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Est. April 5, 2002
February 08, 2018 - Issue 728

In Praise of the Personal Essay
in the
Age of #MeToo and Times Up

"The #MeToo Movement started years ago with Black women,
and many women of color find the personal narrative
useful in expressing what it means to be a woman of color
in America. And that expression of the personal for women
of color has always pointed to the public, the
institutionalization of violence in this country."

The dead are more insolent than ever.

It used to be easy:

we gave them a starched collar a flower

we placed their names on an honor roll:

the length and breadth of our land

the illustrious shades of yesteryear

the monstrous shadow.

The cadaver signed on memory’s dotted line

joined the rank and file once more

and marched to the beat of our worn out music.

But what are you gonna do

the dead

just ain’t what they used to be.

These days they get ironic

ask questions.

Seems to me they’re starting to figure out

that they are the majority.

- Roque Dalton, “The Warrior’s Rest” (El Salvador)

Talking among themselves, there are Americans openly denouncing the usefulness of the personal narrative as a genre. Nothing can be more unfortunate for the progression of women in the US than the rise of the MeToo Movement? Beware of the backlash! It’s here!

I have to be skeptical. I have to ask questions, even when I already know based on my experiences as being a Black woman in this country. There’s an element of professionalism, so I make myself step back and ask: Who is speaking? Why? Who is the intended audience of the message in these articles, essays, lectures, books? This is a country entangled in white supremacy so much so that each American is trapped in its net. What’s unfortunate is that too many are too innocence to know it.

I have to ask—who is doing the denouncing and declaring and why is this individual announcing an end to something? And an end to what?

And using the word backlash, to boot? I’m of the generation of Blacks who remember the backlash. There’s no end to that backlash.

Americans are uncomfortable. In particular, we’re told, men are uncomfortable. Fathers, uncles, husbands, sons, on the edge, are wondering, Who’s at the controls?

And the author of these articles and lectures then ask, When is this calling out of men going to stop, already? When will America get back to being America again? America is becoming weary of women’s grumblings. And it’s really not just women in general.

Women, as in women’s studies, usual means the study of white women, plus or minus a book or two by Toni Morrison, or bell hooks, or Louise Erdrich. Really adventurous programs may include a few Westernized Muslim women writers, particularly those writers who write of the brutality of Muslim men. (Let’s hush up #MeToo since so many of the revelations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, abuse of power shine the spotlight on white men. Pillars of civil society).

The centralizing of white women while othering the world’s majority, women of color, is not so distant from the President of the United States calling Haiti and countries in Africa, those “shithole” places. Why does the US, for that matter, the West, have to negotiate or even consider people from these shithole lands?

But the #MeToo Movement started years ago with Black women, and many women of color find the personal narrative useful in expressing what it means to be a woman of color in America. And that expression of the personal for women of color has always pointed to the public, the institutionalization of violence in this country.

A small shed had been added to my grandmother’s house years ago. Some boards were laid across the joists at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very small garret, never occupied by any thing but rats and mice… The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. There was no admission for either light or air...To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered, the house. The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof…I heard the voices of the children…

In time, she bumps her head against what she discovers is a gimlet! Waiting until evening, she begins boring three holes for air and one hole, an inch long, allows her to see her children. Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman, lives this way for seven years so her master won’t harm her or her children. And that shithole existence, forced to begin in the bowels of slave ships, became the foundation of the American plantation system.

We know this story because, using the pseudonym, Linda Brent, Jacobs writes a personal narrative, Incident in the Life of A Slave Girl.

But ask any of these “educated” in America’s version of women’s studies if they have ever read the slave narratives, other than Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. The classical novels by Bessie Head or Tsitsi Dangarembga, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, or Marima B—are these texts featured in these women studies programs? Ask these women if they have read or rather, more significantly, studied more than one work by a Caribbean novelist or thinker? Have they read the less popular work of Native American Leslie Marmon Silko or studied critical theory of Paula Gunn Allen? What about the personal essays of Gloria Anzaldua on transcending borders and boundaries?

The point is—there is a tradition of surviving the shithole of deliberate and debilitating ignorance.

Other than Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, however, are these women encouraged by the gatekeepers, male and female liberals, to studied to understand Assata Shakur’s autobiography, a personal narrative on the experience of being a radical thinker and activist in this country?

Early in my doctorate program in Modern American Literature, I meet with a white feminist, tenured faculty, to show her a list of works I wanted to study. Standard procedure in any MA or PhD program. Maybe I’ll study with her. Maybe not. But we’ll meet. My list consists of texts I have read and studied at the college and MA level. I had already taught many of these texts over the previous years.

Anita Hill is testifying, and she’s is being demonized.

The professor, a year or two younger, just gave birth for the first time. But I was not the new kid on the block. So woman to woman, educator to educator, I say to her, what do you think about this list?

She glanced at it and then at me, “You’re just trying to show off”!

I see! Who is always being “educated” about the ways white supremacy operates, if not women of color?

In the meantime, for her, it’s all about exerting a certain level of power. A push back—that doesn’t leave any physical markings of abuse on my body.

End of a discussion that was never allowed to materialize in first place. And so business can continue as usual.

This woman went on to head the women’s studies program. Of course!

In 2017, Soraya Roberts wrote a response to Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker, who declared the “death” of the personal essay. I don’t have time to read yet another installment about male-female relationships that sound like episodes of Friends. I’m just too old and there are just too many issues of consequence that need addressing, particularly if you have a platform in which to address to expose inequalities and injustices facing a majority of the world’s population.

Tolentino, writes Roberts in, “The Personal Essay Isn’t Dead. It’s Just No Longer White,” accuses the “genre of trafficking in empty, sensational confession” that lacks self-awareness or longevity.

Roberts calls attention to an essay in the Boston Review, in which an assistant professor at McGill University, Merve Emre, refers to Tolentino while “eviscerating Indian-Canadian writer Durga Chew-Bose’s lyrical essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood.” Chew-Bose’s work engaged in “peacocking,” but said nothing!

However, Emre heaps all praise “for the cool precision of Mary Gaitskill and Deborah Nelson.” White authors.

Again, I think of the term historian Timothy Snyder uses, “managed inequality.”

Roberts: “the dismissal of Chew-Bose as a personal essayist, simply for her style and associating her instead with confession, negates the diversity of the genre’s voices, implying that women of color are one entity that can only do one thing and not particularly well, at that.”

White authors define what’s traditional, what’s standard, and, Roberts writes, if women of color refuse to abide by what’s established then it “speaks to their inferiority as artists rather than their innovation.”

The essayist, James Baldwin, encouraged writers to write out of their experience, particularly if that experience is the result of living with the legacy and consequences of being a “colored” victim of colonialism, enslavement, social and economic disenfranchisement, and cultural misrepresentation.

In rooms, in high places, women are talking. What’s not voiced is the concern on their minds in the form of a question: What’s at stake for those of us who survived the gauntlet, relatively in tack—allowing for understanding that—that’s they way it is? What’s next for our girl children?

If men become even more angered by women sharing knowledge about how “normal” operates in America—how will these men respond?

How will men respond to #MeToo and Time’s Up Movements, the whole personal narrative boom by women of color? With anger, of course.

But, then, like Harriet Jacobs, and so many women of color, we’ve survived it by living to write on! Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
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Peter Gamble

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