Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Angry Daughters of Elizabeth Keckley

By Therí A. Pickens

This semester, I am teaching intro to African-American literature 1600s to 1910. I have titled the course “If it Ain't One Thing, It's Five Others”: Reading Multiplicity in the African American Canon." This course title and the implied focus is the result of having to answer too many times in the affirmative when people ask whether black literature can be interpreted in more than one way. To be fair, the question is rarely posed in such frank terms, but the desire to read black literature as a sociological treatise or as merely fantasy speaks to this concern.

Today, I busied myself with teaching preparation, reading Elizabeth Keckley’s “slave narrative” Behind the Scenes. One line struck me in particular. After the usual apologetics for the frankness of her narrative, she excuses others misdeeds saying, “I can afford to be charitable.”

This struck me as the fiercest kind of shade to throw in 1868. What audacity does she have to acknowledge her anger through paralipsis and apophosis at a time when black women's anger is not only unacceptable but punishable by death! As I read on, I noted how many moments she suffered indignity and took care to proffer her own outrage. She calls white service personnel rude. She shows folks the door (and implies that they should not let it hit them on their hindquarters as they leave). She also makes it clear to President Andrew Johnson’s daughter that she is nobody’s seamstress.

I consider Michelle Obama's comments about being an “angry black woman,” Serena Williams’s angry outbursts, Venus Williams’s notoriously stoic interviews, and Audre Lorde’s fierce expressions of a uniquely black queer feminist anger. I must ask what people are so afraid of. It strikes me that the tradition does not begin with Keckley nor does it end with Obama, but one common thread runs among them. It dovetails with others fear of the monster, which I have previously discussed here and here

Confronting black women's anger at injustice requires a necessary reaction of changing one's relationship to the injustice itself. Especially when that anger is best quantified as righteous indignation, the shunting aside of black female anger means a dismissal of one's own responsibility to act. Elizabeth Keckley wrote her narrative on the “shady side of forty” and decided she could afford to be charitable.

Pace Madam Keckley. I am not sure your daughters can pay such a price. I learn from her open expression of anger at injustice and then challenge the rest of us to do something with it.

Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE. 

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