Representations of black omen in grace nichols’s poetry: from otherness to empowerment

Asunción Alba (UNED) ● Román Álvarez (University of Salamanca) ● Norman F. Blake (University of Sheffi eld) ● Juan de la Cruz (University of Málaga) ● Bernd Dietz (University of La Laguna) ● Angela Downing (University of Madrid, Compluten se) ● Francisco Fernández (University of Valen cia) ● Fernando Galván (University of Alcalá) ● Francisco García Tortosa (University of Seville) ● Pedro Guardia (University of Barcelona) ● Ernst-August Gutt (SIL) ● Pilar Hidalgo (Univer sity of Málaga) ● Ramón López Ortega (University of Extremadura) ● Doireann MacDermott (Universi ty of Barcelona) ● Catalina Montes (Uni-versity of Salamanca) ● Susana Onega (University of Zaragoza) ● Esteban Pujals (Uni ver sity of Madrid, Complutense) ● Julio C. Santoyo (University of León) ● John Sinclair (Uni versity of Birmingham) Enrique Alcaraz Varó (University of Alicante) ● Manuel Almagro Jiménez (University of Seville) ● José Antonio Álvarez Amorós (University of La Coruña) ● Antonio Bravo García (University of Oviedo) ● Miguel Ángel Campos Pardillos (University of Alicante) ● Silvia Caporale (University of Alicante) ● José Carnero González (Universi ty of Seville) ● Fernando Cerezal (University of Alcalá) ● Ángeles de la Concha (UNED) ● Isabel Díaz Sánchez (University of Alicante) ● Teresa Gibert Maceda (UNED) ● Teresa Gómez Reus (University of Alicante) ● José S. Gómez Soliño (Universi ty of La Laguna) ● José Manuel González (University of Alicante) ● Brian Hughes (Uni versity of Alicante) ● Antonio Lillo (University of Alicante) ● José Mateo Martínez (University of Alicante) ● Cynthia Miguélez Giambruno (University of Alicante) ● Bryn Moody (University of Alicante) ● Ana Isabel Ojea López (University of Oviedo) ● Félix Rodríguez González (Universi ty of Alicante) ● María Socorro Suárez (University of Oviedo) ● Justine Tally (University of La Laguna) ● Francisco Javier Torres Ribelles (University of Alicante) ● M. Carmen África Vidal (University of Salamanca) ● Francisco Yus (University of Alicante) The Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses is published yearly by the Department of English at the University of Alicante in volumes of approximately 250 pages. The journal aims to provide a forum for debate and an outlet for research involving all aspects of English Studies.
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Representations of Black Omen in Grace
Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
Representations of Black Omen in Grace
Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment

From the onset of colonialism, Western scientifi c and philosophical discourses produced constructions of blackness aimed at depriving black people from their subjectivity as well as at providing a moral justifi cation for their enslavement and exploitation. These constructs were mainly based on the sexualisation of black women, whose bod- ies and sexuality were commodifi ed to serve both the sexual and eco- nomic demands of white slave owners. After the abolition of slavery, the myths about black womanhood were perpetuated and are cur- rently manifested through stereotyped representations that continue to situate black women in the fi eld of an excessive sexuality. These images are central to the maintenance of a politics of domination, as Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
they provide an ideological legitimisation of race, class and gender op- pression. For this reason, black feminists have emphasised the need to fi nd new representations that will provide black women with positive models of identifi cation. This article analyses three poetry collections by Afro-Caribbean poet Grace Nichols, in order to explore the diverse strategies through which she represents black women as empowered subjects of their own her stories. Nichols’s revaluation of black wom- anhood is mainly attained through the appropriation of black women’s bodies and sexuality as a source of power and pleasure in the context For Black women as well as Black men, it is axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for our- selves, we will be defined by others —for their use The issues of representation and self-defi nition are
central to the preoccupations of black feminist theory. Black feminists have recurrently emphasised the need for black women to fi nd new representations of themselves which can write back to the colonial legacy of oppression. If, as Kate Millet states in her infl uential Sexual Politics, under patriarchy (white) women could not develop the symbols with which they are described, black women fi nd themselves dou- bly determined by the confl uence of the colonial and patriar- chal discourses, which developed a complex system of myths Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
and symbols at the service of the ideology of imperialist capi- talism. These myths, which were forged from the fi rst contacts of European nations with African peoples, have impacted Western ideology to such an extent that they continue to exert considerable infl uence both upon the representation of black women in contemporary cultural discourse and upon black women’s own self-perception. In this context, black women’s writing has undertaken the urgent task of creating new posi- tive myths and images of black womanhood.
Grace Nichols’s poetic work is part of a general trend in con- temporary black women writers that attempts this redefi nition and the construction of new female subjectivities that are able to resist (neo)colonial and patriarchal ideological structures marginalising black women. The poem “Holding my beads”, from Nichols’s fi rst poetry collection i is a long memoried woman (1983), constitutes an apt illustration of the spirit that underlies the whole poetic production of this Afro-Caribbean poet. The poem is a declaration of principles: the black woman, uprooted from her African homeland and enslaved in an alien land, demands her right to rule her own destiny and asserts her identity and her freedom drawing on her African cultural heritage, which is expressed through the image of the beads that African women use to decorate their bodies: “It isn’t privi- Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
lege or pity / that I seek / It isn’t reverence or safety / quick happiness or purity / but / the power to be what I am/a woman / charting my own futures/a woman / holding my beads in my hand” (1983: 86). In this way, Nichols affi rms black women’s need for personal and collective reconstruction after long cen- Before analysing Nichols’s poetry it is necessary to provide a brief contextualising account of the myths and stereotypes about black womanhood that her poems write back to. There- fore, the fi rst part of this article will go through Western stere- otyped constructions of black womanhood, analysing their genesis within the context of the slave system and their per- petuation in contemporary societies. The second section will offer a reading of the fi rst three poetry collections by Grace Nichols as an example of subversive and political rewriting aiming at the reconstruction of black womanhood against tra- 1. Commodifi ed otherness: Representations of black
women in colonial patriarchal discourse
European scientifi c and philosophical discourses constructed an image of Africa as Europe’s Other by virtue of the dichoto- mies nature/culture, primitivism/progress, savagery/ civilisa- tion, in which Africa was associated with the fi rst element of Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
each pair of opposites. This ‘otherisation’ aimed to provide Europeans with a moral justifi cation of the exploitation and enslavement of the colonised peoples, since ‘thingifi cation’ —to use Césaire’s term in Discourse on Colonialism— is a pre-requisite for domination: by defi ning them as less human, animalistic or more ‘natural’, black people were deprived of their subjectivity and turned into objects without the capac- ity or the right to name and defi ne themselves. As bell hooks states, “[a]s subjects, people have the right to defi ne their own reality, establish their own identities, name their history. As objects, one’s reality is defi ned by others, one’s identity cre- ated by others, one’s history named only in ways that defi ne one’s relationship to those who are subject” (1989: 42).
