White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture
Hortense J. Spillers began to emerge in the 1970s as one of the most prominent figures in Women's Studies and Black Studies. Through the course of her prestigious career, which now sees her holding the post of the Frederick J. Whitton Professor of English at Cornell University, she has strongly influenced the aims and direction of the disciplines of Women's Studies and Black Studies. The long-awaited Black, White, and in Color draws together sixteen essays written during her career, presenting a gestalt work which reflects not only on the nature of female and African American identities, but also on the oftentimes difficult role of an African American woman working in academia. As Spillers states in the preface to this book, academic acceptance did not come easily to those in the fields of Black Studies and Women's Studies, yet as the two fields gradually became accepted as permanent parts of the academic world, she won recognition for her pioneering work as a literary critic.
This collection can seem a little eclectic both in approach and subject matter, spanning as it does thirty years of Spillers' career, yet this eclecticism is underscored by passionate and intelligent writing that attempts to define the role of African American women in the academy at the same time as it draws attention to the contributions of women and African Americans in the fields of literature, poetry and social theory.
The introduction, entitled "Peter's Pans: Eating in the Diaspora" [p. 1-64] focuses, through the lens of food history, on the use of spice in the different cuisines of the world and their introduction to American cooking, whilst at the same time introducing the essays which follow in the collection (covering topics which include, and blend together, social theory, literary criticism, Freudian theory, the history of slavery, Women's Studies and African American Studies). This curious premise for an introduction works surprisingly well, demonstrating Spillers' ability to weave together disparate thematic strands to create a cogent whole. The rather personal tenor of the introduction sets the tone for the rest of the text, inasmuch as Spillers' writing has a tendency to veer towards the autobiographical. It is the self-reflexive nature of her writing and her reflections on the experiences of writing as an African American woman that provide a thread throughout the book, which keeps the work from seeming too eclectic.
The self-referential style of Spillers is perhaps encapsulated best in the introduction to the essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book."
The quote is a pertinent one because it encapsulates the spirit of the whole collection, not just in terms of self-referentiality, but also in terms of identity theory, Women's Studies and African American Studies. The essay explores the ways in which the various epithets that have been used to describe the role of African American women (as physical beings, members of society, figureheads in the family) fall short of the mark of accurately describing female African American subjectivity. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" attempts to describe how the institution of slavery in the American South informed the discourse of African Americans, and demonstrates the limitations and contradictions inherent to this discourse. These limitations exist because, as Spillers suggests, "black woman" is a construct of the dominant white patriarchal American society, but the concept is more complex than the accumulation of nicknames which she uses at the start of the piece.
Most, if not all, of Spillers' essays are attempts to question received wisdom concerning matters pertaining to colour and gender. This project, as one might expect, has neither been straightforward, nor has it always yielded concrete findings. As Spillers notes in her comments on the first essay in the collection, "Ellison's Usable Past: Toward a Theory of Myth," the field of African American Studies poses its own particular set of problems for she who works within it:
This excerpt highlights the difficulties and paradoxes Spillers faces as she wrestles with the sometimes complicated and sometimes vaguely defined notions of race and gender. Working towards her own definitions of race and gender, Spillers has dedicated her career to a revision of psychoanalytical theory through the lens of race, and to the examination of the relationship between race and gender. Thanks to this approach, Spillers has brought to the field of literary criticism some deeply incisive essays on Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, and William Faulkner, all of which are included in Black, White, and in Color. Other essays in the book include an assessment of the role of migration in the African American experience ("Who Cuts the Border?"). "Moving on Down the Line" explores the meanings and uses which can be derived from the African American sermon. "A Hateful Passion, A Lost Love" compares the fiction of three African American writers—Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Margaret Walker.
Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture ends with a reinterpretation of Harold Cruse's Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, in which Spillers tackles the problem of redefining community in order to include the idea of mobility in the concept. Whereas Cruse's work emphasised the creation of an economically independent community in Harlem, Spillers appears to be using the term more broadly. According to her the idea of community is not rooted in one specific geographical location, but is a feeling of belonging that people can, and indeed must, carry with them, no matter where they are. Using the concept of dispersal as the opposite of the idea of taking flight, she argues that community must not be a notion linked to a fixed physical space. To leave home, she argues, is not the same as to flee your home (hence the term 'dispersal'), yet one may still keep within oneself a sense of the community from which one has travelled. Spillers argues that a concept of community which is centred around a physical space is rendered particularly inadequate by the fact that some communities don't even physically exist anymore. They may have been replaced by a freeway, or even a ball-park. One example would be the razing to the ground of thousands of homes in Los Angeles in the 1950s to create a site for the L.A. Dodgers' new baseball stadium.
For anyone who is interested in African American culture, or women's writing, this collection of essays will be indispensable. For anyone who is interested in an original review of the works of Ralph Ellison, Harry Cruse, Gwendolyn Brooks, among others, this book will provide some fascinating readings of a variety of literary texts. Hortense Spillers' subtle blending of race theory and gender theory is as inspiring as it is sharp. The eclecticism of the selected works is offset by a stirringly original style, a depth of passion for her subject, and a bountiful offering of fresh ideas that will continue to help the evolution of the way academics look at race and gender.