July 29, 2010 § Leave a comment
I went out earlier today to meet someone at KLCC. The morning news had been too dispiriting. Ten-year-old girl raped by her school bus-driver in front of the other students in a place just minutes away from my home. Front-page news on a young millionaire who apparently made his money through investments, and spends his weekends partying it up with Paris Hilton, et al.
The pointlessness of it all can be entirely numbing. The ten year old girl who was raped vis-a-vis the young male millionaire. Once gets a tiny mention in the inner pages; the other is front-page news and has his picture featured. The outrage one feels goes nowhere. You can write to the paper. You can rail at the world. And matters will go on as usual; the hegemony of power/money and privilege remains in place with nary a crack in its foundation.
Because I was early, then, I had time. I didn’t want to think about hegemony. Wandering about the mall made me realise that people, including myself, are ugly. So I took a step into Galeri Petronas. They were having two exhibitions: Young Malaysian Artists: New Object(ion) and Words + Pictures = Book. The former was a collection of young artists showing some dazzling glimpses of artistry, but who were hampered by the repetition of too-familiar themes: Capitalism is parasitic. Human beings are machines. People suffer. Art is meaningless in the capitalist scheme. Everyone dies. There’s nothing wrong with those themes; lord knows I talk about those same things all the time. Probably even on this blog. But their focus on those themes is what puts the “young” in the title – the approach is a tad myopic. But there’s time yet for them to allow these impressions to intensify, mature, take on different hues and shades. Right now it’s a little raw. Out of all the pieces, I particularly enjoyed Tan Nan See’s i wanna be a contemporary artist, a mixed-media installation showing the stages of an artist’s life, right up to the artist’s suicide and posthumous popularity and critical acclaim. Cynical, yes, but beautifully-executed, with so much exquisite attention to the little details. I also really appreciated the painting Drama King, by an artist whose name I can’t remember save for the first name, Meor. I took it for a scathing attack on American imperialism, with the Bush = monkey caricature nicely subverted to reveal its nefarious undertones.
The second exhibition was a joy to discover; tucked away as it was towards the end of the gallery. It featured ten different picture books done by mostly up-and-coming artists, excepting Yusof Gajah, who is a gajah on the art scene, for sure. Certain illustrations from the books were displayed in the gallery, fulfilling the exhibition’s premise to “elevate Malaysian children’s picture book illustrations to a recognised art form within the context of Malaysia’s art movement”. They had set up displays of the artists sketchbooks and drafts of the finished work, and I found that to be the most intriguing part of the exhibition. Having no artistic talent whatsoever, I take voracious, vicarous, and voyeuristic pleasure in seeing how other people make art. The sketchbooks and drafts were under glass cases, so one couldn’t get a good view of it beyond what they had artfully arranged for the viewer to see. But I loved the illustrations – although it did seem as though the women artists were committed to portraying a realistic depiction of the world, with painstaking detail and clarity, while the men did all sorts of interesting things with shapes and perspective and shades of colour. I was completely blown away by Khairul Azmir’s We Saved the Moon. Galeri Petronas published all ten of the picture books and had them available for display and reading. Khairul’s book was so accomplished in terms of art and story, and was the best of the lot. But while the story development still could have been just a wee bit better, his art was incredibly special, both Dave McKean-esque in technique and Edward Gorey-like in essence. I would have bought the book on its own if they were selling single copies; unfortunately, they were selling all ten for close to RM 100 and that just wasn’t possible as I was planning on spending about 3/4 of that amount on Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies! I am quite blown away and look forward to seeing more of his work; I would gladly buy more of his picture books (and art… someday). The other book that caught my eye was Kucing Borneo by Awang Fadilah Ali Hussein, who’s art was reminiscent of modernist collage with some elements of Cubism.
If anyone wants to talk about art being useless or of no particular value, go ahead. But nothing does a better job of making you forget hegemony and inequality and unfairness – or making it beautiful, at least for a little while.
* After some Googling I have found Khairul Azmir’s website here: Goblin Companion. Definitely go take a look.
