Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century By Tera W. Hunter
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2017, 404 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Franke
The institution of marriage is asked to do an awful lot of work in most societies. It is used by couples to signal serious commitment, care, and love. It provides the social, economic, and legal structure for adult sexuality and the family, legitimizing those who enter its territory. Marriage also establishes the dominant rules of dependency and responsibility among adults and their children. And marriage serves as a useful means by which society makes distributional choices, such as allocating health insurance, tax preferences, property ownership, and other transfers of wealth. In its 1888 Maynard v. Hill decision, the US Supreme Court reflected the vital role that marriage plays in society when it ruled that marriage is “the foundation of the family and society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”
But even more fundamentally, the capacity to marry has served historically as a social and legal endorsement of a person’s full humanity. Time and again the Supreme Court has found that laws limiting the right to marry interfere with fundamental notions of personhood, whether it denied the right to marry to incarcerated people, lesbian and gay people, disabled people, or interracial couples.
Historian Tera Hunter’s new book, Bound in Wedlock, shows how the dehumanization of enslaved people in the United States was normalized through the institution of marriage. Bound in Wedlock is a detailed, careful, and comprehensive mapping of the role of marriage in the enslavement and emancipation of black people in the US in the nineteenth century.
Hunter is no newcomer to the painstaking work of assembling a complex narrative out of the seemingly random data points of a rich historical archive. In her first book, To ́Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (1998), Hunter provided a stunningly detailed account of the role of work in newly emancipated women’s experience of freedom between the Civil War and World War I. As Hunter tells it, her subjects did not become free through legal documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment; rather they actualized their own freedom through a range of performances of self-ownership in and through wage-based work. To ̓Joy My Freedom marks a paradigm shift in the history of freedom in the US. It moved beyond the canonical accounts at the time of Herbert Gutman, Eric Foner, and Kenneth Stampp by foregrounding gender and focusing on Black women as stewards of their own emancipation—under conditions, of course, of enormous constraint. Hunter was joined by the historians Laura Edwards, Noralee Frankel, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Brenda Stevenson, and Deborah Gray White, among others, in documenting the domestic lives of enslaved people in ways that refused an appeal to stock characters or totalizing stories that either cast negative judgment on or romanticized the agency of enslaved people.
With this new book, Hunter provides a well-woven synthesis of others’ work on marriage, together with her own significant archival rendering of the ways in which both enslaved and freed black people solemnized their intimate relationships in marriage. The book contributes to the growing body of work that illuminates how marriage became, curiously, a container for both enslaved life and for freedom.
Of course, enslaved people could not legally marry, as marriage is a legal contract and enslaved people—legally considered property—did not have the capacity to form such contracts. Nevertheless, as many scholars have documented, enslaved people married outside the law. Their marriages were sacred and recognized before their god and their community, although not before their owners or the law. These marriages were every bit as “peculiar” as the institution of slavery within which they were nested. The first chapters of Bound in Wedlock provide some new examples and contexts for the well-known phenomenon of owners breaking up the marriages and families of enslaved people. These owners cared not at all about their slaves’ familial attachments—and love—as they made decisions about trading them as they might any other chattel.
Hunter also reveals the double binds spouses experienced in mixed marriages—that is, marriages between enslaved and free black people—in the antebellum period. Against a backdrop of overwhelming precarity, enslaved people did their best to preserve the integrity of their marriages and families; some freed spouses actually sold themselves back into slavery in order to remain close to their loved ones. This tragic necessity was motivated by laws that required emancipated black people to move out of the state in which they were freed. Uneasy slaveholders feared that the presence of former slaves would provide a bad example to the people they held in bondage and pushed for laws that would eliminate black people unbound to a white owner from the communities surrounding their plantations.
Perhaps the best example—though not one included in Hunter’s telling—of the perverse incentives created by these laws was embodied in George Washington’s will. Washington wanted to free his slaves upon his death, but he was reluctant to do so because many of his slaves had married slaves owned by his wife Martha—and the law of dower (which required him to provide for his widow in the event of his death) did not permit him to free her slaves as well. Further, if George’s slaves were set free upon his death, they would be required to flee the Commonwealth of Virginia, thus breaking up married couples and families. “To emancipate them during her life,” he wrote,
would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter.
George solved the problem in his will by giving Martha 123 of his 124 slaves, with the proviso that they be freed upon her death, thus (advertently or inadvertently, we do not know) putting a price on her head.
The underlying question upon which Bound in Wedlock rests is whether matrimony and slavery can coexist. While there were certainly contexts in which enslaved peoples’ interests in maintaining the integrity of their kinship relationships was coextensive with their owners’ interests in maximizing profit, maintaining a compliant labor force, or upholding their religious values, these felicities were mere coincidence, not necessity. Property law, not that of family or religion, provided the overarching structure for relationships among enslaved people, and between owners and the people they enslaved. Although both marriage and slavery created status relationships, when those statuses came into conflict, the status of being property always trumped the status of being a spouse.
Hunter’s study of marriage extends beyond the antebellum period to document the afterlife of slavery in the married lives of freed people up to the end of the nineteenth century. She describes a liminal state in which Black people were trapped between slavery and complete freedom, and how the right to marry figured in that racial entrapment. Cynical enforcement of fornication, adultery, and bigamy laws imposed a kind of racial discipline on newly freed people in the postbellum period.
Reviewing a valuable book like Bound in Wedlock presents a challenge for historians like me, who have written on this topic and have spent a great deal of time in some of the same archives. Marriage, slavery, and freedom are complex institutions amenable to many thoughtful readings.
The postbellum experience of marriage by formerly enslaved people goes to the core of what I termed in my book Wedlocked (2015) “freed-dom,” that is, the condition of being freed but not fully free. Freedom, it turns out, is a racialized term, something enjoyed fully in the United States only by white people. The badge of inferiority that marked black people as enslaveable persisted long after emancipation and licensed all manner of racial terror. For the most part, marriage provided a new opportunity for white society to elaborate that inferiority and terror rather than mitigate its violence. In my own work I portray this as the predictable result of a politics of liberation that looks to state regulation as key to freedom. Marriage rights, I argue, merely inaugurate a new regulatory relationship with the state, one amenable to cooptation by those who cling to the durability, if not truth, of white supremacy. Hunter’s book, by contrast, is animated by a refreshingly romantic view of marriage; she argues that the passionate and kin-based ties of formerly enslaved people persisted, notwithstanding the violence of the state and white society operationalized through the law of marriage.
Bound in Wedlock suggests a set of hard questions that arise in the settings where two foundational nineteenth-century institutions meet: matrimony and white supremacy. As Hunter notes at the close of the book, the forces that frustrated freed peoples’ efforts to achieve human flourishing through matrimony in the nineteenth century remain intact today. A social and legal landscape saturated with notions of racial inferiority deprived freed people of the security and dignity that matrimony promised to white couples.
Hunter concludes her monograph with the recognition that today African Americans marry at rates far below those of white people. Echoing the arguments made by Ralph Banks in Is Marriage for White People? (2011), Hunter attributes this disparity not only to the enduring effects of racism but also to the ways in which marriage no longer serves as the institutional family form for achieving economic security. The low marriage rate among African Americans is a kind of canary in a coal mine, she argues, for larger societal trends in marriage rates. For African Americans and for low income whites “[m]arriage is seen as something you do after you have established your material foundation in life, not as a means to building up from it,” she concludes. Ending with insights relevant to the current moment, Hunter observes that economic and social equality are the preconditions for enjoying the dignity and agency that marriage can provide, and that oppressed groups, such as formerly enslaved people or same-sex couples, cannot expect marriage to deliver dignity and well-being on its own.
I take a more critical view of marriage altogether. Hunter sees the crisis of marriage for African Americans as rooted in preexisting racial and economic status inequalities, thus letting marriage off the hook as the institutional site that generates its own status inequalities worthy of critical concern—particularly for African Americans. While gay people have had astonishing success in deploying the right to marry in a larger campaign of rebranding homosexuality as decent rather than disgusting, and respectable rather than repulsive, marriage remains a site of failure for African Americans. For African Americans, marriage has reinforced racial inferiority and reinscribed a toxic badge of inferiority. Recent Republican statements about the need for welfare reform have revived racist—and false—notions of “welfare queens” and other unwed women of color living on public assistance. Even the Obama administration endorsed the notion that low marriage rates among African Americans and absent black fathers (rather than the mass incarceration of black men) explained a wide range of “pathologies” in the black community.
Rather than see the low rates of marriage in the black community as a problem in need of fixing, or worse, as the cause of all manner of social ills, I see the complexity of kinship relations among black people as a virtue—evidence of resilience to be honored rather than of degeneracy to be repaired. The same may be said of the lesbian and gay community as well—the complex forms of attachment, care, love, and responsibility that we formed when we were banned from the institution of marriage were not malformations that grew out of necessity during an era of now-repudiated oppression. Rather, queer kinship provides a model for all people—queer and straight alike—that in many cases enables human flourishing, security, and happiness far better than the nuclear, marital family.
Like the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which affirmed the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry, Bound in Wedlock succumbs to the sanctification of marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Obergefell,
Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.
Yet a marriage can be one of the loneliest places on earth. When it comes to writing the history of marriage, it is vitally important to foreground the role of white supremacy in devastating the family lives of African Americans, yet it is also crucial that in doing so we resist the impulse to sanctify the innocence of marriage itself.
Notwithstanding our different takes on these issues, Tera Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock makes a significant contribution to our understanding of slavery, of marriage, and to the contemporary implications of that history.
Katherine Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School, and chair of the board of trustees of the Center for Constitutional Rights. She is the author of Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (2015).
