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Trope of Race in African American Women’s Writing

African American Women’s writing was excluded from literary collections and critical studies because they were considered to be non-normative. It was only the work of white men, white women and to some extent Black men that were considered to be mainstream, while the practices of Black women were recognized as being deviant (McDowell 167). As Barbra Smith says in her essay ‘Toward a Black Feminist Criticism’, the existence of Black women together with their experiences and culture were “beneath consideration, invisible unknown. They were also faced with a complex system of oppression that shaped their reality. She also critiques the feminist and lesbian movements which were “blinded to the implication of any womanhood that is not white” and had to battle with the racist attitude they harboured consciously or unconsciously (Smith 132). Alice Walker, in her essay ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’, discusses how the restrictive nature of slavery and racism in the realm of politics, economics and society has historically contributed to curbing the “creative lives of Black women” (Smith 133).

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However it is important to highlight that it is not only the whites who restricted the works of Black women but Black men as well. Black men were as sexist in their treatment of Black women as their white counterparts. They considered the writing of Black women to be weak shallow and unworthy of consideration (Smith 136). Thereby it is clear that Black women did not only have to battle the race politics as well as sex politics of the white majority, but the sexist attitude of the Black male population as well. These are some of the key factors that led to the need for the recovery and canon formation of African American women’s writers.

This essay sets out to problematize the concept of canon formation taking into consideration African American Women’s literature. It will analyze the role of the trope of race and how race complicates the recovery of early Black women’s writing. The essay will also look at the poems ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ and ‘To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America’ by Phillis Wheatley and ‘The Slave Mother’ by Frances Harper, in order to illustrate the significant trope of race in the poetry of nineteenth century

African American Women’s writer’s. Canon formation, which is considered to be the process by which “literary texts become legitimate”, was considered to be a natural process in which the finest literature inescapably stands the test of time (Corse 174). Thereby when regarded in this light, canon formation was presumably “governed by objective aesthetic laws” because texts gained access to the canon by “virtue of their unanimously recognized merit” (Corse 175).

How ever these approaches to canon formation have changed during the past few decades, where various conflicting circumstances have caused scholars to question the simplicity of these conventional assumptions. Canons are subject to change, especially with the constant recovery of new writer’s and recuperation of disremembered texts. Although researchers attempt to pedantically uncover the accurate historical, cultural, political background of authors and texts when compiling the canon, there is always a possibility that the recovery maybe of partial proportions.

The canon thereby becomes a field of contestation featuring many inaccurate assumptions, which problematize the central concept of canon formation itself. This can be identified as the incidence of the ‘loose canon’. The recuperation project has been particularly essential in the case of Black women’s writing due to their exclusion form literary collections and critical studies as a result of race and sex bias. However the legitimacy and accuracy of this project has been put into serious question with the explosive re-recovery of the racial identity of Emma Dunham Kelley Hawkins.

Emma Hawkins was acknowledged as a Black novelist and her status in the African American canon was solidified with her addition in ‘The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writer’s’, with two works credited to her name. Her biography was founded on the assumption that she was “a light skinned mulatto” (Harris 402). However when doctoral student Holly Jackson investigated the author’s racial identity further in 2005, she discovered that Emma Hawkins and her family identified as white. Ironically Hawkins had once even occupied the status of being the first female African American novelist.

This instance of partial recovery throws into serious contestation the entire foundation of canon formation. Hawkins’ identification as Black and her entry into the African American Women’s literary canon was primarily based on a scanned photograph of her, which appears “in the frontispiece of both the first and second editions of Megda” (Harris 406). Does this signify that the canon of African American Women’s writers is based solely on the colour of their skin and other physical features that are essentially attributed to the Black? On what basis does an author’s work become ‘African’?

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