“Cobbling It All Together”: Mary Helen Washington and Shaun Myers, In Conversation

“Cobbling It All Together”: Mary Helen Washington and Shaun Myers, In Conversation
THE FOLLOWING CONVERSATION is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series, “Antiracism in the Contemporary University,” edited by Tita Chico. Click here for the full series.


MARY HELEN WASHINGTON: I want to start this conversation with the Heart’s Day conference in 1999 at Howard University, where we first met, but I first want to say that while the “Antiracism” series precipitated this conversation, what we really want to talk about is how we came to do our work in this environment, in the university. 

So let’s start with Heart’s Day at Howard. It was in honor of Paule Marshall. Perfect timing. I’m now working on Marshall’s biography.

SHAUN MYERS: I just want to add that, in discussing how we came to our work, there’s a way in which we want to center our experiences, our way-making, rather than giving gendered racism center stage. It shouldn’t suck up all the air. The truth is that our lives as Black students and teachers have always already been antiracist.

So, yes, Heart’s Day. I clearly remember the day because Bob Levine, the director of Graduate Studies at the time in the English Department at the University of Maryland, called to say I’d been accepted into the program. He said, “I just talked to Mary Helen Washington, and she’s at the Heart’s Day Conference at Howard, and I told her you were in town and she invited you to join her for the day.” It was a thrill, the whole thing. Every year, the Heart’s Day conference honors a major Black writer and that year it was dedicated to Marshall and Brown Girl, Brownstones. You, of course, had written the afterword for it. I had applied to Maryland’s English master’s-and-doctoral program because of you, because of your formative work in Black feminist literary studies.

What has stayed with me from that day is your generosity. You — the editor of anthologies on my shelves, the scholar who had written the foreword to Their Eyes Were Watching God — you took the time to get to know me over lunch and allowed me to get to know you.

So, yes, we met at Heart’s Day, but my first “encounter” with you was as a reader. I don’t remember being assigned any Black literature in school until college, but I avidly read Black literature on my own. Novels and anthologies like Black-Eyed Susans and Midnight Birds (both of which you edited) and Bambara’s The Black Woman offered a world that didn’t exist for me in formal classrooms. For me and so many others, the circulation of Black women’s novels and anthologies opened up a whole entire world. It was a beginning for me. You all were creating a world I could enter into as a young reader and, all this time later, that I can inhabit as a professor.

This conversation takes me back to the 1970s and the ways that Black texts were beginning to circulate. My anthologies appeared because of two Black women editors at major publishing houses in New York — Toni Morrison and Marie Brown — who were part of that Black revolutionary tide of the ’70s. I sent Marie a brief proposal, and she sent me a contract by return mail.

The 1970s remind me of the 19th and early 20th century when Black writing was serialized in Black newspapers and through Black religious circuits. That extraordinary little magazine Black World, edited by that visionary Hoyt Fuller, turned up in my mailbox each month with announcements about the world of Black literature and culture, saying, in effect, “Here are all these Black literary and cultural projects that have been ignored and marginalized.” Hoyt encouraged me to be a writer and thinker when my professors at the university were interested in only their white male protégés.

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is another example of how Black literature emerged in the 1970s and ’80s under the radar of the white mainstream. Robert Hemenway wrote Hurston’s first biography [1980]; Alice Walker celebrated Hurston in her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” [1983]; and Black scholars circulated a petition at the MLA in 1975 to get Their Eyes reprinted. After 30 years, Their Eyes was back in print.

Some of the first courses I taught at Northwestern University, and still teach, try to capture these pivotal moments and the networks that gave rise to the proliferation of Black women’s writing in the ’70s and ’80s. When I teach these classes, I go back to what was on the bookshelves in my home as a girl: Morrison, Walker, Naylor, Marshall, Ntozake Shange, Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Henry Dumas’s poems I wrote out on posterboard and taped to my bedroom walls. When and Where I Enter, This Bridge Called My Back, All the Women Are White — they all created this world of writing that was a kind of alternative education. I always go back to Hortense Spillers’s description of the era: “The community of Black women writing.” It was crucial for me and so many other Black readers.

