Vol X, Issue 1 (Winter 2003): Young Women in the African Diaspora
Peter K. LeMaire
Bernice A. LeMaire
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Editorial: Young Women in the African Diaspora
"To educate a girl is to educate a civilization"--so goes the ancient adage. The core articles in this issue of AfricaUpdate remind readers of this proverb and the vitality of the female principle.
Dr. Carol Carter-Lowery and Dr. Beverly Johnson's papers present the experiences of girls and women in the African Diaspora. Dr. Carter-Lowery explores the psycho-social, and intellectual development of young adolescent girls in desegregated classrooms. Her research brings to the forefront the plight and triumphs of young women.
Dr. Johnson pursues the themes of female empowerment in Paule Marshall's novels. The author, a New Yorker of Barbadian parentage, has produced multidimensional female characters in her three major works Brown Girl, Brownstones, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, and Praisesong for the Widow. Dr. Johnson contends that scholarly attention to Marshall's work is based on her skill at merging the development of "self," historical awareness and resistance to colonialism. Protagonists Selina Boyce, Merle Kinbona, and Avey Johnson struggle, but they find strategies to move beyond struggle.
In a symposium from which one of these papers emerged, Dr. Heather Munro-Prescott pointed out the origins and the importance of Women's Studies. The 1978 Education Task Force of the Sonoma County, California Commission on the Status of Women initiated a "Women's History Week" and linked it to International Women's History Day held in March. Dr. Munro-Prescott noted that the website for the National Women's History Project promotes the history of all women, not just "white women's history month."
The vitality of the female principle is the current linking the papers of Dr. Carter-Lowery and Dr. Johnson with Dr. Munro-Prescott's commentary. The two articles, however, chart the unique heritage of girls and women in the African Diaspora.
Dr. Katherine Harris (Guest Editor)
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Moving Beyond the Struggle: Strategies of Empowerment In the Works of Paule Marshall
By Dr. Beverly Johnson, Assistant Professor,
Central Connecticut State University
Paule Marshall is an author who is adept at producing multidimensional female characters in her three major works Brown Girl, Brownstones, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, and Praisesong for the Widow. Much scholarly attention has been given to Marshall based on her skill at creating a sense of historical awareness and development of self that highlights methods of resisting colonialist ways of being. Critics also emphasize that select works of Marshall are valid in their ability to show how a spiritually oriented past can guide ones understanding and progression in the future. Scholars Martin Japtok, Dorothy Dennison and Gavin Jones examine how effective Marshall's works are in exposing conflicts based on themes of identity and ethnicity. They go even further to suggest that efforts to merge these themes are at times ambivalent and tend to remain unresolved. With these perspectives in mind, I believe an analysis of how Marshall's protagonists Selina Boyce, Merle Kinbona, and Avey Johnson not only address relevant struggles but provide strategies for moving beyond them. Each of these protagonists face many conflicts throughout their journeys, confront their past intentionally and create better opportunities for themselves to be successful by the novel's conclusion, in spite of colonialist attitudes that appear to hinder their efforts. I believe Marshall's protagonists promote empowerment beyond their struggles with three specific strategies. These strategies include but are not limited to understanding the complexity of their realities, acting with integrity and making life-changing decisions based on viable goals that promote both personal and communal achievement. From broader social and political perspectives, Marshall raises key questions through her works that can also be examined globally in light of efforts to move beyond any struggle. Some of these questions are: Can we really be an empowered people without moving beyond past or current struggles? Why is it critical to define ourselves based on what we stand for instead of what we endure? What good is the offer of hope to people who do not have the chance to see the fulfillment of that hope grounded in real opportunity for achievement and success? I am aware that no one protagonist nor her experiences can fully answer all of these questions, yet these characters (based on their actions and choices) do serve as starting points for further exploration of this topic. Each protagonist at the very least suggests that if individual empowerment and collective empowerment are reachable goals for women, it will be difficult to define these goals only in the context of one's struggle. Furthermore, an analysis of each of these protagonists, their experiences of growth, and their final choices address these questions directly and indirectly as women with central rather than marginal voices.
Selina Boyce (Brown Girl, Brownstones)
Selina Boyce is the youngest of Marshall's protagonists whose personal growth and experiences provide readers with a keen vision of empowerment through her efforts to challenge familial struggles. One dominant way to view how Selina moves in this direction is through examining the relationship she has with her mother Silla. It is through this conflicting relationship that Selina not only develops integrity but she makes efforts to teach her mother Silla the importance of this attribute in maintaining a stable family. In Books Two and Three of the novel entitled appropriately, Pastorale and The War, Selina incorporates strategies that start her journey toward empowerment more directly. First, she sees the reality of her parents' relationship for what is. She acts with integrity in trying to stop the mother from selling Deighton's land, and Selina uses what she observes and learns to make better personal choices for herself. Selina begins after The War to model herself through those traits of the mother that she resists rather than modeling herself on the traits that keep her tied to the mother's struggle. This struggle includes a colonialist mentality of obtaining a Bajan notion of the American Dream, using the strategies of revenge, deception and exploitation of African American roomers. Silla has difficulty moving beyond her struggle to see how damaging her actions are to her daughters. It is through Silla therefore that Marshall warns us that we must be active in defining our self worth through our own eyes rather than the eyes of society. For instance, Silla, subscribing to the Barbadian Association's intent on the exclusion of the wider African American community while working to identify more openly with mainstream America, never realized she was in the wrong struggle. Furthermore, she had the wrong strategies for moving beyond her situation or to gain any real sense of fulfillment for herself. Silla does care about her children and she wants their lives to be better than her life in Barbados and the United States. Yet she clearly struggles with seeing her reality for what it is and chooses instead to adhere to what society wants her reality to be.
Fortunately Selina connects to a larger community of people (Suggie Skeetes and Miss Thompson) and this helps her to see the complexities of her familial and community life. She openly rejects the Barbadian Association's ideas of exclusion and even their scholarship that she wins because she chooses to act with integrity. Equally significant is the fact that she comes to a fuller understanding by the novel's end that knowing what one doesn't want for herself and choosing to make life changes as a result of this knowledge is a key step toward becoming an empowered individual. At age seventeen, a more reflective and courageous Selina emerges to reclaim her own voice and to chart a destiny that is intent on honoring all the people and places that have shaped her journey thus far. Her choice to leave Brooklyn to pursue a possible career as a dancer is a clear indication that she has not allowed the familial struggles of her childhood to limit or define her destiny.
Merle Kinbona (The Chosen Place, The Timeless People)
Another effective character whose words and actions express how critical it is to move beyond the struggle particularly with the strategy of understanding the complexity of one's reality is Merle Kinbona. This protagonist in The Chosen Place has an impressive spirit of resistance that enables her to eventually make the necessary life changes that bring about the inner peace and calm she searches for throughout her life. Her resistance is key to her empowerment on two levels. Merle remains grounded in understanding that her life is rooted in the history of her ancestors and the remembrance of their struggles should not be equated to the repeating of it. This enables her to act with integrity when fighting to be the voice of Bournehill's people rather consistently throughout the novel. The community trusts her and she respects this trust they have in her. Second, she goes even further to aid the white American characters Saul and Harriet Amron in efforts to indicate more directly that they must examine their own lives as a means of empowerment before attempting to empower people they have little knowledge about. This message is highlighted through Merle numerous times in the novel and while she is able to give this advice she feels comfortable holding on to her own struggles until she realizes that her bitterness toward the characters she believes hurt her does little to move the Bournehills people and her life forward in a progressive manner.
Through her intimate relationship with Saul Amron and her choice to work at a clearer understanding of her very complex life in both recent and past years, Merle Kinobona makes the most critical life changing decision by the novel's end. Her flight to Africa to reclaim an essential part of herself lost so long ago, including a husband and child, sends the message rather clearly that life changing decisions can lead to self empowerment. Kinbona is empowered enough to be prepared for indifferent or negative responses from her estranged husband and her child. Even more, she is clear about her sense of self and place. Thus, she is able to respond decisively and clearly to Saul when asked of her future plans, "But I'll be coming back to Bournehills. This is home. Whatever little I can do that will matter for something must be done here. A person can run for years but sooner or later he has to take a stand in the place for better or worse, he calls home, do what he can to change things there" (Marshall The Chosen Place 468).
