March 15, 2010

Book Review: Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings

Black women’s bodies have been the site of pornographic scrutiny for almost half a millennium. One of the most notorious examples of this scrutiny was Sara Baartman, better known in Western circles as the “Venus Hottentot,” who was “exhibited around Britain, being forced to entertain people by gyrating her nude buttocks and showing to Europeans what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features” (Wikipedia: Saartjie Bartman). As a result of this objectification, Donna Aza Weir Soley argues in Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings, female black writers in the Americas who have grown up in ostensibly Christian cultures have always faced the “issue of how to represent black female characters as both sexual and spiritual beings while working within the constraints of a discursive tradition that historically maligned black women as sexual deviants” (2). In some cases, the implications for black women has been an uneasy relationship with their bodies. This unease has been reflected in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Opal Palmer Adisa, and Edwidge Danticat. Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings traces the historical, religious, and philosophical underpinnings of the dilemma facing black female writers and their use of West African religions as an alternative model for liberation from the “objectifying gaze” and the reclamation of Black female subjectivity.

Weir-Soley begins her investigation of black female subjectivity by describing the Western worldview with its patriarchal control of female sexual behavior and the Judaeo-Christian separation of sexuality and spirituality. As a contrast to this paradigm, Weir-Soley offers the example of West African-based spiritual traditions in which “sexual expression is an integral part of the spiritual experience” (2). Placing the issue in an historical context, Weir-Soley examines the effects of slavery on the colonizers and their attempts during the nineteenth century to distance themselves from the Africans by their creation of the so-called “cult of true womanhood” in which “a woman had to pious, (sexually) pure, submissive, and domestic” (15). This development, Weir Soley points out, intensified during the nascent antislavery movement, a period in which “the sexuality of black men and women was already a metonym for sexual deviance” (21).

Ironically, the anti-slavery movement which grew out of fundamentalist Christianity placed many black writers and intellectuals in an untenable situation. On the one hand, as Weir-Soley explains,” Christianity provided black women with an alternative language through which to articulate their claims to good moral character” (121). On the other hand, “Black women who were raised to be “good” Christian girls (like Harriet Jacobs) were especially vulnerable to feelings of shame about their sexuality” (121). Many of the leaders within the early civil rights movements had to suppress or deny any trace of sexuality. In other words, the only “good” Negro was a celibate Negro.

It was within this context that writers such as Zora Neale Hurston began the liberation of black bodies and to “reestablish the interdependence between spirituality and sexuality that is so central to the formation of black women’s identities…by relying on the inscription of a symbolic, discursive, literal and theoretical framework based on the spiritual precepts and epistemology of West African belief systems” (3). Beginning with her work as an anthropologist in Haiti, Hurston found the material she needed in the rich panoply of the lwa of Voudoun, especially Erzulie, and with that knowledge wrote her groundbreaking novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Other writers building on Hurston’s legacy, most notably, Toni Morrison would use Hurston’s insights as a means of understanding the contradictions of slavery and black female subjectivity. In Beloved, Morrison confronts the issue of black female subjectivity by creating a scene which a mother, Sethe, must choose between either killing her child or watching her grow up in slavery. Faced with such limited options, Sethe kills the child. It is a choice that haunts Sethe and her lover, Paul D, until the ghost of the child, Beloved, is exorcised. The exorcism and subsequent healing is precipitated by Paul D’s seduction in by Beloved, whom Weir-Soley links to Erzulie through the ‘red heart” symbolism which runs throughout the novel: “The recurring image of a rusted tobacco-tin that resides in the place where Paul D’s “red heart” should be is prevalent in Beloved” (120). Weir Soley continues, “That the relationship between spirituality and sexuality is crucial to the restoration of a black female subjectivity hinges upon the concept of Erzulie as a restorative, regenerative model for black sexuality in Beloved” (121).

Drawing on the scholarship of Audre Lorde and Joan Dayan, Weir-Soley develops the "restorative" figure of Erzulie and analyzes the fictions of Opal Palmer Adisa and Edwidge Danticat. From the evidence Weir-Soley presents one could infer that the pathway to the reclamation of black female subjectivity as an antidote to the “cult of true womanhood” lies in the recognition on the interrelatedness of sexuality and spirituality in the figure of Erzulie, “the symbol of womanhood and the personification of female beauty” (209).

Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings, while relying heavily on the lit-speak of the academy, is an important work because it expands our knowledge of the syncretism in the fictions of Hurston, Morrison, Adisa, and Danticat, and recognizes the vitality of the West African worldview as a means of resisting Western paradigms which are inimical to black female subjectivity. Weir-Soley’s scrupulous deconstruction of the assumptions that surround black female sexuality has many implications not only in literature, but also in how we look at each other and ourselves in the mirror.

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