Back in 2003, when I heard that Linda Gardiner, the founding editor of Women’s Review of Books (WRB), was retiring, I knew the position would be perfect for me—an activist-writer-bookworm. I was not wrong, although I’ll be honest: my first few years here were difficult, and we ended up having to suspend publication because we were operating at a financial loss. However, with the support of Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and its executive director at the time, Susan Bailey, WRB reorganized and relaunched in 2006 as a partnership between WCW and Old City Publishing (OCP). I remained at WCW as editor in chief, and OCP took responsibility for subscriptions, advertising, and production.
It’s been a great journey. Surrounded by ever-changing stacks of books and in constant communication with distinguished feminist scholars and journalists, I learned new things every day. I had the pleasure of digging into the work of wonderful writers, doing my best to make it as good as it could be—so that new research and ideas emerging from Women’s and Gender Studies departments throughout the US could reach a wide audience. I was supported by dedicated volunteer editors and regular contributors: Robin Becker, poetry and contributing editor; Jennifer Camper, cartoon editor; and Ellen Feldman, photography editor; as well as fiction columnist Trish Crapo. At WCW, I was surrounded by brilliant social scientists, who soon became not only good colleagues but fast friends.
But you may notice (says the editor) that I am writing in the past tense. At the end of December, I transitioned away from my role as editor in chief of Women’s Review of Books. I will now have more time to
As I have with all WRB issues since 2003, I edited the January/February 2018 issue. An interim editor will be working with Old City Publishing through 2018, and I’ve passed onto her the inventory of articles I assigned and edited for subsequent issues. Watch this space for additional news and updates about the future of WRB. You can still access free articles and links to back issues on the WCW-managed site, womensreviewofbooks.org.
(Former) Editor in Chief
Women’s Review of Books
Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives By Leigh Gilmore
New York: Columbia University Press, 2017, 240 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Joy Castro
“Justice. I’ve heard that word,” writes Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). “I tried it out. I wrote it down. I wrote it down several times and always it looked like a damn cold lie to me.” As Leigh Gilmore’s third scholarly book about gender, identity, and trauma in women’s life-narratives amply demonstrates, women who publicly share their accounts of harm have good reason to see justice as a damn cold lie, for their stories are routinely met with disbelief, disregard, or worse. When women lodge accusations of violation, it’s they themselves—their behavior, apparel, and sexual histories—who are put on trial, interrogated, and judged.
Currently distinguished visiting professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College, Gilmore has been breaking ground in the intersection of gender and life-writing for decades in Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Autobiography (1994) and The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (2001), as well as in numerous scholarly articles. In her new interdisciplinary project Tainted Witness, Gilmore expands on her previous work, mobilizing methodologies from multiple fields to analyze the legal response to and public reception of “women’s testimony and life narratives about sexual harassment or political violence” and to ask why such accounts are met with doubt. On the heels of the 2016 presidential election, in which a self-confessed sexual assaulter without a professional background in politics defeated a highly competent woman with decades of relevant experience, and after last year’s spectacle when Bill Cosby walked free from a courtroom after more than fifty women had accused him of sexual assault, and in the midst of a moment when droves of women have accused Hollywood gatekeeper Harvey Weinstein of egregious sexual harassment, Gilmore’s question could not be more timely. Her answers are all about power.
Cogent, thorough, methodical, and graceful, Tainted Witness is a model of clear, effective, and sociopolitically important scholarship. Gilmore’s case studies are drawn from interestingly varied spheres, from politics to literature to public scandal. She tracks the tribulations and achievements of Anita Hill, who testified before the Senate about sexual harassment during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991; 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, whose memoir about political violence in Guatemala has been variously contested and vindicated; Nafissatou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant and housekeeper who was raped by former International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn; and the three women who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, she analyzes the literary work of Kathryn Harrison, Jamaica Kincaid, and Claudia Rankine to assert conclusively that when women tell their stories of bodily damage, they are widely disbelieved.
Doubt attends their narratives in the form of two skeptical counternarratives that are almost inevitably deployed in the wake of accusations of (particularly sexual) violence: “he said/she said,” and “nobody really knows what happened.” Both function a priori to “render as unknowable and undecidable both physical evidence and verbal testimony.” In the courtroom and the media, women who testify to violence at the hands of powerful men are unlikely to receive a fair hearing. In contrast, women who turn to the medium of life-writing (whether in memoir or in autobiographical fiction), to present complex accounts of damage (sexual, physical, political, economic) may have a stronger chance of finding an “adequate witness”—over time, at least. Their testimony—even if contested and critiqued—can continue to circulate until it reaches an audience capable of receiving it.
The “adequate witness,” in Gilmore’s formulation, does not root her response in empathy, which relies upon some degree of similarity to the testifying woman. The requirement that she be like us in some recognizable way—that we be able to identify with her, sympathize with her, even idealize her—obscures the ethical demand of listening those different from ourselves and insisting upon justice on their behalf. What happens, for example, to the validity of the testimony of the truth-teller deemed too old, too unlovely, or too morally imperfect to generate empathy in listeners? In contrast, “[a]n adequate witness is one who will receive testimony without deforming it by doubt, and without substituting different terms of value for the ones offered by the witness herself,” writes Gilmore. She “resists the rush to judgment and learns how to attend to accounts of gendered harm and agency made by impure victims in conditions of complexity.” Gilmore’s overall argument is a strong one, borne out by multiple and well-developed examples over the course of the book’s unfolding, and her prose is both complex and concise, a pleasure and an education to read.
Particularly interesting is her third chapter, “Neoliberal Life Narrative: From Testimony to Self-Help.” Here she examines the fortunes of bestselling memoirs by white women—Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle (2005), Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2006), and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012)—all three of which became major motion pictures with Hollywood stars. The critical and marketplace reality is that not all women’s life-narratives are disbelieved and dismissed. Rather, some are embraced, quite profitably—as long as they conform to a narrative arc of personal empowerment within capitalism via the overcoming of obstacles (poverty, the dissolution of a relationship, the death of a parent), while eschewing “critical engagement with historic, systemic inequalities and violence that exceed the neoliberal focus on the individual.” Such narratives meet with both critical acclaim and commercial success.
“Neoliberal life narratives,” Gilmore explains, “do not impose an ethical demand on readers. They focus on one’s relation to one’s self rather than to others. They focus on what one person can do”—or rather, on what one relatively unencumbered, privileged person—however wounded—can do: hike, heal, dine, travel, fall in love. Individual redemption, not structural political change, is the culturally comfortable remedy that neoliberal life-narratives purvey. They echo the story the culture wants to tell itself about the possibilities for women: that problems are solvable with enough personal growth, resilience, optimism, grit, determination, and hard work. You can change your life. You can have everything you want (as long as you want the right things). Just Lean In.
This narrative of individual healing, effort, and ultimate success is available primarily to white women, who have historically been constructed as precious and thus worthy of protection from hard manual labor, economic discomfort, and sexual violation (however ineffective that narrative may have been at protecting them from actual exploitation and harm at the hands of the white men who frequently controlled their bodies, finances, and lives). No comparable narrative of protection and worth attaches to women of color, who have historically been and continue to be depicted in ways eminently convenient for those who wish to exploit them: as built for the burdens of physical work; as hypersexual, even promiscuous; and as mendacious. She wanted it—and if she said she didn’t, she was lying.
Narratives of the deprivation and suffering of girls and women of color are far more palatable to western readers, it seems, when those are filtered through the benevolent accounts of white western men who uplift and save them, as Gilmore demonstrates in a chapter on Nicholas Kristof and Greg Mortenson, the author of (the subsequently debunked) Three Cups of Tea (2009). Gilmore’s concluding chapter returns to accounts and actions by women of color, specifically African American women, including Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors, the co-founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012; Sandra Bland, who died while in custody in Texas; Bree Newsome, who climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse after the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston; and Claudia Rankine, whose brilliant mixed-genre autobiographical Citizen (2014) limns the multiple microaggressions that leave women of color feeling forever alien in their own land.
Why the book’s subtitle does not more clearly foreground issues of race and ethnicity—it could be, for example, Why We Doubt What Women of Color Say About Their Lives—remains unclear. Surfacing race more boldly could have made the volume an even more pointed intervention in the current global conversation about women’s rights and voices. In 2017, it’s hard to understand why an academic press would mute the inherent intersectionality of a feminist argument.
One must wonder, too—as Gilmore does not—about the extent to which the interrogation, judgment, and silencing of the victim is a purely gendered operation. Is it women we doubt, or is it anyone who proffers an account of terrible—especially sexual—harm? Though male-authored examples of autobiography abound (indeed, as Gilmore notes in her first book, the genre was masculine by default throughout most of its existence), accusations by male targets of sexual violence remain extremely rare in either the public sphere or literature. Noteworthy exceptions that prove the rule include the global allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic priests; the Penn State case of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys; Richard Hoffman’s excellent 1995 memoir of sexual abuse by a coach, Half the House (Harcourt); and Raymond Douglas’s stunning and astute 2016 memoir On Being Raped (Beacon), in which Douglas argues that the current state of affairs for male victims of rape—cultural silence, the unavailability of social services, and more—resembles the situation women faced fifty years ago. The deployment of skeptical “he said/he said” and “nobody really knows what happened” counternarratives functions to silence male victims as effectively as it does women. If, as Gilmore observes, “Shaming, victim blaming, discrediting, and denunciation attach to women’s testimony so predictably, and are so regularly associated with it, that these negative affects function as prolepsis: they are a threat that prevents women from testifying,” then how much more powerfully might this operate for men, given social expectations around masculinity and invulnerability? Whether one wishes to argue that the account of victimization itself is what society cannot tolerate, or that the articulation of an experience of victimization pushes one into a feminized role (thus provoking the doubt that’s always deployed against women qua women), what’s crucial is the way our culture tends to abjure accounts of severe vulnerability and damage, as if we cannot bear to contemplate the fact that such a horrific reality seethes under the surface of daily life.
