cover image SAINTS, SINNERS, SAVIORS: Strong Black Women in African American Literature

SAINTS, SINNERS, SAVIORS: Strong Black Women in African American Literature

Trudier Harris, . . Palgrave, $55 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-312-29303-1

In this surprising, scholarly volume, Harris (The Power of the Porch) analyzes "the pathology of strength" that has become "a dominant pattern of development for black female character" in much of the literature taught in college African-American studies courses. An English professor at UNC Chapel Hill, Harris challengingly cites such works as Toni Morrison's Beloved, Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying and Toni Cade Bambera's The Salt Eaters to demonstrate a paradox: while "strength is undoubtedly a virtue," she writes, "it is frequently violating and destructive." (For example, the trend toward increasingly strong female characters discourages works featuring vulnerable ones, thereby stifling literary freedom.) Detailing representations of African-American women in 20th-century fiction, Harris reveals the extent to which "African American writers were just as complicitous as the white-created mythology surrounding black women in ensuring that strong, asexual representations of black female characters dominated." Harris is not without sympathy and even admiration for many aspects of these characters, even as she shows links between A Raisin in the Sun 's Mama Lena and contemporary TV's fondness for large, strong—and comic—black female characters. The detail can be deadening—so many textual citations; so much time spent on arguments—but the thesis is provocative, even when it's not entirely convincing. (Dec.)

Forecast:Harris's largely esoteric tone suggests that her book is destined for college classrooms. Its counterintuitive thesis and studious avoidance of lit-crit jargon will ensure a willing audience of students of American and African-American literature.