A Review of Joanne Kilgour Dowdy’s Readers Of The Quilt: Essays About Being Black, Female And Literate
By Malin Lidström Brock
What does it mean to be black, female and literate in the USA today? That is the question that the authors in Readers Of The Quilt are trying to answer. Literacy, according to the contributors to this essay collection, is more, or something else, than the technical mastering of reading and writing. It is a way of reading, being recognized and gaining a voice in the world. Each essay explores, in one form or another, what literacy means in the lives of black women in the USA today. As such, the collection offers both compelling examples and frustrating generalizations.
The book is divided into three sections. Historical perspectives on black women’s literacy provides the background for the first five essays. Of those, Lillie Gayle Smith’s “Lessons Learned In A Cotton Field” offers a successful application of a historical and theoretical perspective on personal experience. Smith describes how the literacy she gained from working on her aunt’s cotton field as a child could only be articulated after she has also mastered academic literacy and attended a course that encouraged a positive re-evaluation of her past. Bessie House-Soremekun’s personal account of growing up in Alabama during the time of the Civil Rights Movement is equally compelling. “Lessons From Down Under: Reflections On Meanings Of Literacy And Knowledge From An African-American Growing Up In Rural Alabama” is a convincing description of the kind of literacy that the black population in the South were forced to develop in order to navigate safely through both geographical and psychological racist territory.
The three essays in the second part of the book are written by white teachers who describe their experiences of teaching and otherwise interacting with black students. Of these, Joan T. Wynne’s account of the racism that informs views on the academic abilities of inner-city black students is worth a special mentioning, although her conclusions are fraught by a sense of collective guilt shared by all the white contributors to this collection. “I know that being White I am riddled with racism,” she writes in one passage, thereby expressing just the kind of sweeping statements that she claims inner-city black people are defined by daily. In an attempt to alleviate her declaration, she acknowledges that many black teachers too, share the same prejudiced opinions of inner-city students. Her solution to the ingrained racism is a re-education of teachers that encourages them to respect and approach inner-city students “on their own terms.” Unfortunately, she offers frustratingly few examples of what those terms are. Not so Christine McVay, a member of the Pan-African Studies Department at Kent State University, who holds a conversation with Joanne Kilgour Dowdy, editor of this collection, about black students in her classroom. Unfortunately, McVay’s description of how she interacts with her black students can all too-easily be read like unintentional condescension and a school-book example (no pun intended) of white, liberal guilt. She refers the black man who encouraged her to apply to the department as her “brother” and asks each batch of new students to write a Black English-dictionary to make them comfortable with written English, or as she calls it, “consensus” English. These accounts take on a charged meaning when she acknowledges her fear of encountering the woman who originally inspired her interest in black culture: “I guess I’m just afraid to know what she’s become. What if she’s a rich, beautiful Black woman who isn’t particularly interested in Black culture anymore?” What if, indeed? Admitting that she cannot bring “Blackness” to the classroom, she assigns that task to her students (“That’s your job.”), but apparently never stops to ask them whether they want to, or think it’s relevant. For McVay, “Blackness” is inseparable from an anti-establishment stance and radicalism. Ironically, since this is clearly not her intention, it suggests that in her classroom, adult black students are left with little space to define themselves outside these terms.
The complexity of black identity in the USA is highlighted in Leonie Smith’s “To Be Black And Female: A Personal Journey In Education And Alienation,” included in the last part of the collection. The account of her journey through the American education-system reveals a black culture that is as segmented as mainstream society, where class, geographical origin and wealth create sharp divisions. She also describes a white college-culture that is characterized by racism and class-consciousness. Smith’s account is a convincing example of how important is an early investment in the cultural capital that each student brings to his or her schooling. Her safe-guard against the racial isolation in college turns out to be her strong Caribbean identity and a positive first experience of school.
The contributions to the last section in Readers Of The Quilt include some of the most interesting approaches to black women and literacy. Mandi Chikombero’s analysis of Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Condition focuses on the female characters’ strife to acquire a formal education and the price that they pay in the process. By juxtaposing traditional, African ways of knowing with the formal education that the characters receive in mission school (and the colonial cultural beliefs that inform it), the author Dangarembga, argues Chikombero, effectively reveals the sexism that underlies both belief systems. Her essay is a welcome addition to the collection, since it acknowledges race, but also sex and the transition from countryside to the city, as factors that both hinder and help black female students. It also manages to do so without de-evaluating formal literacy as such. Instead, she acknowledge the sacrifices that the novel’s characters make as painful, but perhaps necessary. For Dangarembga’s characters, race is not destiny, nor does it entirely define what is a person.
Many of the essays in the collection originate in final papers written by graduate students of the editor Joanne Kilgour Dowdy’s class “Black Women And Literacy” at Kent State University. In an interview for the Trinidad Guardian, Kilgour Dowdy explains that the book emerged partly to meet the need for textbooks in her class. As a textbook for teachers and future scholars with an interest in African-American culture and literacy, the book is meant to function both as an example of student-participation and an introduction to literacy understood through the contexts of race and gender. Unfortunately, the poor editing and low academic caliber of some of the contributions also provide an example of the drawbacks of encouraging students to “fly” before they have acquired sufficient academic skills. Positive feedback, encouragement and the creation of a classroom that provides female black students with a feeling of safety and self-worth, are all important aspects of the pedagogy that Kilgour Dowdy rightly feels should inform all teaching. But self-esteem and a sense of pride of one’s cultural background should not come at the expense of the ability to create strong arguments. It is a shame, since even the less-well written essays have much potential. One may of course argue that these essays would not even have existed if it was not for the methods that Kilgour Dowdy practices.
A collection such as this cannot possibly speak for everyone. Some of the essays discuss typically middle-class or Caribbean experiences, yet further emphasis on the distinctions within the group of black female students would have been welcome, especially since the editor Kilgour Dowdy, in her essay on black women and literacy in film, expresses a need for more varied and positive role models. These essays are written specifically by and for educators who acknowledge unprivileged black women’s need and desire for better education, higher visibility and greater authority in society. While the focus on unprivileged groups such as poor, single mothers is understandable, it does leave out many other female black students whose experiences within the formal educational system are different, but equally valid.
Malin Lidström Brock is a doctoral candidate in the English Department of Oxford University, UK, where she also teaches. Her interests include contemporary British and American literature, literary theory, film, and gender studies.