In a critical and public context that continually calls out the genre of memoir for its supposed self-indulgence and navel-gazing, one core contribution of Tainted Witness is its assertion—made incontrovertible by Gilmore’s thorough documentation—that memoir, like testimony, has always done inherently political work, for ill and for good. Whether by reinforcing the neoliberal bootstrap narrative or by revealing and analyzing systemic forms of violence, memoir has the capacity either to uphold or to rupture and permanently alter the status quo. This is its power, and why the powerful fear it.
Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora By Joanna Dee Das
New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, 288 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Debra Cash
You may not think you’ve seen Katherine Dunham dance, but you probably have. In the 1943 Hollywood film, Stormy Weather, she is idling under elevated train tracks as Lena Horne runs to close a window against torrential rain. The lilies in Dunham’s hair and pinned to her dress almost capsize her, but nothing can; not the man whose dance invitation she rejects with a shake of the head, and certainly not the storm. A clap of thunder transforms her, in the ways of Hollywood dream ballets, into a sort of vodou goddess, a loa. Striding down a ramp, hips leading, long legs unfolding, dress loose in the constant wind, she and her dancers create a swooning jazz romance in which undulating bodies and shoulders tilting on the beat speak with Caribbean accents. Dunham called this number her “escapist impression.”
That is one image of Katherine Dunham, the one that made her a favorite pinup girl for World War II soldiers and was represented on posters for her Broadway shows like Tropical Revue (1943) and on a commemorative US postage stamp issued in 2012.
But here’s another image of Dunham, in the storm of segregated Louisville, Kentucky. In October 1944, she famously ended a performance by turning to the white audience and saying
It makes me very happy to know that you have liked us . . . but tonight our hearts are very sad because this is a farewell to Louisville. There comes a time when every human being must protest in order to retain human dignity. I must protest because I have discovered that your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us. I hope that time and the unhappiness of this war for tolerance and democracy which I am sure we will win, will change some of these things. Perhaps then we can return. Until then, God bless you—for you may need it.
Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006) is often called the mother of black concert dance in the United States—although she vociferously objected to being defined in racial terms. She led a long, celebrated, extraordinary life in the public eye as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, activist, and self-declared cosmopolitan. She was of a mixed race background: her father, who ran a dry cleaners, was a descendant of slaves from West Africa and Madagascar; her mother, a school principal who died of stomach cancer when Dunham was just three, was of French-Canadian and Native American descent.
Raised in Joliet, Illinois, Dunham loved to perform from an early age and began formal dance training when she followed her beloved older brother to Chicago in 1928. She studied ballet with a Russian émigré and later with the dancer, choreographer, and teacher Ruth Page, in whose La Guiablesse (1934), based on a Martinican legend with an all-black cast, Dunham would make an early triumph.
She was introduced to the idea that black culture in America had its basis in indigenous African cultures at a lecture by the white anthropologist Robert Redfield at the University of Chicago. In 1929, that was not yet conventional wisdom. She decided to become an anthropologist and to focus her studies on dances of the African diaspora. By 1935, she had won a travelling fellowship to Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Tobago, and ultimately to Haiti. This cultural immersion would change her life and the scope of modern and jazz dance in the United States. (Interestingly enough, Dunham and Zora Neale Hurston saw themselves as competing for funding and recognition in their work. Both women identified the African origins of black culture in the United States in the culture of the West Indies.)
During those visits, Dunham developed her participatory ethnographic fieldwork strategies, learning the dances she observed and ultimately being initiated as a vodou mambo (priestess). The regional dances, with their luxuriant freedom in the pelvis and spine, isolations in the body, and percussive polyrhythms, would later be codified into Dunham technique, a studio curriculum she insisted required study as thorough as that of ballet.
When the scholar Joanna Dee Das first went to New York at eighteen, she was surprised that Dunham technique was not a part of conventional dance training. Das had grown up studying jazz dance in St. Louis, where the teachers had strong Dunham connections. Later Das became a certified Dunham technique instructor (making her someone involved in embodied dance research) and a scholar. She helped to process the Katherine Dunham Papers at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center. These archives exist alongside the trove of materials (paid for with a $1 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation) held at the Library of Congress. Das, who is white, describes herself as “a guest in an African diasporic cultural practice.” Katherine Dunham, based on her dissertation, is the first deep dive into a remarkable trove of primary resource materials. It will not be the last.
Katherine Dunham is a Great Woman study—a story of brilliance, will, and gumption. An academic rather than a popular biography (which more than once would have benefited from footnotes for people not in the fields of dance and/or Africana studies), it seeks to harmonize, even excuse, Dunham’s contradictory intentions and behaviors. Dunham was talented, ambitious, and self-serving. This made her an artist, but also set the stage for her failings.
Dunham walked the line between documentary truth and creative license. From the beginning, she was looking for a dance tradition that would affirm and ornament her own dancing and enrich her own identity. Her creative work was validated as documentary—reviews of the time often referred to her academic credentials—but as Das understands, Dunham was a modernist, evoking pan-African diasporic cultures for her own purposes. She believed in a “blood memory” or the unconscious transmission of African identity and cultural material (she did not actually visit the African continent until the 1960s), which she called her noir sensibility. This she related to negritude (then a term of pride and resistance to colonialism in Haiti) and later to Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor’s notion of metissage, African and European cultures hybridized into a new standard for humanism and agency. Das similarly argues for the essential “transnational unity among people of African descent,” yet without acknowledging that this is, itself, a historically rooted position, an explicit response to twentieth-century aspirations and to colonial and postcolonial struggles.
Unquestionably Dunham’s work offered “an aesthetic of modernity rooted in Africanist culture.” Both parts of that equation—the theatrical modernity and the Africanist use of the body and ritual reenactments like Yonvalou, the dance honoring the serpent god Damballa, or Shango, a fantastic scene of possession—are what make the best of her surviving work so satisfying to watch. In Dunham’s work, “primitive” meant closer to nature, more authentic, and more “universally” human. A promotional flier for a March 1937 Negro Dance Evening showcase in which she participated posited that West Indian dance spoke to a time when
the memory of a free life based on hunting and farming becomes more and more vague. But the black builders of the New World must sing and dance in order to forget the awful misery of their new life, which seems to hold no future.
Das offers a valuable section comparing Dunham’s ethnographic films, made during her Caribbean sojourns, with one of her productions, L’Ag’Ya. (For some reason she does not compare these productions to the work—and the reception—of touring African artists such as Sierra Leonian Asadata Dafora, who appeared with Dunham on that Negro Dance Evening in New York.) With multiple trips and a long residency, Dunham claimed an identity as an adopted daughter of Haiti; in 1992, when she was 82 years old and living in East St. Louis, she staged a 47 day long hunger strike to protest the US treatment of Haitian refugees. Yet Das does not venture to ask whether the urban anthropologist from Chicago was appropriating rural Haitian culture and romanticizing it for herself and her primarily white audiences.
Similarly, according to Dunham, the overt sexuality in her “tropical” dances wasn’t base or titillating; it was intimately linked to religious and the sacred. “Instead of fighting the association of blackness (and women) with the body, Dunham seized that association and turned it on its head,” Das writes, adding later that Dunham “drew on the erotic as a source of performative power.” Nevertheless, Dunham’s performances ended up reinforcing the association of blackness and women with the body: erotic glamour made Dunham a star and bought her the luxuries she came to assert were her due. Her career as a dancer and choreographer existed on the knife edge between the gratifications and commercial clout of sexual allure and the politics of social respectability. The impresario Sol Hurok, who managed her company for four years (and, although Das doesn’t report this, is reported to have insured Dunham’s legs for $250,000), called her
a quite superb combination of exoticism and intellectuality ... who had oscillated between the rarified atmosphere of women’s clubs and concert halls, on the one hand, to night clubs and road houses, on the other.
Dunham claimed her right to have it both ways, and so does Das.
From Dunham’s earliest years (she started her first black dance company, which lasted for only a single engagement, when she was 21), she thought in terms of building institutions. Dunham founded schools, companies, institutes, and retreat centers, and Das patiently documents them all. These cultural projects took form in the crucible of international theatrical practice and its emerging structures in the mid-twentieth century: presenters, grants, publicity, tourism, and the role of government agencies in cultural diplomacy.
They also, of course, took form in the context of American racism. Dunham developed strategies to deal with the routine Jim Crow indignities of not having a place to sleep or a restaurant to visit on tour. In 1945, she used a white go-between to purchase a mansion on the Upper East Side of New York for her school of dance, although she was forced to back out of the sale when the white neighbors complained, citing zoning. Still, Dunham made a fuss and Das notes, “she may have lost the house but she won the publicity war.” She eventually moved the school to the West Side, and her students included Hollywood actors (such as Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, and James Dean) and returning soldiers who paid for classes with funding from the GI Bill. She was canny, but she preferred acolytes to skilled staff, and she was a terrible financial manager, leaving many bankrupt projects in her wake. It’s a marvel, really, that the Rockefeller Foundation could see past that fiscal track record to fund her school in East St. Louis, the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC). The foundation saw in Dunham’s work “a case for the viability of cultural [meaning artists] solutions to what were perceived as the cultural [meaning way of life] problems of poverty.”
Das shares some stories of Dunham’s vanity and sense of her own eminence, and quotes black collaborators such as the dancer and choreographer Talley Beatty, who ultimately felt Dunham's “primitive” work became stereotyped and cheap. However, Das rushes to Dunham’s defense, attributing these complaints either to artistic choice or racist context. I think it’s no coincidence that Katherine Dunham shares scant information about Dunham’s dancers, collaborators, lovers, and husband, the white designer John Pratt (beyond what has to have been a doozy of a first kiss), and why they threw in their lot with hers. They revered her and put up with her; but she also insulted and took advantage of them.