** Apologies for the title of this post. I have trouble with blog post titles, especially when I’m tired.
July 29, 2010 § 2 Comments
I have watched the new Predators (starring newly-buff Adrien Brody, who most likely gave up sex in preparation for his role). I have not watched the old Predator (starring Arnie, who may or may not have given up sex in preparation for his role – but we will never know).
The Predators are very cool. I mean it. They are not just our darkest imagining of the Other; they are our darkest imagining of the Other equipped with technology beyond our dreams. Or only hinted at in our dreams. So, yes. They are, like, amazing. If I met one, I will calmly shoot myself. Fight? No.
This movie has alerted me to the important need of owning a gun and having it with me at all times.
*Edited to include mention of… SPOILERS!
Our 21st-century Predators, however, still feels woefully familiar.
There are a bunch of white people. The white man, the American, he is the Leader. To emphasise this, he does not talk. He rasps. He.is.The.Leader. Okay? There are other white people, and then there are coloured people. The coloured people all die.
There is the requisite one feisty female. She is Israeli. At some point during the movie she looks at the dead bodies and flinches, even though she’s a soldier who has seen many dead bodies. She also has qualities like compassion and tenderness. She also wears a tank-top that reveals a hint of cleavage. It is hot in the jungle.
Among the coloured folks, there is the requisite wrinkled Latin American older man. He is dangerous and tough. He is the first to die.
There is the requisite one black slash African dude. He is kind of comical, and he’s also very tough. He is the second to die.
(In the middle of all this there is one other black dude but this time it’s the requisite American black dude. He is a bit loony in the head. He dies.)
There is one white American guy who’s on Death Row. He makes rape jokes. He dies.
There is the requisite one Asian slash Japanese dude. He is silent, though it is revealed that he speaks English. He also dies, but only after some very poignant and meaningful Ninja-esque sword fighting with Predator. There is a hint of Ninja-cum-Predator music playing in the background. WARNING: a lump might swell in your throat.
There is another American guy who is a crazy doctor. He dies.
The American Leader dude is still alive. The Israeli feisty girl is still alive. (Lies and propaganda. All lies and propaganda!)
American and Israeli go off in to the woods to find a way to leave this hellhole and maybe fight more Predators and presumably procreate, because Earth needs more Americans and Israeli spawn to withstand Predators and the universe’s continued illogical cruelty. It’s like American Leader Man = Adam and Israeli Feisty Girl = Eve, and this alien planet jungle is the rebirth of a new world order. Or something.
(It’s a fun movie. I recommend it.)
July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
- A shorter version of my original review of Scarlett Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe appears in the Sunday Star today.
- This article in The Guardian: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five Get 21st-Century Makeover. It’s the silliest thing I’ve heard. Millions of non-white kids in varying hues of cream, brown and black read Enid Blyton millions of miles away from the UK without passing out from the sheer difficulty presented by the text that included phrases like, “lashings of pop” and “jolly japes”. This is how misguided marketing kills reading. Children figure these things out; I did, as almost everyone I know who read the books did. The books were written in a certain milieu. The “slang” reflects that time and place. End of story. And while we’re at it, I’m against changing words that are “racist” and “sexist” and “classist”. Blyton wrote horribly racist, sexist, classist things. Purifying her books by updating her language just makes life easier for the adults – everyone can rest easy knowing that their kids are reading “safe” books. But using this as an opportunity to discuss what their kids read? To explain to children why Blyton had those views, why people all over the world continue to have those views? That’s a little bit more complicated. No one has time to talk about things anymore. So yes, let the kids think that Blyton “couldn’t have meant ‘tinker’ perjoratively.” Let’s purify people of their intentions, real or imagined. Let’s just pretend everything is jolly well fine.
- I’ve criticised VenusZine’s new “direction” under the new publisher and editorial board once before. Unfortunately, I still had one more issue to go before the subscription expired, and so when I received the Summer 2010 issue I stared despondently at Jack White staring despondently down at his guitar, and opened it. It still sucks. This time, they had the ‘VZ’s Ultimate Guide to Summer Reading’ section, which had a little sidebar of their 10 Essential Authors. I produce the list in its entirety:
- Richard Yates
- Alice Hoffman
- Jonathan Safran Foer
- Alice Munro
- Hunter S. Thompson
- Joyce Carol Oates
- John Steinbeck
- Jodi Picoult
- Chuck Klosterman
- Mary Karr
It’s amazing! It’s like the Venus Zine writers have never heard of a non-white author in their life! It’s like they’ve never read a good book in their life! It’s like they’re a bunch of retirees in Florida with a subscription to Poets and Writers and Writer’s Digest.
