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Biography 24.1 (2001) 152-171

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Chain Gang Narratives And The Politics Of "Speaking For"

Jeanne Perreault

who was in charge of definitions
and who stood by receiving them
when the name of compassion
was changed to the name of guilt
when to feel with a human stranger
was declared obsolete.

--Adrienne Rich, "And Now"

The problem of "speaking for" has become a problem since the spoken for have begun, publicly, to examine the unconscious or unspoken assumptions of superior knowledge, insight, and solutions of well-meaning speakers for. The assumption of the speakers for is that the oppressed have no voice, and thus intervention is required. This belief is a kind of tautology: to be oppressed is to have no voice / to have no voice is to be oppressed. The figuring of oppressed peoples as without voice is no longer accurate, however, if it ever was. We understand, as Canadian M├ętis writer Emma LaRocque says, that the issue is not of speaking, but of being heard (xv). Some of the earliest challenges to speaking for came from African American feminists like Audre Lorde and bell hooks in the 1970s and 1980s. They raised an impassioned double assertion: that when white feminists made general references to "women," they were not speaking about them; and that no one could speak for them. When those understood to be the disenfranchised or marginalized challenged those understood to have greater privilege to look to their own histories and identities, the guilt for having socially designated privilege was at least as pronounced as the fruitful examinations of responsibility inhering to their own subject positions. 1 [End Page 152]

In what seems to be a flurry of resituating those subjectivities, perhaps to align themselves with the politics of identity affirmed by, among others, many people of color, socially critical white scholars have begun to examine their own communities. This becomes another kind of progressiveness: here we see studies of masculinity by men, of whiteness by whites, and even of heterosexuality by heterosexuals. And almost as soon as they begin to appear, we are warned of the danger of reifying these studies into a reproduction of male domination or white centrism. 2 Useful attention to the ethical boundaries we may be habitually transgressing, or fruitless guilt about the subject positions we inhabit (of class, race, gender, and so on), become dominant issues in our choices about work. Indeed, these ethical and emotional concerns may account in part for the enormous attention to the "I" narratives that multigenred auto/biography studies address. 3 Many academics now seem anxious about their right to speak on any issue other than one which affects them directly. These corrections have brought important and necessary changes. Now, however, a kind of unthinking (self-)censorship kicks in, too often working to silence social criticism if any boundary exists between the subject positions of the actors in the issue. In exploring this point of tension --in Adrienne Rich's words, "when the name of compassion / was changed to the name of guilt"--what is important is identifying that shift not in the substance of feeling, but in the "name" it is called, and the effects it has had. Rich's vow to keep memory alive, to know "when" things change, reminds me that only the progressive or leftist or radical would wish to speak for the oppressed. Only the progressive would bother speaking about an injustice. And this brings me to reexamine speaking for.

I take this as my underlying question: Can a writer in one subject position speak well, speak honorably, for people in another? Will the writer speaking for him- or herself always have a better chance of serving justice? Will personal identity always claim final ethical authority, or as June Jordan asks, are the values of the writer more important than her subject position in making social change (34)? No mere case studies can resolve these questions, and the questions themselves are ideological rather than scholarly. Nevertheless, I believe that laying the work of two writers alongside each other offers some...


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