Between the Lines: Race versus Gender in American Studies and Black Women’s Writing

By: Pauline Bewermeier ’19, an American Studies major.

The following work was created for AMS 400: Race, Gender, and History of American Studies.

Brief description: “Between the Lines: Race Versus Gender in American Studies and Black Women’s Writing” explores the interplay of race and gender throughout the politically charged and historically chauvinistic field of American Studies. Expanding W. E. B. Du Bois’ notions of the color line with the concept of a similarly dominant gender line in American society, this piece investigates works by two writers navigating both lines: Maya Angelou and Elaine Brown. It focuses on the racial and sexual identity formation in the authors’ early years, the way they are caught between the color line and the gender line throughout their lives, and the potential reasons why the two women differ in their personal ranking of race versus gender.”


1 Introduction

In his celebrated essay collection The Souls of Black Folk, African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois defined what he considered the “problem of the twentieth century”: the color line, i.e. the “relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (15). What Du Bois viewed as one of America’s foundational structures, however, remained virtually unmentioned by many of the mid-century founding fathers of the field of American Studies, such as Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan, who were unbothered by racial issues on their quest to uncover an exceptional cultural foundation for “[their] America” (Miller vii). Neither these traditional Americanists nor Du Bois’ alternative approach to American Studies, however, acknowledge the existence of yet another line dividing the American people: the relation between the male and female gender. Instead, the implicit and explicit chauvinism with which these scholars construct their vision of America completely disregards gender struggles and further enforces patriarchal ideas. Thus their works assist in substantiating the reality of a such a “gender line” while not actually recognizing the existence or relevance of it.

Investigating the gender line that was ignored by these influential scholars raises the question whether Du Bois was correct in his early assessment that the color line would be the defining problem of the twentieth century. Race and gender began to receive more attention during later decades, and female and minority writers were increasingly included in the canon of American Studies previously dominated by white male scholars and artists. One approach towards examining the dynamics between the color line and the gender line is to turn to writers that navigate both of them. Black women are faced with the confinements of both their gender and their race, at times forcing them to decide which of the two matters more in their struggle for equality. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story are two autobiographical accounts by black women writers who, in spite of their vastly different lives and backgrounds, experience the ramifications of intersectionality in similar ways. Faced with the black woman’s dilemma between race and gender, however, Angelou and Brown come to different conclusions.

The aim of this essay is to discuss the role of race and gender in the context of American Studies, starting with the beginnings of the field at Harvard University after World War II. An examination of Du Bois’ conceptualizations of race in The Souls of Black Folk shows that the color line is in fact deeply rooted in American culture and society, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow demonstrates that racial discrimination has not fundamentally changed over the course of a century. Setting the focus on the uniquely precarious position of black women in the United States, Du Bois’ observations will be supplemented by concepts of intersectionality and “triple consciousness” and will subsequently be applied to the analysis of the two memoirs (Hernton 143). Close attention will be given to racial and sexual identity formation in the authors’ formative years, the way they are caught between the color line and the gender line throughout their lives, and the potential reasons why the two women differ in their personal ranking of race versus gender.

2 Race and Gender in American Studies

During the second half of the twentieth century, matters of race and gender increasingly moved into the spotlight of modern American society and the media. In today’s era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, issues of racial and sexual discrimination and inequality are dominating U.S. politics and the news cycle, fueling a continuing debate over the relevance and validity of “identity politics.” Especially after the “canon wars” of the late 1980s, these societal changes have been reflected by American Studies scholarship, and race and gender have been competing for the attention of the field and its publications ever since. A glance at the latest editions of the American Studies Association’s journal American Quarterly confirms this tendency, as a vast majority of articles discuss matters related to gender and ethnicity, from “black femme history” to “chicana feminism” (Johnson 665, Merchant 605). In contemporary American Studies, race and gender are evidently understood as fundamental influences on the American experience, but this has not always been the case. Treating these issues as quintessentially American exposes the flaws and omissions in earlier American Studies literature by revered representatives of the field. Looking at the way these scholars regard or disregard matters of race and gender reveals the racist and chauvinist tendencies at the foundation of America itself and American Studies as an academic subject.