I am most impressed with Merle's character because she comes to life at times when she appears to be most defeated. She does not allow her mental lapses, the Cane Vale factory closing nor Harriet Amron's bribe to defeat her by remaining in struggles that are not of her making. A famous quote of poet Maya Angelou reminds us that "We may encounter many defeats, but we must Not be defeated." Merle's character seems to embrace this quote through her voice and actions; however, she takes the message even further with her belief that her personal life must be connected to her political goals in efforts to promote collective empowerment for her people. In a similar fashion as Merle, Avey Johnson reveals, through her reflections of lost years and new decisions she makes about her life, how she shares the same beliefs.
Avey (Avatara) Johnson (Praisesong for the Widow)
Two of the more dominant themes that this novel explores are hard work and the illusionary American dream. As a backdrop, Marshall positions the lives of Avey and Jerome Johnson through flashbacks and memories to establish the point that hard work at the wrong struggle can lead to ones' untimely death. Yet for Marshall, it is a spiritual death that occurs long before the physical one takes over. To develop this stance, Marshall positions Avey Johnson as a widow who loses her husband at a time when the two of them could have been enjoying life as middle-aged people. Avey deconstructs the struggles of their lives that spanned from the early forties to the late seventies within the United States and the Caribbean. Although the novel begins with Avey's action of leaving the Bianca Pride cruise ship, her true journey begins once she makes the choice to at first revisit and even relive the complexity of her reality as a wife and mother years ago. Her journey also teaches her that she must reclaim, with integrity, the favorable memories, rituals, and traditions that she has displaced. From the surface, she reflects on a life in the suburbs of White Plains, one that appears to have been in order. Yet, Avey is forced through her dreams of Aunt Cuney and through her own feelings of guilt to contemplate how the quality of their lives diminished when they chose to assimilate, at all cost, into a middle-class society.
They took on struggles that were not of their making after the assimilation became their reality. The struggles they endured on Halsey Street, where Jay worked two jobs for nearly twelve years in order to become a successful accountant while Avey worked part-time between her pregnancies kept them grounded at least in values that affirmed their existence and fulfilled their spirits. For example, Avey remembers how Jay would listen the music of Ma Rainey and Coleman Hawkins. Jay would also stage impromptu dances with Avey and recite to their children the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Lawerence Dunbar. Yet Avey's memories also allow her to pinpoint the slow transformation Jay makes into becoming Jerome Johnson, a man who became defined by his work, and a man who no longer saw the value in practicing the family rituals that once gave Avey, the children, and him a sense of cultural peace and pleasure amidst their times of struggle. Avey even acknowledges her part in promoting the shallow version of who they once were. She admits that she becomes "even in her own thoughts, a woman whose face, reflected in the window or mirror, she sometimes failed to recognize" (Marshall Praisesong 141).
Avey's reflections suggest that full acceptance of societal standards and values that marginalize one's sense of self and culture can lead to familial instability. It can also lead one to a false sense of empowerment. Avey's journey from the Bianca pride to the Island of Carriacou led by the guiding memory of Aunt Cuney allows her to regain her diminished self. In particular, Avey's physical illness aboard the Emmanuel C, her participation in the Creole dances, and her willingness to learn how vital her global family and community are to her well being through the teachings of Lebert Joseph, position her to claim or rather reclaim, in part, the feelings of a fulfilled life she once knew with Jay. By the novel's end, Avey makes the decision to sell her house in North White Plains and the decision to restore or rebuild Aunt Cuney's old house in Tatem, South Carolina. She also intends to share with her grandchildren and her daughter Marion young students her familial history and the history of the Ibo people.
As Avey reminds us, sometimes to move beyond any struggle, one has to return to it to and respect the struggle for the lessons it may teach her. An individual can then improve her life and the lives of other people by not allowing the struggle to become her sole reality, but by allowing the struggle to promote a stronger life purpose or mission that can lead to success. Equally significant is the point that Avey's experiences warn readers of the spiritual danger of losing one's identity in the struggle for societal acceptance that can at best lead to an unfulfilled life and at worst cause premature deaths. Each of these protagonists offers multiple strategies for moving beyond one's struggle. The three strategies I found most interesting were first, understanding the complexities of one's reality, acting with integrity, and making life changing decisions that promote personal and community achievement. I do not mean to imply that these characters make light of their struggles because they take them rather seriously. Yet they promote the value of remaining within them on a short term rather than a more permanent basis. Particularly for women of color, the characters send collectively the message that remaining in a struggle can further contribute to our marginal positions in society, if we allow this. We can be defined by our successes in life that empower us to go beyond what we dream to be possible rather than only by what we endure to achieve them.
Denniston, Dorothy. The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructions of History, Culture, and Gender. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
Ferguson, Moira. "Of Bears and Bearings: Paule Marshall's Diverse Daughters." MELUS 24:1 (1999): 177-93.
Japtok, Martin. "Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones: Reconciling Ethnicity and Individualism," African American Review 32:4 (1998): 306-15.
Jones, Gavin. "The Sea Ain't Got No Back
Door: The Problem with Black Consciousness in Paule Marshall's Brown
Paule, Marshall. Brown Girl, Brownstones. New York: Feminist Press, 1981.
_______. The Chosen Place, The Timeless
People. New York: Vintage, 1992.
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Black Female Students: Issues and Considerations for Teachers of Teachers
By Dr. Carol Carter, Associate Professor,
Central Connecticut State University
Research on the educational experiences of Black girls reveals information too long ignored about this population. An analysis of their experiences as set forth in several studies raises critical questions about their status as students and about their psycho-social, and intellectual development in desegregated classrooms. The conclusions indicate that Black females may be at risk in many of the classrooms in America.
These findings not only have implications about the educational development of Black female students, but also have broader implications for educators who are preparing teacher candidates for the public schools. Two significant relationships emerge: (1) the impact that race and gender have on the way Black females are regarded in classrooms and (2) the relationship between teacher expectation and the academic achievement of Black female students. Additionally, it is revealing that few recommendations are offered to educators for the enhancement of the educational well-being of Black females. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to provide a research base and strategies for teachers of teachers to enhance the learning experience of Black female students.
Influences on Black Females
To understand Black females better, it is important to understand their early social and cultural experiences. It should be noted that Black families are not monolithic: differences in socio-economic status, school, and peer influences exist (Staples, 1971; TenHouten, 1970).
The family is the primary socializing agent for Black females and the function of the mother within it is very important. She transfers cultural values and usually maintains the general well-being of family members. It is within the context of the family and the community that the basic attitudes of young Black children are formulated. Unfortunately, many problems arise when White norms are imposed upon cultural and family configurations. This reality is critical in comprehending the role of the Black family, particularly in the socializing of Black females.
Using experimental data and observation, researchers noted several differences in the role of Black females (Harrison, 1977; Ladner, 1971). For example, many Black females, especially eldest daughters learn that "mothering or care-taking" is highly regarded within their culture. Further, as females mature, this function does not diminish, but becomes even greater as expectations of independent functioning within the home prevail.
Another feature that distinguishes Black and White families originates in child-rearing practices. Baumrind (1972, 1978) found that Black families were described by White norms as more authoritarian than White families. Reid (1982) observes that the sex-role socialization within the Black community appeared to be more highly valued than it is within the White community. The status of women within the family structure is often different for Black families than for White families. Generally speaking,
Black children learn at an early age to accept a concept of women occupying a prominent role in the family. It is advocated that this socialization process may contribute to the egalitarian attitude often exhibited by Black girls in school settings. Another is that Black girls tend to reconcile the role of mother and worker as an integral part of their lives very early (Allen, 1978; Billingsley, 1968).