So at Heart’s Day you knew me in a way I did not know you. I knew you were one of the top graduate students we had admitted, and, for me, you were a dream come true, one of the first Black graduate students I directed. 

You know I didn’t come into academia through the kind of system you came through. My entrance into the academy was traditional and nontraditional. I was in the doctoral program at the University of Detroit, a Jesuit university, which prided itself on its superb English faculty, but they did not have any idea of what was going on in the streets around Six Mile and Livernois, which is where Black Studies at U of D got its start. The fires of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion ignited a decade (at least) of a vibrant Black militancy. My entrance into this academic world was by way of Black militancy in Detroit.

In Northwest Detroit, poet Dudley Randall was publishing the new Black poets working at Broadside Press. David Rambeau and Woodie King Jr. inaugurated a new Black theater called Concept East Theater in downtown Detroit. He was bringing in playwrights like Amiri Baraka, who was then LeRoi Jones, Ed Bullins, and Ron Milner and doing their plays. In Midtown, General Baker and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers were protesting at the Dodge Main Plant to get a union recognized. I was introduced to the Marxist organizers James and Grace Lee Boggs. We gathered on Saturday afternoons at Vaughn’s Book Store on Dexter Avenue, reading and discussing Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and demanding that it be taught at the university. This was a part of everyday politics in Detroit in the 1970s.

By 1972, we had started Black studies at the University of Detroit and were reveling in the excitement of reading and teaching all of these new Black writers. This is the first time in maybe 50 years that people had heard of Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston, and even Richard Wright. Certainly, it was the first time I encountered The Souls of Black Folk. All of this excitement was, in some ways, about how to transform Black communities. It wasn’t about how we will make Black PhDs. That came later. And, thank God it did come later because that was one way of continuing the work. Because of that orientation toward transforming our communities, I would always feel like a foreigner in the academic world. But in other ways, I felt as though I completely belonged, because Black militancy also shored up this spirit of “Goddammit, we have every right to be in this university. Our ancestors paid for our right to be here.”

This is just coming to me as I talk — these two kinds of feelings — this peculiar kind of double consciousness — of feeling like a foreigner and feeling that I had the right to be in the academy. That served me well because when I met you and the other Black graduate students — I’m thinking of Kaylen [Tucker] and Robin [Harris], and Shirley [Moody Turner] — I saw you as the professors that would usher in a new era. You all are the way professors should look. And again, I think that comes out of a Black militant tradition that always tells us to look for how we can produce change. I felt as though I was gathering this Black community together to stage a revolution in the academic world.

And we lived that change you all created. I was part of a critical gathering of Black graduate students in English at Maryland. Black women reading, writing, teaching, researching, studying alongside one another. Our research ideas were always in conversation. I can look back now and see that there was a power in our co-presence. I’m thinking also of scholars like Elsa Barkley Brown, Kandice Chuh, and Zita Nunes, whose guidance was key as I moved through a grad school experience that often felt like a labyrinth.

What I’m struck by, though, hearing you talk about your entry into the academy is that even decades later, my entrance into the academy was echoing yours in terms of a sense of being outside. The absence of any Black literature curriculum until college forced me to develop an outsiderness as a reader and that extended to the nontraditional path I took to and through doctoral study and beyond. I worked as a journalist at The Boston Globe and Newsday in New York for some years before I entered graduate school. I also interned at Beacon Press for a while. There I saw Black women’s literature from a different angle. Beacon was revising its “Black Women Writers’ Series” [renamed the “Blue Streak Series”], the historic line that published reprints and first editions of so many classics — by Paule Marshall, Gayl Jones, Ntozake Shange, Alice Childress, Frances Harper, Octavia Butler, Ida B. Wells. I was tasked with analyzing the sales of these titles and surveying professors who used them in their courses. This gave me a glimpse behind the curtains, a close-up look at the marketing-and-sales hurdles that Black women writers have had to navigate on top of all their creative labor.

