The Black Female Gothic: The Plight of Black Women in Southern Gothic Literature

*This is an essay I originally wrote for my Southern Gothic Literature course in Fall 2018*

In May 1962, Malcom X delivered a poignant speech regarding the vulnerable positionality of Black women in the United States. He declares, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Because of their race and gender, Black women are forced to content with multiple, often overlapping systems of oppression and repression. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a pioneer in critical race theory, referred to the concept as intersectionality. In her pivotal 1989 paper titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” Crenshaw explains that intersectionality is a framework that explains how intertwined systems of power impacted individuals that possess multiple marginalized identities. Crenshaw centers Black women in her analysis to “reveal how Black women are theoretically erased” (139).

Similarly, Black women are “theoretically erased” in Southern gothic literature. Bridget M. Marshall explains in Critical Insights: Southern Gothic Literature the following, “One way or another, America’s history of slavery, racial violence, and racial inequality lie at the heart of Southern Gothic” (11). Southern gothic texts tends to either be a reflection of, or a response to, American morality – or lack thereof. In a genre that elucidates this country’s greatest ghosts, one would think that the plight of Black women would be front and center as the oppression of Black women has been paramount since slavery. However, the condition of the Black female experience has seemed to fade into the background in Southern gothic texts. Just as the experience of Black women have been erased and ignored in the larger society, this paper will examine how the treatment of Black women in Southern gothic literature rests on the periphery of concern and will in turn bring their plight into the forefront. More specifically, how Zoo’s trauma is completely ignored and disregarded in Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), how Sarah’s body is policed and assaulted in Richard Wrights “Long Black Song”, and how the women of Linden Hills are ubiquitously abused and oppressed in Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills (1985). The plight of the American Black women is one that has an intimate, undeniable relationship with trauma and oppression. In a genre where sociopolitical issues are central, I think that the plight of the Black women is worthy of attention and analyzation. In the same spirit that Malcom X delivered his 1962 speech, I proclaim that in the American landscape, there is nothing more gothic than being a Black women.

A quintessential example of Malcom X’s characterization of the experience of Black women in American society is Missouri “Zoo” Fever, the sole Black woman character in Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. As a Southerner, Capote was not a stranger to the racist environment that haunted Black people. He often discussed his empathy towards Blacks and his discomfort with exclusionary rules and practices that rendered Black people subordinate and othered. Capote seems to use Zoo’s character as a representation of the interlocking systems of violence and oppression that Black women must contend with in the American south.

Zoo is a servant in Skully’s Landing and the daughter of Jesus Fever. Zoo is also the one character in the novel that no one shows up for. Zoo is void of support, respect, compassion, and love throughout novel, and seems to be the only one, as a Black women, that is forced to bear that burden of loneliness. Zoo’s identify makes her victim of Amy’s verbal and emotion abuse, Joel’s neglect, physical abuse from ex-husband Keg Brown, and sexual violence by unnamed men.

Zoo is denied agency, at one point or another, by almost every character in the book that interacts with her. This is evidenced within the first few pages of meeting Zoo. Amy’s introduction of Zoo to Joel is the following, “Smoothing the fingers of her silk glove, Miss Amy said: “Missouri belongs to Jesus Fever; she’s his grandchild” (Capote 52). While it is not uncommon to refer to a child as “belonging to” their parent or grandparent because said child is under the care of the parent or grandparent, Zoo is an adult woman and this language can be interpreted as disrespectful and repressive.

Another way that Amy strips Zoo of agency is by not referring to her as her preferred name. Amy and Randolph constantly refers to Zoo has birth name “Missouri” even though Zoo prefers to be called “Zoo.” As she explains to Joel,

And something else is, you call me Zoo. Zoo’s my rightful name, and I always been called by that till Papadaddy let on it stood for Missouri, which is the state where is located the city of St. Louis. Them, Miss Amy ‘n Mister Randolph, they so proper: Missouri this ‘n Missouri t’other, day in, day out. Huh! You call me Zoo” (59-60).

Zoo may believe that Amy and Randolph are being proper, but Amy and Randolph’s refusal to acknowledge Zoo as she wishes reinforces the racial and gendered hierarchy.

Amy and Randolph further reinforce this hierarchy when they learn of Zoo’s departure after her father, Jesus Fever, dies. Amy erupts in a racist tirade:

“…no gratitude,” Amy sniffed. “Good and kind that’s how we were, always, and what does she do? Runs off, God knows where, leaving me with a houseful of sick people, not one of whom has sense enough to empty a slopjar. Furthermore, whatever else I may be, I’m a lady: I was brought up to be a lady, and I had my full four years at the Normal School… damn Missouri!” … “Niggers! Angela Lee warned me time and again, said never trust a nigger: their minds and hair are full of kinks in equal measure. Still, does seem like she could’ve stayed to fix breakfast” (167).