The field of American Studies has always been closely tied to Harvard University, where many of its co-founders and representatives, such as F. O. Matthiessen, Henry Nash Smith, and Leo Marx, taught or studied during the 1940s and 1950s. Attempting to uncover and establish a literary and cultural canon worthy of a post-World War II global power, scholars like Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan found their answer in Puritanism. In their effort to rehabilitate and humanize the Puritans, who were “not in good repute” at that time, however, they omitted and whitewashed the racial inequalities that shaped the American endeavor from its very beginnings (Morgan xi). In his essay collection Errand into the Wilderness, Perry Miller criticizes “‘social’ historians” for “not getting at the fundamental themes” , while he himself fails to mention the fundamental theme of race relations in the colonies and their reliance on slave labor for economic success (7). Similarly, Edmund Morgan’s biography of Puritan leader John Winthrop, The Puritan Dilemma, barely touches on the rampant hostilities towards Native Americans and does not comment on the existence of slavery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. At the time of their books’ publications, the nation was deeply affected by racism, Jim Crow laws, and tentative steps towards the Civil Rights movement, yet Miller and Morgan do not consider early racial themes to be relevant for their work.

Issues of gender and sexuality are equally implicit in the works of Miller and Morgan. Women are apparently not significant for the case they are trying to make, and are virtually absent from Errand into the Wilderness. Instead, Miller’s tone is decidedly chauvinistic as he references his masculine desire for the “adventure” of war during his time in Africa (7). His comments on gender roles and relations, e.g. the reference to men running errands for their housewives, reflect the patriarchal structures prevailing during the 1950s (Miller 3). Meanwhile, Morgan’s inclusion of women in his book is mostly limited to Winthrop’s third wife Margaret Tyndal, whom he calls “one of the most appealing [women] in American history” and whose representation mainly serves the purpose of humanizing Winthrop (10). Morgan’s portrayal of their marriage as surprisingly loving and even passionate is clearly part of his attempt to change the prevalent image of Puritans as “killjoys in tall-crowned hats, whose main occupation was to prevent each other from having any fun and whose sole virtue lay in their furniture” (Morgan xi).It becomes clear that for Miller and Morgan, women were just as irrelevant for the foundations of America as people of color, and are only utilized in their texts to paint a more positive and human picture of America’s roots. The decision to disregard issues of race and gender in their work in order to uphold a rather glorified idea of the nation and its cultural history does not reflect the reality of life in the United States for millions of Americans.

Literary works published in subsequent years tried to rectify the image of America that these originators of American Studies had tried to convey. Memoirs such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power (1992), novels like Shirley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose (1986)and more recent publications from the field of sociology like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) are only a few examples for literature giving a voice to those Americans that Miller and Morgan chose to leave out. These works, spanning several genres and decades, illuminate the impact of race and gender relations and tensions throughout U.S. history. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, African Americans have historically been subjected to institutional racism and injustice, while women specifically have faced gender discrimination within a deeply patriarchal society. Black women thus represent a group marginalized in two different ways by the prevailing systems of power, a concept known as intersectionality.

3 Between the Lines: The Black Woman’s Dilemma

The terms “color line” and “gender line” describe the segregation and discrimination people are subjected to due to their race or gender, in the context of American Studies focusing on United States society. The former term first appeared in an article by Frederick Douglass in 1881 and was popularized by W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Based on their theorieson race, the term “gender line” has been used to refer to similar systems of inequality regarding gender. Investigating the ramifications of the color line and the way it intersects with the gender line to create a double predicament for women of color provides the conceptual framework for analyzing texts by black women writers like Maya Angelou and Elaine Brown.