July 22, 2010 § 2 Comments
I used to be able to read a book faster than my dog could masticate a bone, but no more. No more. If this is due to encroaching age, or more toward the increasing amounts of shitty books in my life, no one can really tell. Anyhow, somehow during the last two weeks of the World Cup I had two books going simultaneously: Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Wilkie Collins’ No Name. I know I should have been able to blitz through both in less than a week. The latter was fun and dense and absorbing; I wanted it to last long. The former was fun because I would sit and imagine the ways in which I could tug on Naomi Wolf’s thick, unrelenting hair (as per author cover on the back) and tell her that NO, anorexia is probably not comparable to death camps.
Someday in the future, when I’m a better person, I’ll be able to write about Wolf’s book with a modicum of healthy moderation.
But for now – Victorian bodice-ripper! No, sorry – Victorian thriller! A chilly thriller! Rife with intrigue, deception, and TRANSFORMATION. The story begins thus: Norah and Magdalen Vanstone, formerly happy, now orphaned and bereaved, are deprived of their family legacy because of something rather bad in their family’s history that did not come to their notice until after their parents died. The story continues from there.
And then it ends.
I can’t trust myself to give away much of the story, because as typical as it is in any of Collins’ novel, the mystery is in the details. No really, it is. Wikipedia has gleefully ruined much of the surprise for the first-time reader but I won’t, because I’m noble like that. While The Woman in White relied on a narrative that created questions more than it answered, propelling the reader inexplicably forward towards the inevitable end, No Name already prefigures what is about to happen next as you’re reading about what’s going on in the present. The suspense is built-up entirely on the characters’ interactions; aside from the deaths, all other events are largely driven the characters’ motivations, intent, and scheming. There is no clever change of point-of-view, no twisty double perspectives as in The Moonstone. Everyone is at cross-purposes; everyone that is, except for Magdalen and the devious Captain Wragge – she so pure and beautiful in her female radiance, he so slimy yet so damnably practical in his opportunism and material yearnings.What was really refreshing and enjoyable about the book, up until the last couple of chapters, is that Collins’ allowed Magdalen, our flawed female protagonist, her irrationality, her absurd drive to obtain what “should have been hers”, her relentless passion for one very useless man, and still have her be smart, kind, and thoughtful. She was largely motivated by selfish impulses spurred on by unselfish feelings – love for her sister and payback for injustice. At one point I forgot myself and thought, “My, this is rather… a feminist novel!” But I was wrong, after all. Because happiness does come to Magdalen, and thank god for that (confession: I cried), but it comes at the expense of ambition. It required repentance, yes, but also a disavowal of passion and a move towards nobility, gentleness, and sweet, pure thoughts. It required a retransformation on her part, a conscious re-entrance into docile, temperate, middle-class womanhood. This is further emphasised with the happiness her sister enjoys – Norah, who spent the entire novel being good and doing the right thing and feeling only regret, never anger, will win the biggest coup of all for the both of them by never once going nuts, yelling in rage at a man, or going after something that she shouldn’t want. Norah stayed well within her boundaries, well within the invisible markers of class and society that kept her untarnished and fully-blossomed, ripe, and ready for the love of a Good Man when it finally arrived – which, of course, it did.
No Name is all about transformation, but the underlying message seems to be that you can’t escape your family and your ancestry, and you certainly can’t escape who you are. Which is fine, really, assuming that people actually knew who they were. In the novel, of course, plenty of people have a strong sense of self – whatever that means – and thus are never maligned, distraught, or as reviled as Magdalen for wanting to be another person, if just for a little while, or wanting a different life (which, ironically, is the life she would have had circumstances not altered that life permanently). The only other character without an iota of selfhood and self-preservation is Mrs. Wragge, who is what one would call “soft in the head”, but also soft of heart.