All this is to say, the fact that I engaged early on with Black women’s literature outside the academy shaped me as a scholar and teacher. I didn’t have a Black literature course until late in my undergraduate studies, taught by John Edgar Tidwell, and I didn’t have a Black woman literature professor until the final semester of my final year in college. The English Department hired Cheryl Johnson just before I graduated. Her Black women’s literature course planted in me possibility, a vision of myself as a professor.

That was at Miami University?

It was, and it speaks to conditions at Miami at that time — less than one percent of the students were Black. Poet Rita Dove and writer Wil Haygood had graduated from Miami in the ’70s, but the lack of diversity in my literature and writing courses in the ’90s eventually pushed me out of a Creative Writing major and into a double major in Journalism and Black World Studies. My turn to journalism actually happened because the Ku Klux Klan marched through town during my first year at Miami in 1990. And because Black students criticized the school newspaper’s coverage, the paper asked that someone from the Black Student Action Association serve as an ex-officio member on its editorial board. That was me. I would later become a reporter and then an editor at the paper. With the help of journalism professor Hugh Morgan, I headed to a newspaper job in New York just two weeks after graduating.

I arrived at Maryland armed with journalism experience and a passion for writing and literature. Even though I excelled in courses, it all felt like a mountainous challenge: academic theory, academic prose, the protocols and demands of academia. I quickly became ambivalent. I had the memory, the perspective, of what life was like outside the academy, so I moved through graduate school, all of that academic pressure, with one foot in and one foot out.

I started with both feet in the wonderful Glenville High School in Cleveland, where I worked for two years. I came to the PhD program at the University of Detroit in 1970, first as a teacher in an Upward Bound program that brought 100 inner-city high school students to the university on full four-year scholarships. One of my professors called me in Cleveland when the U of D realized they needed to add some color to their all-white teaching staff. We were told to expect 100 “inner-city” students, which made all of us imagine danger and mayhem. Then in walked 100 Black (one white) of the most middle-class students imaginable. They had already used some of their Upward Bound money to shop on the Avenue of Fashion and were dressed to the nines. Some even thought that the University of Detroit was not elite enough for them! [Laughs.]

That summer I started a little magazine called Black Arts to publish some of the students’ work, a project that kept me in graduate school, where I was knee-deep in Medieval, Victorian, and Renaissance literature and unable to envision myself as a university professor. Dolores Miner, a superintendent of schools in Detroit, was hired to teach one course on Black literature, probably in 1972. The first book she taught in that class was Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 short stories, The Wife of His Youth, a book and writer I had never heard of. That book and that teacher changed the entire course of my academic career. I wish I could say it was smooth sailing after that. It wasn’t. I flailed about in fits and starts, struggling with ambivalence about the profession and my place in it. None of my professors at U of D (all white) ever offered me any advice about career prospects or even thought seriously that I could become what they were. They couldn’t imagine me as a professor, but later I could imagine you as one.

It’s interesting, it took 20 years then, from the time I read my first Black book in college until you were able to have access to that — 20 years!

I’m thinking now of the other kind of nontraditional path that I took and about the momentous changes taking place in the 1970s. By 1973, I was Xeroxing stories by Black women in the copy room for my classes — the stories I had found by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Alexis De Veaux, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ntozake Shange. I sent Marie a proposal for Black-Eyed Susans, and within three weeks I had a contract. It was also that moment between 1975 and 1980 when Black women’s literature was emerging, just blooming, and there was such a desire for reading these writers. Black-Eyed Susans was published in 1975 while I was still working on my PhD. I’m thinking that that kind of confidence was generated by the Black militant community I was a part of in Detroit.