3.1 The Color Line Throughout U.S. History

One of the first groundbreaking sociological works detailing the struggle of America’s black population was W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk. Based on his own experiences as a black man in the United States and his sociological observations in the Black Belt, Du Bois designates the “color-line,” the divide between black Americans and the opportunities of their white fellow citizens, as the defining “problem of the twentieth century” (15). He introduces concepts and visualizations of this color line that are still highly influential within the field of sociology to this day, such as the idea of “double-consciousness” (Du Bois 5). Du Bois illustrates the racial segregation in the United States through the image of a veil separating the African American from the white world, “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (5). Black Americans thus view themselves not only through their own eyes, but simultaneously “[measure their souls] by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 5). The aim of African Americans, Du Bois argues, is not to erase either of their two selves, but instead to unite them (5). Du Bois underpins his racial theories with his own sociological field research in the American South that reveals the dire circumstances under which most black Americans lived around the turn of the century.

While Du Bois made his “prediction about the centennial paramountcy of race” rather early into the new century, a look at the historical developments regarding race in the United States strongly confirm that the color line continued to shape the country significantly (Lewis xxxi). Persistent efforts towards racial uplift were made with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as well as the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement of later decades. These efforts and their victories, such as the passing of legislation protecting the rights of African Americans, were continuously countered with new ways to oppress and marginalize black people, as Michelle Alexander demonstrates in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander makes the case that since the abolition of slavery, new systems of oppression have been put into place to guarantee the discrimination and disenfranchisement of African Americans, creating a “new racial caste system” that still reigns today. According to Alexander, mass incarceration as a consequence of the War on Drugs is the “New Jim Crow,” as it disproportionally targets black communities (3). The overall number of imprisoned people in the United States rose from 300,000 to over 2 million in less than three decades, and the racial imbalances within this penal population are even more shocking (Alexander 6). In some states, Alexander writes, “black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men,” and the U.S. currently imprisons “a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid” (7, Alexander 6). Du Bois’ concerns about the status of African Americans in the United States are ever- present.

The alarming statistics unveiled in The New Jim Crow, which were presented to an even broader audience through Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2016 documentary 13th, leave no doubt that Du Bois’ predictions about the color line proved accurate. As David Levering Lewis points out in his introduction to the Centennial Edition of the book, however, Du Bois revised his phrasing in later years, declaring the “maldistribution of wealth as the fundamental impediment to the expansion of human rights”—in other words, the cash line (Lewis xxxii). The fact that Du Bois eventually reconsidered the assertions he made in The Souls of Black Folk to emphasize the importance of wealth and class over race is noteworthy, because even in later years he did not ascribe any comparable significance to another major barrier hindering true equality in the United States. Critics of The Souls of Black Folk, such as Patricia Hill Collins, have raised the question that Du Bois, similar to Miller and Morgan, failed to answer: “What about gender?” (42).

3.2 The Gender Line and “Triple Consciousness”

While The Souls of Black Folk has been said to have transformed interracial interactions in the United States “with a suddenness so unprecedented as to divide the understanding of race into the time before and the time after the book’s appearance,” women are strikingly underrepresented in Du Bois’ magnum opus (Lewis xii). The only two female individuals he devotes more attention to are associated with negative emotions and events. One of them is his wife, whom he regards with both envy and condescension when she overcomes her grief over their infant son’s death through faith. The other is a little white girl who rejects his visiting card in elementary school, presumably because he is the only black child in class. This childhood event is of surprisingly high importance for Du Bois, who declares it as the moment that “the shadow swept across [him]” and he was first made aware of the racial injustices in the world (4).

The language of The Souls of Black Folk is noticeably male-gendered as well, as Du Bois writes about the American Negro’s “self-conscious manhood” and the “powers of single black men,” exclusively using male pronouns throughout his essays (6). The irrelevance of women for Du Bois’ cause becomes even clearer when he writes about the Fifteenth Amendment and the ballot being the “chief means of gaining and perfecting the liberty” the African American male was given after the Civil War (9). Du Bois does not mention that this liberty does not include women, black or white, as the Nineteenth Amendment would not pass for another seventeen years after the book’s publication. Women are secondary characters for Du Bois, suggesting a patriarchal theme that would be continued by Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan.

It is striking that a book concerned with the intricate racial predicaments of the African American community so openly fails to address the additional hardships of its female members. The first and one of the most recognized essays of the collection, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,”mentions “two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women,” i.e. the violating of black female slaves by their white masters (Du Bois 11). What Du Bois bemoans here, however, are not the physical and mental effects of these rapes on the women subjected to them, but instead the “red stain of bastardy” on the Negro race as a whole, caused by the resulting pregnancies (11). Du Bois laments the threat of “obliteration of the Negro home,” but does not further elaborate on struggles of sex and gender in The Souls of Black Folk (11). While the unique situation of African American women is tackled in some of Du Bois’ other work, he clearly ranks gender below the “more fundamental (and thereby more important) oppressions of race, class,and nation” (Collins 42). Du Bois’ observations provide important early concepts in race theory, but they do not “[afford] gender the same analytical importance as race and class,” reflecting the focus on masculine authority of the time (Collins 42). Concepts such as double-consciousness and the veil thus have to be expanded in order to reflect the additional problem of the gender line.

Black women, as Calvin Hernton points out in his essay “The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers,” do not only bear the double consciousness of being black and American described by Du Bois. Due to being female, they “have also been victimized by the mountain of sexism, not only from the white world but from the men of the black world as well” (Hernton 143). African American women thus shoulder a “triple consciousness,” looking at themselves through the eyes of both white and male supremacy (Hernton 143). The plight of intersectionality often leads to black women having to choose between race and gender solidarity. During the Harlem Renaissance, as Elise Johnson McDougald writes in her 1925 piece “The Task of Negro Womanhood,” the strive for racial uplift generally overshadowed gender issues: “On the whole the Negro woman’s feminist efforts are directed chiefly toward the realization of the equality of the races, the sex struggle assuming the subordinate place” (107). African American men have required this prioritization from their women, expecting them to disregard gender struggles and solely focus on the fight against racism in order to hasten the “successful struggle of black men rising to their rightful position of power and dominance in their families, . . . communities, and in America” (Hernton 141).

The role of black women within the African American community is especially relevant for the analysis of Angelou and Brown, who both spent a lot of time in predominantly or even exclusively black communities and environments. According to Hernton, black men have claimed that “they, not women, are the prime targets of the white man’s oppressive system” (Hernton 142). Black women are reprimanded when openly addressing the “hateful attitudes and violent treatment of black men toward black women” and accused of hindering the progress of the black community as a whole (Hernton 141). As a result, African American women experience racial and sexual discrimination in the white world, but are put in a subservient position even within their own ethnic group, which illustrates the predicaments of intersectionality.

These issues are reflected in the literary world both through representations of women in black writing and the opportunities black women writers had during the twentieth century. Du Bois is far from being the only African American scholar or artist who disregards the discrimination of black women in his writing; The “complexity and vitality of black female experience” has traditionally been ignored in both white and black literature (Hernton 138). Especially black male writers have historically been suspicious and discriminatory towards their female counterparts, claiming that they were “aiding the white male-dominated, racist, capitalist society in the historical oppression of black people” when writing feminist literature. Black women writers of the 1970s and 1980s reacted to this sexism by turning to sorority: “For the first time, we are witnessing a literature, the pervasive aesthetic of which is the sisterhood of women” (145). Elaine Brown, who was still looking for a publisher for A Taste of Power when Hernton made this observation, exemplifies this step from racial uplift towards female solidarity, while Maya Angelou expresses her feminist sentiments in a subtler way (144).