The objectifi cation and otherisation of African peoples was fundamentally based on socio-cultural and phenotypical dif- ferences. However, racial difference soon acquired sexual overtones, as skin colour was associated with a non-Chris- tian religion and with a libidinous sexuality. Even before the fi rst slaves arrived in Europe, the perception of black people as sexually degenerate was fi rmly established amongst Euro- Several aspects should be considered about the hypersexu- alised image of African slaves that was forged from the 16th Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
century onwards. Firstly, their skin colour was negatively seen as a representation of evil and sin: in Euro-Christian discourse ‘white’ symbolises purity, virtue, beauty, good and virginity; therefore, by constructing ‘black’ as the antithesis to ‘white’, ‘black’ became charged with negative connotations in relation to ugliness, sin, dirtiness and evil. Secondly, African men and women were considered to be savage beasts, in particular beings similar to apes; moreover, black women were thought to have sexual intercourse with apes, their offspring being creatures of human shape and animal intelligence (Marshall, 1996: 8). Finally, this link with animals gave rise to the stere- otype of the great sexual power of African people, and this sexual excess was interpreted as a manifestation of inferiority and social primitivism. For Marshall, this is important in the sense that Europeans used Africans as social mirrors, project- ing upon them characteristics they discovered in themselves. This idea was already put forward by Fanon when he devel- oped the concept of ‘negrophobia’ as the fear to the biological and animalistic represented by the black person: “The civi- lized white man retains an irrational longing for unusual eras of sexual license, of orgiastic scenes, of unpunished rapes, of unrepressed incest. In one way these fantasies respond to Freud’s life instinct. Projecting his own desires onto the Ne- Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
gro, the white man behaves ‘as if’ the Negro really had them” In a similar line, Gilman points out that the Western identifi - cation of the black ‘race’ with a pathological sexuality allows white European men to confront their anxieties about their control over the world, as the lack of sexual control which is associated with decadence and social disorder is project- ed onto blacks: “the ‘white man’s burden’, his sexuality and its control, is displaced into the need to control the sexuality of the Other, the Other as sexualized female” (1985: 107). As Gilman’s words imply, the identifi cation between black- ness and sexuality is especially relevant in the case of black women. It should be pointed out that the construction of black men’s sexuality as an anomaly was only an extension of black women’s construction as hypersexual, since, it was thought, black men would have to be potent to satisfy black women’s In the late 18th century, pseudoscientifi c theories proclaimed the abnormality and pathology of black women’s sexual or- gans. These thus became the site of the difference and in- feriority of the whole black ‘race’ as well as the physical rep- resentation of their hypersexual condition. Female genitalia were defi ned as complete but defective, diseased but attrac- Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
tive and poisonous but potent. In this way, they came to repre- sent sexual pathology, corruption and death, provoking in the European population contradictory feelings of fear and fasci- nation. A paradigmatic case is that of Saartje Baartmann, a black South African woman who, in the early 19th century, was taken to England and, caged and half-naked, was exhibited all over Europe in public spectacles and fairs under the name of ‘the Hottentot Venus’ until her death in 1816. Baartmann also attracted the attention of scientists like Cuvier, who, after her death, dissected her body and preserved her sexual or- gans, supposedly disproportionate in relation to the excessive visibility of the clitoris. The dissection report suggests that the size and shape of Baartmann’s buttocks could be due to a hereditary disease or a contagion, and it compares other as- The construction of black women’s bodies and sexuality as both pathological and fascinating to the white man served the purpose of rationalising and justifying the rapes and other sex- ual abuses that white men perpetrated against black women during slavery, since it allowed white men to exonerate them- selves by attributing the responsibility to black women’s sexu- al aggressiveness. In her analysis of Caribbean slave society, Barbara Bush explains the multiple and interlocking associa- Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
tions between sexuality, femaleness, blackness and evil in Christian discourse, which propitiated the identifi cation of the black woman with the pleasures of a forbidden sexuality and the establishment of her role as concubine, sexual temptress or procuress (1990: 17). In relation to this, bell hooks consid- ers that black women’s bodies during slavery constitute a dis- cursive terrain in which the racist and patriarchal discourses eloquently converge to enforce the white man’s domination over the other human groups in slave society: through the unpunished rape of black women, the white slaveowner as- serted his racial domination over black people, in particular over the black man; at the same time, this sexual exploitation also served as an instrument for white women’s humiliation and degradation. In this way, the white man affi rmed his phal- locentric domination within the Big House itself (hooks, 1990: However, the economic dimension of the slave woman’s sex- ual degradation must not be overlooked, as the black wom- an’s construction as libidinous also satisfi ed the slaveowner’s economic demands. Slavery was, above all, a labour system, under which enslaved black women were valuable commodi- ties. As well as controlling their productive potential through the commodifi cation of their bodies as units of capital, the Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
slaveowner made efforts to control their sexuality and fertil- ity, as this meant direct profi t to be derived from the natural increase of slave workforce that this fertility produced (Col- lins, 2000: 51). The control of slave women’s sexuality and fertility became more important after the abolition of the slave trade, when the renewal and increase of the slave population came to depend entirely on natural reproduction. However, this did not mean in any way that the Victorian exaltation of white motherhood was extended to black women; on the con- trary, slave women were considered to be mere ‘reproducers’, animals whose monetary value could be calculated precisely (Davis, 1981: 7), and this dichotomy persists in contemporary views of white and black motherhood (Zack, 1997: 151).
