This essay was originally published in Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations, Volume 13.2 (October 2009)
Extracts from this essay:
Scholars and even fiction writers have been turning to the historical past since the 1960s, specifically to slavery, to explain a whole host of ills that currently plague cross-gender relations between black men and women. These ills include much higher divorce rates for blacks than whites, non-marital failed heterosexual unions, the contemporary phenomenon of ‘baby mamas’ and of absentee fathers, as well as conflicts between the sexes over whose gendered experiences of oppression get privileged in narratives purportedly about the racial group as a whole (see McDowell 1991). These or similar arguments have been advanced by such well-known scholars as E. Franklin Frazier (1966) and John Hope Franklin (1967) in the past, as well as by Orlando Patterson (1998) and Elaine Pinderhughes (2002), among others, today.
As Rilke reminds us, ‘perhaps the sexes are more related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and [woman], freed of all false feelings and reluctances, will seek each out not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will come together as human beings, in order simply, seriously and patiently to bear in common the difficult sex that has been laid upon them’ (Rilke 35). Such insights represent one of the most valuable lessons contemporary readers can take away from Walker’s impressive, but demanding, second novel—and it is this: that sex is difficult, but that it is not impossible.While many of these scholars point to this past in order to explain how the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade distorted African gender and sexual roles, the revered African American memoirist and poet Maya Angelou turns to the slave past as a way to recuperate those same roles that others would claim were systematically destroyed.
About the author
Affiliation: Bowdoin College