4 The Souls of Black Women

The unique position of African American women, caught between the color line and the gender line, was captured by many of the black women writers emerging during the twentieth century. The analysis presented here will focus on two of them, Maya Angelou and Elaine Brown, and their formative years, which shaped and established their race and gender identities.The first of Angelou’s several memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, spans the years from her early childhood in Stamps, Arkansas through her teenage years in San Francisco and closes with the birth of her son at age seventeen. Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story addresses her upbringing in the inner city of North Philadelphia before focusing on her rise in the Black Panther Party, which she abandons at the end of the memoir. Similarly affected by the black female experience in the United States, the differences in their backgrounds and biographies in terms of their class, privilege, and social and geographical environments led Angelou and Brown to grapple with intersectionality in different ways while navigating the color line and the gender line.

4.1 Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In Maya Angelou’s 1969 memoir, which covers the first seventeen years of her life, the plight of African Americans in the United States is a central theme. While Du Bois describes segregation in the United States with the rather static image of a veil or a dividing line separating black Americans from equal opportunities, Angelou expresses the position of black women much more forcefully and aggressively: “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power” (272). Using words like “assaulted,” “forces,” crossfire,” and “survivors,” Angelou does not shy away from addressing the harsh reality of growing up black and female in the United States. She defines what she sees as the aggressors and obstacles on a black girl’s path into adulthood, which pertain to the theories of the color line and the gender line. The color line, however, is particularly emphasized by means of dividing it into two separate powerful forces: the presence of white hatred and the absence of black power. This focus on race can be traced throughout the memoir, in which struggles of gender and sexuality are highly significant, yet never quite elicit the same reaction in Angelou that racial injustice does. Even when she experiences the most horrifying sexual violence at the hands of a black man, her forgiveness for and loyalty to her race prevail. One of the potential reasons for this prioritization might be her experiences growing up as a young child in the Jim Crow South.

The color line is omnipresent in Stamps, Arkansas, where Maya Angelou spends the majority of her childhood until age thirteen. Du Bois’ image of the veil comes to mind when Angelou writes about the separation between the black and white worlds in Stamps: “A lightshade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white ‘things’” (Angelou49). White wealth and the prevailing beauty standards of light skin and blonde hair hinder Angelou’s acceptance of her racial identity as a young child. She fantasizes about waking out of her “black ugly dream” and revealing her true white identity: “Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl” (2). When her handicapped uncle hides his disability from a couple visiting their store, Angelou can relate to the wish to escape from one’s body, remarking that she“understood and felt closer to him at that moment than ever before or since” (13). Accepting her existence as a girl who is both black and described by herself and others as unattractive is a struggle Angelou expresses throughout her memoir.

In spite of these childhood fantasies about the beauty and wealth that was only awarded to white people in Angelou’s world, she grows to feel deeply connected to her race and her community. While Angelou struggles at times to understand why black people “allowed themselves to be worked like oxen” and to accept the racial status quo, she feels pride for her people: “We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. . . . I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race” (121, 184). This feeling of racial solidarity in addition to the cruelty and contempt Angelou experiences at the hands of white people are two important factors why race seems to be more important to her than gender during her younger years.

Similar to Du Bois’ experience of being rejected by a white girl in elementary school, a specific event in her childhood has a lasting impact on Angelou’s sentiments towards race and white people. After Angelou’s return to Stamps after her time in St. Louis, a group of young girls from white lower-class families, or “powhitetrash,” come to the store to mock and demean Angelou’s grandmother (28). Their behavior illustrates the way in which race was often understood as overpowering all other categories in terms of social hierarchy, even including class. While Momma’s calm and strong reaction is empowering to Angelou, the situation permanently manifests her feelings towards the white race: “I suppose my lifelong paranoia was born in those cold, molasses-slow minutes” (30).

Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Angelou witnesses the many hardships and threats specifically targeted at black men more so than black women, perhaps explaining the forgiveness and guilt she feels even towards the worst male representatives of her race. While the “harshness of Black Southern life” affects all of Stamps’ black community, young Maya is especially distraught by seeing the male cotton pickers’ unrewarded toil: “I had seen the fingers cut by the mean little cotton bolls, and I had witnessed the backs and shoulders and arms and legs resisting any further demands” (9, 8). Even more distressing, however, is the constant threat of lynching that looms over the black population: “The Black woman in the South who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose” (Angelou 114). The possibility of losing a relative or loved one to racial hatred is ever-present, and the reason why Angelou and her brother Bailey are sent away from the South, first to St. Louis and then to California. The humiliation of her uncle having to hide in the potato bin to avoid getting lynched emboldens Angelou’s fear and suspicion of white people for years to come.

