Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Recalling Deborah McDowell's "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism"

Cover of the 1980 issue of Black American Literature Forum containing McDowell's article

In 1980, that is, forty years ago this year, Deborah E. McDowell published her article "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism" in Black American Literature Forum (now known as African American Review). It was and remains an important article in African American literary studies that urged for clarity about where black feminist criticism was and where it might go. The article also anticipated notable growth in the critical discourse that would begin to gain heightened visibility several years later. 

I assigned McDowell's article this summer to one of the students taking an independent study with me. There's been so much exciting scholarship produced in our field during the twenty-first century. Still, I have worried lately that our students interested in African American literary studies were not reminded enough about some key works in the field.  

I took some long looks back as far as the 1920s and moving forward. When I arrived at the 1970s and 1980s, I considered critical works that served as crucial guides. Hence, McDowell's article.   

In 1980, when McDowell published her article, she was an assistant professor of English at Colby College in Maine. She had began the job in 1979. (She's been at the University of Virginia since 1987). 
Her article "New Directions" appeared three years after the 1977 publication of Barbara Smith's "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" and "The Combahee River Collective Statement," which Smith was also a leading contributor. 

A year after McDowell's article, bell hooks made her debut with Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In 1983, Maryemma Graham founded the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) at the University of Mississippi, and in 1985, McDowell founded and served as editor of the African-American Women Writers Series at Beacon Press, which reissued works by nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels. The best-selling work in the series was Octavia Butler's Kindred.  

Quite a few developments began taking shape in African American literary studies in the mid and late 1980s. That's why it's worth taking a look back and some of the works setting the stage. 

McDowell's "New Directions" highlights the challenges and possibilities moving forward with respect to black feminist criticism. "When Black women writers," McDowell observes early on, "are neither ignored altogether nor given honorable mention, they are critically misunderstood and summarily dismissed." Later, she points out that, "Unfortunately, Black feminist scholarship has been decidedly more practical than theoretical, and the theories developed thus far have often lacked sophistication and have been marred by slogans, rhetoric, and idealism."

She discusses Smith's "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism," citing the work's importance but also highlighting some of its limitations. Those limitations provide for a jumping off point for McDowell to raise several critical questions.

"Is there a monolithic Black female language? Do Black female high school drop outs, welfare mothers, college graduates and Ph.D.s share a common language? Are there regional variations on this common language?," she asks at one point. And then later: "What ideas, specifically, would Black feminist criticism contribute to the movement?" 

She closes the article recommending that black feminist criticism "consider the specific language of Black women's literature, to describe the ways Black women writers employ literary devices in a distinct way, and to compare the way Black women writers create their own mythic structures." Doing so, McDowell offers, would allow the critics to lay a "cornerstone for a sound, thorough articulation of the Black feminist aesthetic."


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