Amy’s rant is explicitly racist with the use of bigoted language such as “nigger” and racist stereotypes of Black hair and intellect with her utterance of “their minds and hair are full of kinks in equal measure.” Her language also has gendered and classist undertones. Amy referring to herself as a “lady” and therefore tending to the house and all the people in it were beneath her. Zoo’s womanhood does not afford her the privilege of being a lady, and that distinction is a result of her Blackness.

Randolph also explains how he feels about Zoo’s exit from the Landing and, in turn, her inferior status. He says, “Missouri Fever will discover that all she has deserted is her proper place in a rather general puzzle” (168). Amy and Randolph’s treatment of Zoo is a reflection of the racial and gendered hierarchy of the American south that situates Black women on the lowest tier.

Thomas Fahy is one of the few critics to write about Zoo and the role of Black women in the American landscape. His article “Violating the Black Body: Sexual Violence in Truman Capote’s Other Voice, Other Rooms” explains that “by casting Zoo as a victim of both historical and sexual violence, Capote explores the systematic violence against black women and ensures that others know about these experiences” (30). Fahy writes about the neglect of Zoo’s story by critics of the novel being more concerned with the problematic gay politics of the text. However, much like myself, believe that Zoo’s character is a literary depiction of violence that is unique to Black women. The most obvious and alarming violence against Zoo is the violence inflicted on her body by men, both Black and white. Fahy writes, “Both white and Black men torment Zoo; as such, physical abuse reflects a culture of violence that disproportionately harms black women” (31). Racism and sexism work in tandem to inflict physical and sexual harm on the Black female body. Author bell hooks examines this claim in her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism – she traces the origin back to slavery. She writes, “Black female slaves moving freely about the decks were a ready target for any white male who might choose to physically abuse or torment them…The threat of rape or other physical brutalization inspired terror in the psyches of displaced African females” (18). Hooks believes that the dominant sociocultural order still adheres to this. The very act of a Black woman existing in her body leaves her vulnerable to violence from men regardless of race. Zoo’s character is an embodiment of this reality.

Throughout the text it is revealed that Zoo’s ex-husband, Keg Brown, attempted to kill her by cutting her throat with a knife. Keg Brown’s attempt wasn’t successful, but he left a narrow scar that “circled her neck like a necklace of purple wire” (72). She used a red ribbon to cover the scar, but lived in constant fear of Keg’s return to finish the job. As Fahy indicates, there is no explicit explanation for Keg’s actions. However, Fahy hypothesizes that “they can be understood, in part, as a response to his own powerlessness in white society” (34). Expanding on Fahy hypothesis, scholars Robert Hampton, William Oliver, and Lucia Magerian explain that intimate partner violence is more common than in white communities due to the stress of institutional racism. Black men become angry, hatful, and frustrated contenting with institutionalized racist practices and they displace their anger, hatred, and frustration on their wives and loves (Hampton, Oliver, and Magerican 2003). A phenomenon that is also pervasive in Linden Hills. Like Zoo, violence at the hands of a spouse or partner disproportionately affects Black women due to institutional racism.

Towards the end of the novel, it is also revealed that Zoo was violently raped by a group that consisted of both Black and white men on her journey to Washington D.C. Four men, three white and one Black, approach Zoo as she is tending to her aching feet. The driver forced her into a ditch, she tries to run but is stopped by two white men, and a rifle kisses the side of her face held by the Black man. The three white men rape Zoo, but the Black man refuses. After being laughed at, he squats down and burns Zoo with the cigar: “He pushed that cigar in my bellybutton, Lord, in me was born fire like a child…” (216). The rape of Zoo was not an isolated incident, but a weapon that white men have historically wielded to reinforce the racial and gender hierarchy that renders Black women subordinate. Danielle L. McGuire writes, “During the Jim Crow era, women’s bodies served a signposts of the social order, and white men used rape and rumors of rape not only to justify violence against black men but to remind black women that their bodies were not their own” (907).

The element that links the abuse by Keg Brown and these unknown attackers are not only the mental and emotional scarring, but the physical scarring too. Keg’s knife scar and the rapist cigar scar further elucidates that body of a Black women is not their own. Zoo must share her body with the aftermath of violence male dominance. As Fahy delineates, “His burning of her flesh brands her as a victim of male power” (36).