While black girls and women were not the direct targets of lynching, the gender line still disadvantaged them in other ways. Angelou becomes aware of the male-dominated world through her books, the heroes of which are always male. Mirroring her reluctance in accepting her race,Angelou describes how she “wished [her] soul that [she] had been born a boy” (75). The extent of the gender line is more far-reaching than underrepresentation, however. One of the central moments in which the color line and the gender line intersect is Angelou’s junior high school graduation ceremony. Graduation speaker Edward Donleavy makes it clear how bleak the prospects for the African American graduates are: “The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises” (179). Black boys are reduced to their physical abilities, but black girls are entirely irrelevant.

The gender line is not only important in terms of opportunity and advancement for women, but also the way girls and women are treated in a patriarchal society. Sexual violence and society’s perception of its survivors are ever-present topics in today’s era of the #MeToo movement and another important aspect of the gender line. At the age of eight, Maya Angelou is raped by her mother’s African American boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. During the following trial, Angelou is accused of lying by the defendant’s lawyer: “’You mean to say this man raped you and you don’t know what he was wearing?’ He snickered as if I had raped Mr. Freeman. ‘Do you know if you were raped?’” (84). The act of rape itself, the way the young victim is treated in court, and the fact that the rapist is ultimately acquitted all exemplify the misogyny and sexual discrimination that constitute the gender line. Angelou, however, still feels guilt and pity for her rapist, who is murdered in the aftermath of the trial, years after the incident: “I thought of poor Mr. Freeman, and the guilt which lined my heart, even after all those years, was a nagging passenger in my mind” (250). Except for her feeling of guilt, Angelou is surprisingly unaffected by her rape and the misogynistic treatment she has to endure, contrasting her rage about racial injustice.

Maya Angelou summarizes her dilemma as a black girl with a passage from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29,” to which she relates deeply: “But it was Shakespeare who said, ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.’ It was a state with which I felt most familiar” (14). The passage itself and the way Angelou feels about it encapsulate the attitudes towards race and gender expressed in her memoir. Being “in disgrace with fortune” can be applied to several of the more unfortunate aspects of Angelou’s young life—her impoverished upbringing, unstable family life, or her discontent with her physical appearance—but the most likely interpretation is the misfortune of being born black in America (Angelou 14). Even as a young child, Angelou realizes that a lot of the injustices she witnesses are deeply rooted in the racism and prejudice that she and her people are subjected to in the United States. In Angelou’s case, to be in disgrace with “men’s eyes” can be understood as her being viewed by men, both black and white, as inferior and subordinate (14).

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings starts with a child’s wish to be white and ends with female empowerment through pregnancy and motherhood, but in the years in between, race plays a larger role in Angelou’s life than gender does. Her experiences in the Jim Crow South cause what she calls a “lifelong paranoia” associated with white people, which she finds hard to overcome even in later years (30). Her development of a deep connection to her race and the injustices and threats targeted at black men, including her beloved brother and her uncle, lead to her extraordinary forgiveness towards black men. While it can be assumed that sexuality and motherhood lead to a higher significance of gender in later years, Angelou’s childhood and adolescence are predominantly shaped by the color line.

4.2 Elaine Brown: A Taste of Power

Elaine Brown begins her memoir, which she calls a “chronicle of the life of a black woman-child in America,” with the eponymous “taste of power”: her temporary leadership of the Black Panther Party and the announcement thereof to a “sea of predominantly male faces” (xi, 3). The fact that she is only given this power in her role as a placeholder for a man, Huey Newton, already sets the tone for Brown’s story, which is dominated by the sexism and misogyny of the Black Power movement. In a movement essentially fighting for the elimination of the color line, the gender line is enforced even more strongly by its black male members. While Brown devotes over a decade to the fight for black rights with the Black Panther Party, it is the violence towards and denigration of women that leads her to ultimately prioritize gender and sorority over race.

