So why not kick off Thursday Readin’ with a few final reflections on Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Wench?
The Cool Kidz Book Club (@fortyoneacres & @Mdotwrites) started and finished this book last year. And I won’t even pretend I read slow. I don’t. But I do read with careful attention to violence and danger. And since I research women & slavery all day, everyday in the Flesh, I need to watch how I enter that space when I am reading for pleasure.
Lucky for me, Valdez got me in and out safely. She pushed me but she didn’t burn me up and she didn’t leave me with the happies. She left me just where I should be after a book about enslaved women negotiating for their lives–disturbed, invigorated and ready for battle.
Reading Wench Part 3 & 4 after the jump….
Reading Wench Part 3:
“Sweet walked beside Reenie and held on to the woman’s elbow. Behind them, Mawu and Lizzie watched Reenie’s back, poised to catch her should she fall. The cold of the wet dress numbed Lizzie’s skin. Mawu moved toward her and put an arm around her waist. Lizzie leaned into her, hoping it meant she was forgiven but suspecting the gesture had nothing to do with her.” (170)
The new Lizzie and Mawu is painful to watch. I miss their closeness. The erotic of the first chapter was so satisfying and innocent that the grime of the events that follow feels tragic.
Why organize the book that way? Wench begins with a moment of corporeal pleasure that black people across the planet are intimate with–having your hair braided between your mother/aunt/grandma’s knees. But the events that unfold–slow at first, then fast and meaty–remind us that this bit of passion may be all that the four women and two men can expect.
To start with this moment of love–because diasporic hair care IS love–then introduce violence like a thunderclap and the grinding narrative of Lizzie’s past, where choice and coercion are twisted together creates a slavery that is difficult to swallow whole. It is slavery without moonlight, magnolias, Roots or rebellion but where the day to day will either kill or liberate you in the end.
And because of its nuance, even though we are back at Tawawa, sex across the color line isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The emperor has no clothes and everything is different–just as everything is different for Lizzie and Mawu.
Wench reminded me again how our memory of slavery has ruptured the connection between our minds and our limbs. In retaliation against racist thinking, black folk declared black women so sacrosanct that even we couldn’t touch ourselves. Our sex was rendered odious and odorous and sacred all at the same time. The boundaries of appropriate sexual behavior demarcated once by the logic of slaveholding, slaveowners themselves and the laws that protected both were shrouded again behind a culture of dissemblance and a politics of proper black womanhood.
From the inside:
Because of the interplay of racial animosity, class tensions, gender role differentiation, and regional economic variations, black women as a rule developed a politics of silence, and adhered to a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance, to protect the sanctity of the inner aspects of their lives. The dynamics of dissemblance involved creating the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings while actually remaining enigmatic. Only with secrecy, thus achieving a self-imposed invisibility, could ordinary black women acquire the psychic space and gather the resources needed to hold their own in their often one-sided and mismatched struggle to resist oppression. (Hine, Hine Sight, 41)
From the outside, unable to extricate the human and good and passionate from its intersection with vulnerability and violence during slavery, we yelled, “Sin!” And I do mean we as a society because white womanhood, white female sexuality, white male queer sexuality are all directly tied to black and brown sexualized bodies and the acceptability of violence against them. There is a reason that the most vulnerable bodies breathing are transgender men & women of color–men and women who disrupt all of the boundaries imposed by a legacy of slavery & colonialism.
Reading Wench, Part 4
I thought I would escape with a happy ending, some climatic lesson learned. I was wrong.
But is there ever a happy ending? And really…is there any better lesson to learn than this:
“Don’t give in to the white man. And if you have to give in, don’t give your soul over to him. Love yourself first. Fix it so you don’t give him children. If you ever make it to freedom, remember your mammy who tried to be good to you. Hold fast to your women friends because they are going to be there when ain’t nobody else there. If you don’t believe in God, it’s all right. God believes in you. Never forget your name. Keep track of your years and how old you are. Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts.”
Every line here is relevant. But especially the last.
“Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts.”
Oshun Woman said it first: “There is nothing temporal about slavery.”
This section also featured a very vivid abortion of child-by-slaveowner using medicinal tea which requires me to give a well-timed #HairFlip and lift a very delicate middle finger to black men everywhere who think it is their place to inform me what I have a right to do with my body. In fact, I wrote a letter. Want to read it?
Dear Black Hyper-Masculinity,
Because with a history like this, and friends/lovers like you, who needs enemies?