Therefore, the black woman’s body was useful to the extent that it satisfi ed the production and reproduction demands of the system, as well as the sexual desires of those who control- led it. In order to maintain this situation, it was also necessary to deploy violence with the purpose of terrorising the slaves and demonstrating the incontestable power of slaveowners. As a consequence of this sustained violence, black women suffered a process of fragmentation and destabilisation: they ceased to be subjects and instead became what Foucault de- Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
nominates ‘docile bodies’, bodies which were easier to submit The end of the slave system did not bring about a revalua- tion of the myths about black women’s bodies and sexual- ity. On the contrary, these myths have been perpetuated and are currently manifested through stereotyped and reductionist representations that continue to situate black women in the fi eld of an animalistic and uncontrolled sexuality. bell hooks observes that “the predominant image [of black women] is that of the ‘fallen’ woman, the whore, the slut, the prostitute” (hooks, 1981: 52). Although her analysis refers specifi cally to U.S. society, her considerations are equally applicable to oth- er Western societies, where the presence of black people has increased dramatically in the last decades through the arrival of immigrants from diverse postcolonial countries. In this con- text, black women’s —and black men’s— conceptualisation through racist sexual images must be linked with issues of social control over an otherised collective which is perceived as a potential threat to white hegemony (Daniels, 1997: 91). The predominance of these negative images and, signifi cant- ly, their internalisation by many black women themselves, has important repercussions in the socio-economic status of this collective and limits their opportunities for personal develop- Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
ment and access to areas such as education, employment, health or housing (Marshall, 1996). Furthermore, black wom- en continue to be frequent victims of rape and other forms of sexual aggression by white men, in a sinister perpetuation of The stereotypes about black womanhood are, therefore, es- sential to the ideological justifi cation of ‘race’, class and gen- der oppression. Stereotyping is a key strategy in the dichoto- mous system of thought which categorises people according to their differences and turns the Other into an object that can be manipulated and controlled: “Otherness exists to sub- jugate its objects and assign them to their ‘natural’ place at the behest of those who thereby reconstitute themselves as subjects” (Pickering, 2001: 71). Stereotypes are created and manipulated by the hegemonic groups exercising power and they become “controlling images” (Collins, 2000: 69) which make racism, sexism and poverty appear as natural, normal or inevitable, and are then central to the maintenance of a The controlling images about black womanhood are omnipres- ent in contemporary Western cultural discourses and have contributed very effectively to the defi nition of black women’s low social status (Marshall, 1996: 18), as they provide an Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
ideological legitimisation of racial discrimination, economic exploitation and gender subordination. More seriously, since those images are so fi rmly settled in the collective imaginary, they are extremely diffi cult to elude and therefore they have a key role in black women’s defi nition of their own subjectiv- ity (Mama, 1995). Drawing on Du Bois’s concept of ‘double consciousness’, Pickering argues that “[t]he indelible effect of this recognition of yourself as Other creates a twoness of vision that allows you to see yourself only through the eyes of others” (2001: 77). This has important consequences for black women’s self-perception and self-defi nition. Hence the urgent task to fi nd out the meaning of the stereotyped images about black people and to question their ‘natural’ status in order to expose their mythological condition in the Barthesian sense, that is, their status of ideological constructs aimed at maintaining Western hegemony. As bell hooks claims (1992: 76), in order for black women to make new and different rep- resentations of themselves, they must be willing to transgress traditional boundaries without shying away from the critical project of openly interrogating and challenging dominant rep- resentations. This is indeed crucial to a politics of empower- Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
2. From otherness to empowerment: new female
subjectivities in Grace Nichols’s poetry
As a discursive practice that can both transmit and create ide- ology, literature has proved to be fertile ground for this critical project. In their works, black women writers have frequently tackled this issue with the aim of both challenging dominant representations and offering resisting and restoring visions, positive models of identifi cation and viable identity alterna- tives. Grace Nichols has repeatedly expressed her interest in the poetic exploration of the psychological effects that Euro- pean myths have had and continue to have on black people, and she claims that black women “have to come up with new myths and other images that please us” (Nichols, 1990: 287). Her poems thus fall into the genre that Chancy terms ‘poelit- ics’, which she defi nes as “a dynamic fusion of poetics and women-centered politics” (Chancy, 1997: xxi).
In this section I will analyse how Grace Nichols reconstructs black female subjectivity in her poetic work, specifi cally in her fi rst three collections, which focus on female fi The fi rst, i is a long memoried woman, published in 1983, was awarded the prestigious Commonwealth Poetry Prize and soon became a classic in the postcolonial literary canon. Lat- er, Nichols published The Fat Black Woman’s Poems (1984) Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
and Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman (1989). While the fi rst volume focuses on an African slave woman in a Caribbean plantation, the other two are located in the present and centre around a black woman of our time. In this way, Nichols maps out an ambitious poetic project, which spans both the genesis of the myths and their ramifi cations in the present historical 2.1. Writing the herstory of slavery: i is a long memoried
Nichols’s poetic exploration of slavery in i is a long memoried woman is a pioneer work in literature, and it parallels the cur- rent revision of this historical period in several research fi elds. Contemporary feminist historians and anthropologists have seen the need to recover a herstory that remained untold due to the androcentric bias of offi cial historiography, for which gender did not constitute a category of historical analysis. Thus, male slaves were traditionally considered the real vic- tims of slavery, since submission to the white man provoked the black man’s emasculation, that is, the loss of his patriar- chal authority over black women. Furthermore, slave women were conceptualised according to the reductionist stereotypes discussed above and they were denied any relevant participa- tion both in the economic organisation of slave society and in Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
the movements of resistance against the system. Studies like Barbara Bush’s Slave Women in Caribbean Society: 1650- 1838 (1990) have demonstrated that women had a central role in both fi elds, as well as in the preservation of African family organisation and cultural and religious traditions.