The interesting conundrum presented by the intersection Mrs. Wragge’s softness with Captain Wragge’s hard, unrelenting cunning or Mrs. Lecount’s sharp-edged, harsh desperation seems to suggest that ambition, desire, and the capacity for evil seem to go hand-in-hand with being able to have your wits about you. Intelligence is truly nothing to shout about, Collins seems to imply; it just makes you dispassionate and cruel when life hands you lemons while you sat about waiting for sweet oranges. Mrs. Wragge’s occasional lapses into insanity echoes the kind of truth-telling so often found in the stock village clown or jester character in Elizabethan plays. Because she is the only nurturing and kindly character that Magdalen spends time with while on the run, however, Mrs. Wragge also stands in as the maternal figure; loving and affectionate, yes, but also blithely ignorant of Magdalen’s true motivations and sorrows, as mothers should ideally be in a culture where men think and women clean up the mess.
Collins, whose The Moonstone was hailed by T.S. Eliot as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels… in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe” is a masterful detective novel writer. Edgar Allen Poe, who mighty Eliot just so pitifully kicked into the gutter, said about the requirements of a detective story: “a tale, a species of composition which admits of the highest development of artistical power in alliance with the widest vigour of imagination.” Collins fulfills those requirements. He has brilliant control of pacing and setting, and is able to juggle several balls in the air and keep the mystery in equal parts both mysterious (bearing in mind how so many mysteries… aren’t) and taut without making the reader want to collapse onto the floor in hysteria.
It’s a great book to take under the covers with you on a rainy day – or onto the porch with you during on a sweltering mid-afternoon – but it’s such a shame that Collins never allowed to let his secret feminism flourish a little. Or simply come out for some air.
July 16, 2010 § Leave a comment
To continue with my “non-review” of the book, here is Part 2. Part 1 is here.
- Chapter 8 was a bit of a snore, although it shed some light on occasion. Focusing on the rise of black women’s clubs, it was interesting insofar as it provided a perspective on why black women needed their own clubs: “It was in response to the unchecked wave of lynchings and the indiscriminate sexual abuse of Black women that the first Black women’s club was organised.” As Davis explains, clubs for white women were usually spaces for millions of women “whose lives were not filled up by domestic and religious pursuits.” For black women, it was a political necessary to challenge the double-binds of racism and sexism.
- In Chapter 9, things get intense as Davis shows us the intricate manoeuvrings of class and gender that characterised the right for the women’s vote in the US. Susan B. Anthony, of whom we typically only hear heroic things, had this to say:
An oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor; an oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant; or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex which makes father, brother, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household; which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects – carries discord and rebellion into every home of the nation.
Crafty lady, that Susan… being well-off, educated, and Saxon. It will never stop being incredibly disheartening to read about how the roots of the suffrage women were also predicated upon inequality – and an insidious majority privilege (rich white women don’t have the rights… give rich white women their rights, screw the various other hues and colours and economic backgrounds). Davis claims that while black women suffragists enjoyed proportionately higher support from black men as compared to the white women, white women organisers of the suffragette parade still rigidly segregated the spectators and participants. She writes, “They even instructed Ida B. Wells to leave the Illinois contingent and to march with the segregated Black group – in deference to the white women from the South.” The highlight is that “Ida B. Wells was not one to follow racist instructions, however, and, at parade time, she slipped into the Illinois section.” Yes… take THAT, Susan B. Anthony.
- Chapter 10! The heart-stirringly intriguing chapter entitled “Communist Women”. (Forgive me, being Malaysian anything with the world “Communist” in it just invites one to go, “Ooooohhh…” Anyhow. This chapter is basically an overview of key female figures in Communism who were also involved in the women’s movement in the States. Among these women are Lucy Parsons; Ella Reeve Bloor – a white woman who saw how racism was intricately bound with the socialist cause; Anita Whitney – another white woman who bravely spoke out against lynching even while other white “liberals” did not; and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was one of the early proponents of the cause to unshackle black women from the “threefold bond of oppression.”
- “The myth of the black rapist” is the topic Davis addresses next in Chapter 11. She explores how the myth arose in the first place – coincidentally, the idea took root and flower during the Reconstruction period, after the abolition of slavery. Davis draws attention to statistics that reveal the numbers of black women who were raped by white men employers or masters during slavery – but who were given no recourse through law. “The pattern of institutionalized sexual abuse of Black women became so powerful that it managed to survive the abolition of slavery.” While acknowledging that “racism has always drawn strength from its ability to encourage sexual coercion,” Davis shows how the same ideology also victimised a whole class of black men as perpetrators of sexual violence. No doubt, black men could rape as well as any other man. But the ideologue of the black man as rapist, it was not about eradicating sexual violence in and of itself – which would mean protecting both white women AND black women from the threat of rape – but protecting white women, particularly white upper-class women, from the threat of rape of black men. Because that would naturally be a threat to the masculinity and white, upper-class patriarchy. All that aside, however, black men suffered brutally under this particular racist ideology, as the myth of the black rapist is what gave rise to the mass lynchings that took place post-slavery and post-Civil War. Feminists like Susan Brownmiller comes under Davis’ attack, as she talks about Brownmiller’s “discussion on rape and race evinces an unthinking partisanship which borders on racism,” although the passages she quotes us from Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape are not bordering on racism, they’re outrightly racist. But the real cause lies in economic disparity, of course, as Davis explains:
As the basis of the license to rape Black women during slavery was the slaveholders’ economic power, so the class structure of capitalist society also harbors an incentive to rape. It seems, in fact, that men of the capitalist class and their middle-class partners are immune to prosecution because they commit their sexual assaults with the same unchallenged authority that legitimizes their daily assaults on the labor and dignity of working people.
The dangerous ideology, to which important figures in American feminism like Brownmiller have contributed to, seems to insinuate, in Davis’ own words “armies of Black men, their penises erect, charging full speed ahead toward the most conveniently placed white women.” Shulamith Firestone, whose The Dialectic of Sex is something I’ve always wanted to read, also disappoints, as Davis explains how Firestone “transposes Freud’s Oedipux complex into racial terms,” with “white man as father, white woman as mother, and Black people as the children.” Following this, then, Firestone’s premise is that black men are forever out to kill their “fathers” (white men) in order to posses their “mothers” (white women). In this scenario Black women are presumably simply standing around, combing each other’s hair.
- Reproductive rights is the subject of Chapter 12; Davis traces the genesis of birth control rights to abortion rights as it moved along the continuum of race and class. Birth control, as a cry for “voluntary motherhood”, should have been embraced by black, Latina, and immigrant women in general – because they more than anyone else knew what it was like to have no choice and control over the number of children they brought into the world within the conditions they lived in. However, it was *precisely* those ideological underpinnings that isolated them from the abortion and reproductive-rights movement, according to Davis. Here’s where Davis adopts a slightly moralistic tone that I found off-putting: “When Black and Latina women resort to abortions in such large numbers, the stories they tell are not so much about their desire to be free of their pregnancy, but rather about the miserable social conditions which dissuade them from bringing new lives into the world.” Fair enough; but being “free from pregnancy” is almost always tied to one’s social conditions. I get that Davis deplores the use of abortion as a means of remaining “free from pregnancy” in order that one might be able to experiment sexually; but I see some moralising being done here in assuming that all black, Latina, Native American, or immigrant women *only* want access to reproductive rights for noble reasons. But Davis draws a cogent argument about how reproductive rights arguments as framed by middle-class white women blurred “the distinction between abortion rights and the general advocacy for abortions.” As she points out, black women have been aborting themselves for years under slavery because they couldn’t bring children into a world where unending slavery seemed to be the only option for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, while “voluntary motherhood” was genuinely liberating for women – emancipating them from home and hearth and giving them the time, space, and energy to become political beings – Davis says that the vision was “rigidly bound to the lifestyle enjoyed by the middle classes and the bourgeoisie.” And horrifyingly enough, while birth control was a privilege to the lower class – typically black and immigrant women –*population control* was enforced upon black people, in the form of forced sterilisation. While Roosevelt lamented the “race suicide” of white people as more white women opted for birth control (at the same time that US expansion was extending to the Philippines), white feminists tried to align themselves to the imperialist cause of their beloved nation by adopting that stance and introducing birth control as a “duty” for the poor folks and the black folks – in order not to sully the nation with the inferiority of their stock. Margaret Sanger, our feminist “hero” of the birth control revolution, was a socialist with a flawed understanding of capitalist exploitation. She held poor families to task for reproducing beyond their material means, and bought into the racist ideologies of eugenics to propound the notion of “more from the fit, less from the unfit.” This ideology lead to a racist and classist double-bind for non-white working classes: they were criticised for reproducing too “much”, yet access to safe birth control and abortions were out of their reach because it was too expensive, and so they were made to undergo sterilisation – ensuring that they could never reproduce again, thus keeping their numbers down. Birth control and reproductive “rights” naturally, became a misnomer, and it was applicable only to a select few.