The acceptance of Brown’s racial and gender identities as a young black girl is a struggle similar to Angelou’s. Attending Thaddeus Stevens, a prestigious and predominantly white and Jewish school, Brown soon realizes how different her life is compared to that of her friends. She starts adapting to white culture, vowing to become a part of the white world: “I would have to become more like them. They would begin to see me as one of them, and welcome me into their world” (30). Race becomes a performance for her, something she can control and change as she pleases, rather than a constant part of her identity. Her physical commute between her black, impoverished neighborhood and Thaddeus Stevens is mirrored by a commute between racial identities. She learns to manipulate her demeanor and speech patterns to imitate the white people around her: “I listened to them, paid attention to their grammar, their syntax, their cadence. I learned to speak exactly like white people, learned to enunciate their language, to say ‘these’ and not ‘dese,’ and ‘he’ll be going’ rather than ‘he be goin’” (Brown 31). Angelou describes similar practices of linguistic assimilation, but even in San Francisco she never feels at home in the white world. For Brown, however, her school and the homes of her white friends are an escape from the poverty of York Street.

While Brown attempts to escape the color line by “becoming white,” she cannot escape from the reality of poverty and violence in her community or the prejudice of white people who continue to see her as black (31). She experiences violence and an attempted rape at the hands of black boys in her neighborhood, a pattern that continues during her involvement with the Black Panther Party. Her white Jewish boyfriend’s family rejects her solely for being African American, and Brown experiences the institutional racism of the time during her education. Her graduation ceremony is a key event in Brown’s life, similar to Angelou, that shows her the cruel reality of the color line. Her friend Francine, the only other black girl in Brown’s Latin class and highly intelligent, is passed over for all academic prizes which are given to white girls instead. The racial prejudice by the school administration mirrors the discrimination from the other students: “They had made it absolutely clear to Francine – as they had to all us colored girls – that her grades and intellect would not remedy the flaw of her dark skin or dark life” (64). By protesting during her piano recital, Brown shows her desire to fight against injustice by exercising her female solidarity.

Brown’s upbringing in white environments leads her to be more open towards friendships and relationships with white people, of whom she is much less suspicious than Angelou. In fact, it takes a white man, Jay Kennedy, to awaken her interest in race and the fight for equality, something she ignored for most of her life: “Issues concerning black people, however, were not personally relevant to me” (93). Brown’s decision to join the Black Power movement is finalized when she visits a housing project and is reminded of the circumstances of poor black girls in America: “We needed a world in which to grow, a new and better arrangement where little black girls like us could blossom and live on equal footing with other human beings, not stuffed away in Watts or North Philadelphia, which were the same place” (101). Her feminist desire to fight for the futures of black girls, specifically, is juxtaposed by the misogynistic treatment of women in the Black Panther Party.

The sexism and violence towards women by men of the party shows how the gender line is sometimes enforced more strongly in a community that is actively fighting against the color line. In spite of their striving for progress and socialism in the United States, the gender roles within the party are deeply conservative. The sexist tendencies of the male-dominated party require the women to accept that men always come first: “Sisters, he said, stood behind their black men, supported their men, and respected them” (109). In spite of Brown’s fleeting “taste of power” within the party, she realizes that black women never truly had a chance to be equal:

A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. A woman attempting the role of leadership was, to my proud black Brothers, making an alliance with the ‘counter-revolutionary, man-hating, lesbian, feminist white bitches.’ It was a violation of some Black Power principle that was left undefined. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding

black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of black people. (357)

As Herton writes, black men perceive it “as an offense for black women to struggle on their own, let alone achieve something on their own” (142). While Brown struggles to detach herself from the need for male validation incited by her father’s rejection during her adolescence, she increasingly finds strength in the sisterly bond with the other women of the party.