This reappraisal of the role of slave women is anticipated in Grace Nichols’s fi rst poetry collection. The main aim of this poetic sequence is to reconstruct the African woman’s sense of self, severely damaged by slavery, by means of two closely related strategies: on the one hand, through the recuperation of cultural connections with Africa, and, on the other hand, through the reappropriation of the female body as a source of power for women. The centrality of the body is already sug- gested in the formal characteristics of the sequence, specifi - cally in its cyclical arrangement —which echoes the female cycle of menstruation— and in its oral nature: i is a long memoried woman belongs to an oral tradition of performance poetry which requires both movement and gesture to create meaning; the rhythm of the poem, the pauses and breaks are created “not by punctuation but by the need to draw breath, by how the body moves as it recites” (Griffi n, 1993: 26).
The herstory Nichols recreates is not that of one particular slave woman. The lower-case ‘i’ of the title indicates a move- Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
ment beyond an individual subjectivity and, instead, attempts to comprise the collective herstory of African women’s experi- ence of exploitation and dispossession in the Caribbean plan- tation system. There is a multiplicity of voices to be heard in the poems, sometimes directly, sometimes mediated through the voice of a third-person storyteller. All of those voices to- gether weave the full pattern of the different experiences of slavery, much in the same way as slave narratives functioned as collective tales rather than merely individual autobiogra- phies. Signifi cantly, the female bonding is a recurrent refer- ence in the work, and it is established not only with the wom- en of the African past —in poems like “Web of kin” or “Sacred fl ame”— but also with the women that share the new land, even transcending racial and cultural boundaries to forge a sense of sisterhood with the Amerindian women as fellow suf- ferers of the European exploitation: “your tongue is silent / your eyes speak of an / ancient weariness / I too have known” The sequence is divided into fi ve sections framed between an epigraph and an epilogue. Each section explores a different aspect of slavery and a different stage in the slave woman’s life; the specifi city of each of these stages is suggested by the titles of both the sections and the poems they contain. The Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
account is more or less chronological, moving from the mo- ment of capture in Africa to the fi nal emancipation after slave revolt, that is, from cultural uprooting to the (re)creation of a new individual and collective identity in the Caribbean.
The fi rst two sections, “The Beginning” and “The Vicissitudes”, evoke the horrors of the Middle Passage and the fi rst stages of the woman’s life in the Caribbean, which is from the start constructed as “another land” (Nichols, 1983: 6), whose para- disiacal exuberance hides the fact that the islands’ fertility is grounded on the reality of a brutal economic system (“islands / fertile / with brutality”, 31). A succession of scenes from plan- tation life show the slave woman working in the sugarcane fi elds —in the poem “Days that fell”—, receiving the newly ar- rived Africans —in “Each time they came”—, or being forced to witness the exemplary torture of a rebel woman who has killed her baby in order to free it from bonding, a frequent practice carried out as an extreme resistance strategy. This poem, “Ala”, one of the most moving in the collection, illus- trates how the slave woman’s body is the site of oppression and suffers the devastating horrors of slavery. However, the body is also the site of resistance: the slave women use their bodies and their voices to maintain their dignity and to offer mutual support, invoking in their songs peace and rest for the Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
dead woman: “but while the ants feed / and the sun blind her with / his fury / we the women sing and weep / as we work / O Ala / Uzo is due to join you / to return to the pocket / of your In other poems, the body masks the woman’s rage and hatred under a falsely contented smile and an apparent servility which allows her to act with impunity against the planter: “Know that I smile / know that I bend / only the better / to rise and strike / again” (“Skin Teeth”, 50). In the poem “Love act”, the title is an ironic euphemism for the degradation derived from forced sex with the planter. At the same time, however, this situation allows the slave to enter the Big House as the white planter’s mistress and then use the power of her African magic against the white family: “But time pass/es / Her sorcery cut them / like a whip / She hide her triumph / and slowly stir the hate / of poison in” (48-49). This and other poems deconstruct one of the most pernicious myths about slaves, that of their passive acceptance of their fate, showing instead their diverse resist- ance strategies, which, as in “Ala”, could include such painful acts as the sacrifi ce of their own offspring.
