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Author: Leon Forrest
Title: Spiritual flight of female fire
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Spiritual flight of female fire
Leon Forrest

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 1, pp. 5, 1991
Author Biography: Leon Forrest is Professor and Chair of African-American Studies at Northwestern University, where he also holds a joint appointment with the Department of English.

Spiritual Flight of Female Fire [1]


Several years ago I was given the assignment by a Chicago-based magazine to write an article in which I would attempt to capture the meaning of the moment of ecstasy in the Black Baptist church, employing a novelist's impressionistic overview.

During the course of writing the article—and attending many churches—I found myself struck that, once you moved past the role of preacher as "male envoy from God," so much of the actual day-to-day operation (as well as the church ritual on Sunday) was under the direct control and guidance of women, even as some of these roles were played out in the main, upstage, or off-stage, or as "acolytes." I remember how much of the service evoked the female voice and presence, not only in the choir, but also in the climbing ecstasy of the song-battling divas. Then there was the nurses' cadre, which is there for that moment of a miracle when the faithful become dervishes to a fitful spiritual climb up the ladder of ecstasy and euphoric wonder. The female nurses move in to recharge, to heal, and to bring the faithful back to life. But of course who got you seated in the church in the first place? Well, some women ushers.

Everybody knows that the fortunes of a minister rise and fall by virtue of his capacity to have the strong and sustained backing of his female congregation. These are the people who keep the committees running, set the moral tone, make certain that fund raising drives are a success. They teach the Sunday school lessons and write the church bulletins. The problem always is to make the males of the church see that these organizational skills of running the infrastructure are a strong training experience for running the highest echelons of pastoral life, or presiding at the levels of spiritual ordination and ministerial investiture. This is the politics of a modern church setting; but it is also a concern for black women writers, filmmakers and playwrights: how to bring power down front, and even up front.

African-American women have always been the backbone of the Church. Because the Church always was the home away from home; the place where we held fast to the dream of making a way out of no way, at every level of our development as a people. It was the social educational, cultural, and political meeting house, and the emotional and spiritual gathering place, where we met to deal with the issues from slavery to the freedom movement. It is not surprising therefore that behind the names of powerful male leadership, we have Rosa Parks, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker to name a few. Indeed, without the leadership of these women in major ritual roles of symbolic action, we would be bereft of a freedom movement.

Nor am I referring here to the larger metaphor of women, in the general commonweal of American life, as reflected by the statement: behind every successful man stands a woman. Here I am talking about the force and energy of African-American women who, amid the general oppression of their gender, were always in the forefront of our inner struggle and agonies of the culture; always outnumbering the men on the hidden, but real, second and third lines of guidance and direction. They were powerful to us as a people for our nourishment and regeneration; but mainly powerless to command immediate alleviation of their victimization in the larger arenas of political life and economic opportunity.

Now, the white folks simply saw a highly efficient maid or cook, but we Blacks saw the same lady, who was "Mrs. Blackburn," who taught Sunday School. This was the woman who taught our aunts (when they were girls) how to sew and knit. Our "Mrs. Blackburns" could make stupendous potato pies; they could do artistic ironing. They led church drives for missions to Africa, and to raise money for those missions. They were the pillars of the various church committees. They were the leading voices amongst the altos in our church choirs. It was our "Mrs. Blackburns" who marched against lynchings, who belonged to the NAACP. They encouraged all of the neighborhood children, particularly the young women, to read and better themselves. These "Mrs. Blackburns" were the heartbeat of the race. The myriad roles taken on by them always outstripped any sociological definition or any artistic attempts to see them, or project them as one-dimensional.

Yet to be sure they were forced to remain in the background, even as they were evolving a most sturdy, angular ethos, forged out of reinvention, even as they were deeply influencing the goals and dreams of Black male life and the values of the race. So that one of the artistic charges of the African-American female writer and filmmaker today is to bring the specificity of black female life to center stage, and the issues that they confront down and out of the shadows of so-called marginality. These filmmakers have the responsibility to project richly dimensional characters and transcend mindless stereotypes of Black life.

Heeding the edict "lift up as you pull up" also left some back-breaking memories. Speaking to this new vision on the part of African-American women filmmakers, one of our conferees, Carmen Coustaut, has said:

We all bring out black women characters to the center of the frame, into focus, instead of having the image either misrepresented or depicted as a kind of appendage to the central male character.

