in the female psyche, and that in order to regain equanimity (black) women must incorporate their physical bodies and sexual expression into an acceptance of their entire being. Weir-Soley understands this “merger between the sexual and the spiritual [as] a political act, an act of recovery that can potentially restore the black woman’s sense of wholeness” (41), or, as Toni Cade Bambara would have said, their “integrity.” The author’s other major assumption is that given the mixed messages of popular culture, women must look to literature for their spiritual role models.
Weir-Soley sets out to contextualize the problem with her first chapter, “The Cult of Nineteenth-Century Black Womanhood,” providing a useful background for those readers who are less well-versed in the dilemmas of their foremothers caught between the standards of “ideal womanhood” and the pernicious definition of the “negress” in the nineteenth century, with all its connotations of lasciviousness and lewd sexuality. The author then turns to considerations of the “tragic mulatto heroine” and the passing novels of the early twentieth century. These examples are explored to bolster Weir-Soley’s contention in the next chapter, “Literary Interventions in Their Eyes Were Watching God,” that Hurston’s creation of Janie represents a radical departure from the conventions of the previous century. The author relies heavily on Daphne Lamothe’s “study of the presence of the Voudoun loa Erzulie” in Hurston’s seminal novel, yet not enough examples are given to substantiate the presence of the loa in the text, and even Lamothe “argues that images of Voudoun are not transparently displayed” (61). Herein begins a problem that pervades this critical work: while it may be absolutely true that black women of the African diaspora write out of a (conscious or unconscious) legacy of African cosmology, not every example signaled by this author points in that direction, giving the impression that certain things are stilted in order to sustain her arguments.
Often, the texts considered by Weir-Soley actually work against her assumptions. From her very first chapter, the author skims over but cannot suppress a different and equally viable reading of Their Eyes. Janie cannot find her “self ” in a photograph and is called “Alphabet” because she begins her quest with no fixed identity, and while her sexuality is crucial, her growth depends more directly on the possibility of participating in her community through telling her own story. Weir-Soley, however, argues that “Janie’s multiple identities serve to reinforce her connection to Erzulie, who is said to have over fifteen different emanations and to possess multiple and conflicting attributes” (70). From an anthropological or ethnographical point of view, this is entirely plausible, particularly given the African origins of loa who have [End Page 311] been reinterpreted and adapted to their environs in the New World. But it also undermines Erzulie’s usefulness as a hermeneutical tool for textual analysis because she can be divined under almost any pretext. Erzulie is conjectured in every novel under analysis in this book, and in every one she is different. The author’s preoccupation with African Voudoun gods forces all...