Nonetheless, Dunham remains an icon of the powerful, transformative black woman artist. In 1983, she was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and in 2000 named as one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition. Irreplaceable yes, but an American artist with an enduring legacy.
Debra Cash is executive director of the Boston Dance Alliance and scholar in residence at the Bates Dance Festival. She was fortunate to attend a public tribute to Dunham at Jacob’s Pillow in 2002.
Amy Hoffman, longtime editor in chief of Women's Review of Books, pens a note of thanks and farewell as she moves on to a new chapter in her life.
Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes By Amy Hoffman
Stormy Katherine Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora By Joanna Dee Das
Reviewed by Debra Cash
Cartoon Strip By Eloisa Aquino
Gender, Race, and Credibility in the age of Trump Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives By Leigh Gilmore:
Reviewed by Joy Castro
Property or Spouse? Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century By Tera W. Hunter
Reviewed by Katherine Franke
It’s the Economy Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign By Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes; The Destruction of Hillary Clinton
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Marching Toward Identity Lost in the USA: American Identity from the Promise Keepers to the Million Mom March By Deborah Gray White
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You are a God Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun By Jennifer L. Shaw
Reviewed by Irene Gammel
Trading Protection for Equality A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s By Nancy Woloch Reviewed
by Katherine Turk
More Moore! New Collected Poems By Marianne Moore, edited by Heather Cass White
Reviewed by Elizabeth Gregory
Poetry By Marilyn Hacker
Glitter, False Eyelashes, and Attitude The Only Way Home Is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver Edited by Jen Hervie and Lois Weaver
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The Journey into the Unknown The Dark Flood Rises By Margaret Drabble
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Recognition The Mother of All Questions By Rebecca Solnit
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A Fortress and a Prison Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body By Roxane Gay
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The Origins of Feminism Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women By Brittney C. Cooper Reviewed by A. J. Verdelle
The Gay Nineties We Were Witches: A Novel By Ariel Gore; Stray City: A Novel By Chelsey Johnson Reviewed by Jessica Jernigan
Embodied Politics How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump By Laura Briggs; Reproductive Justice: An Introduction By Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger Reviewed by Felicia Kornbluh, Lila Hughes, and Meghan Letizia
Krausian After Kathy Acker By Chris Kraus Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Spotty The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness By Jill Filipovic Reviewed by Emily Toth
Frontier Lore and Laura Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder By Caroline Fraser Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz
Epistolary Autobiography The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir By Emma Reyes Reviewed by Marjorie Agosin
Sweet Charity Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy and the Women’s Movement, 1870 – 1967 By Joan Marie Johnson Reviewed by Surina Khan
Progress and Persistence The Ministry of Utmost Happiness By Arundhati Roy Reviewed by Marthine Satris
Photography Bonds Photos By Isadora Kosofsky, Text by Lisa Riordan Seville
Unhealthy Relationships Women of the Street: How the Criminal Justice-Social Services Alliance Fails Women in Prostitution By Susan Dewey and Tonia St. Germain Reviewed by Marianne Wesson
Poetry By Paula Bohince
Hermitesses The Ladies of Llangollen: Desire, Indeterminacy, and the Legacies of Criticism By Fiona Brideoake Reviewed by Lisa L. Moore
Fear, Hunger, and Fear Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel By Francine Klagsbrun Reviewed by Eleanor Roffman
Victims and Heroes Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females, Tapestries and Sculptures by Linda Stein Edited by Linda Stein Reviewed by Catherine Dossin
All Museums are Sex Museums Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display By Jennifer Tyburczy Reviewed by Patricia G. Berman
The Infidel The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer By Bonnie S. Anderson Reviewed by Joyce Antler
We Do Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America By Nathaniel Frank Reviewed by Alison Lefkovitz
Displaced Lives The Women in the Castle By Jessica Shattuck Reviewed by Valerie Miner
The Tenure Tightrope Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure Edited by Patricia A. Matthew Reviewed by Marybeth Gasman
Good Reads Dreams from my Father By Trish Crapo
Shelf Aware The Female Persuasion By Meg Wolitzer
Reviewed by Kate Schatz
Bleak House The Mars Room By Rachel Kushner
Reviewed by Sarah Schulman
The Fire This Time No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America By Darnell L. Moore
Reviewed by Mariam Williams
Sober Thoughts The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath By Leslie Jamison
Reviewed by Ariel Gore
Between a Rock and a Hard (to) Place Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State By Catherine E. Rymph
Reviewed by Stacey Patton
Careless Who Will Care for Us?: Long-Term Care and the Long-Term Workforce By Paul Osterman
Reviewed by Karen Kahn
The Most Talked About Voice in America Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan By Elaine M. Hayes
Reviewed by Imani D. Owens
Unframed Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory By Griselda Pollock
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
Matriotic The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I By Lynn Dumenil
Reviewed by Tammy M. Proctor
Central caste-ing Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India By Sujatha Gidla
Reviewed by Indira Karamcheti
Profile: True North Stormwarning By Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir
Profiled by Katharine Coldiron
Complaints and Disorders Sick: A Memoir By Porochista Khakpour
Reviewed by Julia Berner-Tobin
Mother Tongue The Perfect Mother By Aimee Molloy; The Perfect Nanny By Leila Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor
Reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
Poetry: Mother’s Day By Melissa K. Downes, Susan Eisenberg, Lisa Mullenneaux, Paige Sullivan, Irene Willis, and Carolyne Wright
Vivid Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over By Nell Painter
Reviewed by A.J. Verdelle
Shelf Life Convenience Store Woman By Sayaka Murata
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Sleeping Beauty My Year of Rest and Relaxation By Ottessa Moshfegh
Reviewed by Kimberly Cutter
Hush Hour Vox By Christina Dalcher
Reviewed by Hagar Scher
The Mother Position Idiophone By Amy Fusselman; The Carrying By Ada Limón
Reviewed by Jan Clausen
Driver’s Ed Mirror, Shoulder, Signal By Dorthe Nors
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Trouble The Terrible By Yrsa Daley-Ward
Reviewed by Erika Gallion
Airless In Argentina People in the Room By Norah Lange
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Litany Of Madness Freshwater By Akwaeke Emezi
Reviewed by Heather Hewett
Photography Face To Face Images by Olivia Gay;
Comment by Ellen Feldman
Charged The Power By Naomi Alderman
Reviewed by Kait Heacock
Super-Sight Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography By Julia Van Haaften
Reviewed by Carole DeSanti
Independent Women The Occasional Virgin By Hanan al-Shaykh
Reviewed by Valerie Miner
Tough Love I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness By Austin Channing Brown
Reviewed by Erynn Porter
Mother of Doubt Motherhood By Sheila Heti
Reviewed by Lily Diamond
Graphic Depictions Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life By Ellen Forney; Graphic Reproduction: A Comics Anthology Edited by Jenell Johnson
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
Inside Fighter Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man By Thomas Page McBee
Reviewed by Kate Schatz
Flint Lives Matter The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy By Anna Clark
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
Listen Up Five Attempts
By Elena Ruiz
The Women's Review of Books receives support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Jennifer Baumgardner, Women's Review of Books editor in chief, gives a preview of what's in the current issue:
Isn’t it Rich? Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry By Adrienne Rich; edited and with an introduction by Sandra Gilbert
Reviewed by E.J. Graff
Where is my Mind? Severance By Ling Ma
Reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
The Bodies God Created Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture By Tamura Lomax
Reviewed by Mariam Williams
Future Tense Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices By Girls Write Now
Reviewed by Ana Castillo
Profile Slitting Open the Sack Profiled by Laurie Stone
Red Herrings and White Liberals Maggie Terry By Sarah Schulman
Reviewed by Nino Testa
Off the Hook Consent on Campus: A Manifesto By Donna Freitas
Reviewed by Jordan Allyn
Writers of Conscience Women of Resistance: Poetry from 50 Activists Edited by Danielle Barnhart and Iris Mahan
Reviewed by Ana Castillo
Afterlives Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation Adapted by Ari Folman, Illustrations by David Polonsky; A Bubble By Geneviève Castrée
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
Not a Muse Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchel, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art By Mary Gabriel
Reviewed by Margaret Randall
Shame Theory Pure By Linda Kay Klein
Reviewed by Kait Heacock
Feature “I Couldn’t Do What I Do Without This Book”
The Year of the Woman, Again International Women’s Year: The Greatest Consciousness-Raising Event in History By Jocelyn Olcott
Reviewed by Ellen Chesler
Identity and Action Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements By Charlene A. Carruthers
Reviewed by Susana Morris
Poison Books Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment Rachel Carson, edited by Sandra Steingraber; Living Downstream By Sandra Steingraber
Reviewed by Judith Chelius Stark
Listen Up The Linguistics of Texting An essay by Noelle McManus
Jennifer Baumgardner, Women's Review of Books editor in chief, gives a preview of what's in the current issue:
Lemons Out of Lemonade Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism By Omise’eke Tinsley
Reviewed by Chelsea Johnson
The Right to Feel Love War Stories By Ivelisse Rodriguez;
Training School for Negro Girls By Camille Acker
Reviewed by Rochelle Spencer
Manifesto for Taking Risks The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography By Deborah Levy
Reviewed by Carole DeSanti
Poetry Getting to Choose By Irene Willis
Chaos in California The Golden State By Lydia Kiesling Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Sprayed Fame: The Highjacking of Reality By Justine Bateman
Reviewed by Julie Baumgardner
House Rules The Incest Diary By Anonymous
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Phantom Limbs Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement By Harriet Brown
Review by Patricia Dawn Robertson
More Poetry Born Happy By Carolyne Wright
Profile Siglio Press By Casey j. Odesser
Building the Feminist Shelf Feminist Bookstores: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability By Kristen Hogan; A Life in Motion By Florence Howe; Feminist Revolution in Literacy: Women's Bookstores in the United States By Junko R. Onosaka
Reviewed by Jolie Braun
Universe of Possibilities Come With Me By Helen Schulman
Reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
Maze Rat Hazards of Time Travel By Joyce Carol Oates
Reviewed by Abigail G. H. Manzella
Anger Management Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger By Soraya Chemaly
Reviewed by Kait Heacock
Q&A The Flame-Thrower: Phyllis Chesler Interviewed By Casey j. Odesser
Coming Home The Kinship of Secrets By Eugenia Kim
Reviewed by Valerie Miner
Ashes to Ashes The Lake on Fire By Rosellen Brown
Reviewed by Laura Nicoară
Wake Up Call The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic By Emma, Translated by Una Dimitrijevic; Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs. The Patriarchy By Liv Strömquist
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
Listen Up Uncle White Supremacy An essay by Anastastia Higginbotham
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Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves By Marie Jenkins Schwartz
Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017, 420 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Martha Saxton
In Ties That Bound, Marie Jenkins Schwartz, who has written about children in slavery, turns to the relationships Martha Washington, Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, and Dolley Madison had with the slaves in their families. The sum of these tales conveys, with even greater power than the individual distasteful details, the ugliness and personal corruption that almost inevitably infected people who owned other people. Her stories testify to slave-owners’ daily temptations to be guided by greed, laziness, and injustice. Her portraits reveal their matter-of-fact acceptance of people as capital, as collateral, and as wombs for producing more capital. And the women Schwartz studies, she makes clear, could have made other choices.