She goes on to say that

It's not like we formed a sorority and decided to do that. It is that we see these women have their own agendas, whether they are professors or domestics. They have an existence for themselves.

In African-American literature, I see an attempt in the works of Toni Morrison, Walker, and others to reveal the outline of African-American culture through the range of symbolic roles played by individual Black women. I think of Pilate in Morrison's novel Song of Solomon, who takes on all roles through self-transformation and reinvention; male/female, tribal mother, African-American frontierswoman, conjure woman, cultural carrier of links back to Africa, cultural motherlode who carries around the bones and skeletons of the patriarch of the family (race); high priestess of the soul of racial memory and mythos in her consciousness; protector of her granddaughter from male victimization. Indeed for Morrison, the slaying of Pilate represents the height of dangers of black-on-black crime. Racial memory is an endangered species when Pilate is murdered by the misdirected gunfire of the radical Black nationalist Guitar, who was aiming at one target and ended up assassinating the motherlode.

For to silence the "tongue of the motherlode" is to cut off the motherlode of memory of the race from the possible redemption of the psychic powers of regeneration in the oral tradition, and to remove from the nation our ancestral voice, which demands the Republic live up to its highest credo of responsibility. Here I am not simply referring to the power of Harriet Tubman, who led slaves out of bondage at gun-point, but the conscience-bearers of our time like Barbara Jordan, who reminded a nation of its responsibility to the deepest dimensions of freedom in our Constitution, even as that same sacred document had historically denied her existence, as Black and female. Or again I think of the eloquent Marian Wright Edelman who continues to instruct the nation about the ways in which we are a country direly neglecting our children, not only poor Black, but Hispanic poor, and poor white kids—all of God's children. The mute fervor of her "facts," rendered up out of the smithy of eloquent outrage,is but a part of the high road Black women continue to take in this society as ritual conscience-bearers and consciousness raisers of our people and the ethos of the nation. Jordan, Edelman, and other Black women manifest their outrage and their petition by transforming memory into the spirit of movement, in a demonstration and an energizing performance, which pulls at the heart and the mind, thereby forcing the male-dominated institutions of our nation to remember the issues of our day, so often denied. These women understand our national willfulness for wanton forgetfulness.

I believe that in African-American literature the idea of reinvention has been the hallmark of the transformation of those Black writers who came after Richard Wright. Many of these writers are Black American females, but certainly not all of them. This capacity for reinvention is so abundant and alive in African-American culture. It is epitomized in jazz, and vital in many of the performance arts wherein Blacks play a central role. In jazz, in folk music, in the art of the folk preacher's celebratory and ecstasy-reaching moments; in the protest marches as demonstrations and ritual performance of the will for a more democratic union; in rap music, and in signifying; in the magical motions and moves of Black athletes.

When I speak of reinvention I am referring to that attribute of Black Americans to take what is left over or, conversely, given to them (either something tossed from the white man's table, or at the other end of the spectrum, the Constitution, or basketball) and make it work for them, as a utilitarian source of group survival and personal survival, and then to place a stamp of elegance and elan upon the reinvented mode; to emboss, upon the basic form revised, a highly individualistic style, always spun of grace and fabulous rhythms. As Ralph Ellison has said:

Remember that our African forefathers originated in cultures wherein even the simple routines of daily living were highly ritualized and that even their cooking utensils were fashioned with forms of symbolism which resonated with overtones of godhead. And though modified, if not suppressed by the experience of American slavery, that tradition of artistic expressiveness has infused the larger American culture. [2]

