The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth(s)
DuBois’ questions mark the heart of the essays by Gates, Harris, and duCille. The perspectives in Gates and duCille and Harris are searching for how writers and artists portray black women. The issue is complex and addresses the role of the creator, the publishers, and the audience. We are all affected by racism in society and this reality runs through black portrayals. These essays,, as much as any work work depicting black America, demonstrate that there is not a single truth, a single perspective or a portrayal of anything.
Harris discusses a number of issues with The Color Purple that I found compelling and relevant critiques of the work. One point I thought she made that was unfair was her assertion that Walker was perpetuating a belief that “black people have no morality when it comes to sexuality, that black family structure is weak if existent at all, that black men abuse black women, and that black women who may appear to be churchgoers are really lewd and lascivious” 157 I was deeply interested in this point, and it is a point she brings up several times, that this portrayal black southerners has become the portrayal and representative of an entire culture. This argument is upsetting in that the problem lies with the readers, specifically, the spectator readers more than with Walker. The concern is that this highly negative work, where women are abused, men are nearly uniformly bad, and blacks don’t care about family or morals. Harris states that these are white racist impressions being reinforced and some of them absolutely are. There isn’t an issue with portraying such a set of characters though. People are abused, are abusive and are immoral in every race and culture. The problem is when this set of characters becomes representative of black America.
When people read Walker’s novel and assume they understand a large piece of black culture they are deceiving themselves and hurting our collective culture by agreeing on these characteristics as representative. The bigger issue with this is that it’s racist. As Gates points out, this generalization effect does not occur to white men and white people more generally. I’ve had this conversation about works by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche and Junot Diaz and Sandra Cisneros. I’ve never had this conversation about Dickens or Irving. Part of that is that white culture is the dominant culture and representations of it are so abundant that the variety of work itself indicates that each work is just one perspective. Even when white characters include characters of color in their works, these characters do not represent an entire race. It is only when writers of color choose to focus on a particular story within a non-white group that the story becomes a guidebook to that culture’s entire reality. I understand that Harris is suggesting writers then be more thoughtful to avoid this result but I’d like to suggest that burden be placed back on readers. I know a work like The Color Purple can provide a glimpse into another culture but I also recognize it’s just that, a glimpse. It’s troubling that we as readers still don’t take responsibility for how we treat works from writers of color because it should not be their responsibility to write for a whole culture nor should it be their responsibility to disclaim that possibility. Harris is disappointed in Walker in this instance for something I blame us as readers for perpetuating.
Similarly, duCille wants to critique black male critis of color for making assertions about how black women write about black men. duCille analyzes another criticism of the reader that addresses the opposite issue: black men claiming that black women do not tell a truth of being black and that their stories do not reflect the true shared history. Again, this flaw falls on the reader’s shoulders more than on the shoulders of the writer. In particular, duCille emphasizes that these women are writing from a different, not a bad, perspective of their culture. duCille writes about how black women must choose their black or woman identity and this is evident in the expectations for writing. To slight either identity is an unforgiveable betrayal and an unfair expectation. Simultaneously, Harris acknowledges that these writings should not speak to the testament of all blacks or even all black women.
We read to catch glimpses of other cultures, other people, and other perspectives but we must be careful not to assume we understand all perspectives. How books are heralded, critically and interpersonally, affects the stories they tell and these essays critically examine how different perspectives affect the narratives of black women and the many ways we can continue to improve as a society.