The lives of these women span the mid-eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Martha Washington, born in 1731, grew up toward the end of the roughest era of master-slave relations, when African captives were being brutalized into servitude. She never questioned the utility or morality of slavery.
Patsy Randolph and Dolley Madison lived into the paternalistic era of the nineteenth century. Enslaved parents had started training their children to adopt protective coatings of outward subservience. Consequently, owners commanded with less overt coercion than before. The theater of paternalism could obscure to owners and even sometimes to the enslaved, how slavery’s logic corroded any bargain and overturned any commitment the ruler made to the ruled. Paternalism made it significantly easier for slave owners, like Randolph and Madison, to think well both of slavery and of themselves as slave owners.
Schwartz’s book largely avoids the pitfall of studying how slaves were treated, a subject kept alive long after its usefulness by the hollow niceties of paternalism. Schwartz knows that even posing the question of whether someone was a “good mistress” does little or nothing to illuminate slavery as an institution. This is not to argue that how owners treated their slaves was not important to individual slaves; of course it was. But in the end, kindness and paternalism had no effect on the system. But even a scholar as familiar with slavery as Schwartz shows how difficult it is to write about the subject. For example, she writes “Martha (Patsy’s mother) Jefferson, like Martha Washington, demonstrated a willingness to tolerate slavery’s most unsavory side so long as work of the family members advanced her position and those of her husband and children.” It is probably impossible to select slavery’s “most unsavory side”—or for that matter, to identify the “more savory” sides that the statement implies. To her credit, Schwartz focuses mainly on the exploitation of the labor of enslaved people over analyses of treatment. She describes the gargantuan quantities of work these First Ladies got out of their captives, usually taking credit for it themselves, as well as the ways they monetized both their slaves’ bodies and those of their future offspring.
By the ends of their lives, these First Ladies all chose to protect their financial interests and those of their children rather than—in Martha Washington’s and (allegedly) Dolley Madison’s cases—adhering to their husbands’ desires and freeing their slaves. Thomas Jefferson hoped that any slaves who might have to be sold could choose their own buyers. But that would not be the case. A lifetime of owning slaves had driven out whatever moral doubts Patsy Randolph and the other First Ladies may ever have entertained about the institution, and widowhood empowered them to make the most of their human property.
Schwartz’s complex and believable portraits integrate the virtues and graces of these powerful women with their sense of entitlement and steely command of large numbers of captives. Schwartz captures Martha Washington’s deliberate, remarkable rise from her childhood in the family of a middling planter to become the wife—and soon the young widow—of a Virginia grandee. Later, in marrying George Washington, himself famously eager to get ahead, she collaborated in climbing to the top of Virginia’s planter aristocracy. That depended on owning hundreds of slaves.
Like Martha, George Washington was a tough master. However, after the Revolution, his views began to change. After decades of criticizing slaves, Washington began criticizing slavery itself. Husband and wife came to differ so much on the subject that on his deathbed he asked her to burn his early will in front of him, so that he could die assured that only his later will, which freed his slaves, would be his true legacy.
George Washington’s will specified, with characteristic precision, that the emancipation of his slaves (not Martha’s, over whom he had no control) should occur only after his wife’s death. This would give time to prepare to the many slaves who were in families in which those owned by George would become free and those owned by Martha would not. However, Martha did not wait. She did not wish to support more than 100 freed people until her death—although George had carefully calculated the estate’s ability to do so—and she was afraid that restive slaves might hasten her end. She rushed his protective emancipation process, and neither she nor any of her descendants, nor any of Washington’s nephews or nieces, followed his example.
Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy Randolph served as his First Lady because his wife had died. Randolph spent time in the White House when her father summoned her. She acted as hostess and tried unsuccessfully to restore his reputation as a wholesome family man after the journalist James Callendar exposed his relationship with Sally Hemings in 1802.
Like Mary Chesnut, whose Civil War diary was published decades later, Randolph found herself in the throes of the woman slaveholders’ classic dilemma. She had seen the men in her family father enslaved offspring; even more traumatic, she had grown up with her father’s concubine, Sally Hemings, who was only slightly older than she and with whom she shared a grandfather. Hemings had served Patsy in Paris. Jefferson bought both girls fashionable clothes, and the resplendent teenaged Hemings accompanied the convent-trained Patsy to Parisian entertainments, where Hemings attracted attention, including that of Jefferson. Although it is not clear when Patsy learned about her father’s relationship with Hemings, the knowledge compromised Patsy’s youth (to say nothing of Hemings’s); probably propelled her into an early, unhappy marriage; and later forced her to defend her father against charges that she not only knew to be true but that had also pained her for decades. After her marriage, she divided her time between her father and her husband, at times running two plantations. After Jefferson’s presidency, she oversaw Monticello and that community’s interracial and interfamilial complexities, extracting labor from all, including her enslaved kin.
Patsy, her husband, and her father all believed that Jefferson’s “mild” treatment of his slaves and their “laziness” had caused his debts. The idea that the family’s financial problems were the slaves’ fault must have helped her after her father’s death, as she disposed of the men, women, and children who had worked for him at Monticello. Some of his slaves found buyers nearby; but Patsy put others, less fortunate, on the auction block, a process that even many owners dreaded for the callousness it betrayed about them. Patsy also had many slaves of her own. She did her father’s bidding and unobtrusively let Sally Hemings’s children go free, and in her will, stipulated that Hemings, who was her property, could live as a free woman—along with two other long-standing, intimate servants of the family. She left one enslaved woman, to whom she had promised freedom, to her son Lewis instead, since he was moving to the Arkansas territory. When Chesnut learned of the behavior of her husband and father-in-law toward their slaves, she became an enemy of slavery; but Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved Hemings and her family did not have the same effect on Patsy Randolph.
Dolley Madison’s Quaker parents emancipated their slaves and moved to Pennsylvania, but her family did not prosper in free society. Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, and they had two sons. Then, Todd died of yellow fever. As a young woman, Dolley evidently chafed at the Quaker community’s emphasis on plain dressing and living, as well as at its willingness to criticize Friends who failed to do so. Her sister married out of the community, to George Steptoe Washington, President Washington’s nephew and a substantial slaveholder in western Virginia. When James Madison Jr., a slave-owning congressman from Virginia, proposed to Dolley, the pretty, lively widow, after some deliberation, agreed. The couple lived in Washington for sixteen years while Madison was first secretary of state and then president. His wife, fully liberated from Quakerism, entertained relentlessly, dressed extravagantly (many thought provocatively), and flirted. In Washington DC, where slavery was permitted, she deployed the family slaves ostentatiously, unencumbered with the embarrassment George and Martha Washington had felt when the nation’s capital was in Philadelphia, in the free state of Pennsylvania. Dolley famously claimed to have fled the capital during the War of 1812 carrying George Washington’s portrait, but it was probably enslaved people who saw to that, after Dolley left with a few pieces of silver.
After her years as First Lady, Dolley and James Madison retired to Montpelier, where Dolley watched over the slaves on whom she both depended and, like her fellow First Ladies, distrusted. The myth of paternalism held that “good owners” did not separate enslaved families or sell slaves against their wishes. The Madisons, however, barely permitted James’s trusted valet, Paul Jennings, to visit his wife and children on a nearby plantation. They separated families as their own desires dictated, giving many slaves to Dolley’s surviving son Payne, to work his new plantation. Payne’s failed enterprises and his alcoholism diminished the couple’s resources, but they were going into debt on their own as well. During the 1830s, James began selling off his slaves to pay his creditors. In a twist on Jefferson’s reasoning, he believed the slaves’ high rate of reproduction created his debts, because he had to support so many who were unprofitable to him.
Many close to James believed he would emancipate his slaves at his death. But in his will he freed no one, instead giving Dolley not the “widow’s third” to which she would traditionally have been entitled but all of his slaves, to do with as she wished. Some of James’s associates believed there was a secret will freeing his slaves, but if it had ever existed, it was never found. Dolley began selling slaves without regard to their wishes, and when she decided to move back to Washington, after more than 25 years at Montpelier, she put Payne in charge of selling the plantation. He sold some slaves along with Montpelier and some individually, and took others with him to his plantation.
