- Where Are the Women in Black Print Culture Studies?Obscene Questions and Righteous Hysteria
This forum grows out of the 2014 mla roundtable “Early African American Print Cultures: Reflections and Directions.” Benjamin Fagan organized the session and asked me, its moderator and respondent, to write this introduction to revised versions of the remarks given by my fellow participants: Rian Bowie, John Ernest, Fagan himself, Eric Gardner, and Barbara McCaskill.
On 15 July 2015, the day I had set aside to write this introduction, I was eating lunch in my kitchen and listening to National Public Radio’s live broadcast of President Barack Obama’s press conference on the Iran nuclear arms deal. At one point, the president invited a question from White House correspondent April D. Ryan. Among several other questions, Ryan, a black woman, asked Obama whether he planned to revoke the National Medal of Honor bestowed on celebrity Bill Cosby after the revelation that in a 2005 deposition he admitted to obtaining sedatives with the intent of giving them to numerous women associates he wanted to have sex with. President Obama demurred with respect to the Medal of Honor, but then added forcefully: “I’ll say this. If you give a woman, or a man, for that matter, without his or her knowledge, a drug and then have sex with that person without consent, that’s rape, and I think this country, any civilized country, should have no tolerance for rape” (“Obama’s News Conference”). It was a declaration so exhilarating and startling (and unprecedented?) that I started to cry.
In the same instance, too, I remembered Ntozake Shange’s poignant refrain in “with no immediate cause,” her 1978 poem lamenting the frequency of rape and sexual violence in the United States: [End Page 1]
every 3 minutes a woman is beatenevery five minutes awoman is raped/every ten minutesa lil girl is molested (1–4)
In this poem Shange deploys a print culture trope—a newspaper—to comment on how and when African American women’s lives comprise “news,” when they manifest cultural and social significance. Shange’s speaker worries she has
bought a paper from aman who mighthave held his old lady ontoa hot pressing iron/i don’t know (26–29)
Shange conveys the speaker’s mounting hysteria for (black) women’s safety on urban streets and in subways: “maybe he catches lil girls in the / park & rips open their behinds / with steel rods” (30–32). Our pulses race, too, as she searches the printed text with frenzy:
i looked for the announcementthe discovery/of the dismemberedwoman’s body/thevictims have not all beenidentified/(49–53)
To underscore the speaker’s desperation, Shange tropes print journalism as at once powerful and impotent, incomplete. She insinuates a variety of print news forms—“textual productions[,] … books, pamphlets, broadsides and circulars, newspapers, serial publications,” along with “legal cases … [and] inventories” (McCaskill 13, 14)—as forces that harm (black) women. Shange castigates textual silences about carnal crimes against black women while highlighting both print and bodily victimizations of black women even as her speaker performs a late-twentieth-century incarnation of what Fagan calls a “rogue reader, someone who lives outside of the communities imagined by most … American newspapers” (Fagan 21). Irrepressibly, the speaker launches an ironic search for evidence and succor within the mainstream print source.
Shange’s poem further pits print culture against black women’s lived realities; when the speaker finally locates an announcement, it delivers [End Page 2]
not the woman’sbloated body in the river/floatingnot the child bleeding in the59th street corridor/(57–60)
but, rather, that
“there is some concernthat alleged battered womenmight start to murder theirhusbands & lovers with noimmediate cause” (62–66)
This reversal of the anticipated news story bewilders the speaker and evokes in her a visceral, violent response. Shange writes: “i spit up i vomit i am screaming” (67). The newspaper item—”the authorities”—the speakers asserts, “require” her to demand answers to such “obscene” questions as “have you hurt a woman today” (84, 83, 77), questions akin to those...