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Post-Colonial Women Performing in States of Shame: Shame and the Black Female Body: Subject/Object?

Karen U. Lindo





In step with present Western and “Minority” feminist efforts to re-inscribe the female body into a theoretical framework, this paper will trace the somatic contours of shame as it is articulated through the physiognomy of the black female experience.

In the Western intellectual tradition, the mind-body split has not only relegated the woman to the domestic realm but more so justified this measure because of her unruly disruptive body with its passions and appetites. Much like the history of emotions, the body has been traditionally consigned to the domestic space, beyond the realm of power and knowledge-making. The female body of color knows a unique history of oppression in the colonial experience, whereby far from being exclusively consigned to the private realm, her body became a visible zone for spectacular violations and display of power.

My analysis begins with the nineteenth century novel by French writer, Claire de Duras, entitled Ourika which provides a historical framework for analyzing the relationship between the plight of the black woman and her body. This work is of particular interest because not only is it told from the point of view of a French woman, but even more it is anchored in a politically-charged historical moment in which imperial France is confronted with the fervor of the formerly enslaved Haitian people for self-rule. Following, I will demonstrate through a select number of the works of the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé (En Attendant le bonheur, Histoire de la femme cannibale, Célanire cou-coupé, Moi-Tituba Sorcière) how the black female body articulates distinct narratives of shame at separate socio-historical moments. I seek to examine how the body as an alternate space triumphs or succumbs to the burden of shame. Mamzelle Libellule, by Martiniquan author Raphaël Confiant will provide an interest contrast to the perspective of a female author. Confiant, who is particularly wedded to an Antillean aesthetic vision of all things, will enrich this chapter because of his attention to the aesthetic dimension of the black and mulatto female bodies’ self-expression. I address how Confiant inscribes shame in his Antillean aesthetic vision and the pitfalls he works to avoid which risk to re-inscribe a mainmise on the black female body.

By reading closely for somatic representations of shame, I aim not only to bring the black female body to the fore on her terms but more so to demonstrate how the body becomes a strategy and technique which facilitates the female protagonist’s ability to maneuver the experience of shame. In other words, the body becomes an ally in shameful experiences displaying a unique brand of agency between what is exposed and what is concealed and to whom. While psychological studies of shame place emphasis on facial expressions, the history of the black female body must be considered as a whole in her relationship with shame. This intra-subjective relationship between the female body and shame then suggests a transformational experience of shame made visible through the body’s will or failure to perform according to specific cultural practices. Further, I examine the cultural demands placed on the female body in specific social contexts and how this body negotiates its space and place within these demands? How does Western feminist discourse impose its own dictates on the black female body? What techniques do the authors deploy to respond to the intersection of cultural demands within personal narratives embodied by shame?

This presentation is a key chapter of my dissertation project entitled Post-Colonial Women Performing in States of Shame. In this project, I challenge the scientific discourse developed in Charles Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1892) in which people of color were assigned to the category of animals for their inability to visibly blush. According to Darwin, the inability to blush indicated that the black race did not experience shame, the distinguishing characteristic of a fully human being. This argument was to feed directly into the colonial apparatus which led to the enslavement of people of color. My project then questions the place of shame alongside the question of identity which is prevalent in post-colonial discourse: Can shame be read as (re)-performing an identity that was (de)- constituted during the colonial enterprise? What literary devices do post-colonial authors deploy to mask and perform shame in identity formation? Can shame be read as planting the seeds of betterment rather than as a debilitating emotional experience?

By choosing to study women of color and shame, I see the occasion to re-evaluate and contribute differently to the literature of collective guilt that is preponderant today. A postcolonial literary project which focuses on women who perform in states of shame announces a new theoretical avenue by which to examine the postcolonial literature of people of color. The black experience is forever documented in repetitive epidermal strictures that must be challenged to accommodate the inner experience of black people.

While it is my hope that this particular optic will enhance the discourse on emotions and heighten the relevance of the literary and visual fields in bringing us closer to an understanding of the human experience, more so I am equally invested in raising the specter of shame and its profile both in the victim and in the oppressor. More generally, I hope to make apparent through this study that emotions are part of our cognitive and ethical inquiry; and that by being attentive to the internal and external dynamics that together forge the subject, leaving aside the false binaries, we open up onto new horizons for more complete human experiences and interpretations of the cultural and social values to which we adhere.

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