Dolley’s spendthrift ways in Washington meant that she continued to sell things and people. In moneyless spells she survived partly because her husband’s valet, Paul Jennings, who was well connected, brought food to her and the enslaved people working in her home. She never freed him, instead forcing him to buy his freedom. (It is a relief to learn that Jennings had secret life as an effective abolitionist activist.) In her will, Dolley, like her husband, freed no one. She left most of the people and things she still owned to her son. When he died, he emancipated the few slaves he had inherited with bequests of $200 to each.
Schwartz asks us to integrate slavery fully into our understanding of everyday life in the early national and antebellum United States. The majority of First Ladies before the Civil War owned slaves. This had terrible consequences for the people they owned, ugly effects on the owners, and established sordid models of acceptable behavior for the nation.
Martha Saxton is professor emerita of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College and most recently, a fellow at the C.V. Starr Center at Washington College. She is completing a biography of Mary Ball Washington, the founder’s mother.
Octavia E. Butler By Gerry Canavan
Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 224 pp., $22.00, paperback
Reviewed by Nisi Shawl
Octavia Estelle Butler walked the Earth. Gerry Canavan’s meticulously researched, beautifully constructed, and wrenchingly felt biography tells us how.
A legend in her own time, Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006) remains notable more than a decade after her death. She was both the first African American woman to become a major force in the field of science fiction and, in 1995, the first science fiction author to receive one of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowships (colloquially known as Genius Grants). Though not prolific in terms of her published oeuvre, Butler won literary awards left and right, including, all in one year, the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Science Fiction Chronicle awards for her short story “Bloodchild” (1985). The MacArthur, as well as her 2000 PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award, bear witness to her importance outside the sometimes parochial speculative fiction community.
Canavan takes up the Octavia Butler legend and simultaneously interrogates and validates it. An assistant professor at Marquette University who teaches contemporary fiction and popular culture, he has long been a student of science fiction’s impact on society. He has read, and read deeply, the relevant texts: not only Butler’s fiction and essays but also works in conversation with her own, such as those by her Clarion Writers Workshop instructor, the Afrofuturist Samuel R. Delany; and classics such as Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954), with its set-up of non-negotiable limits to human survival. Canavan is thus fully prepared to disassemble, examine, polish, and reassemble the elements of Butler’s career and life as if they were the parts of a familiar firearm.
Approaching his subject chronologically, Canavan begins with a chapter covering the period from Butler’s birth in 1947 to the appearance of her story “Crossover,” in 1971. Here, he recounts Butler’s working-class origins, describes her juvenilia, and highlights her attendance at the 1970 Clarion workshop for writers of science fiction and fantasy, taught by Joanna Russ, Damon Knight, Samuel R. Delany, and Fritz Leiber.
This chapter, “Childfinder,” is named after a story Butler wrote in the early 1970s that was published only posthumously. Discovered in Butler’s archives at the Huntington Library, it was issued in the e-book Unexpected Stories (2014), together with another newly discovered work, “A Necessary Being.” Throughout the book, Canavan references pieces of information like this, the fruits of his research in the Butler archives, which deepen the book’s impact immeasurably in comparison with other Butler-focused work. It’s one thing to read essays and interviews mentioning that Butler entertained herself by imagining and writing stories of unaided human flight, animal communication, and mind control. It’s another to read about these fantasies together with notes on the personal events connected to them and analyses of how they relate to her more mature work.
Famously shy, the Butler revealed in this and subsequent chapters withdrew into her imagination to escape a world at odds with her on many fronts. Physically, she was larger than the accepted norm for females at almost every age; socially, she was the daughter of menial workers; intellectually, she struggled to keep up with classmates due to what she later self-diagnosed as dyslexia. Though her first stories were written for her own pleasure, she soon determined that they’d be her life’s work. In her teenage years she began submitting what she called “terrible pieces of fiction” to magazines she categorized as “innocent.” Canavan skillfully connects the lacks Butler saw in herself with compensatory attributes in her characters, via journal entries in which she exhorts herself to remember the lessons those characters have learned. He ties her fondness for self-affirmations such as “You will write a great book” with classes she took on self-hypnosis and her fascination with telepathy, telekinesis, and other pseudo-scientific powers of the mind.
Closing this first chapter with a detailed account of the Clarion workshop and two of the stories Butler wrote there, Canavan moves on to the years 1971 through 1976, the period in which Butler established her career as a professional writer. From letters to fellow Clarion graduates he gleans her concern with her lack of sales. From her correspondence with her publisher, Doubleday, he unearths a bargain she struck: accepting a smaller advance in exchange for the inclusion of some obscenity-laden dialogue. (Doubleday was concerned about being banned from libraries; Butler wanted authenticity and was willing to sacrifice immediate monetary gain for it.) Examining Butler’s original manuscripts, he charts the events that form the background for her five Patternist novels. Delving into her journals, he links her depression to her pessimistic take on humanity’s long-term viability, as revealed in specific stories and their characters’ attitudes and actions. He links her portrait of Utopia and the violent, anti-Utopian tendencies of the supermen of the Patternist books to her love for comics. (In one exchange, she waxes philosophical about the ultimate disposition of her beloved comics collection.)
The publication of one of Butler’s most popular novels, Kindred, in 1979, was a turning point. In a chapter spanning 1976 through 1980, Canavan examines the version of Kindred we know, plus manuscript fragments of explicitly science fictional versions of the book and alternative endings. Canavan shares the familiar anecdote about how the novel’s time-travel narrative derived from Butler’s dissatisfaction with contemporary African Americans who disparaged the courage their ancestors needed to survive chattel slavery. But he follows that up by describing an alternative, Patternist-oriented manuscript, which uses the impending return of Doro, the villain of Wildseed (1980), to the plantation where the heroine is trapped to ratchet up the story’s tension. In doing so he once again furnishes the bare attic of literary biography with possibilities that will excite both serious students of Butler and newer readers, passionate about what they’ve just discovered.
In an afterword-like conclusion, Canavan discusses Butler’s posthumous legacy. The Carl Brandon Society, an organization founded in 1997 to promote “the representation of people of color in fantastical genres,” established a scholarship fund in Butler’s name that sends writers of color to the annual Clarion workshops. Butler’s works have inspired many conferences and anthologies (one of which, Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler , I co-edited)—as well as individual authors (myself included). Despite the size of this inventory, though, the primary message of this section of the book is a wish for more. As many others have done, Canavan feelingly laments the sequels and stories Butler anticipated creating, which will now go unwritten. Referring to the home of Butler’s extensive archive, Canavan writes, “The Huntington Library makes possible an entirely new era in Butler scholarship,” and he calls for scholars and authors to make use of its materials. He also cherishes the hope that some of Butler’s unpublished stories and variant manuscripts, withheld from the public during her life due to “the spirit of brutal perfectionism that drove her,” will now be offered to the world at large. The majority of the manuscripts in the archive, he says, are “not discarded scraps or abandoned, embarrassing mistakes…just more.”
As a sample of the sorts of pieces he’d like to see become more widely available Canavan includes as an appendix Butler’s long out-of-circulation 1980 essay, “Lost Races of Science Fiction.” A manifesto about the erroneousness of excluding black characters from SF because of the “messiness” involved in depicting nonwhites, “Lost Races” ends with a half-jubilant, half-deploring assessment of science fiction’s attitudes toward inclusivity and prejudice. “Times have changed,” Butler decrees. In the next sentence, though, she admonishes the field that “it still has a long way to go.” That her pronouncements on this matter hold true nearly forty years after they were first published speaks volumes about the slow rate of social change and Butler’s continuing centrality to our understanding of the fantastic genres.
Canavan substantiates his insightful discussion of Butler with references to other scholarship and multiple primary sources. The book’s Introduction grounds his numerous citations of Butler’s papers in a brief but helpful note on the Huntington Library’s archive-retrieval system and 500-page finding aid.
In a way, that Introduction sums up Canavan’s hologrammatic approach to his subject. In addition to giving an overview of his book and methodology, it delves into the ethics of what he has done. His sense of a deeply personal relationship with Butler—which, he points out, is far from unusual for Butler fans—exacerbates his unease over the essentially voyeuristic nature of the biographer’s work. This uneasiness is in truth quite appropriate to Canavan’s subject: by all accounts, including his, Butler disturbed her audiences with the ambiguous dilemmas her stories posed and her courageous attacks on taboos as often as she entranced them with her plausible characters and her spare, evocative prose.
In his Introduction, Canavan also explores Butler’s consciousness of her effect on readers and her attempts to manipulate it. Her early drafts are consistently more pessimistic than their final, published versions. She frequently cut and revised scenes to transform her books, which fit the category she privately termed “NO-BOOKS,” into “YES-BOOKS”; she believed that only “YES-BOOKS” became bestsellers. However, her efforts to transform her writings were only partially successful: though the results of her revisions read more optimistically, Canavan notes that according to Butler’s reflections on the matter, “NO-BOOKS sold, alas, the way her actual books did.”
Canavan introduces his long list of acknowledgments by saying, “Like some supercharged Oankali mating ritual this book has many parents.” Oankali are the three-sexed alien saviors of the humans in Butler’s three Lilith’s Brood novels, and Canavan’s evocation of them alerts his readers to the primacy of Butler’s works in Canavan’s world. Butler told her story in two ways that sometimes became one: by writing and by living her life. Canavan leads readers gently through this story’s pertinent plot points, stopping occasionally to measure the depth of a footprint or the width of a stride. Octavia E. Butler is a walk well worth taking, with Canavan as an excellent and trustworthy guide.