For me, the pressure of militancy meant observing the political protocols — wearing your hair natural, wearing African clothes, calling Black people “sister” and “brother.” Those “protocols” could be narrow. On the other hand, that Black militant firewall protected me from some of the anxieties that other Black women academics suffered.

I left Detroit in 1979 for a year-long fellowship at Radcliffe. And sometimes I wonder if moving into a more official academic world, where I had less of that sense of Black community, created another pressure — to acclimate to that elite academic world. How do you integrate into this academic world? One of the challenges is how to maintain a connection to the Black community and succeed in the academic world.

You helped to create a whole world in the 20 years between your entry into the academy and mine. When I arrived, the study of Black literature had been so institutionalized that one of the struggles was how to acclimate to the institution, learning what so-called “professionalization” means and what it demands. I really struggled, and still do, with the personal costs and the ways in which the struggle can undermine your well-being. I see now that that pressure was, and is, a distraction from the real work of Black study, which is not bound or determined by the institution.

You know this makes me think of two things: I felt like you were much better prepared for entering into the academic world than I was. You grew up in Cleveland Heights, which was a more affluent suburb than where I grew up in the Glenville area on the east side of Cleveland. You had parents who were professional, and who saw you as someone who would then be a professional person. When I went back to get my master’s degree, my family was sort of like, “Well, okay she can get another one,” but when I went back two years later for my doctoral work, they were like, “How many degrees does she need?” They would have understood law school or medical school, but what’s a full professor?

My family supported my doctoral studies, but there was just no way for them to know all that it entailed. When I myself began to confront all that it entailed, I became very ambivalent. I was filled with uncertainty about what this life would demand in terms of publish-or-perish, the precarious job market, social isolation, the constant pressure of deadlines and productivity, the pitiful numbers of Black faculty at predominantly white universities, and, most important, my well-being. I had already cut my teeth straight out of college in gritty, fast-paced newsrooms in New York and Boston, so I was no stranger to hard work or to racism and sexism in the workplace. But academia was a different beast, and thinking of those we lost, it seemed there was a special price for Black women literary scholars and writers. I effectively left graduate school for two years, because the ambivalence, the imbalance of motherhood and work, was so strong. After graduating, I worked in the Office for Diversity Initiatives in the Graduate School at Maryland as a postdoc and then as the acting assistant director, in part because I wasn’t convinced I could sustain a life on the tenure track and beyond. That administrative work in the Graduate School was valuable because it gave me a bird’s-eye view of the university as an institution, its inner workings, but also the limits of what goes by the name of diversity work.

But everything changed for me when I came across a book edited by historian Deborah Gray White called Telling Histories. It’s a collection of personal and professional histories of Black women historians — Nell Irvin Painter, Elsa Barkley Brown, and so many others. They tell their real, sometimes raw stories of entering the academy, their journeys and their achievements. When I read that book, I couldn’t escape the feeling that “these are my people. A life of research, of Black study, is where I belong.” After reading it, I resolved to return to this path, and I applied for a postdoc at Rutgers. Cheryl Wall and the African Americanist and Diaspora folks in English there opened a door for me with that postdoc. Their support was a bridge. 

It’s interesting that you use the word ambivalence, because I have lived with ambivalence every single moment that I have been in this field, in this academy, in these universities. When my ambivalence would sometimes be so overwhelming, I would try to figure out how to get out and do something else, maybe become a psychologist — something to get away from the pressures that I felt, but not just the pressure, the complete absence of a place for me there. I know that what helped me was training your generation of scholars and realizing that I wanted you all to be university professors. I may have been ambivalent about my own life, but I was not ambivalent about yours. [Laughs.]

We know this — you were never ambivalent about my life. [Laughs.]

