Soul Full of Heat: Zane and the Trajectory of Black Women’s Literature

By Guest Contributor Regina Barnett, originally published at Red Clay Scholar

Can’t you see Zane, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison swapping stories of sexual conquests at a Black Chippendale Review?

Zane intrigues me because not only does she write scripts and vignettes (yup, quickies. I couldn’t help myself) but she writes novels. Novels. Those make up the canon, right? Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou are a given, but could Zane make the cut?

My students, especially my womenfolk, were all for Zane being considered the next generation of black women’s literature. “She goes there and puts it all on the table,” one commented. “Zane talks about women and sex like they aren’t taboo subjects. She talks about it like it actually happens,” remarked another. On the flip side of that, my academic peers and professors gasped in horror and disgust:

“She’s not a writer, she’s a smut pusher!”

“As a burgeoning scholar, Ms. Barnett, I am appalled you would include her in this type of conversation…”

“Zane? A Writer? Get the hell outta here and come back when you’re sober!”

There is a critical need to include an angle to discuss the role of these recent women writers and their novels into the conversation about the trajectory of African American literature and the construction of its narrative from the perspective of a woman of color. The Noires, Zanes, Sister Souljahs, and even the vixen formerly known as Superhead (she’s retired) are battling it out for spaces on bookshelves against the Zoras, Tonis, Alices, and slave women narratives. Frighteningly, instead of putting these sisters of the quill in concert with one another, there is an imbalance and even a dismissal of one type of narrative for another. Ironically, which narrative that is dismissed depends on its audience – in academic circles, staple texts of the likes of Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Nella Larsen are given top priority. In lay audiences, Zane trumps Zora like a big Joker in a game of Spades. Let the record show, however, that the erotic scenes brought to life in the pages of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker make Zane’s sexcapades look like episodes of Sesame Street. Questions of the relationship between sex and the erotic, agency and pleasure, and self expression and subjection entangle themselves in black women’s discourse.

Often inextricably linked, these questions are the framework for discussing and presenting the peculiarities of African American women’s experiences in American society. In similar fashion to their male counterparts, black women often endure sex as a primary lens to their identities. And, parallel to black men, women of color are in a constant search to speak to the often traumatic experiences that frame our existence. Agency and social practice reflect the era and thus the writing it produces.

In slave narratives, black women’s primary audience was white, Christian, and frequently a northern abolitionist who wanted to hear specifically of the horrors of slavery. Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), for example, only hinted and alluded to the magnitude of the rape and physical abuse complex slave women suffered and endured. Reflecting on her use of sex as not only a bartering tool but a coping mechanism – she uses sex to retaliate/rebel against her slave master by taking up with a white lover – Jacobs, out of a need to be heard and considered human, often apologizes for her experiences and those of fellow slave women; not because she is at fault but to maintain standards of polite society. Later books that speak to the slave women’s experiences and sexuality, like Morrison’s Beloved (1987), add the dimension of erotic grit that Jacobs could not (refused?) to achieve.

Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001), which parodies Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), discusses the eroticism surrounding black women as a form of power instead of tragedy. Randall’s protagonist Cynara talks about Mammy’s coldness towards her in favor of Scarlett, being sold off, and later taking Rhett (referred to as “R”) as a lover just to piss Scarlett off. Gangsta. Cynara, while still existing within the primary lens of eroticism and its stigmas, problematizes the general understanding of slave women’s actions by utilizing her sexuality to her advantage. The Wind Done Gone recognizes how slave women not only acknowledged their heinous state but, when necessary, utilized it to their advantage for survival or, in Cynara’s case, to extract revenge. Randall’s inversion of African American women’s sexuality is shared with the likes of Terry McMillan, Sister Souljah, Sapphire, and Zane. In similar fashion to the narratives of their predecessors, women writers of the 1990s to the present attempt to speak to the unique situations that frame black women’s existence (i.e. the Post Civil Rights, Post Soul, and Hip Hop eras).

Zane’s protagonists are successful, independent women of color with an often insatiable appetite for and enjoyment of sex. She has often stated in her interviews that her intent of her writing is to encourage women to embrace their sexuality. Zane’s use of sex teters between reaffirmation of preconceived notions of sexuality that women of color wistfully face on a daily basis and an outlet for erotic expression that is constructed by a black woman for women of color. On the surface, Zane’s characters suggest a move towards a more open and liberated expression of black women’s sexuality. Upon further deconstruction, there is an alignment with her predecessors about the epicenter of that sexual expression. There is often a traumatic sexual experience (Addicted and Nervous’ sheroes deal with abuse and incest at a young age) that triggers their hypersexual expression. Thus, sexuality is a coping mechanism that masks the damaging effect of such traumatic experiences. The difference is not in its conceptualization, but rather presentation and context. While Jacobs would probably roll over in her grave faster than a Luke Dancer (or Kat Stacks, whatever floats your boat) at the language used to convey such suffering, her experiences and those that Zane constructs blend, blur, and parallel.

So, how do we as critics and readers incorporate these texts as part of the on going conversation surrounding black women’s literature? What approaches are helpful in bridging the tropes and thematic reconstructions seen in today’s African American women writers with their predecessors? How do we update the critical framework necessary to address these writers’ bodies of work? One tiny step to addressing such questions is the removal of the stigma attached to these writers because they do not satisfy an outdated black women’s literature checklist or aesthetic. Another suggestion is to couple the established African American women writers with those of the present – i.e. Sapphire’s Push (1989) with Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) or Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (1999) and Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973).

The black woman’s existence in America isn’t linear. The literature that captures those experiences shouldn’t be either.