Dr. Niama L. Williams brings to light poet and memoirist Toi Derricotte's claiming of voice through her poetry rich in metaphor, deep and profound sensibility, and brave personal honesty.
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Sexual abuse happens. Domestic violence happens. We know it happens. We have child protective services. We watch Law and Order: SVU. We are surrounded by sex in our media, and we are surrounded by sexual violence in our media. Yet I have turned to the work of Toi Derricotte because we are not surrounded by sexual violence in our literary criticism, because we are not discussing sexual violence in our college classrooms, because the work of a poet like Derricotte, a poet who reveals the long, difficult trajectory of the emergence of voice, of the emergence of a healthy, vibrant, bisexual self, is largely ignored by those of us in the academy who contribute articles to that grand behemoth otherwise known as the Modern Language Association's International Bibliography. The Black poetic feminism of Toi Derricotte works on this silence in a variety of ways. Read on, and perhaps learn a great deal from her journey.
Patricia Meyer Spacks, Professor of English at Wellesley College beginning in 1959, sets herself the enticing and enviable task of discerning the continuities of “the female imagination” in her 1972 text of the same title. In her introduction, Spacks informs the reader that she plans “to look for evidence of sharing, seek persistent ways of feeling, discover patterns of self-depiction that survive the vagaries of change: such are my purposes” (1). Unfortunately, Spacks leaves the entire world of Third World women, the worlds of women of color, outside the realm of her study. Quoting Phyllis Chesler, Spacks agrees that she has no theory to offer Third World women because she is “reluctant and unable to construct theories about experiences I haven’t had” (5). Thus, in 1972, if one looked to Spacks for an elucidation of the imaginations of the Black women whose works were bursting upon the scene hot on the heels of the women’s movement, one would find no response. Exclusion, absence, ignoring of the Black female literary voice by white mainstream scholars has been endemic, in America and abroad. One wonders about the Black female student at Wellesley enrolled in Spacks’ colloquium—the seed from which The Female Imagination sprang—desirous of models, like her white classmates, in how to be an American woman, a woman artist, a post-women’s movement female. Like Toi Derricotte, Black female bisexual poet writing into creation the freeing of her voice, that Black student would have had no models presented to her.
Joanna Russ, in her How To Suppress Women’s Writing, is one step beyond Spacks’ outright refusal to deal with the texts of women of color. Delivering a nuanced, brilliant, direct and withering indictment of the forces that suppress women’s writing, Russ unfortunately is equally guilty of marginalizing the work of women of color. While stating throughout her text the multiple ways society—both male and female, critics and academics alike—undermines the agency, documentation, and study of women’s writing, Russ makes occasional reference to “minority art,” but provides no extended analyses of suppression using texts by women of color as examples. Every instance of suppression, misreading or misinterpretation is discussed using the work of a white female artist or writer; the one exception is brief discussion of the selection by a group of faculty of a text by George Orwell over a text by James Baldwin. Russ notes that sins of omission by “goodhearted, decent people” are unavoidable given the pervasive ordinariness of institutionalized racism and sexism. If one follows custom, daily “acceptable” behavior, such sins become all too easy (18). The sharp clarity of Russ’s vision extends even to her own critical eye. Called to task by a presentation in which white feminists were blatantly accused of racism, Russ documents in the afterword her journey toward recognition and appreciation of the texts of women of color. She cites deadline pressure as the reason the wisdom of her last minute study was not fully incorporated into the text; the manuscript was due and she had no more time. The problem is that we are left with another white feminist text which marginalizes Black women; a haphazard series of short quotes are squeezed into the final pages as atonement. It is a harried and insufficient ending when a fuller, chapter-by-chapter incorporation of this information was called for.