Cultural memories of Africa are also a source of spiritual heal- ing and dignity. When the fourth section (“The Bloodling”) opens, the black woman, pregnant with the white man’s child Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
and wishing “to retch / herself / empty” (52), calls in despair on the Ashanti goddess Yemanji for comfort and redemption: “for I’m tainted with guilt and / exile / I’m burden with child and maim / Heal me with the power of your blackness / Mother” (53). Yemanji utters her blessings to the rhythm of the drum and invokes the power of the natural elements and of mother- hood, thus restoring the black woman’s African female iden- tity and enabling her to accept her “bastard fruit” (56) once it is cleansed from the guilt of its conception. Then she can baptise her child in her own name and in her own blackness appropriating and subverting the symbolism of Christian bap- tismal liturgy: “For with my blood / I’ve cleansed you / and with my tears / I’ve pooled the river Niger / now my sweet one it is for you to swim” (57). The slave woman thus re-appropriates her own body, liberating it from the taint of guilt and shame produced by her forced contact with the white man. This spir- itual cleansing was in some way announced in the determined rejection of self-victimisation that she manifested in an earlier poem, where the African symbol of the waterpot is used by the poet to vindicate the black woman’s dignity against the overseer’s sneering: “she tried hard to walk / like a woman / she tried very hard / pulling herself erect / with every three or four / steps / pulling herself together / holding herself like royal cane / . / O but look / there’s a waterpot growing / from her Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
head” (13-14). The woman here uses her body to subvert the structures that oppress her: the image of the cane, used in a later poem (“Sugar cane”) as a metaphor of masculinity and the parasitism of the slavemaster, is here ironically appropri- ated as a symbol of the black woman’s dignity, as she walks with her body erect, refusing to bend to fatigue and humilia- The last section, “The Return”, opens with the invocation of an important Caribbean female legend, Nanny of the Ma- roons, a powerful symbol of resistance and freedom. She is evoked as a “Maroonic woman / of courage” (72), but also as an “Ashanti Priestess / and giver of charms” (72), that is, in her two dimensions as a war leader and spiritual nurturer. The poetic voice leads us, through guerrilla and African magic, to the emancipation of Haiti, the fi rst of the Caribbean nations to become free from colonialism and slavery, and the model for many later revolutions. In this hopeful context, the last poem, “Holding my beads”, proclaims the woman’s victory over up- rooting and cultural loss. After emancipation, this poem, as I said at the beginning, represents a declaration of principles in which the woman affi rms her sovereignty over her own self, her body and her fate: “It isn’t privilege or pity / that I seek / . / but / the power to be what I am/a woman / charting my own Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
futures/ a woman / holding my beads in my hand” (86). The beads, scattered at fi rst and gathered at the end, then “form both a sequence (the move from Africa to the Caribbean) and a circle (from freedom to freedom)” (Griffi n, 1993: 31), thus completing the cycle. The reference to “my own futures” and “all my lives” suggests that there is a multiplicity of voices operating here: the slave woman speaks for other women as The famous epilogue to the sequence serves to close that circle. Furthermore, the black woman’s newly acquired iden- tity is closely related to her body and her power of speech (Griffi n, 1993: 26): “I have crossed an ocean / I have lost my tongue / from the root of the old / one / a new one has sprung” As Bakare-Yusuf argues, “if . the infl iction of violence on the body is also an assault on language, similarly the insatiable and perpetual infl iction of raw violence on the slaves is con- solidated by the erasure of the human voice” (1999: 317). In fact, all verbal forms of communication were limited during slavery, African languages were forbidden and their use was punished with great violence, leaving the coloniser’s language as the only linguistic form of expression. Thus, Nichols’s epi- logue sums up both the loss and the recovery. It celebrates Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
the potential of cultural regeneration to be found even in the midst of great hardship and pain: the Creole language, fused with English throughout the cycle as a refl ection of West In- dian experience, is ultimately reclaimed as an act of spiritual survival. Simultaneously, the epilogue also establishes the connection between the African female slave brought over to the West Indies and the contemporary Caribbean woman who has had to redefi ne herself in positive terms: in Nichols’s own words, “I can’t subscribe to the ‘victim-mentality’ . which seems so like wallowing in ‘Look what they’ve done to us’. It is true that black women have carried much more than their share of hardships along the way. But I reject the stereotype of the ‘long-suffering black woman’ who is so strong that she can carry whatever is heaped upon her. There is a danger of reducing the black woman’s condition to that of ‘sufferer,’ whether at the hands of white society or at the hands of black men” (Nichols, 1990: 284). This personal and psychological journey from victimisation to consciousness raising is a recur- rent topic in contemporary black women’s literature (McDow- Amina Mama argues that the use of African references for the renewal of black womanhood is very frequent in black wom- en’s poetry and shows “a willingness to reach across the seas Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
and centuries in their creative effort to forge positive identifi - cations: new subjectivities which invoke subaltern images of female heroism, a heroism which can be used to combat and shake off the oppressive legacies of centuries” (Mama, 1995: 154). The project of i is a long memoried woman is, therefore, one of hopeful restoration and re/membering of black Carib- bean herstories and identities, and it is carried out through memory as the link between the Caribbean and its African tradition, as is suggested both in the collection title and in the 2.2. The body as pleasure: The Fat Black Woman’s
Poems and Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman
In her next two collections (The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, 1984, and Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman, 1989), Nichols leaves the historical past —although the past continues to be an unavoidable subtext— and moves on to the present time in order to introduce a black Caribbean immigrant in contem- porary Britain, where the poet has lived since 1977. In these two collections, the poems acquire a playful tone, which may sometimes appear trivial but which is nonetheless equally po- litical and combative. This ‘comic vision’ is a very common strategy in West Indian women’s writing and, as O’Callaghan points out, it “entails subversion, which defi es or challenges Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
the codes of rational, hierarchical ‘anticomic’ society in order to effect a transformation” (1993: 85). Nichols here uses hu- mour as the main deconstructive strategy and irony turns out to be an effi cient tool for subverting and exposing the myths that have oppressed black women. Furthermore, the woman’s body acquires even more relevance, as the poems focus on a black immigrant woman within a context of white supremacy: As ‘Blackness’ operates as a marker of racial and/or color iden- tification in a context of political consciousness and affiliation, representations of the black female body in these [diasporic Afro- Caribbean women writers’] works function as markers of the ways in which women of the African diaspora reconcile themselves to their exile by reclaiming their bodies and the images of those bodies which circulate in the societies which demonize what they have been made to stand for—in two words: perverse sexuality Thus, Nichols’s representations of the black female body con- stitute a challenge to black women’s objectifi cation and deni- gration in the Western (British) society in which she is exiled.
The Fat Black Woman’s Poems effectively dismantles several of the stereotypes or controlling images about black women. The protagonist of the collection, who occasionally speaks in the fi rst person, has no name, so the third-person poetic voice refers to her as ‘the fat black woman’. This expression Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
alludes to two important deviations from the normative values conforming the received female body image in contemporary Western culture, but here it acquires the quality of a title, in its double appropriation of the terms ‘fat’ and ‘black’, which are freed from their pejorative connotations.
