- Constructing Radical Black Female SubjectivitiesSurvival Pimping in Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe
The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, or the earth that supports us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly arranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation, and suspicion.—Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex”
The feminism of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s made concerted and successful efforts to challenge the inequity of power dynamics between men and women; however, issues of age, race, class, and sexuality were often rendered invisible or simply ignored. Black feminists identified the concerns of black women in their literary works and scholarship in attempts to fill the gaps; they were preoccupied with examining not only the suppressions and negations of black womanhood within white feminism but also the sexism that was prolific within black communities. Issues important to black womanhood, such as black women’s sexual agency, were either ignored or silenced within these earlier conversations, even as the challenge to racist and sexist social structural systems progressed. Safe spaces for black women to address the erotic or the usefulness of sexual agency in one’s search for self were not readily available, and the subject was minimally addressed. This is not to say that some black female writers and critics did not recognize the importance of the erotic and sexual politics; however, the codes of conduct, Victorian ideals of femininity, and unwritten notions of respectability impeded black women’s ability to explore sexual agency. Perhaps much of this can be attributed to the ways in which the “old definitions” and “old patterns” that Lorde mentions in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex” influence traditional representations of femininity and [End Page 169] respectability. The codes of conduct established within black communities to protect black women from the male gaze and the negation of the black female body were all intended to “imitate progress” while “still condemning] us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt.”1 In other words, efforts to reclaim and legitimate black female subjectivity were insightful; however, in order to deem black women worthy subjects and to challenge the stereotypical images of them, black women were expected to perform within the narrative of traditional womanhood, which would have called for women to be passive, nurturing, asexual, submissive, and lacking sexual agency. Codes of conduct were established in black communities to erase the stereotypes of the over sexed black woman by following Victorian ideals of femininity.2 Some women committed themselves to motherhood in its most orthodox form in an effort to shift the focus away from sexuality and to illuminate their commitment to families.3 The move to accept traditional representations of womanhood contributed to class divides within black communities where one’s economic status and social capital determined if one was worthy of respect. Black women were encouraged to deny any aspect of their sexuality in order to demonstrate that they were respectable.4 Protecting black women from subjugation and objectification led to the policing of their sexuality and perhaps the “recrimination” of those who dared to seek sexual agency, because their actions were interpreted as lewd and deviant.
Through a close reading of Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe (2002), this essay investigates how black women evolve from the basic stereotype of sexual deviance to a more nuanced sense of self—a radical black female subjectivity—as they navigate the inner-workings of sex work and survival pimping.5 Fluctuating between scenes of nineteenth-century slave life and mid-twentieth-century pre-independence Barbados, The Polished Hoe sheds light on the double colonization and sexual exploitation of black women both during slavery and after emancipation. The novel is the confession of a “well respected” though “kept” woman, Mary Mathilda, who kills her would-be father-lover and pimp, the plantation manager Mr. Bellfeels. Clarke’s novel is within the tradition and literary...