By Frank Miller
Over the weekend I read Arnold Rampersad’s “Biography and African-American Culture.” The article discusses how a biographer’s use of psychoanalysis allows him/her to successfully produce a biography; however Rampersad argues that a psychoanalytic approach not only misrepresents, but definitively hinders the most triumphant African-American figures of American culture. Though the article mentions the biographies of Frederick Douglass, MLK, Jr., and Richard Wright; it is Rampersad’s example of a W.E.B. DuBois passage in DuBois’ autobiography, Dusk if Dawn (1940) which is truly representative of the conflict African-Americans face. He writes:
It is as though one, looking out from a dark cave in a side of an impending mountain, sees the world passing and speaks to it; speaks courteously and persuasively….One talks on evenly and logically in this way, but notices that the passing throng does not even turn its head, or if it does, glances curiously and walks on. It gradually penetrates the minds of the prisoners that the people passing do not hear, that some thick sheet of invisible but horribly tangible plate glass is between them and the world [my italics] (198).
Rampersad explains that because of the thick sheet of invisible plate glass, some become “hysterical” and “scream and hurl themselves against the barriers” (198). He states that some may even “break through in blood and disfigurement [my italics] and find themselves faced by a horrified, implacable, and quite overwhelming mob of people frightened for their very own existence” (198). Rampersad appears to be saying that African-Americans who perceive this “plate glass” to inhibit them, and act upon such inhibition by “breaking through,” ultimately become “disfigured.” In the passion of their frustration, they provide the world (who receives their agressive act unkindly) with a “distorted” view of who they truly are.
In Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” the author seemingly speaks with similar frustration as she writes, “Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one’s status in society, ‘the mule of the world,” (237) for the fact that they carry the burdens that all others have rejected. She mentions black women being labeled as “Matriarchs, Superwomen, Mean and Evil Bitches, Castraters” and “Sapphire’s Mama.” However, emphasizes that “[they] have pleaded for understanding, [their] character has been distorted” (237) in a manner paralleling those who “break through in blood and disfigurement.” In manner to similar to Anzaldúa in “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter To 3rd World Women Writers,” Walker seems to have actually broken or completely disregarded what makes some “hysterical.” She writes, “to be an artist and a black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be” (237). To counter the thick sheet of invisible but horribly tangible plate glass that drowns voices, Walker reminds her audience of the strength of the African-American women before her, “it is well known that the majority of our great-grandmothers knew, even without ‘knowing’ it, reality of their spirituality, even if they didn’t recognize it beyond what happened in the singing of church – and they never had any intention of giving it up” (237-238). While contemplating the origins of the black woman’s creativity, Walker suggests that “often the truest answer to a question that really matters can be found very close” (238). She informs her audience that it is her mother’s passion, determination, and will to care for her children that exists as true creativity, and in a manner to similar to the quilt hanging in the Smithsonian Institution made by the “‘anonymous’ black woman from Alabama,” these women “left [their] mark in only materials [they] could afford…in the only medium [their] society allowed [them] to use” (239).
In today’s society in which many feel the answers to their questions lie hidden deep within some complex and nearly unattainable thought, Walker keeps us humble, reminding us to search in “our mothers’ gardens;” in essence, to venture for creativity in places both “high – and low” (239).