All women live with a constant drumbeat of real and threatened violence against us. White women, however, are taught that the worst of that violence comes from men of color and that only the white supremacist patriarchy can save us, even if the men that system places us beneath sometimes hurt us. That hurt is assumed to be lesser, deserved, and legitimate. Rape is the threat of a shadowy figure hiding in the bushes, not the actions of the men we are supposed to marry. Take away the power of the patriarch, and we too will be destroyed.
But literature can show us how that patriarchy in fact destroys us. In Kate Chopin‘s The Awakening, a white woman who tries to escape the restrictions imposed upon her eventually succumbs to social pressure, not by returning to her limited domestic life but by killing herself. The poetry of Adrienne Rich can teach us to see the “Galaxies of women, there / doing penance for impetuousness“. She shows us, too, that by “Diving into the Wreck“, by leaving behind “the book of myths” we can find something new, something unexplored. We can survive and make of our survival a quest.
And when white women come to see through the myths that tell us we can only be safe in white supremacist patriarchy, we can read the work of women of color in a spirit of solidarity. When we read June Jordan, we can follow how she has been damaged by the same system that has damaged us, even as it also elevates us above her. Her “Poem about My Rights” reads, in part:
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and
whether it’s about walking out at night
or whether it’s about the love that I feel or
whether it’s about the sanctity of my vagina or
the sanctity of my national boundaries
or the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctity
of each and every desire
that I know from my personal and idiosyncratic
and indisputably single and singular heart
I have been raped
As long as white women remain supportive of the white supremacist patriarchy, the sanctity of our leaders will not be violated, even if parts of ourselves are.
It might be objected that not all literature opposes or deconstructs the white supremacist patriarchy, but that is where literary criticism comes in, whether formal, casual, academic, or public. This is why literature as a discipline matters: because we teach students to examine the narratives they read instead of consuming them passively. We can read Gone with the Wind for how it promotes false narratives about race and gender in the American South around the time of the Civil War. When we regard stories critically, we are analyzing what narratives and ideals are being expressed and evaluating whether to accept or reject them.
Literature, especially when studied carefully, helps us to understand the narratives that shape us. When those narratives become visible, their validity can be assessed. We can also better understand how those narratives shape both ourselves and those around us. This is something sharper than what is commonly called empathy, though some might argue it gets closer to the real meaning of the word.
- Monstrous Births (feedproxy.google.com)
- Brainpickings Remembers That Time That Adrienne Rich Declined the National Medal of the Arts (poetryfoundation.org)
- On Poetry & Social Change: Claudia Rankine Discusses Adrienne Rich at New Yorker (poetryfoundation.org)
- Christian Century Considers Adrienne Rich’s Collected Works (poetryfoundation.org)