Thursday Readin’: Finishing Dolen’s Wench

With slut walks, slut shaming, #KanazawaScience and Beyonce running the world , this may be a Most Complicated Week Ever for #blackfeministsex.  Whew!

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….

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Reading Dolen’s Wench, Part Two

*spoilers ahead*

I am watching Lizzie’s two children and hoping they will be beat.  And I am hoping that Fran, the white mistress who has adopted them (as much as a slave can be adopted by it’s owner), will be the one to do it.  It is a raw and reactionary desire.  I want those children to come to their senses that badly.

I am furious with my own helplessness.  It is the kind of storyline that makes you scream at the book or the screen:  Lizzie is your real mother!  You are a slave!  That bitch is playing you!  She will break your heart!  

It is the kind of history that reminds me why white women and women of color find it so difficult to get along.

In Out of the House of Bondage, Thavolia Glymph writes:

“Not only did white women’s violence, and their ownership and management of slaves make it impossible for black people to see them as ideal models of a “kind and gentle womanhood,” but they resulted in specific practices of resistance…Contrary to most interpretations, violence on the part of white women was integral to the making of slavery, crucial to shaping black and white Women’s understanding of what it meant to be female, and no more defensible than master’s violence.”

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Impossible Choices, or Reading Dolen’s Wench, Part One

*minor spoilers ahoy*

“Learn well Jake Sully.  Then we will see if your insanity can be cured.”

~Mo’at, Avatar (2010)

Overwhelmed with the need to write about Wench, I began this post on my iPod Touch notepad, on a flight from from New Orleans to Chicago.  New Orleans, a city where, once upon a time, “wench” meant, as Dolen notes, “a black or colored female servant; a negress” but also where the ritual of sexual access, sexual labor, property in human bodies, domination and re/production ground to its ultimate conclusion.  By the antebellum period, New Orleans hosted the largest slave market in the continental United States, an attendant continent-wide sexual traffick in “fancy” girls or light-skined female slaves, and le plaçage, a sophisticated social apparatus which paired affluent white men with local free women of color as consorts.

For years, the ghosts of slavery walked the bend of the Mississippi, whispered from the balconies of the Vieux Carré and slipped up through the steamy cement in Uptown or Marigny (they still do even though Katrina washed many into the waiting arms of their kindred at the bottom of the Gulf).  I finished Part One in this context, on a weekday and in one swoop.

Afterwards, I forced myself to take a break.  It was tempting to keep going because it was easy to look, hope and pray for the happy ending.  But if Dolen continues to tell a story true to American history, or true to black women’s relationship to said history, then a happy ending may be long in coming.

There is a scene of visceral brutality near the end of Part One.  Normally, I remember these scenes for the pose they strike within a story, the carmine brutality my mind plays and replays over and over.  When this happens, the cerebral vanishes and I find it difficult to recall emotion or personality.   I feel dizzy, a heavy pressure at the crown of my head.  Or I want to vomit.

But I don’t remember this scene for that.  The physical reaction remained, yes.  But under Dolen’s careful and unassuming hand, the violence of the encounter became less about the contours of a particular moment and more about the impossible choices women as slaves, as mothers, as raced bodies, as workers and as lovers, were/are forced to make over the course of their lives.  Instead, the betrayal erecting the scene took my breath away as much as the result–the terrifying and impressive power of a slaveowner’s retribution.

That power being necessary to maintain a system–in this case slavery–against the daily permutations of resistance and rebellion enacted against it–breaking dishes, brewing love potions, running away–but which seen in its raw form is still shocking.  And effective.  I empathized with Lizzie.  I know that she weighed every move she made against the threat of violence against her light-skinned son and daughter back in the South.  But a part of me also felt deeply for Mawu and affirmed her desperate fight to escape the regime before her stamina for resistance faded.  And I know I may never forgive Lizzie for her betrayal.  But I will want to.  To choose your owner, your lover, the father of your children over your colleague, your sister, your friend…but don’t some of us do that every single minute of every day without feeling any need to justify it?  That slavery as a legal institution in the United States ended in 1865 is beside the point.  Segregation ended as a legal institution in the United States in 1964.  And a contract, a law, a signed piece of paper does not unravel centuries of customary relations between white and black, male and female, mother and father and child.

Just as New Orleans “stank of the arousal of rape,” an aroma resplendent throughout the institution and which climaxed within the city’s boundaries, so does the history of slavery unpack our current gender relations, sexual relations, color politics; strip us bare, naked, and raw; break the fetish down into its constituent parts–bone, teeth, hair, blood, earth.  Dolen’s Wench reminds us that sex across and within color lines is never devoid of politics, never left to some amorphous feeling called love.  And kinship is work, forged against all odds to save your own life because the consequence of failure is brilliant in its savagery.  Love itself is political, is contested and is a battlefield.

The Cool Kidz Book Club: Reading Wench

Welcome to the Cool Kids Book Club.

I, @kismet4, @MDotWrites and @fortyoneacres (and you, perhaps?) are diving into Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s, Wench.  We’ll probably be hashtagging it up (#wench or #dolen) and you may even get some oh so scintillating blog posts out of us here, here and here.

Perkins-Valdez’s short bio reads like the life I wish I was living and still plan to one day…

Dolen has been writing seriously for about thirteen years. She finished her MFA in Creative Writing in ’98 and her thesis she had to write was actually picked up by an agent and went to auction. Unfortunately, the thesis did not sell, but it made her realize one day it could happen to her in a big way.

She went back to school studying for her Ph.D., when she found out she rather liked scholarly research. She accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA and continued her research on race riots at the turn of the century. Afterwards, she landed a tenure-track job teaching African American Literature. Throughout those years, however, she continued to write fiction – short stories and two novels that never saw the light of day.

Listen to her interviewed on Tell Me More.  Visit her blogspot here.

…her name makes my Afro-Latina mouth water and some of my favorite people have endorsed the book.  But I’ve been scared to pick it up.

One of the things I want this blog to foster is a deeper meditation on the immediacy of the legacy of Atlantic slavery and slave trading in our twenty-first century lives.  It’s what I research and I’m convinced that a true understanding of the ramifications of the not-so-peculiar institution will one day fundamentally change the world (no, for real).

That said, my slavery-as-fiction cocktail is too often mixed with one-part excitement and three-parts cringe reflex.  I’ve been burned before–by authors who would like to think they are portraying the experiences of women during slavery in ways that fully affirm and empower all the female characters but end up failing to grapple with the fullness of abuse, assault, and trauma.  When this happens, I’m usually left with stories that glide over the extent of the brutality or enter too deeply into it, obscuring the vitality, promise and power within those same women’s lives.

But I’ve got @MDotWrites holding my hand.  And the Secret Society Sister Network at my back.  So I’m going to jump in.  I’ll keep you posted on where the book takes me.