For me, as a novelist, this idea of reinvention and the ways Black women have played a central role in my concept of creative transformation as performance is always alive in my imagination, but nowhere more vivid than the creation of a scene that I worked on in my novel The Bloodworth Orphans. There is Sister Rachel Flowers, who is calling out all forms of demons—particularly those within the obese body of her husband and from the living room, which she has reinvented into a prayer room of possessed rugs adorned by Old Testament scenes and stapled fast from the upper window-panes down to the bottom of the floor. And then we hear the beginning sweep of her genesis story, which rises into a moment of spiritual ecstasy, out of earthly agony, even as the scene attempts to capture the epic story of Black people. But while this scene was yet in process (through forty or so rewrites), I was inspired by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater's Judith Jameson and her soul-stirring dance called "Cry" —a tribute to the Black woman. Jameson employed a huge cloth as the symbolic agency to reenact, through ceremonial stages, the migration of the soul in the epic story of the black woman in the western experience. With a section of her cloth pressed into service—durante vitae—we see Jameson as the Black scrubwoman; then again, using her cloth as "carriage" for the nursing of everybody's babies; then as a shawl of adornment; now as a cotton sack; later as a wraparound Northern Muslim woman's headgear. I now attempted to incorporate Jameson's episodic cloth, as an agency, symbol, and spring-board of relocation, in my chapter. Amid her dislocation, within the symbolic memory of Rachel Flowers, she rendered up her genesis saga of transformation, redemption, and reinvention of her life and the life of the race.

In oral tradition, so much of what we are and who we are as African-Americans is tied to rituals of affirmation and the mythical language of saga-telling attendant to the ongoing ceremony on the one hand, and the historic ritual of recovering ground from the dislocation spun out by the forces of white supremacy and racism. So often this role of high priestess has been played by Black women as taboo-breaking high priestess coming up with new ways to assault the racism of white society, which was always designed to destroy Blacks and to keep them fighting each other. So the high priest or high priestess of our culture has to constantly reaffirm the old rituals of experience, and constantly reinvent and come up with new ones to capture the riddled angularity of our experience. Thus, for example, the movement from spiritual to gospel music.

This has also placed a burden on the Black female artist to deal with issues of inner group malaise, classism, and colorstruck blindness. No matter how much I might extol some of our greatest black male artists, so few have dealt ritualistically or critically with issues of color affliction within the race, which so cripples our condition. Not even Cane, that finest of novels of the Harlem Renaissance, which ironically is most sensitive of all novels of the day to the question of color behind the veil. But the author, the fair-skinned Jean Toomer, could never conceive of a black-skinned man as sensitive and eloquent and intellectual as he was. Nor could he conceive of a Black woman as an African beauty without large doses of Caucasian blood in her veins.

These issues of class, color, caste, refinement, and basic blackness are so much a part of the materiality of the world of Black women. And they are forged in the fires of racial identity, bloodlines, available men, standards of beauty, and therefore were and still are very political. Just to look at some of the titles of works under discussion in this conference suggests that the issues of inner group rejection can be and must be addressed satirically and at the same time in a celebratory way. Hairpiece: A Film for Nappyheaded People, or The Colored Museum, which we saw last night, which satirized many of the foibles and hypocritical standards within the race even as it tackled the problem of our ever estranged identities as a people, and the search for wholeness. Or, conversely, our willingness to celebrate our ranging inwardness as a people via so-called Black English, as witnessed in the title of the film I Be Done Been Was Is. If white western scholars of James Joyce had read this in Finnegan's Wake (and so much of The Wake reads like this line), they would be raving over the richness of the broken tongue. Somebody would even be writing a dissertation called "I Be Done Been Was Is." Imagine the fun the deconstructionist would have. Well, I'm not a deconstructionist, I am a Reconstructionist. We need to keep alive the music of our speech patterns. They have surely enriched the American language, even as they are pleasing and fitting and tuneful to tongue and ear.

Finally I am interested in the connection between the filmmakers and the novelists and writers. As Debra Robinson (producer of I Be Done Been Was Is) a documentary about the work and lives of four contemporary Black American female comedians) has said:

I consider Black women filmmakers to be at the same point where Black women writers were about a decade ago. It took until the late 1970s for them to get widely published. Black women filmmakers have not been following trends in other films; they have been following a separate voice.

I would hope that our conference here this weekend, African-American Women in Performance, Film, and Praxis, will help to make us all aware of this very important development of a separate, life-sustaining voice now enriching the cinemas for us all. Thank you and welcome.

1. This paper was presented as a lecture opening the spring 1990 conference at Northwestern on "African-American Women in Performance, Film, and Praxis." The paper originally appeared in Directions, a publication of the Program on Communication and Development Studies at Northwestern. Leon Forrest kindly gave permission for the paper to appear in Passages.

2. Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (New York: Random House, 1986), 205.

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