Gendering the color line in Angelina Weld Grimkés "Fragment"
The Harlem Renaissance has been presented as the emergence of a black, predominantly male aesthetic. This phallocentric view has often left gender out of accounts of race, which has inevitably obscured our understanding of black women and their concerns both within and without the movement. For instance, sexual discrimination against women from black communities, apparent in the lack of support for women of colour (Nelson 96, Drake 229), has hardly been dealt with at all. I propose to briefly discuss Angelina Weld-Grimkés untitled "Fragment" in the light of intra-racial sexual discrimination, and show, without falling into the trap of lécriture féminine, how women poets gendered "the color" line in their writings.
Grimkés "Fragment" starts with a superimposition of race and gender issues:
I am the woman with the black black face
Grimké gives us no name or other personal information. Instead, she creates a character defined only in terms of race and gender and, by doing so, stresses the importance of these socially constructed categories. The "woman" may remain as unidentified as the (untitled) poem that describes her, but the lack of details by no mean renders her anonymous, let alone voiceless. Together with the use of the definite article, this fundamental indeterminacy elevates her to the status of Everywoman. The peculiar use of the modifier "black" in lines 1-2 creates a pattern of omission and repetition that suggests that the poem deals with the gender of the I-persona as much as with her skin colour, but never syntactically mixing the two. What we have here is thus a black Everywoman.
In any case, the poem puts a lot of emphasis on self-representation as a bold political gesture. The I-persona claims herself by using a first person singular pronoun together with the verb to be in its active form. She thereby ceases to exist as a "third person consciousness" (Fanon 110) stuck in a secondary, objectified position. By re-appropriating herself, she also leaves very little room for males, both black and white, to objectify her as female-other. She re-appropriates her gender and colour and thereby becomes a speaking subject in the racial as well as gender conflict.
Her self-confidence, further apparent in her incessant "laugh," eventually proves to be a mere façade. She confesses that she is subjected to a life of sacrifice, toil and fear "just to eat" (line 4). Most readers, I assume, would blame the white master for the womans physical and emotional sufferings. Yet Grimké says nothing about that, leaving as it were the door open for any interpretation. She could very well be talking about the white man, or the black, or both. This fundamental indeterminacy indirectly serves to stress the relevance of gender concerns in a discourse about race.
It is well worth noting too that the focus of the poem gradually shifts from gender and race (lines 1-2) to gender alone (lines 7-8). In the end, the I-persona is only identified as a "woman." Were it not for the first two lines, one could almost read the poem as portraying any woman. Should we understand this as an attempt to give precedence to gender concerns over racial concerns, and to put forward the femininity of black women? Maybe, but Grimké did put the lines " I am the woman with the black black skin / I am the laughing woman with the black black face," and we cannot ignore their contribution to the meaning of the poem altogether.
In a period marked by "twofold discrimination" against women (Nelson 97), Grimké thus manages to include thoughts on gender in an apparently conventional discussion of race problems. Ultimately though, her short "Fragment" leaves us somewhere between race and gender, never really telling us what to make of the poem. Some might say that this was too ambitious a goal for such a short poem. I would rather believe that Grimké did not expect us to choose between race and gender. On the contrary she wanted us to see the articulation of gender and race, and believe in the possibility of gendering the "color line."
Drake, Williams. The First Women Poets in America, 1915-1945. New York: MacMillan, 1987.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. Translated from the French by Charles Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Copyright © 2001 by Eloy Romero-Munoz
“Ah Tol’ the Boss”: Counter-Discourse, Bodies, and Resistance in
Angelina Wald Grimké’s “Fragment” and Sol Funaroff’s “Going Mah Own Road”
During the 1930s both Angelina Wald Grimké and Sol Funaroff wrote lines that considered the body as a locus of resistance–both took part in a discourse around and about African-American bodies. The results of their work–of Grimké’s “Fragment” and Funaroff’s “Going Mah Own Road”–are quite different. Both took part in a counter-discourse that sought to reclaim the body from the productions of power-knowledge that were centered on blacks and blackness, but Grimké’s unfinished lines gesture toward a type of resistance that Funaroff’s completed poem only approaches through discourse: bodies and pleasure. Grimké’s poem breaks off short of full counter-discourse; a disruption that points to Michel Foucault’s vaguely articulated realm of resistance. On the other hand, Funaroff’s poem fails to achieve its full resistant capacity because it seeks “liberation” through counter-discourse. The completion of the poet’s utterance limits the statement to the realm of power-knowledge and leaves little room outside the text for resistance through the bodies of which it speaks.
Cary Nelson, the editor of the Anthology of Modern Poetry–in labeling Angelina Wald Grimké’s untitled, partial poem as “Fragment”–has entered into a dialogue with the lines that illuminate the work in light of the seven decades between the poem’s composition and the publication of Nelson’s anthology. In Repression and Recovery, Nelson contends that Grimké’s “fragments” are “surprisingly contemporary” (97). I contend though, that the editor’s intervention makes the material even more contemporarily relevant and sheds further light on the discourses of race and gender (that were in full force in 1930 and that continue to be in force today) and the role of the body as a resistance to the power-knowledge that those discourses create and that counter-discourse alone can never deconstruct.
To label the poem “Fragment” is in a part an evaluative judgment: the poem is not “complete.” Thus the poem is literally a fragment, a piece of an unfinished poem. This posthumously applied label also necessarily functions as an interpretation of the lines. One thinks of modernist experimentation with collage (fragments of text, allusions, “high” and “low” culture, all juxtaposed with each other) and postmodern literary “fragmentation” (which would transport the poem from 1930 to the 1970s or 1980s), or of the explosive destructiveness of certain types of artillery and grenades (which would offer a not inappropriate interpretation of the poem as a device sending shrapnel into and through the discourses of race and gender). I find, however, the biological form of fragmentation to be the metaphor most worthy of note, because of its connection to the body as the site of potential resistence to these discourses. In biology fragmentation is a form of asexual reproduction. “Fragment” is, therefore, both (re)produced and (re)productive, asexual and sexual, inside and outside of discourse. The text is an aborted effort at counter-discourse that has been broken off because of its limitations. The text may be imbricated with (re)production, but in its incompleteness it gestures to something outside–to the bodily subject that cannot be contained in the text and that is the true site of resistance.
Discourses of race and gender were certainly prevalent by 1930. In fact, the discourses in and around subjectivity and sexuality that Foucault recognizes as producing power-knowledge were arguably at their height during the era of high modernism. Foucault has adequately discussed this production in the realm of gender and sexuality (I mention the hysterization of women’s bodies and the creation of the category “homosexual” in the nineteenth century as only two of many possible examples), but the same scientificization (or reification) was occurring with racial constructs. I will point to the famous Tuskegee syphilis experiments–in which poor African-Americans were used as unwitting sites of knowledge production–as only one attempt to establish a rationality that inscribed self-surveilling subjectivity on the racialized body. Black Americans were both the subject and object of scientific power-knowledge; their bodies produced medical knowledge that was, in turn, distributed as a rationalized form of self-care (i.e, medical technologies were disseminated as a necessary knowledge for all citizens, including African-Americans). I will also point to the poetic discourse of race–by whites and by people of color–that can be seen in the poetry of the era and in Nelson’s anthology. The medico-scientific and poetic discourses were both concerned with black bodies as site of knowledge production and as site of control. So Eloy Romero-Munoz’s claim that Grimké “creates a character defined only in terms of race and gender and, by doing so, stresses the importance of these socially constructed categories” is only half right; it ignores the body.
Near the end of The History of Sexuality’s first volume, Foucault gestures toward “bodies and pleasures” as an alternative to “liberation” (157). In other words, since liberation implies separation from discourse (power-knowledge) itself, we must find an alternative. To step outside of power, we must step outside of knowledge: there we find the bodies and pleasure. Thus when we see the poet’s opening two lines–“I am the woman with the black black skin / I am the laughing woman with the black black face”–the body of the poem’s subject is invoked. Grimké moves beyond blackness, womanhood, and the rationalities these evoke to a consideration of the skin and the face– to the body. In lines four and five–“I am toiling just to eat / In the cold and in the heat”–we see key elements of Foucault’s care of the self (i.e., care of the body, not knowledge of the subject; in Foucault’s view the Cartesian turn toward self-knowledge is historical not universal: care of the self has been, and can be again, an alternative mode of subjectivity). These four lines center the poem on the body, but what of pleasure? It is here that we return to the imposed title’s hermeneutical implications.
Foucault’s History of Sexuality is itself a fragment; he did not complete it before his death. His brief comment about bodies and pleasure and his lecture on the care of the self are even more fragmentary–they do not fully explain his meaning. Grimké’s poem is similarly unelaborated. She recognizes the body and even begins to see it as a site of pleasure–a practice that would serve as an alternative to power-knowledge. Yet there is no pleasure in this poem, only fear and sadness masked by laughter. Perhaps pleasure cannot be expressed in such a counter-discourse, and perhaps that is why Grimké’s poem is incomplete: the limits of discourse do not extend to liberation; bodies can be imag(in)ed in a text, but–as Foucault seems to indicate–the potential of bodies as a site of resistance exists outside discourse.
One can imagine how, in the seventy years between the fragment’s composition and its inclusion in Nelson’s anthology, that this fragment was placed alongside other fragments to begin the work (a work that is not complete) of using the body–the very surface on which power-knowledge is inscribed–to resist power-knowledge, but this is only counter-discourse. If liberation is illusory the counter-discourse can only be one part of resistance; what Grimké gestures to outside of the text, however, might contain the potential for more significant resistance. Grimké’s fragment is both the asexual offspring of earlier knowledges and practices (i.e. the poem exists in an established and establishing chain of counter-discourses), but its fragmentary nature, its incompleteness, also offers hope that it can be the bodily progenitor of later sexually-saturated bodies and pleasures.
As I have indicated, the poetic discourse around and about racialized bodies was/is extensive. And, strangely enough, another poem from the 1930s–this one not by an African-American woman, but by a Jewish communist–offers a response to Grimké. Sol Funaroff’s “Goin Mah Own Road” features a black man standing on the verge of freedom, considering the pleasure of a labor that will benefit him alone. Funaroff’s poem attempts to realize the body as a site of freedom, but in the end, it does nothing more than recognize the futility of such freedom; its completion as a discursive utterance makes it a solid part of the counter-discourse, but leaves no room for the bodies and pleasures that exist outside the text.
“Goin Mah Own Road” has a strikingly different tone than Grimké’s poem or, for the matter, than much of the era’s poetry that took race relations as its topic. The poem certainly contains bitterness, but whereas “Fragment” ends with despair, Funaroff’s poem is upbeat–the speaker seems to believe that working “foh mahse’f” is a possibility. Much like in Grimké’s poem, the speaker of Funaroff’s poem is focused on the body as a site of resistance: “Ah need some clo’s /Ah need some shoes / Ah need a loaf of bread / Ah need a roof ovah mah head” (lines 4-7). The basic needs of the body are the reason for resistance, but also the means for resistance: “Ah’ll make mah clothes / Ah’ll make mah shoes / Ah’ll make a loaf of bread, / Make me a roof ovah mah head” (lines 27-30). The body’s needs provoke the speaker to use his body–his work–as resistance through self-sufficiency. Like Grimké, Funaroff is right to recognize the body and an alternative to the power-knowledge created through discourse. The body in his poem is destined to fail, however, for several reasons: because the resistance through labor that the speaker imagines is an impossibility under capitalism; because the poet’s relationship to the discourse of bodies–in this case black bodies–undermines resistance; and because Funaroff inscribes the body further into discourse, both inside and outside the poem.
First, the speaker assumes that once he is free from “the boss” that he will be free to travel his “own road”–that he will have direct access to the products of his labor. Under capital this is simply not a reality. While there are undoubtedly better situations for the speaker–in which he can better afford the necessities of life–he is not likely to find a situation in which he is unalienated from his labor. Industrialism and large-scale agriculture were both fully implicated in labor alienation and surplus production by the 1930s and no worker can expect to directly provide for himself. It may be a possibility, but it is by no means a likelihood. In other words, the speaker’s body is too fully subject to the power-knowledge of the economic system and its discourse: all bodies must be governed; all bodies are labor (this mandate would appear even more true for lower-class and minority workers).
Second, Funaroff speaks in an affected voice; he imitates black dialect, but he does not speak from the black experience or from the black body. The plight of the black working class might have had much in common with the plight of other groups (including the revolutionary working class with which Funaroff was most concerned), but the body of the African-American is more fully implicated within the discourses of labor than any other body could be. The entire history of American labor is forever imprinted on the body of the man Funaroff speaks for and through. When Grimké speaks of the black body, she speaks first hand–she is owner of and prisoner in that of which she speaks. “Goin Mah Own Road” cannot speak with that authority; it can only belong to the discourse that creates power-knowledge around that body.
Finally, this poem’s status in that discourse determines the efficacy of resistance. The speaker asserts, “Ah tol’ the boss you go the hell” (line 19), and “Ah tol’ the boss ‘Ah take what’s mine” (line 23). The speaker’s resistance is not bodily here, but verbal; it is discourse. The speaker realizes on a certain level that the resistance he imagines is hollow, so he must assert his resistance: he turns his resistance into knowledge through speech, instead of the alternative of body and practice. Discourse wins the day in the story of the poem, and the poem as a discursive utterance is similarly implicated. It is not a bodily resistance, and the pleasure is merely discursive. It exists within a poetic discourse of bodies, labor, and race that mix with other discourses from this era to further govern subjects: Funaroff’s resistance is as empty as the speaker’s, because it too relies on discourse. All three locations of the poem in relation to discourse and bodies limit its resistive potentials: capital cannot be resisted through counter-discourse alone; Funaroff only has access to the discourse around black bodies, not the bodies themselves; and the supersession of discourse in the poem is mirrored by the role of the poem as an act of counter-discourse that’s completeness never allows a gesture to resistant bodies outside the text.
“Goin Mah Own Road” is not a fragment. It attempts to fully explore bodies and pleasures (the pleasure of working for one’s self) in a way that Grimké’s incomplete lines do not, which is why her “Fragment” offers more possibilities. Bodies and pleasure cannot be explored through the same discourses that create power-knowledge; poetic utterances can be counter-discursive acts, but they can only gesture to bodies and pleasure, the real site of resistance. Perhaps we can imagine Grimké–like Foucault–resisting through bodies, pleasures, and practices outside of the text. We can at very least see in the abbreviation of her text a recognition of that possibility–the foreclosure of a linguistic act that can never achieve the resistance that its subject desires (in this way it strongly resembles Foucault’s unfinished History of Sexuality and his much debated reference to resistance through bodies and pleasure, a reference that he did not–perhaps intentionally did not–fully elaborate) . Funaroff may have resisted in this manner as well, but his poem’s attempt to imagine such resistance through discourse alone–the completion and closure of lines that attempt to circumscribe the body–makes it less complete than Grimké’s “Fragment.”
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1978.
Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989.
Romero-Munoz, Eloy. “Gendering the Color Line in Angelina Weld Grimké’s ‘Fragment’.” Modern American Poetry: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. 2001. 20 November 2006. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/grime/fragment.htm>.
Copyright © 2006 by Dan Colson
While it may read as an empowering affirmation of black womanhood, Angelina Weld Grimké’s poem “Fragment” instead illustrates a failure of self-representation. The poem creates a tension between the anonymous speaker’s ability to articulate her subject position, and the dispossessed state of her condition. As she moves through the poem, the speaker devolves into a state of paranoia and disillusionment, undercutting the opening declarative statements of the poem. The speaker thus can never wholly articulate or inhabit an empowered subject position; rather, she embodies an incompleteness that is emphasized by the “unfinished” nature of Grimké’s “fragment.”
Grimké’s speaker opens the poem with an assertive declaration of her identity as a black woman, yet also aware of the discrimination it burdens her with. In her perception, she might, as some have argued, reclaim the deprivation of her social position. Indeed, the “I-persona” of “Fragment,” Romero-Munoz argues,
claims herself by using a first person singular pronoun together with the verb to
be in its active form. She thereby ceases to exist as a ‘third person consciousness’
(Fanon 110) stuck in a secondary, objectified position. By re-appropriating
herself, she also leaves very little room for males, both black and white, to
objectify her as female-other. She re-appropriates her gender and colour and
thereby becomes a speaking subject in the racial as well as gender conflict.
Romero-Munoz is right to focus on the poem’s opening series of declarations as a possible source for subjective agency. The repetition of “I am,” which anchors the first four lines of the poem, reads as a triumphant affirmation of the woman’s subjectivity:
I am the woman with the black black skin
I am the laughing woman with the black black face
I am living in the cellars and in every crowded place
I am toiling just to eat
In the old and in the heat
The repetition of “black” twice, two times in lines 1 and 2 remind us of the double discrimination the black woman of the poem must bear—a gendered and racialized distress that the insistence of “I am” appears to challenge and override. And yet however assertive the beginning of her declarative sentences appear, they are ultimately tempered by the clauses that follow them.
If we examine the speaker’s language after the “I am” of each line, we see that her autonomy, quality of life, and her self-portrayal devolve with each line. The speaker begins by asserting, “I am the woman,” a line that declares her as an authoritative speaking subject. However, she then qualifies this state in the next line as she elaborates, “I am the laughing woman.” Here, her laugh appears to mock a society that relegates her to its margins. The following line reveals the material effects of this marginality as she reveals, “I am living in the cellars.” Finally the most dejected and dehumanized line, “I am toiling just to eat,” has completely abandoned the promise of self-sufficiency in line one. Despite our investment to read her as an autonomous subject, we cannot overlook the fact that the subject’s own language—her realization of her social position as black woman—disrupts the initial indemnity of the declarative “I am” syntactical structures. In fact, each “I am” construction is already made tenable by the clauses that separate them. Thus it is the speaker’s “black black” skin and face, she suggests via parallel syntactical structures, that lead to her “living in cellars and in every crowded place” as well as “toiling just to eat.” In the process of articulating her subject position, she becomes cognizant of its effect on her emotional and physical wellbeing.
It is precisely her realization of these material effects that cause the speaker’s devolution of subjectivity and language. Rather than overcome her gendered and racialized “Otherness,” Grimké’s speaker comes to embody a disillusioned state in the final lines of the “fragment.” Indeed, Romero-Munoz acknowledges that the speaker’s “self-confidence . . . eventually proves to be a mere façade.” While we do justice to the speaker by interpreting Grimké’s poem as a call to arms against an unjust American society, we must also acknowledge that it is an incomplete call. The poem represents a grammatical fragment—it has no punctuation marks to cordon it off as a cohesive syntactical unit. It remains open, fluid, to be determined. Or perhaps, unable to be determined at the present moment—much like the subjectivity of the poem’s speaker which is undermined further by the recurrence of laughter. Although her laughter may appear mocking early on, by the end of the poem it has come to denote her tenuous mental state. The last two “I am”s in the poem (lines 7 and 8) are violated by the speaker’s inarticulateness; they disintegrate just as the woman’s mental state does:
I am the laughing woman who’s forgotten how to weep
I am the laughing woman who’s afraid to go to sleep
Rather than ridicule, the laughing of the last two lines symbolizes the unintelligible mutterings of an individual being driven mad by her physical and mental-emotional distress. While she is still able to use language by the end of the “fragment” to articulate her dismal state, Grimké’s speaker cannot use it to overcome the violence done to her subjectivity. Thus, her inability to articulate herself successfully—to allow “I am” to be unqualified—suggests that she, like the poem, is and always will be (upon further and future readings) a fragment.
Copyright © 2006 Mary Unger
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