By Christina Gutierrez
My search for late twentieth- and twenty-first century illness narratives by African American women began five years ago after a professor introduced me to Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. Since then, my research efforts have focused primarily on locating a more expansive canon of African American women’s illness narratives. However, this endeavor proved much more complicated than I initially anticipated.
Part of the challenge in locating these texts involves “cracking the code,” so to speak. That is, typing the seemingly obvious keywords “African American women’s illness narratives” into a search engine like Google or even WorldCat simply does not yield very many results. Aside from Lorde’s two texts where she documents her struggles with breast cancer (The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light) and which do often emerge as a corollary to my preliminary keyword search, there appears to be a general dearth of African American women’s illness narratives.
But, I’ve come to learn that to call it a “dearth” is inaccurate. Rather, I’ve realized that to find these texts I must rethink and revise my keywords when searching both academic and non-academic sites. Because illness narratives as a genre have been delineated by scholars such as Arthur Kleinman and widely accepted as such by many who study and write about illness narratives, some texts that do not adhere to this prescribed standard evade detection with keywords such as those I began with.
I am still working to crack the code. However, in the process, I have identified more literature by African American women that documents their struggles with illness. These texts come in the form of autobiographical poetry, essays, and other (sometimes mixed) genres that often disrupt the conventional illness narrative.
Keyword phrases like “African American women and breast cancer autobiography” and “black women, pain, and trauma” have elicited some texts that I consider illness narratives. Poems by Lucille Clifton and certain essays by June Jordan, where both women document their experiences with breast cancer, are among the texts I have discovered. As I continue to search for more African American women’s illness narratives, keywords and creative approaches to searching remain crucial parts of the endeavor.
Christina Gutierrez writes about 20th and 21st century Latina and African American women’s illness autobiographies, Black and Chicana feminist theories, and the history of science in the US as it pertains to the medicalization of women’s bodies. She is a member of the UTSA Reading Collective.