Black Women Writers
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by E. Ethelbert Miller
He stayed not far from where I lived. The Chastleton on 16th street in Washington. On several occasions I went to visit him. James was always the same. I would find him in bed, surrounded by books and newspapers, the television always on.
Any impression that James was ill was immediately displaced by the conversations that would develop. One could witness him thinking, analyzing, reaching new conclusions about the world, explaining daily events by making references to history.
Now and then I took James books written by Black American women writers. He was deeply impressed by what they were writing. He felt that the work of Morrison and Shange was important. He was moved especially by the novels of Alice Walker.
In an interview conducted by Dr. L. Anthony-Welch and published in Sturdy Black Bridges (1979) edited by Bell, Parker and Guy-Sheftall, James mentions how Black women writers possess a view of society which is based on what the common and ordinary people are doing. In his own words:
That's why the black society is so torn with Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and Shange. A famous Englishman once said, never — you cannot ignore reality. And reality begins with common people. These people — these black women — were not writing ten years ago. This is something new. They're the product of the sixties in a way.
The use of folk material, the focus on the Southern landscape, the personal relationships between Black men and women can be found in the work of several Black women writing today. As James states in his interview, it is a product of the sixties. The Black woman writer who emerged in the seventies extended as well as transformed the Black Arts movement. Their work adheres to the Black aesthetic in regards to elevating the lives of Black people. What is important and is pointed out by James, is that the Black aesthetic is no different from any other aesthetic.
In 1959, James delivered a lecture at the Mona, Jamaica, campus of the University of the West Indies. This talk is published in his collection of selected writings, The Future In The Present, as "The Artist In The Caribbean." James makes three statements which I believe support his present enthusiasm for the literature created by Black women. I find James's comments pivotal in understanding what he sees in the work of such writers as Morrison and Walker. James states the following:
1. I have made clear that in my view the great artist is the product of a long and deeply rooted national tradition. I go further. He appears at a moment of transition in national life with results which are recognized as having significance for the civilized world.
2. But the universal artist is universal because he is above all national.
3. A supreme artist exercises an influence on the national consciousness which is incalculable. He is created by it but he illuminates and amplifies it, bringing the past up to date and charting the future.
What James states is similar to what Richard Wright wrote in 1938 in his ''Blueprint for Negro Writing":
Negro writers must accept the nationalist implications of their lives, not in order to encourage them, but in order to change and transcend them. They must accept the concept of nationalism because, in order to transcend it, they must possess and understand it.
According to C. L. R. James, Morrison, Walker and Shange have begun to write about the common people. This has placed their work within the confines of nationalism. By developing women characters in fiction, they add a new dimension to literature. C. L. R. James's opinions are indicative of his ability to grasp the changes occurring in our society. He suggests that Black writers can make significant contributions to the world — that is what they are doing.
E. Ethelbert Miller is Director of the Ascension Poetry Series at Howard University.