I didn’t publish a book until 2014, a book I worked on for about 12 years, because I was so determined that I would fully embrace this work I had chosen. I wanted to fully embrace it the way I had forced you all to fully embrace it. I live with this ambivalence but, using the words of Alice Walker, I have always loved the literature. I love the fact that I can say something that I think is important and put it out there in the world.

Now that I think about it, I realize the word we have not used is “feminism.” Women are taught that they are not supposed to fully embrace work or fully embrace their ambition and their desire for being known and for having something with their name on it. We’ve talked a lot about the racial aspect of our ambivalence, but a lot of it was about being a woman.

Yes, gendered expectations intertwined with racial ones — that had everything to do with the ambivalence. I’m the first Northerner in my immediate family. Everything about me stems from a very particular place: Louisiana. Six of the 12 worst places for lynching in the US were Louisiana parishes; I teach this history as a context for Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” and Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Tensas Parish, my mother’s birthplace, is one of those six places. My father was raised in the next parish over. Growing up under these conditions, in the belly of Jim Crow, my parents were nurtured and pushed to “succeed” by their families and close-knit communities. My grandparents and great-grandparents worked the land, labored in lumber mills, owned a small-town store, and raised my parents to “go further” — through education. For my mother, in particular, it was through a certain model of womanhood that she would excel. And I’m thinking here of the title of Stephanie Shaw’s What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do about Black professional women during segregation.

There was the expectation to strive, in the face of segregation and racial terror, and to represent and uplift the Black community supporting you. My mother did this by becoming her high school’s valedictorian and a Southern University graduate, and by migrating with my father in the late 1960s to East Cleveland and then Cleveland Heights for newly integrated middle-class jobs. Alongside that model of Black womanhood, I was also educated at Beaumont School for Girls, a place where I could fully immerse myself in learning, in liberal arts, in the creative realm. Even as the school aimed to mold us into independent, high-achieving women, it was also training us to reproduce family structures and engage in a particular civic-social community in traditional ways. So, although I had my own desires for a family, I chafed against aspects of these two models of womanhood, and it seemed that this profession — what academia demanded of me — only aggravated that sense of misplacement. When I was in graduate school, the question was always: How do I do the work of a scholar, which can be all consuming but also rewarding, and also live as a mother, partner, teacher, and creative being? All the ambivalence, the fear around the conflicts in this question came to a head once I went on the job market. I dealt with the conflict by commuting from Pittsburgh to Chicago to work at Northwestern every single week for four years.

Look at how much the conflict is based on structures that have not been set up for women.

Yes, domestic and social structures as well as institutional and academic ones.

Even though I’ve always been single, some of those same pressures apply to me. My mother couldn’t understand why I needed to move to another city when the entire family was in Cleveland, and I felt guilty that my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews would not have the advantages I thought I could give them if I were there. It didn’t matter to them if I became a full professor. And so, what happens to you when there’s no one in your personal life who thinks becoming a professor is as important as becoming a lawyer or a medical doctor? There would be a lot more support for that. But studying literature doesn’t have the same weight, the same authority, the same meaningfulness as the lawyers and doctors they see in the community or need for help.

You begin to see that this ambivalence is not just all within us. It’s being created by the structures around us. It’s quite amazing that we do all that we do. 

You’re going to come up against an institution that doesn’t have room for wonder and passion, but that wonder and passion allowed people in my generation to say, “The way the university looks is not right.” Your wonder, your passion, allow you to imagine otherwise. I hold on to my outsiderness, because I know that’s the thing that has created change in the university.

Yes, I daily arrive at this insight: change comes from embracing our whole selves.

I see how we’ve now begun to put together this picture of how family and academic structures, the larger culture, how they hold our ambivalence in place.

So let’s go back to you leaving Detroit for the Radcliffe fellowship in 1979. That’s important.

Radcliffe allowed me to spend a year reading Gwendolyn Brooks. I was always drawn to writers that nobody else was paying attention to. Brooks’s little 1953 novel Maud Martha, which I discovered around 1970, stunned me with the beauty of its language, the daring experimentalism of its enigmatic chapters, and the depth of its anger. Before the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s or the feminist movement of the 1970s, Brooks produced a Black woman character with an intellectual and artistic sensibility, who rages against the racist and sexist structures that restrict her. And almost nobody wrote about or read this novel.

That’s what I learned from you: to go to the unlit spaces of the Black tradition, Black women’s literary tradition. We’re bringing our flashlights, asking, “Well, what’s over here in this corner that we haven't tended to?” [Laughs.] We know what’s out here on the main floor under the spotlight, but what’s in these corners? [Laughs.]

We are from two different generations, but we both ended up in dark corners with our flashlights. I am drawn to the dark corners of the 1950s because that’s the decade that most influenced me. My aspiring working-class parents impressed on me the need to be acceptable to the white mainstream, getting ready for integration, as they saw it. And, the only Black literary figures spotlighted in the 1950s were Black men. Maud Martha and Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones turned the crazy racist and sexist world of the 1950s right side up. Marshall’s vision of “[d]ark, lovely little girls in straw bonnets,” boys “with their rough hair parted neatly on the side,” and “women in sheer dresses which whipped around their brown legs” turned Blackness into an Impressionist painting. These representations of Black beauty and Black female anger and power defied the expectations of a white- and male-dominated literary establishment. These are the writers who make Black women’s lives central to literary history. So talk about where your work is now.

Trying to make Black women’s lives and work central. I’m tracking the experimental narrative practices of Black women writers in the post-Civil Rights era, writers who narrate in such a way that Blackness cannot be determined. Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Andrea Lee all experiment with representations of Blackness that can’t readily be discerned as such. One of the driving questions is: Why? Why make Blackness indeterminate? And I don’t mean physically imperceptible. This is not about racial passing. It’s about conceptual Blackness. The Black refusal to be determined is the object and the name of my study. It’s about refusing the representational demand that Blackness always be announced or seen. The iconic Fanon scene — when a child shouts, “Look, a Negro!” as Fanon passes on the street — tells us something about that demand, about the humanist requirement that Blackness exist in forms that can be readily apprehended.

Another key question is, “Why then, at that moment, in the late ’70s and early ’80s?” One answer is that Morrison, Butler, and Lee are each integrating a major institution of the historically white publishing world. Lee, following Jamaica Kincaid and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, helps to integrate The New Yorker; Toni Morrison is a Random House editor; and Butler is one of the earliest, if not the first, Black woman to publish in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. This project lets me return to this period that was so formative for me and look through a new lens that expands how we understand this era of Black women’s literary flourishing.

As you’re talking, I feel that the ghosts of the Black militancy protest tradition are looking over my shoulder and wondering, “And this is what you end up with — The New Yorker?”

But yes, this is part of what lies on the other side of so-called racial integration and the institutionalization of Black study in historically white universities and the integration of historically white publications. Baldwin placed “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in The New Yorker for a reason. And while Hunter, Kincaid, and Gault are integrating The New Yorker, James Alan McPherson, the first Black fiction writer to win the Pulitzer, is integrating The Atlantic Monthly. We’re all in many ways products of integration, and we all live intimately with its failures. We witness daily how anti-Blackness lives on within institutional structures.

And it’s not “you”! My concern is that we remain vigilant about resisting institutional power.

No, I understand what you mean, but it is me in some ways because I am the child of so-called integration and these texts index the history and labor of Blackness claiming space where it was once barred. Morrison and Butler are overturning, undermining, and unsettling the calcification of anti-Blackness in dominant modes of narration. Their narrative experiments allow us to keep in sight what Fanon calls the fact of our Blackness in an anti-Black world, even as they also allow us to radically lose touch with that unceasing racial reality. What is sticky about making Blackness indeterminate is that such practices can be, on the one hand, racially delusional, but on the other hand, radically visionary. They force us to hold two things in view at once: the known anti-Black world and another world. Their experimentation allows us to taste something other than the known world. It can be a door to the “beingness” that Kevin Quashie says is the expectation and outcome of “a Black world.”

