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  • "Put My Thang Down, Flip It and Reverse It":Black Women's Interstitial Languages of Body and Desire
  • Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (bio)

The repositioning of women in language occurs when we reverse, interrupt or dismantle the cultural mythologies which position women in language … when we challenge how the feminine in language is addressed. It may therefore include reducing the language to its barest and most elemental, or it may access other modes of articulating or even other languages.

Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject

Language, when it finally comes, has the vigor of a felon pardoned after twenty-one years on hold. Sudden, raw, stripped to its underwear.

Toni Morrison, Love

Is it worth it? Let me work it. I put my thang down, flip it and reverse it.

Missy Elliott, "Work It" [End Page 704]

1. Interstitial Language and the Problem of Intersectionality

The archive of invented languages in black women's literature is as expansive as it is undertheorized. While many critics have considered the place of African oral traditions and coded language in African American literature, few have examined the importance of invented language systems in black texts, and none have done so with regard to black women's texts in particular. Zora Neale Hurston's use of "Alphabet" as a nickname for her protagonist on her quest toward economic, sexual, and emotional self-fulfillment in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Alice Walker's conception of "different" languages to describe how Celie talks with her sister across boundaries of nation and sexuality in her 1982 novel, The Color Purple (264), Harryette Mullen's extended poetic excavations of the potentials of reformulated English for critiquing gender, race, and class in Sleeping With the Dictionary (2002), and poet M. NourbeSe Philip's recasting of language as "foreign anguish" in her 1988 volume of poetry, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (44), all demonstrate how secret languages, new vocabularies, and unforeseen systems of speech figure prominently, if quietly, in black women writers' race and gender critiques.1

For black women writers, invented languages are a crucial means of exploring the formal possibilities of intersectionality and for forwarding new models of black female identification, community, and belonging. Focusing on Toni Morrison's novel Love (2003), Suzan-Lori Parks's play Fucking A (2001), and Missy Elliott's hip-hop single "Work It" (2002), I argue that invented tongues, recast idioms, and imagined systems of speech enable black women writers and artists to wage important critiques of gender, sexuality, and erotic desire while mobilizing those critiques to forward models of black female intimacy rooted in difference. I term these systems interstitial languages to describe invented idioms that provide language for speaking what Hortense Spillers calls "the missing word—the interstice" of black female sexuality and alterity, "which allows us to speak about and that which enables us to speak at all" (156). By speaking difference in new tongues, these artists write, project, image, and imagine the "missing words" of black female otherness as a legible, inescapable fact of their texts, inviting—and, in some cases, requiring—readers and viewers to navigate racialized sexual difference as their characters and speakers experience it. Exploring interstitial language across these three forms—fiction, theater, and hip-hop performance—allows us to understand better how contemporary black women writers use subversive poetics to 1) express intersectional identity and complicate it by [End Page 705] articulating the often underacknowledged differences among black womanhoods; 2) forward models of black space and community shaped by the nuances of black female difference; and 3) engage in dialogues about intersectionality and black female erotics in pop cultural spaces beyond academic and literary audiences.

I use the concept of interstitial language to describe imagined, shared linguistic systems developed by black women writers and their characters, first to express the nuanced interconnections of deviant sexuality, intimacy, and desire in black female experience, and, second, to situate the site of intersection as a space for creating intimacies rooted in black female otherness. I borrow from Spillers's notion of the "interstice" both to emphasize the specific rearticulation of black female sexuality in particular and to signal...


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pp. 704-725
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