After the rape, Zoo returns to the Landing where she thought she had a friend in Joel. Joel had an immediate connection with Zoo and stated on multiple occasions how they were friends. Joel, as a gay white, relates to Zoo, a Black woman, being that they are both “othered” in the dominant sociopolitical order. However after Zoo shares the rape with him, Joel has a selfish, apathetic, almost hateful response: “Joel plugged his ears; what Zoo said was ugly, he was sick-sorry she’d ever come back, she ought to be punished” (216). While their shared house serves as a place of refuge for white gay men (Joel and Randolph), it a place of captivity for Zoo. This further reinforces the racial and gendered hierarchy. Fahy expands,

In the end, any shared sense of marginalization between Joel and Zoo (between homosexuals and African Americans) is fleeting, and it certainly does not build a coalition for civil rights. The groups remain separate from each other in large part because both heterosexual and homosexual whites still rely on the exploitation of black labor in the South. (37)

The plight of Zoo in Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms illustrates the plight of many Black women that must contend with institutionalized systems of oppression that reinforce racist and gendered hierarchies. As evidenced in Other Voices, Other Rooms, different identities come with different forms of oppression, but Black women are routinely disproportionately affected and their stories tend to go unheard.

Sarah in Richard Wright’s “Long Black Song” is another Black women in Southern gothic literature whose body has been vilified. The story chronicles the evening where a lonely wife and young mother, Sarah, and her wailing child await the return of Silas, the family’s patriarch. Silas is in town selling the yield from their cotton crop, an occupation that keeps him away from home frequently. While Silas is in town, an unnamed white salesman approaches the house and attempts to sale Sarah a beautiful graphophone. After Sarah repeatedly informed the white salesman that she has no money and her husband is away, the white salesman persuades Sarah to get him a glass of water. The salesman attempts to seduce Sarah, grabbing her breast and pulling her body against his. Sarah relents repeatedly. In protest she exclaims, “Naw, Mistah!. . . “Naw, naw . . . Mistah, Ah cant do that!” . . . “Please. . .” “Lemme go!” (135-136). Sarah runs into the home, into her bedroom, trying to avoid the advances of the salesman. The salesman follows and assaults Sarah in the bed that she shares with her husband Silas.

This encounter between Sarah and the white salesman reiterates the essence of the aforementioned quote by Danielle L. McGuire that assault against Black women’s bodies reminded them that their body was not their own. Sarah, after denying numerous advances, was still assaulted in her own home. However, there are critics who believe that the sex between Sarah and salesman was consensual. Trudier Harris argues in “Peace in the War of Desire: Richard Wright’s ‘Long Black Song’” that an already horny Sarah made a conscious decision to allow the white salesman to pleasure her. She writes,

“I argue that Sarah’s faint protests are a ruse, that, when one considers the descriptions of a horny Sarah before the young white man’s arrival, she merely uses him to quell the sexual urges that neither her absent husband Silas nor her equally absent previous lover Tom is available to satisfy” (189).

Without making any personal declarations of how Harris perceives Black female sexuality, or how she believes sexual assault works, I do content Harris’ idea of consensual intercourse between Sarah and the salesman. Furthermore, Harris’ analysis of the text elucidates larger issues of how Black women are perceived and how they devote their sexual agency. Additionally, I believe that Harris is minimizing the importance of the power dynamics at play. The salesman is a white man and Sarah is a Black women in the Jim Crow south. They are both well aware that his whiteness and maleness render Sarah almost defenseless in the racist, misogynistic nature of the Jim Crow south. The salesman asserts said power from the very beginning his character enters the narratives, and does so until his character exits the narrative by way of Silas’ bullet. While Harris makes a compelling argument, I am hard pressed to believe that the sex was completely consensual given all the factors at play.

At the core of Harris’ argument is that Sarah was already turned on thinking about her ex-lover, Tom: “It is difficult to label what happens to Sarah as rape when the descriptions of her encounters with the white man echo those that she so desirable in remembering her petting with Tom” (193). Conflating these two men, and encounters, is troubling. On the surface, Tom is an ex-lover who she seemingly loved and still pines for, the salesman is a random stranger with whom she has no history. It is a little short-sighted to assert that just because a woman is horny that any stranger she encounters she’s willing to have intercourse with.