I felt as though I truly found my scholarly voice when I began to see how Black Left artists and writers of the 1950s, “race radicals” as Jodi Melamed calls them, resisted what you call “the representational demands” of Blackness and the Black acceptability narratives of the 1950s. That resistance was more dangerous during the Cold War when refusing the protocols of US racism meant you could be labeled a communist. Next stop: An FBI file. Literary radicals like Brooks and Marshall laid the groundwork for what you see as the experimental practices of the post–Civil Rights era. I called The Other Blacklist a “counternarrative” because writers like Brooks and Marshall, and visual artists like Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, countered the protocols of the US racial order that excised the radical left, and I wanted to restore left writers and visual artists and their insurgent aesthetics to that history.

Let’s talk about what the archives look like to us, first, as you’re working with Paule Marshall, but also what it looked like for you for The Other Blacklist. Even though our entries into the academy were separated by two decades, we still both started at moments when there were no or few archives for Black women’s literature. So many archives have opened relatively recently.

I really started when there were so few archives and books were just beginning to be reprinted.

Yes, you were creating the archive. And what you have now as an archive for Marshall is astounding.

That Paule Marshall “archive” was a storage room in Richmond, Virginia, and the four laundry tubs of material I brought home in the back of my car in 2018. I am desperately trying to find personal anecdotes and personal stories about Paule and it’s very, very hard. Everybody who knew her or who interviewed her said that she did not want to answer any personal questions. She didn’t save any letters and she didn’t keep an extensive journal, but at the bottom of one of those laundry tubs, I found the diary she kept in 1983 when she was in China. In it, she ta­lks about her feelings of being panicked and feeling inadequate when she has to speak publicly. She was the head of a delegation of women writers who went to meet Chinese women writers. The only US women of color on the trip were Alice Walker, Nellie Wong, Bharati Mukherjee, and Paule. 

She never talked publicly about her queer sexuality, for example, but that is expressed in the China diary and is represented in all of her fiction. The exciting thing about the diary is that you see her wrestling with these transgressive feelings. She allows herself to feel attracted to another woman and writes this little warning to herself: “I know these are feelings that must be respected.” In Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet, I found a wonderful description of interiority as expansive, voluptuous, creative, impulsive, and even dangerous. Quashie says that so much of Black American literature is about resistance, about social consciousness, about challenging the outside world, while the places of our inner being are often ignored. I want my biography to shine a flashlight on Marshall’s life to show that she experienced the same kind of “expansive and voluptuous” interiority she imagines for her characters. 

Let’s talk about where your flashlight is shining in your own work.

Alongside scholars like Erica Edwards and Randi Gill-Sadler, I’m mapping Black women writers’ global visions and what I call their “geographical potency” by tracing the travels of Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde. Bringing Gloria Naylor into this picture has complicated the project in helpful ways, making it capacious enough to hold the radical travel of Bambara, Jordan, and Lorde but also Naylor’s ambivalent experiences. In a recorded conversation with Toni Morrison, Naylor speaks about using her advance from The Women of Brewster Place [1982] to travel to Spain. She sets off with the aim of experiencing the cosmopolitanism of Hemingway, the expatriatism of Baldwin, but she’s met with sheer sexism, misogyny. She says the men assumed she was a prostitute simply because she walked on the street alone. To shield herself, she remains in her boarding room. Confined in this way, she writes Linden Hills [1985], but she’s angry she can’t “roam the streets” or “have the world like [Hemingway and Baldwin] had the world.”