The fi rst poem, titled “Beauty”, highlights the woman’s physi- cal splendour by placing her in the context of her original trop- ical landscape. Images about the Caribbean vegetation and seascape appear frequently, drawn from the Afro-Caribbean heritage that the woman constantly vindicates as part of her identity in a context of exile: “Beauty / is a fat black woman / walking the fi elds / pressing a breezed / hibiscus / to her cheek / while the sun lights up / her feet / Beauty / is a fat black woman / riding the waves / drifting in happy oblivion / while the sea turns back / to hug her shape” (1984: 7).
The woman humorously celebrates the difference of her black- ness and her fatness with respect to the standards of female beauty. She refuses to submit to the tyranny of fashion and the slimming industry, and, instead, she redefi nes the concept of beauty in her own terms, with laudatory images as surpris- ing and unconventional as “heavy as a whale” (“The Asser- tion”, 8). In “Invitation” she proudly exhibits her fatness and praises the magnifi cence and sensuality of her body through Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
erotic images that subvert the stereotype of fat women as lacking sexual appeal, as undesirable and even non-desiring: “My breasts are huge exciting / amnions of watermelon / your hands can’t cup / my thighs are twin seals / fat slick pups / . / Come up and see me sometime” (13). In her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1984), Audre Lorde argues that eroticism is a source of power for women because it is vi- tal force and creative energy and because it leads us to resist against oppression and dehumanisation. The protagonist of these poems is fully in control of her own eroticism and uses that power to reclaim her body and her herstory as subject.
The best known and most celebrated poem in The Fat Black Woman’s Poems is probably “Thoughts drifting through the fat black woman’s head while having a full bubble bath”. Here the fat black woman speaks in the fi rst person and goes through the offi cial discourses of science, history, religion and con- sumer capitalism, mocking them through the appropriation of a scientifi c term that was traditionally used to defi ne and victimise people like her. The poem opens and closes with the following refrain: “Steatopygous sky / Steatopygous sea / Steatopygous waves / Steatopygous me” (Nichols, 1984: 15). As in “Beauty”, the refrain praises the fairness of the woman’s opulent and ‘excessive’ body, comparing it with the Caribbean Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
landscape and seascape, only the tone here is comic. Humour derives from a noun-adjective combination which has no liter- al sense and which introduces a sharp contrast between two opposing registers: on the one hand, the high language of sci- ence, through the polysyllabic adjective ‘steatopygous’, and, on the other hand, the common everyday language, through the monosyllabic nouns ‘sky’, ‘sea’, ‘waves’ and the pronoun ‘me’, all referring to the reality surrounding the woman and to There is considerable irony in the choice of the term ‘steato- pygous’ to praise her own beauty and that of her whole ‘race’, if we bear in mind that this term has a long history of racism and sexism. Defi ned as a ‘racial deformation’, the term was used with the aim of animalising African women and catego- rising them as subhuman and hypersexual. The impossible juxtaposition of this denigrating term to the referents of Carib- bean seascape and its wide horizons neutralises its negative load and effects its appropriation for the woman’s purpose, which is no other than ridiculing and dismantling those scien- tifi c disciplines and cultural discourses that have oppressed her: anthropology, which defi ned African peoples according to racist criteria; historiography, which excluded Africa from his- tory and relegated it to an anachronistic space (McClintock, Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
1995: 40); theology, which demonised women and black peo- ple, blaming them for all the evils of humankind; and, fi nally, the slimming industry, which tyrannises women for an eco- nomic profi t. Notice how all these discourses are annihilated by the woman’s body: “O how I long to place my foot / on the head of anthropology / to swing my breasts / in the face of history / to scrub my back / with the dogma of theology / to put my soap / in the slimming industry’s / profi tsome spoke” Nichols’s fat black woman refuses to let her body be a ‘doc- ile body’, which is subjected to external regulations dictat- ing a homogeneous ideal of evanescent and anorexic (and white) femininity. In her classic Fat is a Feminist Issue, Or- bach argued that “fat is a symbolic rejection of the limitations of women’s role, an adaptation that many women use in the burdensome attempt to pursue their individual lives within the proscriptions of their social function” (1988: 36). This is how this idea comes up in the poem “Trap Evasions”: “Refusing to be a model / of her own affl iction / the fat black woman steers clear / of circles that lead nowhere / evades: / . / Men who only see / a spring of children / in her thighs / when there are mountains / in her mites” (Nichols, 1984: 14).
Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
The fat black woman refuses to be a victim and, therefore, rejects all the traps laid by racist and sexist society by means of stereotypes that aim at constricting her into limiting roles. It is her that dictates the norms (“The Fat Black Woman’s In- structions to a Suitor”), and it is her that asks the questions (“Small Questions Asked by the Fat Black Woman”). She has left behind the time of the forced obedience of slavery and domestic servitude: “this fat black woman ain’t no Jemima” (9) And in a consumer society that promulgates ‘com- pulsory slimness’ and considers excess weight as a sign of lack of hygiene and even of a defi cient morality, she reminds us, defying and interpellative, that “Fat is a dream / in times of lean” (17). This larger-than-life woman illustrates the Kriste- van notion of the female body as unruly, grotesque and resist- ant to categorisation: she is an agentive subject who insists on her right to defi ne reality in her own terms. As Belén Martín Lucas points out, “one of the most effective strategies against the socio-cultural pressure forcing women to erase our bodies consists of vindicating female bodies which literally go beyond the narrow model created for the idyllic and irreal ‘modern woman’” (2000b: 219, my translation). In this way, texts like The Fat Black Woman’s Poems “participate in the feminist strategies of reintroduction of the female body and its catego- ries in the political, showing the close relationship between Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
the symbolic and the cultural in the constructions of women In Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman, the body continues to play a central role in the construction of woman as an empowered subject. These ‘lazy thoughts’ open with two apparently incon- sequential poems, which then turn out to be not that simple. In “Dust” and “Grease”, the dust and grease invading the po- et’s house are perceived as the natural decay of things which ought to be accepted without becoming obsessed with purity and cleanliness. In “Grease” the grease is even described by means of deeply erotic bodily images (caresses, kisses, love play); it is no surprise that the poet admits that “Grease is obviously having an affair with me” (Nichols, 1989: 3). The explanation comes in the third poem, “The Body Reclining”, the one that has a closer relationship with the generic title of the collection. In this poem, Nichols highlights the pleasure that can be derived from the body: “I sing the body reclining / I sing the throwing back of self / I sing the cushioned head / The fallen arm / The lolling breast / I sing the body reclining / Under the seeming triviality of these poems there lies an enormous subversive potential, since they are directly attack- ing the appropriation of black women’s productive force by Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
capitalist imperialism from slavery onwards —notice the ironic reference to the “indolent continent”—, by means of control- ling images linking black women to work: slaves, domestic servants, exploited employees. In another part of “The Body Reclining”, moreover, the poet seems to ridicule the maxim ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’, one of the moral pillars of Empire: “Those who scrub and scrub / incessantly / corrupt the body / Those who dust and dust / incessantly / also cor- On the other hand, “My Black Triangle” is a love song for the black woman’s sexuality, which, though perfectly aware of the historical discourses that have shaped it, rejects the constric- tions imposed by patriarchal imperialism and fl ows beyond history and its legacy of oppression: “my black triangle / has spread beyond his story / beyond the dry fears of parch-ri- archy” (25). This emphasis on female sexuality has important political implications, as it serves to break the “politics of si- lence” (Hammonds, 1997) which has often characterised black feminist responses to the damaging representations of black women’s bodies and sexuality in (neo)colonial discourse. This politics was conceived by early black feminists as a strategy of resistance against the pathologising images of black female sexuality, and, more recently, Hammonds argues, it should be Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
seen as an effect of black women’s status in the academy and other institutions engaged in the commodifi cation of Other- ness. The most problematic aspect of this politics of silence is that “in choosing silence, black women have also lost the abil- ity to articulate any conception of their sexuality” (Hammonds, 1997: 175). Black women poets like Nichols, who are are not bound by academic and institutional constrictions, may thus be in a better position to give visibility to black women’s sexu- ality as an answer to the legacy of repression and silence.
In some poems, Nichols’s description of the female body as source of power acquires certain essentialist overtones, as in “Ode to my Bleed”, where the poet describes menstruation in deeply lyrical terms which would most probably be rejected by many women. However, this essentialism can be interpreted strategically as an attempt to subvert and undo the symbolic load of female bodily fl uids —specifi cally menstruation— in relation to pollution and disorder, as used by patriarchy to reinforce men’s power over women. On other occasions, the female body and sexuality is revealed as the force that boosts poetic creation. “On Poems and Crotches” is an irrev- erent poem which defi es conventional notions about poetry and comes out as an example of writing with the body, the subversive and liberating écriture féminine: “For poems are Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
born / in the bubbling soul of the crotch. / Poems rise to marry good old Consciousness. / Poems hug Visionary-Third-Eye. / Kiss Intellect. / Before hurrying on down / to burst their way through the crotch” (Nichols, 1989: 16). Insofar as the female body is seen as a direct source of female writing, it seems possible to develop an alter/native discourse that will enable women to re-write history into herstory and to re-create the world: “Women who love their crotches / will rise / higher and higher / . / Will create out of the vast silence” (16).
This poem —and, in general, the whole collection— defi es limiting conceptions of poetry that attempt to impose a prede- termined poetic agenda on black women, in relation to their experience of suffering and oppression. On the contrary, Ni- chols embraces a constructive poetry that writes women no longer as objects but as powerful subjects of their self-defi ni- tion. One of the last poems in the collection deals with this issue explicitly: “Of Course When They Ask for Poems About the ‘Realities’ of Black Women”. Here Nichols expresses her refusal to write poems which perpetuate the stereotype of the black woman as victim, insisting on the multiplicity of experi- ences and identities that constitute black womanhood, which is impossible to contain in any single poem: “I say I can write / no poem big enough / to hold the essence / of a black woman” Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
(52). The poem suggests that, even though it may have been politically useful in the past to affi rm a black female identity —Spivak’s notion of strategic essentialism (Landry and Ma- clean, 1996: 214)—, now it has become urgent to deconstruct the notion of a ‘black female subject’, in order to liberate the diversity within black experience and, simultaneously, to defy the unidimensional representations sustaining and enforc- ing white supremacy (hooks, 1990: 28). The fi nal lines of this poem constitute a fi ne synthesis of this Caribbean writer’s po- etics and politics —her ‘poelitics’—, so I will let them conclude this section: “Maybe this poem is to say, / that I like to see / we black women / full-of-we-selves walking / Crushing out / with each dancing step / the twisted self-negating / history / we’ve inherited / Crushing out / with each dancing step” (54).
