Saturday, August 7, 2010

duCille, Ann. “The Short Happy Life of Black Feminist Theory.”
differences 21.1 (2010): 32-47. Duke Journals. Web. 31 March 2010.

My colleague Nilofar Gardezi has started up an informal black feminism reading group, which is giving me the opportunity to do some reading a little to the side of my current research projects.

In this essay, duCille uses a story that she regards as unassailably canonical, Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," as an occasion for revisiting the questions of what constitutes black feminist critique and where its rightful terrain lies. That duCille thought of the story as so canonically central was interesting to me and the other discussants, for whom the story was distinctly unimportant in our experiences of professionalization. Truth be told, Hemingway is a minor light in my personal map of modernism. Stein, on the other hand, looms large--as does Hurston. The work of scholars like duCille has had a hand in this.

This jarring sense of décalage was helpful in placing ourselves in relation to the article. DuCille's opening premise is that black feminist theory, as a thing, has sort of faded away; its day is past. It's always unnerving for a junior scholar to find out that a critical strain is "over" before one has even had a chance to read its foundational texts. But then, of course, black feminist theory isn't really "over," as duCille's article indicates; rather, it's entered a new phase, one in which certain obligations have already been carried out and certain battles have been, if not resolved, fought as long and as hard as they need to have been fought.

DuCille closes the article with an intriguing gesture: after reviewing the debates of the last few decades, and having conclusively demonstrated that there is nothing in "The Short Happy Life," not even the dead lion, that has less subjectivity than the African porters, and that indeed Hemingway's heart of darkness is the very emblem of white civilization, she writes:
I want it, though. I want it in my critical canon. I love my literature, the texts of my black feminist familiar, but I want the texts of the white male other as well--all books, great and small. Criticism cannot be a ghetto of our own making. It's time to light out for other territories, because nothing--least of all the fictions of white male authors--should be beyond our reach or "shellacked"* against our critical gaze.(44)
This is a language not of duty (what should be fair game for a black feminist criticism) but of desire. And perhaps it's when junior scholars take for granted that every Americanist has read Their Eyes Were Watching God, but greet "The Short Happy Life" with "um, I think I read it in high school," that critical desire can take center stage. A short, happy life indeed.

*"Shellacked": duCille is alluding to Toni Morrison's caution, quoted in an epigraph, that "it would be a pity if the criticism of [white male] literature continued to shellac those texts, immobilizing their complexities and power and luminations just below its tight, reflecting surface."

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