Remembrance of a Black Body

Simone A. James Alexander, African Diasporic Women’s Narratives: Politics of Resistance, Survival, and Citizenship (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014); 238 pages; ISBN 978-0813049823 (paperback)

• November 2015

The body has been considered the receptor of histories and the transformer of geographic spaces within different cultures. In African Diasporic Women’s Narratives: Politics of Resistance, Survival, and Citizenship, Simone A. James Alexander articulates how black female bodies in literary writings can refute mainstream discourses. She includes the perspectives of various female writers, such as Audre Lorde, Edwidge Danticat, Maryse Condé, and Grace Nichols, who have wanted to be heard through their works. Alexander also demonstrates, through the study of Saartjie Baartman, how social performances of the body can disarticulate women’s identity and subjectivity. African Diasporic Women’s Narratives goes beyond a feminist study within a white patriarchal structure to a more universal exploration of female oppression. To this end, Alexander claims in her introduction, “Whereas this book employs western (feminist) theory, it does not do so uncritically or at the expense of black and Third World women’s histories. . . . This book is critical of white patriarchal structures, it reserves equal criticism, and condemnation for patriarchal structures within black communities” (6–7). Alexander also describes the complexity of a dialogue between black and white societies.

The essence of Alexander's book is the interrogation it makes of the disabled, diseased, and “hypersexualized” women’s body, displaying the female migratory body that disrupt race, class and gender. Divided into six chapters, this study interrogates how the body as “signifier” can function as a text. The first chapter focuses on Baartman’s journey as “captive flesh” (12), whose body moved from Cape Colony (present-day South Africa) to Europe in the nineteenth century to do a performance that perpetuates her body as an instance of both exoticism and monstrosity. This monstrosity goes along with a wounded flesh of consumption, where her body is exposed to a Western white public that cannibalizes every part of her corporeal entity. Alexander reminds the reader that Baartman was not just a victim of western racism but also a victim of regional ethnic groups during colonization. The strength of this chapter is the commentary that Alexander offers about Baartman’s marked body; these marks, created as a result of exploitation and denigration of women’s flesh, also appear in the experience of migratory women, who are under similar forms of oppression that can be seen in the United States but also in other spaces of the first and third worlds.

In the second chapter, Alexander addresses the ill/diseased body through the eyes of Lorde and her literary text The Cancer Journal (1980). Alexander lets the reader appreciate how Lorde saw the body as a metaphor of the nation, and how we can understand the nation through practices against the flesh and women’s health. This section is an exploration of politicized health and the way women are assumed to have a specific functionality in society that frames the conceptualization of beauty and the elucidation of their bodies. Here, the notion of migration has an alternate meaning, since for Lorde women who travel are a challenge to the nation-state (42): this idea begins to develop toward an appreciation of migration that embodies a twofold personification of transformation and transcendence. The reader is introduced to an understanding of noncitizens of a nation, where sexual inscriptions of the body categorize subjects, in this case, a black lesbian body. In this chapter, cancer is seen as a notion that underscores social problems such as segregation and social warfare.

The subsequent three chapters focus mostly on three literary texts that explore the positionality of black women’s bodies within Western and Caribbean American society:  Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986), Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), and Grace Nichols’s The Fat Black Woman’s Poems (1984). Even though the whole book is linked through the study of women’s transnational body, these three chapters are also connected by the analysis of the violence that is asserted against black women’s bodies. Beginning with the third chapter, Alexander compares Condé’s novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, with the reenactment of the Middle Passage, while the reader is taken back to the seventeenth century. Alexander details here the narrative of Tituba and her personal trauma, referring to Cathy Caruth’s study of trauma in which the narrative exposes an “endless impact on a life”; however, according to Alexander, Tituba is writing against invisibility, refusing to allow the unforgotten “wounds of slavery to remain obscure” (71). The act of rape appears in Alexander's study as a commonly used Caribbean trope of land occupation, although she argues that this violent act creates an alternative discourse where the black female body vindicates, resists and recuperates itself. Alexander sees Tituba as a revolutionary figure whose consciousness (body and mind) is aligned.

In chapter 4, Alexander studies Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, using as a lens the trope of women’s bodies as nationalist representation and the violence committed against them when they trespass borders. Alexander starts this section by reminding the reader of the experience of Danticat’s uncle who died at the Krome Detention Center in South Florida in 2004, after being denied blood pressure medication (a story Danticat later tells in Brother, I’m Dying). This case helps to understand how the body is the recipient of marginalization and disruption. From here, Alexander studies the body as demonized and ridiculed, and Danticat’s novel demonstrates that history goes along with the performance of bodies. Breath, Eyes, Memory allows the reader to comprehend the subjugation of the women who lived under the Duvalier dictatorship and how “the body meets the land in a shared history of turbulence” (113), analogously replicating the unstable relationship of the United States and Haiti.

Chapter 5 examines Grace Nichols’s poetry book, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, in which there is an exploration of the excluded body that is denied citizenship within a national definition of corporeality. For Alexander, Nichols revises concepts of beauty, gender, and “body conformity” (130). The vision of the grotesque in Nichols’s writing reveals a transgressed body, a study that goes beyond a physical description of beauty to more “spiritual attributes of beauty” (131).

The last three chapters are related also through the exploration of different uses of language that serve for women’s protest. In the final chapter, Alexander focuses her attention once again on the idea of how women’s health cannot be separated from women’s bodies and shows the complexities and problems of black communities and cultures. Alexander reflects on how the sick bodies of immigrant women position them within an invisible spatiality that prevents them from being heard.

Alexander's synopses of some of the books she analyzes are difficult to follow if the reader is not familiar with the original works. However, African Diasporic Women’s Narratives: Politics of Resistance, Survival and Citizenship is a significant study of the black female body, and it contributes to the dialogue on the recognition of the female body in society, generating consciousness of its power.

 

Ángela Castro is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, where she is currently working on Caribbean literatures within the Spanish and Portuguese Studies Department. She earned her BA in Literature from Universidad del Valle in Colombia in 2009 and her MA in Hispanic literatures and cultures at the University of Minnesota in 2013. She is currently working on an essay about the historicized body in Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy.