Sister, Sister: Sisterhood & Womanism in the 90s

Womanism: “Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”[1]

Alice Walker     

A close friend told me being a Black woman is like being in a secret club of magic, sisterhood and friendship. Reflecting on Black women’s friendship and sisterhood on television and movies in the 90s, I, similarly see a consistent theme of support, unconditional love and acceptance.  These themes can be aligned to how Alice Walker describes a Black feminist in her definition of Womanism. Walker describes Womanism as young girl as “girlish” or  “womanish” or a black feminist or feminist of color. I find her description of Womanism as a means to provide a specific exploration into the lives of Black womanhood.

 I look specifically to Walker’s second definition because it captures the essence of the 90s Black woman who aims to take on the responsibility to be in charge of herself and to question the world around her. I reference how this can be explored in the hit show Living Single and the hit movie and book Waiting to Exhale. I utilize Walker’s second definition to explore how these women embody the spirit of being a womanist through the ways their characters interact with each other and how they stand alone as independent Black women loving and living in the 90s.

Looking at the lives of Khadijah James, Synclaire James, Regina Hunter and Maxine Shaw, Living Single explores the lives of four independent Black women in New York City. This show captures the “everydayness” of single Black women in New York who validated each other, dealt with love and relationships and enjoying each other’s company.

With each woman having their own characteristics and identities, each woman on the show had an important role in each other’s lives. Khadijah and Regina were childhood friends who supported each other when things got tough. This support and commitment were also fluid in Khadijah and Synclaire’s relationship as cousins who she employed at her own Hip-Hop magazine called “Flava”.

Maxie and Khadijah were college friends from Howard University and Maxie seemed to always be the advocate for strong independent Black women amongst her friends. Their friendship supports Walker’s definition because of the characters emotional flexibility, their commitment to women’s empowerment and their tough bond as friends that were seamlessly interconnected, through the best and worst of times.

Walker does a great job discussing the emotional and spiritual effort that goes into being a Womanist. Walker explains how Womanist appreciates women’s culture, loves women sexually and non-sexually and values a woman’s strength and weaknesses[2]. This is where the women in Terry McMillian’s Waiting to Exhale fit this definition. Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes and Gloria Matthews experienced tough trials of love, life and men. Through their experiences, the women supported each other through it all. There were words of affirmation and emotional support that showed people like Bernadine who was going through a terrible divorce that her friends were by her side.

I see Walker’s womanism as describing the social interactions, spiritual activism and critical thought that Black women do to uplift all people regardless of sexuality or gender. I understand this definition as a way to look at Black women’s liberation and healing of the self. Specifically, acting “womanish” seems to be a central theme in Waiting to Exhale. The four women were searching for answers to love, family and womanhood which is where I found the connection with Walker’s definition. This can be seen in Robin’s way of how she seemed to date the wrong men, but tried to see the best in them because she had love to give. Walker added the importance that a Womanist was not a separatist, but only in the occasion that Black woman in the 90s needs to repair her health. Gloria symbolizes the friend who represented self-care as a hairstylist and made sure her friends were always taking care of themselves, even if she didn’t want to do the big chop on Bernadine.

Furthermore, the importance of Walker’s definition and the analysis of  Black woman’s thoughts and feelings will better aid to the mental and emotional health and well-being where the Black woman can adequately take care of others and themselves in shows like Living Single and Waiting to Exhale. The womanist identity and the importance of Black women’s “everydayness” in the 90s was significant, interesting and relevant to highlighting the ugly and the beautiful of what it means to be a Black woman. These women work on coming into their own and being Black adult women who may not have it all figured out. But with the power of resilience, self-love and love for each other, the magnitude and power of their friendship kept them moving forward. — Adeerya J.

Citations

[1]Walker, A. (2006). Womanist. In L. Phillips, The Womanist Reader (p. 19). New York: Routledge.

[2]ibid.