The experiences of many young Black females suggest that Black women are expected to work to help sustain the economic well-being of Black families. Consequently, they are socialized differently about working outside of the home. It is observed in many of the available studies on occupational or career choices that Black females were more likely to choose traditional career paths and demonstrate more traditional female-dominated values than their White female counterparts (Gump, 1978; Gurin and Gaylord, 1976 and Murray, 1985). Black women are more likely to hold positions of lowest occupational status and salaries (Wallace, Datcher, and Malveaux, 1980). This reality becomes very meaningful to the socialization of Black females regarding the world of work.
Desegregated Learning Environments and Black Females
Besides the family, the school has a significant influence on the psycho-social and intellectual development of students. Classrooms, in many respects, are a microcosm of the nation. The classroom setting, in addition to imparting knowledge and skills to children, creates an arena where they learn first-hand about race relations and become more cognizant about role expectations based on gender. What seems more significant is that children begin to determine their individual roles within the larger society based on classroom interactions among themselves, their peers and teachers.
Many advocates of desegregation expected desegregated classrooms to accomplish several goals: namely, to improve racial attitudes and to increase the academic achievement levels of children, especially Black children. The conflicting findings of the research on various aspects of desegregation and their impact on the educational development of Black children raise interesting questions (Carithers, 1970; Irvine and Irvine, 1983; Rist, 1979; St. John and Lewis, 1975; Teele and Mayo, 1969; Washington, 1980; and Weinberg, 1983). In the extensive review of the literature on desegregation, Carithers (1970) reported that Black girls were the most adversely affected from desegregation efforts. A closer analysis of the effects of desegregated classrooms on the status of Black female students suggests that, as a group, they may be more at risk than any other student population.
Research supports that no single variable, but many, affect the growth and development of children. However, the most obvious deterrent to the enhancement of children's growth and development is stereotyping. Stereotyping thwarts the psycho-social and intellectual enhancement of young people. Some studies report Black children are stereotyped as aggressive, hostile, and unintelligent (Brophy and Good, 1974; Coates, 1972; Rubovits and Maehr, 1973). If children behave in a manner that is different from the stereotypical pattern, they may not be positively reinforced by teachers in the classroom (Davidson, 1981; Grant, 1984).
Black female students appear to be at a distinct disadvantage because they encounter both gender and race stereotyping. Black female students oftentimes do not display passive or submissive behaviors, traits that may be influenced by family and cultural experiences. Another area that contributes to stereotyping of Black female students is physical appearance. Black females do not represent "White standards of beauty." In fact, they possess fewer of the valued attributes of society (Harrison, 1974). Studies of Black females consistently report that they often occupy marginal and disadvantaged status among their peers and their teachers (Grant, 1984; Woolridge and Richman, 1985).
Criswell (1937) conducted research on a Northern school with 75 percent Black population and reported greater cleavage occurred between the sexes than the races. The results were more pronounced from the fifth grade through the beginning of adolescence. However, during this same period, all males appeared better able to develop and sustain affinity with each other, regardless of race, even if they struggled to establish more prestige in their relations among groups.
Campbell and Yarrow (1958) studied desegregation efforts in summer camps and pointed out that desegregation holds the greatest initial hazards for young Black females. They experienced more feelings of self-rejection as they recognized the favored social and power positions of the White females. The authors noted that desegregated settings provided fewer opportunities for Black females to be viewed positively than they did for either White students or Black males.
Singer (1967) studied children in the fifth grade and identified distinct sex differences in ethnic attitudes. White females in desegregated schools were more willing to associate with Blacks. Black females, on the other hand, in both desegregated and integrated schools were the least willing to associate with Whites. Black males in desegregated schools were more willing to associate with Whites than those in segregated settings.
In another study of race and its effect on the social structure in the classrooms, St. John and Lewis (1975) noted the special difficulty encountered by Black females in bi-racial situations. The authors observed that Black female students lacked the peer status or athletic abilities associated with their male counterparts. Consequently, there were no opportunities for them to demonstrate competencies that were meaningful among their peers.
