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A Black Woman’s Literary Lens on History

by | Mar 2, 2023

Dr. Gill-Sadler pushes us to critically examine assumptions about how and by whom knowledge is produced. She greatly encourages robust class discussion and leads the way by being an honest and grace-giving professor. Josie Hovis ’23

Author: Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis

Assistant Professor of Africana and English studies Randi Gill-Sadler specializes in 20th century African American and Afro-Caribbean women writers, including Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. She shares some thoughts about their work.

Prof. Randi Gill-Sadler

How do you teach about literature’s relevance historically and in modern life?

As a scholar of Black women’s literature and U.S. cultures of empire, I often try to direct students to see the relationship between art and politics broadly. Literature has the power to expand our understanding of politics and powers. Politics is not just something that happens in a voting booth or a government body. Questions of representation and aesthetics also have political significance.

Who is an author you study who’s particularly adept at amplifying Black history through fiction? Toni Cade Bambara’s fiction and filmmaking highlight moments of Black life and experiences that are often forgotten in wider public discourses. Those Bones Are Not My Child is a fictionalized account of the real kidnappings and killings of Black children in Atlanta (at least 29 between 1979-1981). Bambara brings the terror Black people face into the forefront of her literature. It’s the story of a Black mother, who when the state fails to act, creates maps to track the missing children and forms her own patrol teams to make sure children get home from school safely.There’s no physical landmark to highlight that this happened in Atlanta. We learn that history doesn’t always value what we value. Bambara is someone who uses fiction to expand our ideas of history, what counts as history, what counts as fact and what counts as official narratives.She was very active in the protests for Black studies in the 1960s when she worked at City College of New York. She’s also someone who’s making history because those protests made Black studies happen. It was that political organizing and deep commitment that made what I’m doing at Davidson a possibility.

What are recurring themes among the authors you study and teach about?

Black women’s history and literature often deal with two kinds of violence: the state violence against them, and intra-racial violence, including partner violence and child abuse. I study a lot of women who were part of the Black Women’s Renaissance of the 1970s. They unflinchingly call out that violence, even though they risk challenges and antagonism from even within their own racial communities. But they don’t say the totality of the Black woman’s experience is violence. We see deep friendships between Black women, and we see generations of Black women living together, passing wisdom to each other and sharing strategies to combat what they face.

We hear a lot of political controversy about how history—particularly Black history—is taught in American classrooms. How do you help students wade through conflicting accounts?

I want students to read expansively across Black literature. There’s not one single book or author we’re going to get everything from. There are some texts and some films that become iconic in terms of representation of Black history, but we can’t take Black literature or Black art for granted. I push my students to read broadly because the assumptions we often have about Black women’s literature or Black resistance are very limited in terms of what occurred. I suggest reading literature alongside accepted history, so we have a much more expansive view of possibilities.

Who’s your favorite writer?

Distinguished American poet Lucille Clifton with Jennifer Bean ’90 during a visit to campus in 1990

That’s always changing but at the moment it is June Jordan, the most prolific African American writer of the 20th century. I teach her work and what I really love about it is the political clarity in terms of the value she places on Black life, on Black women. There’s also a sustained commitment to critiquing U.S. imperialism and forging solidarity with Black people, not just in the U.S. but around the world.

Who’s your favorite poet?

Lucille Clifton. She highlights that we can’t really divorce artistic and cultural production in the U.S.—no matter who’s doing it—from the history of slavery and anti-Blackness. In study the masters, she shows how slavery and colonialism provided the comforts that allowed American poets to dream. American poets don’t have to worry about maintaining the plantation or any of the other domestic labor Black women had to do. Exploited Black women’s labor is the engine of this country. But even in this gross exploitation that continues today, Black women are still dreaming.


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