Harris also states that Sarah never explicitly said “no” the salesman’s advances. She writes, “Never does Sarah say explicitly, “I should not-or cannot-cheat on my husband” (Harris 191). However, that is false. As previously stated, Sarah repeatedly denies his advances at the well: “Naw, Mistah!. . . “Naw, naw . . . Mistah, Ah cant do that!” . . . “Please. . .” “Lemme go!” (135-136). Harris does not acknowledge these assertions, other than saying they were a “ruse.”

Portraying Sarah as a temptress void of morals and lack of control over her sexual desires is principally similar to the jezebel stereotype that racist white people have characterized many Black women. The jezebel stereotype is a result of European colonization and chattel slavery. Deborah Gray White writes in Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Planation South,

When antebellum Southerners thought about black women they did not conjure up images of an indolent Sambo, a rabid rapist, or an affable helpmeet. The first two explained black men, the latter, Southern white women. Black women had something in common with both Black men and white women and the characterization of them, while unique, was an odd blend of the idea formed about these two groups. In antebellum America, the female slave’s chattel status, sex, and race combined to create a complicated set of myths about black womanhood. One of the most prevalent images of black women in antebellum America was of a person governed almost entirely by her libido, a Jezebel character. (28-29)

Ultimately, the jezebel stereotype brands Black women as sexually promiscuous and immoral (West 294). Harris most certainly wants her readership to believe that Sarah is “governed by her libido” by insisting that her yearning for Tom requires that she willingly has intercourse with a random stranger in the bed that she shares with her husband with her young daughter just a few feet away. This is not to accuse Harris of aligning with racist whites in attempt to denounce Black womanhood. But when all the evidence points to an assault has occurred, reading in-between the lines, and ignoring actual evidence, to prove that there was not one comes eerily close to labeling Sarah a jezebel.

Another element of the jezebel stereotype is that because Black women are inherently sexually promiscuous and immoral, and thus, cannot be victims of sexual assault. West explains, “This image gave the impression that Black women could not be rape victims because they always desired sex” (294). Harris follows a similar train of thought in attempt to explain how the sex between Sarah and salesman was a consensual encounter. Again, because Sarah was horny at the thought of her time with her ex-lover Tom, she must commit this act of adultery because the salesman is the only male body in her purview. Harris writes, “Sarah wants and needs a sexual outlet and this white man is the most accessible way for to achieve her objective” (195). Harris depicts Sarah as both sexually promiscuous and immoral. Promiscuous because she unable to control her sexual desires in the presence of another penis, and immoral by being unfaithful in her and Silas’ shared bed and in front of her baby.  As a result her immoral promiscuity, according to Harris’ argument, Sarah is “an active participant in the sexual exchange” (195) and not a victim of sexual assault.

As previously stated, Harris does make a compelling argument for a consensual encounter. Wright details the scene where intercourse takes place pretty ambiguously. The scene reads, “a liquid metal covered her and she rode on the curve of white bright days and dark black nights and the surge of the long gladness of summer and the ebb of the deep dream of sleep in winter till a high red wave of hotness drowned her in a deluge of silver and blue that boiled her blood and blistered her flesh bangbangbang . . .” (137). Harris reads this as Sarah being an active participant in the intercourse. However, say her body does respond to the salesman’s touch, an assault on Sarah’s body and agency has still occurred. Prior to running away from salesman, she explicitly verbalized her rejection of him. “She turned, then felt his hands full on her breasts. She struggled back. “Naw, Mistah!” After a few more advances, after already being told no repeatedly, she runs into the house away from him. Even Harris admits that “the white man [was] clinging as best he can to her breasts and literally hot on her heels” (194). The key element to any consensual sexual exchange is consent, and the salesman did not have it after several rejections and an attempt to flee. At the very least, this is an act of coercion and coercion is not consent. Even if Sarah was enamored with the salesman, and even if her body responded to his touch, Sarah’s actions and words rejected his advances. Sarah, and Black women in general, are due the agency for their no’s to mean an absolute no.  The salesman denied Sarah that agency by continuing to touch, kiss, and caress her after she said no.

Similar to Zoo and Sarah, but in different forms, the women of Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills are also denied agency and suffer violence. Ironically, and symbolically, the foundation of the wealthy black upper-middle class neighborhood of Linden Hills is built on the trauma of the first generation Nedeed woman. The first Luther Nedeed gained his wealth by selling his wife into slavery. Consequently, the women of Linden Hills seemed to ubiquitously suffocate under the thumb of oppression. Whether it is patriarchal oppression that considers young women useless without a romantic partner and marriage on the horizon like Lester’s sister Roxanne, or the capitalist oppression that led to Laurel Dumont’s mental health problems coupled with the lack of community support that resulted in her death by suicide, the women of Linden Hills lack support and are denied agency. The most of all is one of the story’s protagonist, Willa Nedeed.