 

McMillan and Harris: The Mother and Father of Black Fiction

Terry McMillan came on the literary scene in 1987 with her first novel Mama, however it was not until she published her third novel Waiting to Exhale in 1992 that she received fame and fortune. Waiting to Exhale told the story of four professional, middle class black women and their experiences with love. Readers experienced each character’s loneliness, destruction, happiness, sadness, sexual desires, and frustrations with black men; things that readers, especially female readers, could relate to.

While some argued the novel represented a negative view of the black woman and her relationship with black men, the novel spent months on the New York Times Bestseller list and went on to sell over three million copies, and a film adaptation was released in 1995 that featured Whitney Houston. Author and professor Daphe A. Brooks says of the novel: It marked a watershed moment in American culture as it announced and contributed to a shift in Black popular cultural consciousness and production during the last decade of the twentieth century. Advantageously positioned in the aftermath of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Senate hearings, Exhale dramatically extended and popularized for mass consumption the politics of a particular kind of heterosexual, Black middle-class conflict and desire.[i]

McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale not only depicted a demographic, middle-class black women, of people not regularly seen in literature, but she also shed light on the complexities of relationships.

McMillan is credited for jumpstarting the African American fiction movement with Waiting to Exhale, and throughout the decade she went on to write more novels that gave glimpses of black love and published one of her most popular novels How Stella Got Her Groove Back in 1996; in 1998, the film adaptation featuring Angela Bassett and Taye Diggs was released. The novel told the story of Stella and her relationship with Winston, a man considerably younger than her. Winston taught Stella to embrace life and eventually his love because she married him. The novel mirrored McMillan’s experience with then husband, Jonathan Plummer.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back is another novel that sets McMillan apart because she reveals the questions, concerns, hopes, and fears of dating someone younger. Stella (and McMillan) has to deal with the thrills and drama that comes along with dating someone younger and at a different stage in life. Likewise, Terry McMillan’s novels did not only deal with love in terms of black men and black women, a few of her works also introduced black’s complex relationship with homosexuals. She weaves in political and social concerns in the black community, such as the understanding (or misunderstanding) of HIV/AIDS and the negative stigma of being black and gay.

Consequently it is of no surprise that another author would emerge and hit the issue of being black and gay head on instead of touching on the subject as McMillan does. Author E. Lynn Harris filled this role and shocked the world with his tales of black men on the DL and carrying on relationships with women. Harris’ novel Invisible Life (1991) told the story of Raymond Tyler struggling with his identity as a bisexual black man. In the novel, Tyler was torn between his married boyfriend and girlfriend. Although readers were stunned by the then-taboo topic, the novel went on to sell millions of copies. Harris’ novels speak to an audience that was largely ignored by authors. All of his books reached the New York Times bestseller list and he is one of the most successful black authors. He was even referred to as the male Terry McMillan.

Some were surprised by Harris’ success because the black community does not readily accept or discuss homosexuality. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Harris says, “I feel like my readers get that I’m writing from the heart, and that resonates with a lot of people in the black community, women especially. Even though the character might be a gay man, they can connect with him emotionally. They can relate to being in hurtful relationships, and because they get that, it doesn’t matter if it’s a gay or a straight relationship” (2003). [ii] Even though homosexuality in the 90s was a taboo subject, readers could relate to Harris’ works. He spoke for and told stories for those who could not speak for themselves during that time.

Both authors captured readers by representing and telling stories that black women and men craved, and they provided literature for black middle-class Americans, a largely underrepresented group before the 90s. McMillan and Harris used personal experiences and turned them into fiction in order to reach and possibly help a multitude of people. Without their persistence in creating stories that people could relate to, who knows what black fiction would look like now.B. Stewart


 

[i] Brooks, Daphe A. “”It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”” Taylor & Francis Online. Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

[ii] Millard, Elizabeth. “Writing to Find Some Kind of Peace of Mind.” PublishersWeekly.com. N.p., 16 June 2003. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.