If someone asks you the first thing you associate with ‘nineteenth century,’ it’s unlikely you’d blurt out ‘black women.’ You just wouldn’t.
It’s not that they spent the entirety of the nineteenth century locked up in basements whilst white women took to the streets parading their ‘give women the vote’ placards. But my module convenor, who created the literature module ‘The New Woman 1880-1920,’ certainly seems to think so.
‘The New Woman.’ What a refreshing title. It conjures up images of women rising from the shackles of domesticity, emerging into an identity of independence and self-expression. Kind of like the Walking Dead, but with petticoats.
Having enjoyed studying the feminist theories of Helénè Cixous and bell hooks in my first year of university, I was beyond excited to start my module. Looking at the reading list, however, it never occurred to me that none of the writers, who were supposedly pioneers in redefining womanhood, were black.
I scrolled through the list again and again, seeing names like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf whom I hadn’t been forced to agonise over since A-Level. I was half surprised Jane Austen wasn’t resurrected because even though she’s not nineteenth century, she’s white and a woman so that’s got to count for something, right?
I sat for a good five minutes with my head in my hands, having a mini-breakdown in the library as my request to switch to a module that I considered more ethnically representative was denied. The thought of having to sit there mind-numbingly whilst white women harp on about white feminism and the history of my ancestors being erased week after week, made me feel physically sick.
I questioned myself to such an extent that I thought I was going crazy. What would be the use in speaking to a member of the English department? They would say that they ‘understood-my-concerns-but-there-was-nothing-they-could-do’ to my face, whilst labelling me as crazy and accusing me of pulling ‘the race card’ to get out of a module I clearly couldn’t be arsed to do behind my back. I even began to try and justify it to myself. Almost definitely, the module convenor was not deliberately excluding black women from the reading list. She’s probably not an expert on black literature or black history and doesn’t feel comfortable teaching it.
But her intentions, or lack thereof, are not important. What’s important is what this module is teaching me, besides the lacklustre learning objectives it lays out in a neatly bullet-pointed list. It tells me that there were no black women of any significance in the nineteenth century. It tells me that they were not present in suffragette and feminist movements, and even worse, it humbly asks me to accept white womanhood as the norm of which all women of colour should conform to and associate with.
I think back to the time in sixth-form when I was told I could not write my essay on Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Kathyrn Stockett’s The Help (which at the time, was one of the only racially charged books I had access to and thought was a work of brilliance. Thankfully, because of Roxane Gay and good old-fashioned common sense, I know better now.) The only acceptable writings by black women that I was permitted to write about was anything by Toni Morrison or Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple.
I then think to how just this year, white feminism basically elected Donald Trump as President, the undeniable whitewashing of Hilary Clinton’s campaign putting black women off voting for her, that’s if they were encouraged to vote at all.
It tells me that very little has changed, from the days when nineteenth-century feminism excluded black women, instead opting to use them as collateral in their rhetoric which often involved comparing their plight to that of “slaves,” to now when black women are all but erased from the political agenda altogether. Vicariously, it tells me I don’t matter. I didn’t then and I don’t now.
Accuse me of throwing a tantrum, accuse me of overreacting. But it’s not just a module. It’s part of a degree which I have invested thousands of pounds in to enlighten and educate me, not only on the subject at hand but what I know about myself. Black women are not represented in this module, and until they are, I refuse to participate in it.
Oh, and just in case you were in any doubt about the dozens of black women writers active in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, here is a comprehensive list.