Sager and Schofield (1980) in their study of student interactions in desegregated schools indicated that students in desegregated schools preferred to socialize along gender lines more often than along interracial lines. (These findings are corroborated by DeVries and Edwards, 1977; Schofield, 1982; Wiley and Eskilson, 1978).
Generally speaking, the results of these studies demonstrate that interracial associations appear to be more difficult for Black females than Black males. They also show that Black females hold a precarious social status among males, not shared by other females. A significant implication of the findings was that desegregated environments may be hostile to the intellectual and psycho-social development of Black females (Crain, Marhard and Narot, 1982).
Several conclusions regarding the growth and development of Black females emerge in order for them to persist in this kind of environment. First, Black females learn early that they must look to themselves for their success in society, just as their mothers do now, and just as their ancestors did during slavery. Second, those Black females who persist develop the necessary attendant coping strategies to withstand the impact of negative influences in the school environment. Finally, for educators, the results support the notion that the positive educational experiences of many Black female students, more often than not, came by chance rather than equal opportunity.
Teacher Relationships with Black Females
Many factors such as the classroom setting,
the quality of instructional materials and learning activities, and
Research substantiates that teachers' perceptions and attitudes about students are influenced by socio-economic status, gender, race, and academic achievement. More succinctly, middle-class White children who earn "good" grades are the most preferred among teachers. Although Black children may have similar academic status, they were less preferred. Students who do not meet those standards were the least preferred (Pollard, 1979; St. John and Lewis, 1975; Woolridge and Richman, 1985).
Researchers have examined various aspects of the teacher's role and concluded that teacher expectation significantly influences student performance (Baron, Tom, and Cooper, 1985; Brophy and Good, 1970; Finn, 1972; Lightfoot, 1976; Rosenthal and Jacobsen, 1968). Additional studies of teacher expectancy reveal that race also influences teacher attitudes about the academic competence of children. Further data suggest that teacher expectation also influences student performance along gender lines (DeBord, Griffin and Clark, 1977; Frazier and Sadker, 1973).
Much of the research on these issues tends to focus on either the single effect of race or gender with minimal attention devoted to analyzing the effect of both gender \& race on education. Research that explores the gender and race effect contains significant findings about the academic achievement of Black female students.
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By Haines Brown, CCSU History Department, Emeritus
African Lakes could become the first continent-wide Internet provider in Africa, but if it fails, Africa will probably end up with a set of local, under-capitalized, marginal markets.
African Lakes offers services at all levels, from cyber-cafes to satellites, but it has suffered from the IT downturn and its own mistakes. Profit loss has left it badly under-capitalized. If it survives to build a continent-wide system, economies of scale are expected to ensure the kind of profit to attract investment. This is what in the U.S. is called a catch-22 situation.
Because it must maximize profits in order to attract capital, it has meant that its focus has narrowed to what happens to return the greatest profit, despite social needs. In particular, poorer countries, such as Swaziland, are likely to be abandoned, and the ISP business will concentrate on its more profitable corporate accounts and curtail dial-up customers. Without the development of a substantial middle class, the volume of ISP service will be so limited that prices will be beyond the reach of ordinary people, resulting in a sort of African recolonization in terms of IT.
African Lakes is not alone. Price competition coming from MWeb, owned by the South African Naspers group, threatens in Zimbabwe and Namibia to block access to Internet services for ordinary people as only the most profitable services are maintained in the face of stiff competition.
The necessity to maximize profits means that services that might contribute to social development have to be abandoned. In Kenya, for example, after trying a variety of approaches to cyber-cafes, the company has decided to draw back from the business until there is evidence that a sufficient profit can be made. "We have two issues as a company: cash and profits."
The company may be operating within a set of parameters that mean in lieu of social development creating a positive economic atmosphere, the aim must be to ensure profits and hope that they will somehow eventually result in social benefit. This is exactly the sharp criticism directed at the Bretton Woods institutions by the developing world.
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