Wang: Besides “Race” or “Racial issues” in the study of African American literary criticism, “Gender issues,” or “Gender equality” has been foregrounded at least since the 1970s. What do you think of different approaches/aspects in black feminism and their possible tendencies in the new century?
Ward: Any thinking I do in this area of cultural study is centered on womanism not feminism, because Alice Walker’s making a distinction between the womanist and feminist perspectives was a key moment in intellectual history. Her distinction is a warrant for investigating gender as a thread of concern interwoven with other threads we call class, biology, race, and ethnicity, of seeing the fabric through the lens of American history. Inspecting the 19th century fabric and texture enables us to find similar patterns in the literary criticism that has been manufactured since the 1970s.
Discussions of gender in the North were apparent in abolitionist debates about the evils of enslaving Africans and African Americans, and those debates were enlarged by proposals from the Woman’s Rights Convention of 1848. In the antebellum South, black women inscribed their gender issues in the narratives they wrote or dictated, in oral traditions, in successful flights to freedom. After the American Civil War, African American women wrote what Claudia Tate aptly named “domestic allegories of political desire,” were exceptionally active in promoting literary and education, and in disputing with white feminists that women’s rights pertained to women as a class; in these quarrels we discern how race and economic status made gender equality problematic. Leap to 1920. American women finally got the right to vote, but that political gesture left many gender and racial issues unresolved. Just as abolitionist efforts in the 19th century provided models for women’s assertive actions, so too did the long struggle of African American women (notably Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker ) and men for civil rights provide a template for political and literary actions among women, the upsurge of Women’s Liberation and feminist theorizing which smashed against the every-present wall of race, ethnic, and class interests and the immense capability of globalization to reinforce abuses of women.
Cultural critics should use the discipline of history to study the fragmentation and bifurcation of feminism and womanism. We should learn from such twentieth-century writers, scholars and critics as Trudier Harris, Carolyn Fowler, Farah Frances Smith Foster, Gloria T. Hull, Audre Lorde, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Deborah McDowell, Darlene Clark Hine, Elizabeth McHenry, Claudia Tate, Nell Irvin Painter, Andree Nicola McLaughlin, Nellie McKay, Joanne V. Gabbin, Brenda Marie Osbey, Sherley Anne Williams, Margaret Walker, Octavia Butler, Toni Cade Bambara, Thadious M. Davis, Hortense Spillers, Maryemma Graham, Barbara Christian and dozens of other women ----all of whom worked assiduously to build foundations for twenty-first- century work.
In a near future, the tendency in African American literary criticism may lean toward androgyny, more exploration of gender’s bending and blending without minimizing the need to use literary knowledge in substantive critiques of material conditions perpetuated by the gendered rhetorics of public policy, sex traffic and religious bondage, of the gap between wealth and poverty in the African Diaspora and everywhere else, and of the now permanent threat of amoral terrorism. I would hope that significantly more attention would be given to excellent qualities in women’s minds and their contributions to science, sports, statespersonship, and life-affirming literature and culture and less to shameless praise of women’s bodies in the transnational neo-slave auctions of “beauty pageants.” This new century offers many opportunities to spend our enormous intellectual capital wisely, particularly in efforts to minimize the cruelties human beings inflict upon human beings. Many of our colleagues would argue rigorously that such is not the responsibility of scholars. If they are right and I am wrong, I shall hold fast to my heresy and transgressions.