Willa is a fifth generation Nedeed wife. To the Nedeed men, their wives weren’t women, they weren’t people, merely a source of labor. The text reads, “His father was right: breaking in a wife is like breaking in a good pair slippers. Once you gotten used to them, you’d wear them until they fell apart, rather than go to the trouble of buying a new pair” (Naylor 67).  Willa’s sole purpose, as all former Nedeed women, was to bare and raise his male child and tend to his . When her husband, Luther Nedeed, suspects that she has committed adultery because their son’s skin is white, the son is killed and they are both banished into the basement to “learn her lesson” (Naylor 67). The physical space of the basement is inherently political because of its function to isolation and torment Willa. Scholars Xiao-yun LI and Mei-lin HAN refer to basement as the “presentation of space” that represents the sexism the Nedeed women encounter (319).

While locked in the basement, Willa finds journals, Bibles, cookbooks and photograph albums of previous Nedeed women. The former wives of Nedeed men “record their miserable life in the hell-like Nedeed house” (LI and HAN, 320). She discovers Luwana Packerville’s Bible. An excerpt from 1837, between Jeremiah and Lamentation, she reads how Luwanna, too, had lost her son: “Luther told me today that I have no rights to my son. He owns the child as he owns me” (117). Willa also discovered the photo albums of Priscilla McGuire. Every year, Priscilla, Luther, and their son took a family portrait. However, Willa noticed as the years progressed, Priscilla presence minimized – symbolizing her fading presence and importance in the lives of her husband and son. The narrator explains, “The entire face, the size of a large thumbprint, had been removed. This had been done on purpose. There was no way this wasn’t done on purpose” (249). The women of Linden Hills suffered decades of oppression. These acts of oppression were largely enacted by Black men. Through sexism, Black men adhere to and uphold the sociopolitical hierarchy that places Black women at the bottom.

The three texts, Other Voice, Other Rooms, “Long Black Song”, and Linden Hills all elucidate the discriminatory, often forgotten, role of Black women in Southern gothic literature. The role of Black women in Southern gothic literature, mirror the treatment, the mistreatment, rather, of Black women in American society. The lack of concern with Black women in the genre is also a reflection of how Black women’s stories get lost in larger society. I believe that a more crucial examination of Black women in the Southern gothic literature is needed. Whether poor like Zoo and Sarah, or wealthy like the women of Linden Hills, Black women are forced to contend with intersecting systems of oppressions. Those systems, and the people they marginalization, should be given the proper attention and examination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worked Cited

bell, hooks. Ain’t I a Woman?. South End Press, 1981.

Capote, Truman. Other Voices, Other Rooms. Penguin Random House, 1948.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”         University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, issue 1, 1989,         https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf.    Accessed 7 December 2018

Fahy, Thomas. “Violating the Black Body: Sexual Violence in Truman Capote’s Other Voice,          Other Rooms.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 46, no. 1,            2013, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43151304. Accessed 7 December 2018.

Hampton, Robert, et al. “Domestic Violence in the African American Community: An Analysis of  Social and Structural Factors.” Violence Against Women, vol. 9, no. 5, May 2003,        doi:10.1177/1077801202250450. Accessed 30 November 2018.

Harris, Trudier. “Peace in the War of Desire: Richard Wright’s ‘Long Black Song’.” CLA Journal,     vol. 56, no. 3, March 2013, pp. 188-208.

LI, Xiao-yun and Mei-lin HAN. Out of the Basement – An Analysis of Willa’s Spatial Practice in      Linden Hills. 2017.

Marshall, Bridget M. “Defining Southern Gothic.” Critical Insights: Southern Gothic Literature.     Ed. Jay Ellis. Ipswich: Salem Press, 2013. 3-18.

McGuire, Danielle L. “It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped”: Sexual Violence, Community            Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American        History, vol. 31, no. 3, 2004, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3662860. Accessed 7           December 2018.

Naylor, Gloria. Linden Hills. Penguin Books, 1985.

West, Carolyn. “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls: Developing an ‘Oppositional    Gaze’ Towards the Images of Black Women.” Lectures on the Psychology of Women. Ed.            J. Chrisler, C. Golden, P. Rozee. New York City: McGraw Hill, 2008. 278-286.

Wright, Richard. “Long Black Song.” Uncle Tom’s Children. Ed. Richard Wright. New York: HarperCollins, 1938. 125-156.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. W. W. Norton    & Company, 1999.

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