THE SECRET OF Supremacy success," says poet Gwendolyn Brooks in Confirmation, "is -- you just go ahead and impress yourself on the world whether the world wants you or not." If there is a theme running through these two books, that's it. Black American women have been writing for centuries, knowing for much of that time that the world on which they were impressing themselves did not want them.
Nevertheless, here are 53 black women writers -- 53 versions of what it means to be black, female, and persistent enough to go on writing until they were wanted.
Sometimes in Black Women Writers at Work they sound like any writer. "I always wrote with the idea of being published," says Sherley Anne Williams, "not just to slip it away in a shoebox somewhere." Or Margaret Walker: "Writing is the first thing on my list, and I can't live long enough to write all the books I have in me." Some facts of writing are universal: Getting the work done and getting it published.
More often they sound as only they could, viewing the world from their individual perspectives. As editor Claudia Tate says in her introduction -- itself as readable as the individual interviews -- "By virtue of their race and gender, black women writers find themselves at two points of intersection: one where Western culture cuts across vestiges of African heritage, and one where male-female attitudes are either harmoniously parallel, subtly divergent, or in violent collision."
One of the things the interviews in particular show is that there is no such person as the black woman writer. Each woman is as different in her thoughts and opinions as in her work. For instance, on the subject of differences between male and female writers, Alexis DeVeaux says, "Men . . . seem somewhat more conservative in their treatment of "taboo themes." Women tend to explore subjects that are not "taken seriously" by black male writers or that are far less concerned with bravado and being number one and some other mythologies created by the male experience."
Toni Morrison on the same subject: "It's not so much that women write differently from men, but that black women write differently from white women." And she explains, "Aggression is not as new to black women as it is to white women. Black women seem to be able to combine the nest and adventure."
The writers discuss work habits, their individual writings, critics who seem not to be able to distinguish a black female writer from the characters she creates.
Most of the writers talk about truth, about telling the truth as writers. Not the literal truth, of course, but something more than verisimilitude -- more than the appearance of truth. Substance as well as appearance. Substance rather than polemic. Morrison again: "You can see it when a writer is writing deliberately to educate an audience. You can feel the artifice, not the art, when the writer is getting somebody told."
Some of the writers in the second book, Confirmation, are getting people told -- whites, men, each other. But the book is large and the quality mixed, as perhaps it must be in such a collection. Fifty black women writers present their work: poetry, short stories, plays, and essays. Eleven of the women interviewed in Black Women Writers are also represented in Confirmation. Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker . . . well known people. Reading both books, it is almost impossible not to cut back and forth, checking. What did she say? Now what did she do?
Sonia Sanchez is one of those in both books. In her interview she remembered the "60s, remembered oppression, remembered being unable to get work -- being "white-balled," she calls its, for being "too political" -- remembered sexism. She writes, she says, to keep herself going. And about her writing: "I've always known that if you write from a black experience, you're writing from a universal experience as well . . . I can feel a woman's pain, be she Italian or whatever, because if have felt pain."
And what did Sanchez write for Confirmation? Some poetry, and in particular a love story. It is the story of two women, one old and apparently wretched, the other young and actually wretched. The two meet, sandpaper against each other briefly, them make peace as the old one tells the young one about two men, two loves, one destructive, one healing. The telling and the hearing of the memory are healing to both women. Did Sanchez do what she says she does? Yes.
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor appears only in Confirmation, but her story, "Skillet Blond" deals with a sterotype likely to be all too familiar to black women whether they write or not: that of the big, strong, tough black woman able to cope with anything. Here is the myth as a child:
"You dont cry cause the last time you cried they laughed so hard you dont think you could stand it again. They took it for a stage joke.
""Tsk tsk do you believe it? She ought to be shame of herself."
""A big black gal like that actin tenderharted.""
And here is the myth as a woman, insulted, then denied anger, denied comfort: "I'm surprised at you, a strong Black woman acting like a Jewish princess."
Louise Meriwether's short story addresses the problem of black Americans and Third World foreigners pitted against each other, tricked into fighting each other over the country's crumbs.
As I read Confirmation, whenever I began to feel tired or preached-at, I ran across a gem. As I read Black Women Writers, I began to feel the book itself was a gem. In both books thw women wee thoughtful, optimistic, pessimistic, bitter, loving, angry, responsible . . .
Asked about her responsibility as a writer, Maya Angelou said, "I'm always trying to be a better human being, and . . . I continue to learn my craft. Then when I have something positive to say, I can say it beautifully." That, too, is a secret of supremacy and success.