- The final chapter discusses the dreaded Housework – also known as Domestic Work – also known as What Your Wife/Girlfriend/ Mother/Sister SHOULD Do for You, If You Had Your Way. Which, as it turns out, most men do – my most “progressive” girlfriends (and I mean that completely in the Sex and the City way, whatever that means) with high-flying careers (whatever that means) are still somehow expected to, whether overtly or subtly, to cook and clean up after their respective husbands / partners. And it’s 2010. When Davis was writing about this in the late 70s and early 80s, men weren’t rushing to the forefront to relieve women of the menial, thankless, repetitive job of housework, either. And nor were they volunteering for childcare. But Davis wasn’t keen on the idea of the “desexualization of domestic labour” so much as she was advocating the socialisation of domestic labour, because the discussion of men and women being equal partners in housework is, again, a privileged one – as working class (and typically non-white) men AND women simply couldn’t afford the time to devote to housework. For them, the discussion couldn’t even begin because both partners were overworked and underpaid; but as typically the female was the more underpaid, the burden of cutting back hours at work and focusing more on housework and child care fell to the female. Therefore, to Davis, the answer was clearly in the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare. Citing examples from Marx, and to a greater extent, Engels, Davis outlines how societies before the advent of private property saw greater equality between the sexes in the types of labour. In those communities, women were still largely associated with childcare, but in a communal sense – as both domestic and field or agricultural labour was divided up in a relatively equal ratio between men and women. In post-industrialist societies, the distinctions between domestic and public space intensified and became a structural separation, and the value on domestic labour correspondingly dropped (because it was neither productive nor profitable) – and interestingly enough, this saw the domestic realm becoming further enmeshed with the idea of womanhood and femininity. The Housewife was born. Thus, it seemed like women could not escape the trap of motherhood and domesticity unless they literally marched out in protest; which is what they did, in protest. The largely middle and upper class white women, that is. And, as in the case of capitalism’s inherent mechanism of outsourcing unwanted labour to subaltern groups, domestic labour became the domain of black women in post-Reconstruction America. As has been said before, while this sounds great in theory, we’ve seen in practices like socialised childcare in the Soviet Union how it simply can’t work within the larger sphere as long as socialism is practiced selectively in parts of the world, within a larger global capitalist framework. Perhaps a major restructure of capitalism as a collective effort will take place one day with the birth of a new Narnia, I don’t know.
The reason one comes up with a two-part “review” of a book of this nature is simply to say: READ IT. Davis leaves us with plenty to think about; and plenty to consider in the light of historical changes and current stagnations. Her prose is always clear and lively, there’s no need to wade through heavy pontificating or pseudo-academic jargon before one grasps the essential social conditions she’s trying to describe, and to some effect, remedy. Certainly, her own activism, Communism, and chequered past with the law has made her a rather controversial figure. I’ll end this epic blog post with a link to an interview conducted with Davis in 1997.