Nisi Shawl is the James Tiptree Jr. Award-winning author of the collection Filter House (2008). Her steampunk alternative history of Leopold II’s Congo, Everfair, was published in September 2016. Shawl is a founder of the prodiversity nonprofit the Carl Brandon Society, and a graduate and board member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has spoken as a uest lecturer at Smith and Spelman Colleges, and at Princeton, Stanford, and Duke Universities.
Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left by Emily K. Hobson
Oakland: University of California Press, 2016, 309 pages. $29.95 paper 2,092 words
Reviewed by Margaret Cerullo
Emily Hobson’s compelling book recovers the history of the US gay and lesbian left of the 1970s and 1980s in a particularly iconic and dense site of activism: the San Francisco Bay Area. (Hobson uses the designation “lesbian and gay” as it was understood by radicals at the time, with a greater attunement to the intersections of race, class, gender, and nation than later critics of “essentialism” often assume. Radicals, she says, generally did not, however, incorporate bixexual and transgender identities; these were not claimed politically until later.)
More than a simply local story, Hobson’s reconstruction of this history sets out to challenge larger narratives that acknowledge only two really dramatic moments in the history of US gay politics: the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 and the emergence of the direct action/civil disobedience/street activism associated with ACT UP in the late 1980s and 1990s. In this scheme, the 1970s and 1980s were the doldrums: gay and lesbian politics supposedly divided into “separatism,” associated with lesbians, and “liberalism,” the assumed politics of gay men, which focused on rights and assimilation. However, among other things, this narrative erases the gay and lesbian left. Hobson asks why. Why are certain stories written out of history, and what are the cultural frameworks that make it almost impossible to write them in? Are we in a historical moment when the forgotten freedom dreams of the gay and lesbian left—dreams of a radical end to oppression of all kinds—might again become legible?
Hobson characterizes the gay and lesbian left provocatively, by the way it viewed sexual liberation and radical solidarity as interdependent. Leftists, she writes, “defined gay and lesbian identities not only as forms of desire, but as political affiliations that could create the conditions of possibility to set desire free.” If liberation was the theory, she proposes, solidarity was the practice. New York’s Gay Liberation Front, the first post-Stonewall gay organization, took its name from the National Liberation Fronts of Algeria and Vietnam, underlining the fact that early activists defined gay and lesbian politics through identification with other liberation struggles. These activists, from the Vietnam War generation, influenced by feminism, theorized that normative constructions of masculinity underlay violence and imperialism. Excluded from the draft, radical gay men proclaimed that homosexuality could be a means to resist the Vietnam War. One slogan advised “Suck cock to beat the draft”; another, in a riff on Muhammad Ali’s explanation for his draft resistance (“No Vietcong ever called me nigger”), proclaimed “No Vietnamese ever called me queer” (which became the title of a Gay Liberation Theater production).
Hobson’s book ends in the 1990s, at a moment when segments of the LGBT movement sought freedom by identifying with, not against, the state—embracing inclusion into the military and celebrating the inclusion of police contingents into annual LGBT pride celebrations (leaving older gay and lesbian liberationists to insist that “the military is not a jobs program for young people but the muscle behind US imperialism,” and to recall that Stonewall was a riot against police violence). Through such disruptive reminders, Hobson unsettles the progress narrative of gay and lesbian history—from Stonewall to marriage and the military.
She tells several important stories that capture the vibrance and diversity of actions, arts projects, alliances, and commitments—in short, the politics and counterculture—that characterized the apparent doldrums of the 1970s and the 1980s. The life and death of Harvey Milk; the fight against the 1977 Briggs Initiative that would have banned lesbians and gays, and possibly supporters of gay rights, from working in the California public schools; the Coors beer boycott in gay bars—these activist histories are barely known to younger LGBT people, except perhaps the story of Harvey Milk, because of the film Milk (2008).
In a major contribution, Hobson argues that framing 1970s lesbian activism as “separatist” has completely erased radical lesbian politics, which she characterizes as a politics of collective defense. Rooted in a critique of state violence and a belief in the right to self-defense learned from the Black Panthers, lesbian communities harbored political fugitives from the radical underground and refused to cooperate with grand juries in revealing their whereabouts, at considerable risk of police harassment and imprisonment. (The most famous case was that of Susan Saxe, accused of participating in a bank robbery in Boston to raise funds for the Black Panthers, in which a policeman was killed. On the run for five years, Saxe turned herself in in 1975 to stop attacks on the lesbian communities that sheltered her.)
Lesbian collectives also extended shelter to women accused of killing their rapists or abusers, which activists viewed as acts of self-defense. Feminists in the Bay area, many of them lesbians, organized support for Inez Garcia, who killed one of the two men who raped her. The Free Inez Garcia Committee and the Inez Garcia Defense Committee ultimately achieved Garcia’s release from prison. However, in a harbinger of things to come, conflict emerged between these committees and the newly formed San Francisco Women Against Rape, which did not join the campaign to free Garcia for fear of alienating the San Francisco Police Department, with which they were developing a working relationship.
In Hobson’s discussion of these developments her historical imagination is evident. She takes as her subject not an organization or a campaign but a particular kind of space—the lesbian collective household of the 1970s—whose importance she recovers from archives and interviews. These spaces functioned as shelters against state and male violence, political meeting places to plan actions and organize projects, and community centers, that might include an abortion clinic, a café, or a library.
In a central contribution, Hobson brings to the fore the significant lesbian and gay presence in the Central American solidarity movement. This was perhaps especially visible in San Francisco, for several reasons. Most important was the existence of “barrio transnationalism”—relationships and mutual influences among Latin American refugees, immigrants, and exiles, and the Latino/a and other marginalized and poor populations living in the Mission district. Gay and lesbian Latino/as and Latin Americans were a key part of this mix; they readily made the connections between their own local organizing around poverty and housing and revolutions happening in Latin America that were promising profound transformations in people’s material lives.
Moreover, while the straight left counselled lesbian and gay solidarity activists to tone it down in order to not offend Nicaraguan sensibilities, gays and lesbians in Nicaragua had been coming out in the militias and the literacy and health brigades, and were eager to make contact with gay and lesbian solidarity activists. In a chapter called “Talk about loving in the war years,” Hobson draws on activists’ memories to communicate the ways in which all kinds of desire circulated in these encounters. Together, these activists built transborder lesbian and gay community, queering barrio transnationalism and furthering radical sexual politics in both places. Overall, it would seem from Hobson’s account, that solidarity activists had greater success in appealing to lesbian and gay communities to stand in solidarity with Nicaragua and against US intervention than they did in convincing the straight left of the relevance of sexual politics to revolution.
Hobson demonstrates that by 1987, Central America solidarity work had begun to influence US AIDS activism. In 1986—eight months before the formation of ACT UP in New York—San Francisco activists organized the AIDS Action Pledge (AAP), modeled on the Pledge of Resistance, an emergency response network to resist US intervention in Central America. Opposing arms shipments to Central America from California military bases, AAP called for “Money for AIDS, not for war,” and “Condoms not contras.” Hobson argues that in making these connections, activists reframed AIDS. Rather than perversion, deviance, or even disease, the AIDS epidemic was about human needs. This framing may also have contributed to a more broadly based understanding of health care as a human right—something the activists had learned from their solidarity work with third-world revolutions, particularly Nicaragua’s.
Hobson’s book makes several important contributions. In interrogating the reasons why the story of the gay and lesbian left has not been told, she identifies several culprits. One is the loss of so many of a generation of radical activists to AIDS, and with them, the loss of their memories and histories. Another is the dominance of the liberal inclusion narrative described earlier. While she doesn’t say this explicitly, there is not only a white but a male centric bias in this narrative. Finally—and this is a critical contribution to US gay and lesbian history—Hobson indicts the narrow domestic, nation-state focus that has characterized US gay and lesbian histories, and that makes invisible the importance of Central American solidarity work to lesbian and gay activism in the 1980s—and, she reminds us, of Palestinian solidarity work to the queer movement today. However, what Hobson doesn’t emphasize is the responsibility of the wider left, whose histories (and memories) generally erase gay and lesbian contributions to left movements, often as part of a reductive critique and dismissal of “identity politics.” In any case, Hobson reveals how much had to be defeated, forgotten, and lost for there to emerge as dominant the idea of gay and lesbian identity as cut off from any wider commitments and imagination.
It is striking that Hobson does not pay much attention to questions of class, either in the movements she studies or in her analysis. I wondered about the class position of the activists she discusses, how they survived, what they did for work. What kind of economy supported a radical counterculture of collective households, whose members had the free time to devote to political and related creative pursuits? Are these spaces of collective possibility increasingly a casualty of gentrification, as Sarah Schulman has provocatively suggested in The Gentrification of the Mind (2012)—and in a larger sense, of the neoliberal reordering and fragmentation of our lives?
Lavender and Red surfaces the gay and lesbian left’s creative, intersectional analyses of US militarism, imperialism, capitalism, racism, and state violence, and its efforts to think about these systems through the lenses of gender and sexuality. Another of the book’s principal contributions is to provoke reflection on the politics of alliance and solidarity—and for this we need all the help we can get, in this historical moment when solidarity is ever more difficult and necessary. Her intricate and nuanced discussion of lesbian and gay solidarity with Nicaragua helps us to understand its specifics and its difficulties, missteps, miscommunications, risks, and occasional profound connections. Emphasizing the way Nicaraguans actively directed solidarity, Hobson points not only to the exchange of ideas, but to the silences and gaps in communication that structured their relationships with US activists. For example, gay and lesbian targets of a Sandinista crackdown in Nicaragua did not share that information with their US counterparts, since they didn’t want to jeopardize the Americans’ political and material support for the Nicaraguan revolution—or their joint projects of AIDS education.