I’m also working with Naylor’s diary from the turn of the 21st century. In the entry for the first day of the new millennium, she writes from Antarctica. It’s a drastically different account than her trip to Spain nearly 20 years earlier. In Antarctica, Naylor writes, she is “living a dream: to spend the millennium at the end of the world.” Coming face to face with the “starkness of the planet” and eons of continental formation reminds Naylor of the eternal, how small we are. Being dwarfed in this way allows her to perceive her “being” differently — to know herself on a geological time scale, instead of the timeline of racial capitalism. It’s an instance of Black interiority and introspection. She talks about her travel dreams for the next 50 years — the Amazon, the Nile, the Aegean Sea — and writes that in the 50 years after that, “I’ll be traveling through the stars.” When I presented this work at Rutgers last January, in 2020, our dear colleague Cheryl Wall said, “That Naylor entry just takes your breath away.” And that’s the best way to describe the opening it creates. Naylor’s “end of the world” is a starting point for us, expanding our notions of Black women writers’ place in the world.

Mary Helen Washington in the Paule Marshall “archives”

Marshall wrote an essay in 1976, “Shaping the World of My Art,” which gives some indication that her journeys (and those of her characters) to Carriacou, Grenada, Barbados, Brazil, and British Guiana were never only personal journeys. She intended for them to form a reverse Middle Passage, using her art as a way to reimagine a global Black diaspora. The lives of her women characters thus become the creative space for these imaginings, for envisioning the possibilities of a new relationship among Blacks in the diaspora. What you call “geographical potency” is realized in Marshall’s fiction in her critique of colonialism, of Western materialism, of patriarchy, and of racial capitalism. But, for Marshall, independence from US racial dominance also requires personal rejection of Western values. In the novel Daughters, for example, her character Ursa engineers the defeat of her father, a corrupt prime minister of a Caribbean country. By unmaking global empire, Marshall’s charismatic Black female internationalists represent what Erica Edwards calls “the other side of terror.”

Now I’m thinking back to the 2019 symposium at Maryland in your honor. I toasted you and Cheryl Wall and spoke about how you two had helped to create a field in which all the scholars at that symposium could gather. You helped to craft a world we could enter, a place to engage in Black study together. This world, this work, did not exist in this way in 1970, and it was through your hands and Cheryl Wall’s and others’ that it exists now. Hands like yours that cobbled this together.

Thank you, “cobbled it together” — yes! [Laughs.]

Let’s end on this lovely metaphor of cobbling it together, because that’s what you and I both had to do in so many instances. But then there was also a vitality in the literature and the culture that enabled this field to grow.


Mary Helen Washington is Distinguished University Professor in the English Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her monograph, The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (Columbia University Press, 2014), received Honorable Mention in the William Sanders Scarborough Prize competition from The Modern Language Association.

Shaun Myers is assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Literary HistorySouth Atlantic Quarterly, and African American Literature in Transition, 1980-1990. Her in-progress book examines narrative forms of indeterminacy that refuse the historical demand to apprehend and determine blackness.

LARB Contributors

Mary Helen Washington is Distinguished University Professor in the English Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, specializing in 20th- and 21st-century African American literature. Her monograph, The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (Columbia University Press, 2014), received Honorable Mention in the William Sanders Scarborough Prize competition from The Modern Language Association. She has edited three groundbreaking collections of African American literature: Memory of Kin: Stories About Family by Black Writers (Random House, 1991); Black-Eyed Susans and Midnight Birds: Stories By and About Black Women (Doubleday, 1990); and Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960 (Doubleday/Anchor, 1987). She was president of The American Studies Association from 1996–1997 and was awarded the American Studies Association’s Carl Bode-Norman Holmes Pearson Prize for lifetime achievement in 2015. Her current project, Paule — Like A Man: A Biography of Paule Marshall, will be published by Yale University Press, 2022.
Shaun Myers is assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Literary HistorySouth Atlantic Quarterly, and African American Literature in Transition, 1980-1990. She is currently working on a book that traces how writers such as Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Andrea Lee invented narrative forms that refuse the historical demand to apprehend and determine blackness.


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