Brown and the other women, while first rejecting feminism as a white woman’s idea, realize that the color line and the gender line are “equal partners in [their] oppression” (367). As the bonds between the women of the Black Panther Party become stronger, the opposition of the men in the movement increases proportionately. The more power women claim within the party, the more men “taunted Huey about how ‘weak’ the party had become, meaning women in leadership positions” (438). The gender line within the party, however, further enforces female solidarity, leading Brown to feel more connected even to white women than she does to her “Brothers,” as she vows to “never have another affair with any man” (432, 433). Her eventual decision to leave the party is fundamentally based on the chauvinism and male dominance that were already exhibited in the literature of Du Bois.

Throughout her life, Brown realizes that while she can imitate and perform certain race and gender mannerisms, e.g. white speech patterns and male Panther mannerisms, they are ultimately a mask behind which she hides her insecurities. Of greater importance to her is the role of gender in her life and the female solidarity found through this focus. The role of sisterhood for Brown and her girlfriends, the “girls who don’t take no stuff” (34), grows during her childhood and adolescence in North Philadelphia as they navigate the gender line together; she first experiences the power of female solidarity with this group: “was not tough. We were tough” (44). Later in life, this sorority eventually includes white women as well; considered together with her decision to leave the Black Panther Movement, the only constant in her life is starkly illustrated —sorority.

5 Conclusion

Race and gender are two powerful societal forces that continuously shape and influence one another. Although movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and the #MeToo now have more pronounced social import, their underlying racial and sexual drivers still have deep roots within American Studies spanning from post-WWII America, and socially since long before. While opinions of the importance of these factors in society and within the field of American Studies have varied, oftentimes to the point of complete omission in prominent texts by the founding fathers of the field like Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan, their influence is undeniable. These struggles are only further amplified by correct assertions such as Du Bois’ regarding maldistribution of wealth between white and black communities. These patterns always converge—it is only the point of intersection that varies from person to person. It is through discovery of this convergence that the uniquely feminine theme of intersectionality reveals itself. The fundamental consequences of these forces within an intersectional experience are especially apparent in written texts by black women writers like Maya Angelou and Elaine Brown, where similar social backdrops combined with differing upbringings and environments lead to divergent outcomes: Brown defines gender as her determining factor in intersectionality, and Angelou race. This should however not detract from the interplay between the two; whether by chauvinistic literary omission or solidary personal assertion, through male-maintained dominance within a struggling community or experienced on the drive to school, the gender line and the color line not only influenced American Studies as a subject, but continue to influence America as a nation as well.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012.

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Ballantine Books, 2009.

Brown, Elaine. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story. Anchor Books, 1994.
Collins, Patricia Hill. “Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy.” ANNALS, vol. 568, no. 1, 2000, pp. 41-53.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Modern Library, 2003.
Hernton, Calvin. “The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 18, no. 4, 1984, pp. 139–145. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2904288.

Johnson, Jessica Marie. “4DH + 1 Black Code / Black Femme Forms of Knowledge and Practice.” American Quarterly, vol. 70 no. 3, 201 8, pp. 665-670. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/aq.2018.0050

Lewis, David Levering. Introduction. The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, Modern Library, 2003, pp. xi-xxxiii.

McDougald, Elise Johnson. “The Task of Negro Womanhood.” Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology, edited by Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey, Rutgers UP, 2001, p. 103-108.

Merchant, Linda Garcia. “Chicana Feminism Virtually Remixed.” American Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 3, 2018, pp. 605-607. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/aq.2018.0040. Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. 6th ed., Harvard UP, 1978. Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma. 3rd ed., Pearson, 2007.


Pauline Bewermeier is a visiting exchange student and German teaching assistant from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. An American Studies major and Cultural Anthropology minor, she is fascinated by different cultures and learning new languages. Her year at Washington College has been invaluable regarding both her studies and the opportunity to share her own culture and language with American students. After graduating, Pauline plans to pursue a career in intercultural relations.

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