Editor’s Note: We reached out to a University of Redlands English Professor Sheila Lloyd to ask for her recommended reading during February.
February is Black History Month, and March is Women’s History Month. In offering the following suggested works, I want to bring the two into conversation to set a frame for our debates on and our analyses of Black women’s histories. If you have not encountered them elsewhere in your reading, consider including these titles in your reading list:
1. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
My first recommended book is Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is a timely reminder that Tarana Burke’s 2006 “MeToo” campaign and the current #MeToo movement began long ago. In her narrative, Jacobs explodes the silence that engulfed Black women’s lives, and she exposes the particularity of the experiences of enslaved women, writing, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.” Defying antebellum literary conventions, Jacobs speaks against the ever-looming threat and use of sexual violence as a tool of oppression.
2. The Street by Ann Petry
My second recommendation is Ann Petry’s 1946 novel, The Street, focusing on Lutie Johnson, a divorced Black mother, who attempts, first as a domestic laborer in the suburbs and later as a nightclub singer in Harlem, to raise her son respectably. Representing Lutie’s desire to advance her economic standing and to enter into the ideal American way of life, Petry relates the striving in the lives of Black women (to paraphrase W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of the striving in the lives of Black folk). As with many naturalist novels, The Street ends tragically for its characters with Lutie fleeing Harlem for Chicago after she has committed murder and leaving her son, Bub, in juvenile detention after he has been caught stealing. This ending suggests the trap that is the politics of respectability, and it reveals how difficult it is for Black women and their children to accede in the United States.
3. Collected Poems by Audre Lorde
I would call attention also to Audre Lorde’s Collected Poems published in 2000 and including over 300 of her poems, which offer views into the inner life and thoughts of a Black, lesbian feminist. Whether writing of anger, sexual desire, or the healing that must take place in our lives, Lorde fashions poems that are forceful and that “blaze and pulse on the page,” to quote Adrienne Rich. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Portrait,” which reads: “Strong women/ know the taste/ of their own hatred/ I must always be/building nests/ in a windy place/ I want the safety of oblique numbers/ that do not include me/ a beautiful woman/ with ugly moments/ secret and patient/ as the amused and ponderous elephants/ catering to Hannibal’s ambition/ as they swayed on their own way/ home.”
4. Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge
Lastly, essential reading for anyone interested in understanding and working against the mutually informing inequalities of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and age is Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge’s Intersectionality, a 2016 Polity press “Key Concepts” book. A highly accessible book, it invites students, scholars, and activists among its readers and demonstrates, through many compelling examples, how “intersectionality” can be used as an analytical tool to understand the complexity of the concept, as well as the complexity of our lives and our worlds.