July 14, 2010 § 1 Comment
This is not so much a review of Angela Y. Davis’ Women, Race, and Class – because how would I even begin “reviewing” such an astounding piece of research and scholarship – but a guide, with a few pertinent passages requited. I’m not sure how well-known Davis’ work is outside of the States, or even within the States, but I came to know about her work while at university. It would seem that all popular discourse about feminism as it is known in the West, and the US specifically, reference historical female figures of the past unproblematically. In essence, they draw attention to the pioneering efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others, without contextualising their often problematic connections to issues of race and class. Davis’ book, in essence, forces us to confront the myth of these pioneering women. Just how pioneering were they? Are theirs the only names that deserve mention?
Also, having limited knowledge about black history in the United States, I can only assume that Angela Davis is one of the woman to go to about issues of American class and race. Thus, I shall say no more. I’ve divided the chapter-by-chapter guide into two parts, because it seems that I do have too much to say and the book has thirteen chapters, and no one reads long blog posts, and all that. So here’s Part 1, covering chapters 1 through 7:
- Chapter 1: Davis starts the book off with a bang, saying, “Of course black women are strong, they had to deal with all the shit of being women in the 19th century on top of doing all the shit subhuman labour of slavery.” No, she doesn’t quite say that, but that’s the gist of this chapter. She situates the upcoming feminist struggle by highlighting the legacy of slavery among black people, and black women in particular. Slavery, as it turns out, is the one system where women enjoyed “equality” with men in terms of oppression. “Black women bore the terrible burden of equality in oppression,” Davis writes. She here states her recurring point that black women were productive both in manual and domestic labour, and that rape (of black women by white men, mostly their slave-owners) was a power weapon to remind black women of their femaleness and vulnerability.
- Chapter 2: Here, Davis looks at the birth of the women’s right movement from a general standpoint. Before the advent of industrialisation, white women’s labour was solely limited to the domestic sphere. Post industrialisation, there is an entire underclass of white working women. Davis explains how women’s role in the domestic sphere became heightened the more that their labour in the domestic sphere became obsolete (with the invention of machines). The less use they had in the home, the more they were encouraged to stay at home – as men went out to do the unfeminine work of Work. The issue of women’s emancipation and abolition of slavery coincided because there was an interesting conflation of slavery analogies among white women: the working-class women felt that work in the mills and factories was akin to slavery, while middle and upper class white women saw the heavy chains of eternal slave-like binding pictured in the image of marriage. Davis is pretty withering of the fact that none of these situations are akin to slavery – and she is right – but her explanations of these multiple social changes at the time are illuminating. She also highlights two women who were refreshingly ahead of their times in their views on race and sex: the Grimke sisters.
- Chapter 3 traces the lily-white, privileged roots of the Seneca Falls Movement, and sheds some unflattering light on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Seneca Falls’ main concerns were middle-class white women’s concerns: marriage, and women’s exclusion from ‘professional’ fields of work. (And Davis highlights the insidious work of racism and classism here: as the work in the mills and factories became more brutal and dangerous, the white women from land-owning families who worked these jobs were replaced by immigrant female labour.) Seneca Falls made no bones about not wanting black women present – hence Sojourner Truth’s groundbreaking “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at a convention in Akron, Ohio. Davis rightly states that, from the start, the women’s rights movement in the States had “an unquestioning acceptance of the capitalist economic system.” Davis points to the problematic acceptance by these women of the theory that male supremacy was an inherent flaw – one that was not tied to class:
If most abolitionists viewed slavery as a nasty blemish which needed to be eliminated, most women’s righters viewed male supremacy in a similar manner – as an immoral flaw in their otherwise acceptable society.
In other words, our society is fine except for this tiny problem of slavery. Or, everything’s good except for the fact that those men hate women. Davis mentions how one women’s rights meeting in Syracuse was invaded by men brandishing pistols and knives – a typical response by the powerful when the status quo is being rocked (not far different from the ultra right-wing Malay nationalists here in Malaysia brandishing their keris at every opportunity).
- Chapter 4 is the “Oh my fucking fairy’s ears, Elizabeth Cady Stanton said WHAT?” chapter. She said this: “In fact, it is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant white one…” Stanton was writing to the New York Standard to oppose the liberation of the black people because it will over-ride the concerns of the women’s rights movement. In other words, Stanton felt that black liberation would give the black man more rights than what a regular white woman had – which was completely unacceptable. (Black women, as you notice, don’t enter into the discussion at all.)