I end this review with two reflections because these concerns point to future work that will reframe the lessons of the 1970s and 1980s by putting race and class at the center. The first is the whiteness of so much of the gay and lesbian left. Despite the movement’s deep critiques of racism and imperialism and its development of intersectional analyses of racist sexism—for example in its discussions of the case of Inez Garcia—the gay and lesbian left almost always remained overwhelmingly white. Hobson is tentative here; she doesn’t directly ask why this was so, though she does point out that the movement’s whiteness was challenged by lesbians and gays of color. The lesbian poet and activist Pat Parker, for example, criticized the Inez Garcia campaign, angrily protesting that white lesbians seemed to think this work “took care of racism,” while failing to bring women of color into the leadership of the campaign or to reach out to women of color networks or groups.
All this suggests how much we need a history of the third-world gay and lesbian left (to use the language of the time), including, in the Bay Area, such groupings as the Third World Gay Caucus, which split off from Bay Area Gay Liberation; the Latino Gay Alliance; and the women of color lesbian groups who show up in Hobson’s chapter on the Nicaragua solidarity brigades and elsewhere. How would the history of the US gay and lesbian left of the 1970s through the 1990s look if it began with the politics and activism of these people of color groups and others, such as the Combahee River Collective? That is the principal challenge with which this thought-provoking book leaves us.
Margaret Cerullo teaches feminist studies, Latin American studies, and political theory at Hampshire College. She was active in Boston’s gay and lesbian left from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Daring to Drive : A Saudi Woman’s Awakening By Manal al-Sharif
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017, 289 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Persis Karim
While the Arab Spring of 2011 is long behind us, and it delivered far less than many across the region hoped for, it is hard to forget the energy and courage of the individuals who sparked a movement that spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In a manner of months, millions mobilized on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, and Sana’a to challenge some of the most repressive and long-standing dictatorships in the region. The images of people, especially young people, flooding the streets played nightly on television and social media. But the instrumental role that women played in many of those movements was often pushed aside by the revolutionary fervor that called for regime change.
However, one quiet revolt, initiated and led by women, fought for something more basic than a change of leadership: the right to drive a car. For Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman at the heart of the campaign to challenge the kingdom’s prohibition on women’s driving, the Arab Spring was fundamentally a struggle for women’s freedom.
Daring to Drive documents al-Sharif’s role in the 2011 women2drive campaign. Even more, it portrays the complexity of Saudi legal and cultural restrictions, which undermine women in everyday life through the institution of mahram: male guardianship. Part memoir and part manifesto, Daring to Drive provides a rare glimpse into a society about which most Americans know very little; our images are limited to two tropes: individual Saudis as the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks; and periodic news photos of male Saudi leaders in traditional dress standing next to US presidents and their (unveiled) wives. Rarely do these images include Saudi women. We do not hear them speak or understand their stories.
I had the opportunity to work with al-Sharif during the proposal phase of her book. Initially, she conceived of it as a way to bring international attention to Saudi women’s struggle to do something women elsewhere take for granted: drive a car. The book she has written, however, is far more developed and wide-ranging; it not only documents her daring act of driving, but also the abuses heaped on females, including being unable to do nearly anything without the consent of a male guardian. For Saudi women, driving represents far more than simply taking the wheel of a car. Women must obtain the permission of a male relative to go anywhere—school, work, shopping, whom to marry and any kind of travel. Because women are forbidden to drive, they must rely on either a male relative or a hired male driver to transport them. “It is an amazing contradiction,” writes al-Sharif:
A society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that males and females cannot sit together; that society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone.
Al-Sharif dispels the myth of Saudi Arabia as a land of wealthy sheiks and hidden women through her detailed narrative about her life and that of her atypical family. Her parents, both illiterate and poor, met during the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Her mother was from Libya, and her father was a taxi driver who shuttled pilgrims from around the world to and from the holy sites of Mecca. They were far from stereotypical rich Saudis who have so much money they can travel and shop abroad in the most exclusive shopping malls of Europe and the US. On the contrary, her family struggled economically, and al-Sharif often went without the things her peers had—adequate food, books, and many everyday comforts such as adequate housing. The family was ostracized because her father had married outside his tribe and culture: in Saudi Arabia, even those from other Muslim and Arab countries are seen as outsiders, regardless of how long they have lived there. Al-Sharif describes a childhood that was full of depravity and hardship, including regular beatings at the hands of her parents and teachers, and a traumatic circumcision that left her with psychological and physical scars. (In an email to me after the book came out, she wrote that she hadn’t thought about the circumcision for many years, until she started writing.)
Perhaps because of her poverty and marginalization, al-Sharif as a young girl was determined not to be left out or left behind. She became a passionate lover of reading, full of curiosity about the world. Trips to visit her mother’s family in Egypt showed her an alternative to the strict Saudi-style Salafi Islam. But at the age of thirteen, as a result of her education and constant radical preaching on TV, she started to change, she writes, from a “moderately observant Muslim into a radical Islamist.” After the 1979 revolution in Iran and the attack, that same year, on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by insurgents who wanted to overthrow the House of Saud, Saudi religious restrictions and the trend toward fundamentalism throughout the region intensified. “Religious sermons and leaflets were distributed for free in common gathering places,” writes al-Sharif. She began to feel judgmental of women who did not follow the rules of veiling and fasting, and she participated in “disavowals,” in which she and her peers “express[ed] our hate and enmity” toward “infidels.”
As she grew more devout, she chose to wear the niqab (a full-body covering, including the face, with slits for the eyes). At the same time, however, she was performing well in school and wanted to attend university, but because she had witnessed her father’s protest at her sister Muna’s decision to attend the College of Medicine, a mixed university, she chose instead to attend King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah (a women’s university). There, she was exposed to a variety of behaviors, customs and cultures, but “nothing did more to change my ideas and convictions than the advent of the Internet, and later, social media,” al-Sharif writes. Ultimately, it was on the internet that she read articles that challenged her beliefs and her country’s “extremist” form of Islam.
After al-Sharif graduated with a degree in computer science, she found a job at ARAMCO, the Saudi oil company (formerly the Arabian American oil company, which had been a majority American-owned company until the 1980s). While working and living on the ARAMCO compound, which was a sort of American colony, she enjoyed the same freedoms as the American and international workers. Men and women worked together. And it was on the compound that she bought a car and learned to drive. Women could drive inside the compound, but not on Saudi roads: for errands or family visits offsite, she had to hire a male driver.
These contradictions—her freedoms as an ARAMCO employee, her ability to drive on company property but not in her own country—finally became too much. Al-Sharif became an “accidental activist” after an incident in which she found herself in Khobar City at dusk after a doctor’s appointment, without a driver to take her home. As she waited for a driver, men yelled at her, calling her “whore” and “prostitute.” The next day she told a male colleague about the harassment, and he informed her that, technically, there was no law prohibiting women from driving—it was simply culture and custom.
After the conversation with her co-worker, al-Sharif made an impulsive but important, life-changing decision: she would get behind the wheel of her car and “dare to drive.” Within days of her decision she saw a Facebook event called “We are driving May 17th,” organized by a young woman named Bahiya. She contacted the woman and asked if she could be added as an administrator. Because she had witnessed the use of social media, and Facebook in particular, in the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, al-Sharif decided that she too would use these platforms to organize a much larger driving protest. On the advice of a friend, she created a Twitter account (her handle was @Women2Drive) and almost immediately began to connect with some of the more than 2.4 million Twitter users.
“When social media began to flourish during the Arab Spring of 2011,” she writes, “I found myself in possession of a voice—a miraculous thing in a country where women are almost never heard.” In her Twitter profile, she wrote “We call on all Saudi women to drive on June 17.” After organizing day and night to get women to commit to driving on that day, she decided to make an informational video for Women2Drive in preparation for the June 17 action. Although she was careful not to call it a protest, on May 17, she got behind the wheel. She did not hide her face, and she spoke her entire name in the video. She filmed herself driving, calmly stating, “We are your sisters, your mothers, your daughters. We expect your support, and now we’re giving you the chance to show it.” Her final words were, “The whole story: that we will just drive.”
Al-Sharif’s daring first step of filming herself driving and posting it on YouTube got her more than 120,000 views on the first day. Many of the reactions to the video were positive, but many more were critical, harsh, angry, threatening, even, and many suggested that al-Sharif was under the influence of foreigners. Two days later, she was arrested and jailed. She quickly became known around the world through news coverage of the Arab Spring and the social media campaign to free her, which reached international news outlets. Finally, with immense international pressure, including from human rights organizations, after eleven days, al-Sharif was freed. The June 17 event, however, did not take place.
Like the other activists who risked so much during the Arab Spring, al-Sharif paid a high price. She was shunned at her job, and eventually told to keep quiet. But the final threat to her job at ARAMCO came when she was invited to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum, after she had been informed that she would receive the 2012 Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She was told that if she went to Oslo, she would lose her job. Yet, she felt she had to speak out. Her speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum went viral on YouTube, but within her own country, her success had turned her into an “enemy of Saudi Arabia and a traitor to Islam,” she explains. Due to the threats and fears for her safety, she soon realized she had no choice but to leave Saudi Arabia. She went to Dubai with the man she would eventually marry, a Brazilian consultant to ARAMCO, whom she had met just before she left her job. Today, al-Sharif lives in Australia, and because she married a non-Saudi, she cannot reside in her country and sees her Saudi-born son from her first marriage, Aboudi, only during short visits.
Al-Sharif showed bravery and resilience in speaking out about her country and its religious practices, which harm half the population. In Daring to Drive, she shares a powerful story of her awakening as a Saudi and an activist, advocating for women’s rights to tell their own stories and determine their own fates.
Persis Karim is a professor of Comparative & World Literature and the director of the newly established Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University. She is the editor of three anthologies of Iranian diaspora literature and a poet. More information at: www.persiskarim.com.