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I finally want to express how much easier both my waking and my sleeping hours would be if there were one book in existence that would tell me something specific about my life. One book based in black feminist and black lesbian experience, fiction or nonfiction. Just one to reflect the reality that I and the black women whom I love are trying to create.
Barbara Smith, "Toward a Black
What is at stake is never the immediacy of a meaning directly expressed from the sex but always the terrain of representation and representing in which "man" and "woman," "male" defined, implicated....
The history of the individual as subject and as subject in and for a given social formation is never finished.
Stephen Heath, "Difference" (1978)
In 1977-1978, two essays which were to become touchstones for subsequent debates and discussions about difference were published for the first time. In Great Britain, Stephen Heath's landmark essay "Difference' appeared in the film studies journal Screen.(1) This essay, which described recent developments in French philosophy and theory, was representative of an attempt among British intellectuals, particularly those centered in the Screen collective, to reconcile insights from Lacanian psychoanalysis (poststructuralism) with a Marxist theory of ideology in a single approach to the study of culture. In the United States, Conditions Two published Barbara Smith's "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism."(2) Widely acknowledged as "the earliest theoretical statement on black feminist criticism,"(3) this essay, like Heath's, sought to bridge the gap between two distinct intellectual projects in the setting of a new cultural agenda. Yet where Heath and the Screen collective were interested in bringing together two theoretical movements in the service of a single critique of culture and society,(4) Smith claimed that her task, which she promoted as that of black feminist criticism generally, was to establish a critique based on the explicit refusal of antecedent histories. Today (1993), black feminist criticism has achieved a kind of legitimacy unforeseen by Smith in 1977. In recognition of its newly won (though not, obviously, uncontested) status in academic and associated arenas, and in speculation of the projects and problems black feminist criticism may be poised to undertake, I offer the following reconsideration of Barbara Smith's account of black women's writing, difference, and the category of experience.
For Smith, the first problem for black feminist criticism--the criticism's point of origin--was the utter absence of black women in literature. This lack had two parts: first, Smith identified it within the literature itself, in the absence of both "positive portrayals" and "avowed perspective." "I think of the thousands and thousands of books, magazines and articles which have been devoted, by this time, to the subject of women's writing and I am filled with rage at the fraction of those pages that mention black and other Third World women" (BF 3-4) she writes. More crucial to Smith's argument and more specific to her own practice as a critic, however, was the "necessity" for a yet unrealized "black feminist approach to literature that embodies the realization that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of black women" (BF 5). Not only were black women unrepresented or misunderstood in the body of the text, but they were thwarted and compromised as readers. Smith used the metaphor of invisibility to refer to this twofold dilemma; for her, it signified an effective prohibition against black women's very existence.
Arguing that "the existence of a [white] feminist movement was an essential precondition to the growth of [white] feminist literature" (B F 5),(5) Smith points out that by contrast, "[t]here is no political movement to give power or support to those who want to examine black women's experience through studying our history, literature and culture" (BF 5). The case for why black (Afro-American) women might not have engaged in literary production is clear: in the absence of a critically sustaining political environment, the argument goes, they should not have been able to write. But they did, and this, crucially, is both what Smith does not explain and what constitutes the foundational premise of the second part and main body of her case for black feminist criticism. At the heart of Smith's recommendations for black feminist criticism, at the root of her objections to black male and white feminist critics, is the strong claim "that black women writers constitute an identifiable literary tradition" (BF 8). Other critics' refusal to recognize and deal with this tradition is both a function of conditions which produce the "need" for black feminist criticism and itself such a condition. If Smith abjures historical explanation in her demonstration of the breadth and depth of black women's absence from critical literature, in a peculiar way she also relinquishes the one alternative form of explanation which might be considered the advantage of the account she has chosen. Having complained that white women and black male critics "act as if they do not know that black women writers exist" (BF 7), having taken pains to illustrate her charge, Smith surprisingly lets each group of neglectful critics off the hook. "White women . . . are of course ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of racial politics" (BF 5); and "Black male critics . . . are, of course, hampered by an inability to comprehend black women's experience in sexual as well as racial terms" (BF 7). Smith has effectively managed to give a historical account of the literary and critical practices of white women and black men, to deny such an accounting to black women, and, finally, to say that while white women and black men might have done better to have taken black women's writing into consideration, it is not, after all, their fault that they have not; indeed, they could not have done otherwise.
Smith concludes that it is because white women arc not black and because black men are not women that they are unable to perceive (properly or at all) black women's literature. For Smith, there is something particular to black women which (over)determines their cultural practices. That something is their "identity," which itself is a function of representation. Smith at once charges the black feminist critic -- whom she repeatedly reminds us does not yet exist(6) -- to "think and write out of her own identity" (BF 9), and in statements such as the following (to which I shall return) makes the development--and experience--of that identity contingent upon existing literary and critical artifacts. "I finally want to express how much easier both my waking and my sleeping hours would be if there were one book in existence that would tell me something specific about my life. One book based in black
feminist and black lesbian experience . . .to reflect the reality that I and the black women whom I love are trying to create" (BF 16-17). No one but a black woman can do black feminist criticism, then, and black women must do black feminist criticism in order to "experience" themselves as--or be--black women, feminists, lesbians. Smith obliges her readers to understand both that black women and their literary traditions have come about (or have not) due to conditions and constraints imposed from without--here by black men and white women--and that these …