- In Chapter 5, Davis makes the sobering revelation that after a quarter of a century of freedom for the black slaves, black women are still universally oppressed as a class. The “economic opportunities” they were allowed to participate in – the only ones – had working conditions no better than that of slavery. In domestic labour, black women were still yoked to their employers (white people) in a triple bind of race, sex, and class. Sexual abuse by their white male employers was rampant, giving rise to the notion of the “sexually available black woman.” White men used that as an excuse, and white women felt better believing it rather than acknowledging that their husbands were keen on raping and molesting the domestic help. One of the more repulsive and fascinating quotes that Davis cites is by a white woman who said that she took in black people as domestic help “because they look more like servants.” Because servants are made, not born. And they come wearing a black face. Astounding.
- In the sixth chapter, Davis tries to show that it wasn’t all privilege and nasty racism. Here, she describes how sisterhood between black and white women was entirely possible, especially when the common cause was the right to education. This chapter details the women who set up schools and taught black children despite public outrage, mocking, violent threats, and the risk of jail-time. Yes, teaching black people was punishable by law – but it didn’t deter women like Prudence Crandall and Margaret Douglass. It was interesting to note that it was white women who were willing to teach black students. Historically, teaching was a female occupation, and no doubt this is why that was the case. But if nothing else, this is damning indictment of the white men crafting the legislations and making the laws who could have done so much more – but didn’t.
- Chapter 7 details the efforts of Susan B. Anthony in the suffrage moment, and is a bleak reminder of how individuals can enable systemic / institutional racism (or sexism and classism) just by doing nothing, saying nothing, and glossing over what shouldn’t be glossed over. While Davis emphasises that, as an individual, Anthony was against racism, she did nothing to quell the anti-racist sentiment of the suffrage movement in general – primarily by acquiescing to the demands of others not to open up the Suffrage Association to black women. She did this so as not to “alienate” the white Southern women who were being drawn into the movement. They were very much against the idea of opening up the movement to black women. Here, we get a clear idea of how early feminism in the States was pretty much similar to everything else that was “man”-made, be it colonialism or capitalism, because it capitulated to essentially non-egalitarian demands simply to keep its numbers. In other words, early-American feminism was predicated on deals, brokering, and negotiations. Nothing very equal about that, as equality should have been had on its own terms, not on a “if x, then y” premise. Davis writes:
Objectively, an open invitation had been extended to Southern women who were not about to relinquish their commitment to white supremacy. At best, this noncommittal posture on the struggle for Black equality constituted an acquiescence to racism, and at worst, it was a deliberate incentive, on the part of an influential mass organisation, for the violence and devastation spawned by the white supremacist forces of the times.
Another quote that hammers the point home:
The last decade of the nineteenth century was a critical moment in the development of modern racism – its major institutional supports as well as its attendant ideological justifications. This was also the period of imperialist expansion into the Philippines, Hawaii, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The same forces that sought to subjugate the peoples of these countries were responsible for the worsening plight of Black people and the entire U.S. working class. Racism nourished those imperialist ventures and was likewise conditioned by imperialism’s strategies and apologetics.
Upper-class white women, whether they knew it or not (and many probably did), propped up male white supremacy because of their racism, and actively fought for “women’s rights” within the narrow sphere of their immediate interests – thereby further entrenching their roles as irrevocably female, nurturing, motherly, and nothing more.
July 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
I’m not sure why, but I now have a Tumblr blog, Disquiet.
I did it because all the cool people have one. If you call me shallow, I will be deeply offended, but you will be right. Mostly, I started one because the Tumblr interface is breathtakingly easy and pain-free, and clearly geared towards more visual-oriented blogging. I don’t suppose my epic blog posts would fit well in Tumblr, but it is a nice way to share random links, images, songs, videos, and quotes.
Highly addictive, and like Twitter, a further encroachment on my time which could be better put to use writing, reading, writing, helping people, writing, playing with my dogs, writing.