3. Conclusion
As Audre Lorde points out, poetry is not a luxury for wom- en but a vital need of our existence: through poetry we can name the unnameable so that it can fi rst be thought and then translated into tangible action (Lorde, 1984: 37). Grace Ni- chols’s ‘poelitics’ is no doubt a great step towards the naming of what is probably the most unnameable and invisible: black women’s bodies and sexuality. Insofar as these have been the source of black women’s exploitation and commodifi ca- Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
tion in hegemonic discourse, reclaiming body and sexuality should be the starting point for a more ambitious reconstruc- tion of black female subjectivity. Thus, Nichols’s poems are an important contribution to feminist refl ection, to the writing of an alter/native herstory and to the joyful appropriation of the body so that this can cease to be a docile, exploited and suf- fering body and instead become a source of empowerment Nichols’s poetic project in the three collections analysed here is shared by other Afro-Caribbean authors, both regional and diasporic —Una Marson, Lorna Goodison, Velma Pollard or Jean Binta Breeze, to name but a few—, who have chosen to subvert the prevalent Western imaginary and to deconstruct the myths and metaphors with which black women have tra- ditionally been described and inscribed in a racist and patri- archal history. Their writing opens up spaces for difference and offers black women the possibility of exercising their right to represent themselves with images and symbols of their Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
Works Cited
Bakare-Yusuf, Bibi (1999): “The Economy of Violence: Black Bodies and the Unspeakable Terror”. In J. Price and M. Shildrick, eds., Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bush, Barbara (1990): Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650-1838. Césaire, Aimé (2000): Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Chancy, Myriam J.A. (1997): Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Car- ibbean Women Writers in Exile. Philadelphia: Temple University Collins, Patricia Hill (2000): Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Con- sciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd edition (1st edi- Daniels, Jessie (1997): White Lies: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual- ity in White Supremacist Discourse. New York: Routledge.
Davis, Angela Y. (1981): Women, Race and Class. New York: Vin- Fanon, Frantz (1967): Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
Gilman, Sander (1985): Difference and Pathology. Ithaca, New York: Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
Griffin, Gabriele (1993): “‘Writing the Body’: Reading Joan Riley, Grace Nichols and Ntozake Shange”. In G. Wisker, ed., Black Women’s Writing. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 19-42.
Hammonds, Evelynn M. (1997): “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence”. In M.J. Alexander and C.T. Mohanty, eds., Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Demo- cratic Futures. New York and London: Routledge, 170-182.
hooks, bell (1981): Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. — (1989): Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: — (1990): Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: — (1992): Black Looks: Race and Representation. Toronto: Between Landry, Donna and Gerald Maclean, eds. (1996): The Spivak Reader. Loomba, Ania (1998): Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London and New Lorde, Audre (1984): Sister/Outsider. Freedom: Crossing Press.
Mama, Amina (1995): Beyond the Masks: Race, Gender and Subjec- Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
Marshall, Annecka (1996): “From sexual denigration to self-respect: resisting images of Black female sexuality”. In D. Jarrett-Macauley, ed., Reconstructing Womanhood, Reconstructing Feminism: Writ- ings on Black Women. London: Routledge, 5-35.
Martín Lucas, Mª Belén (2000a): “Mujer y nación: construcción de las identidades”. In B. Suárez Briones, M.B. Martín Lucas and M.J. Fariña Busto, eds., Escribir en femenino: Poéticas y políticas. Bar- — (2000b): “Mujeres monstruosas: el cuerpo femenino como signifi- cante de lo grotesco”. In I. Carrera Suárez, coord., Mujeres históri- cas, mujeres narradas. Oviedo: KRK Ediciones, 209-225.
McClintock, Anne (1995): Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexual- ity in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge.
McDowell, Deborah E. (1995): ‘The Changing Same’: Black Women’s Literature, Criticism, and Theory. Bloomington and Indianapolis: In- Millett, Kate (1969): Sexual Politics. New York, Ballantine.
Nichols, Grace (1983): i is a long memoried woman. London: Karnak — (1984): The Fat Black Woman’s Poems. London: Virago.
— (1989): Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman and other poems. Lon- Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
— (1990): “The Battle with Language”. In S.R. Cudjoe, ed., Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. O’Callaghan Evelyn (1993): Woman Version: Theoretical Approaches to West Indian Fiction by Women. London and Basingstoke: Mac- Orbach, Susie (1988): Fat is a Feminist Issue (1st edition, 1978). Lon- Pickering, Michael (2001): Stereotyping: The Politics of Representa- Zack, Naomi (1997): “The American Sexualization of Race”. In N. Zack, ed., Race/Sex: Their Sameness, Difference and Interplay. Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
which is central to Nichols’s poetry, does not imply an idealisation or an uncritical acceptance of African tradition. On the contrary, Nichols is well aware of its negative traits, such as patriarchal oppression of women or the Africans’ participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Both facts are present in the collections analysed here, whether in an elegiac tone —as in “Taint” (i is a long memoried woman)— or in a humorous and challenging fashion —as in “The Assertion” (The Fat Black Wom- an’s Poems). However, as I argue in this article, within the context of a racist Western society which otherises racial and sexual difference, Nichols chooses to focus on those aspects of tradition which may be empowering for black women and help them counteract a long-stand- ing tradition of denigration through the creation of new, self-defi ned tures conforming the colonial period. As Ania Loomba points out, “gen- der and sexuality are central to the conceptualisation, expression and enactment of colonial relations” (1998: 215). In patriarchal discourse, both woman and land are conceived as territories open to occupation, passive, awaiting, as only through man’s action can they attain any worth at all. The colonial landscape was represented as a submissive female body, a virgin territory open to imperial penetration (Martín Lu- cas, 2000a: 163). Thus, in the Victorian period Africa and the Americas became what McClintock calls “a porno-tropics for European imagina- tion”, a space upon which Europe could project its forbidden (male) sexual desires and fears (1995: 22).
Representations of Black Omen in Grace Nichols’s Poetry:
From Otherness to Empowerment
including her genitalia and buttocks, were on exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974. On May 3rd 2002 Baartmann’s remains were repatriated to South Africa, where they were received with state short-story books for children, as well as a novel, Whole of a Morning Sky (1986), a childhood narrative set against the background of Guy- ana’s struggle for independence. Her fourth adult poetry collection is Sunris (1996), a long poem on carnival.
(or mammy) is the faithful and obedient domestic serv- ant who performs the role of surrogate mother for the children of the white family employing her. This image originally served to justify the economic exploitation of domestic slaves and, later, to explain the limi- tation of black women’s work prospects to the fi eld of domestic serv-


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