Media, Manipulation, and Self-fashioning: Black Power Women’s Autobiography and Public Perception
Four decades after the heyday of the Black Power movement, a worrisome disconnect between what the movement was and how it is perceived today remains in American cultural memory. The Black Power movement, spanning roughly ten years between 1966-1976, left an indelible mark on the American cultural landscape, spawning the Black Arts movement, and leaving behind a powerful trail of images and stories that rocked the foundations of American society. Coming on the heels of the later Civil Rights movement, buoyed by black soldiers returning from Vietnam, and traumatized by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the nation’s identity found itself infused with a spirit of revolution the likes of which we have rarely seen since. To a large extent, national discourse on Black Power from this period would permanently alter how we talk about race in the media and forever link the sixties and seventies with the re-birth of America’s revolutionary roots. Yet classrooms rarely, if ever, make it to this pivotal moment in America’s history. If the Black Power movement is even addressed, it tends to be written off as a failed movement, a victim of its own masculinism, violence, and anti-white “reverse” racism. As Davis Lionel Smith writes, because of the persistence of these “unappealing characteristics,” public memory remains predisposed to “equate all the work of the movement with its worst tendencies” (Smith 93). Even among African American theorists, high profile thinkers like Cornel West have characterized this period by what wasn’t accomplished:
The sixties in African American history witnessed an unforgettable appearance of the black masses on the historical stage, but they were quickly dragged off—killed, maimed, strung out, imprisoned, or paid off. Yet history continues and growing black petite bourgeoisie still gropes for identity, direction, and vision. (West 34)
Likewise, Henry Louis Gates once wrote of the Black Arts Movement that, “Erected on a shifting foundation, this ‘renaissance’ was the most short-lived of all” (Gates), adding to the collective negative historicization of Black Power and the general sense of failure attached to the movement.
With the publication of more extensive scholarship on the movement like William Van Deburg’s New Day in Babylon (1993), Charles E. Jones’ The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (1998), and more recently Margo Perkins Autobiography As Activism, Cheryl Clarke’s After Mecca (2004), James Smethurst’s Black Arts Movement (2005), and Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford’s New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement (2006), a more balanced view of Black Power as both a political and cultural movement is slowly making its way into American culture. These scholars have shed important light onto the highly complex intersections among race, gender, and class during the period, showing us that to dismiss the period is to not only overlook a critical stage of black cultural development, but to ignore a period that changed the face of American popular culture at large.
Most of what we do know about the Black Power movement comes from the primary and secondary literature produced during the period itself. The period spawned an outpouring of black creativity in the arts, especially drama and poetry. Amiri Baraka’s Umbra Workshop, The Harlem Writers Guild, and Ed Bullins and Bob Macbeth’s New Lafayette Theater along with nationally distributed magazines like Freedomways, Liberator, and journals like Black Dialogue, Black Scholar, Negro Digest/Black World, and The Journal of Black Poetry helped forge a space for a cohesive black avant-garde arts scene to arise. Key anthologies of literature, poetry, essays, and criticism like Black Fire (1968), Black Expression (1969), Black Woman (1970), and The Black Aesthetic (1972) provided insight into how black theorists, artists, and critics perceived the rising popularity of black cultural and artistic expression. Black autobiography during the period also experienced its own renaissance. The years between 1965 and 1976 saw the publication of autobiographies by public figures like NOI leader Malcolm X, Black Panther leaders Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale, chairman of SNCC H. Rap Brown, prison activists George Jackson and Angela Davis, and poets Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks. What is perhaps even more interesting is the continuing proliferation of memoirs and autobiographies that have been published since the Black Power era. From the 80’s through the present, activists and artists from the period have continued to pen their experiences and reflect upon the historical moment that saw so much turbulence and social upheaval, among them Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Assata Shakur, Elaine Brown, Audre Lorde, Nina Simone, David Hilliard, and Stokely Carmichael.
Autobiography, it would seem, became the genre of choice for many Black Power activists and artists. Unfortunately, if these autobiographies have a chance to make it onto the classroom reading list, rarely do students encounter more than perhaps Malcolm X or Eldridge Cleaver, over-representing once again the overall sense that Black Power was a black man’s movement. Indeed, both Malcolm X’s and Cleavers autobiographies were best sellers and came to signify the “black experience” of the 1960s, conferring upon them a sort of celebrity status in cultural memory and ensuring that they would have a permanent place in Black Power history. Take for example, The African-American Experience, a massive compendium of African-American letters, essays, speeches, and writings edited by Kai Wright (2009). In the anthology’s section titled “Black Power and Beyond,” there are entries by activists and writers, including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Maulana Karenga, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, Amiri Baraka, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But of the section’s 35 entries, there are only five women represented—Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Barbara Jordan, Michele Wallace, and Fannie Lou Hamer. This anthology in many ways reflects the larger problem surrounding research on the Black Power Movement—regardless of the scholarly work being done on women in the movement, it would seem that Black Power women continue to be underrepresented in texts aimed at a more popular, general audience.
Coupled with mass media’s obsession with the masculine image of Black Power during the 60’s and 70’s, the meaning behind the phrase “Black Power” retains its masculine bent even today. While the publication and popular consumption of black women’s autobiographies from the period have slowly begun to dismantle the errant notion that Black Power was a men’s revolution, full-length scholarly work addressing Black Power women’s autobiographies is still somewhat scant. Indeed, there is a general lack of cohesion regarding how to address these women’s autobiographies. In particular, the autobiographies of the activist women I have chosen to focus on—Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown—are such overtly political texts that they’re rarely discussed in literary scholarship at all. While Tracye Matthews’ chapter “No One Ever Asks, What a Man’s Place in the Revolution Is: Gender and the Politics of The Black Panther Party” in The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (1998) calls upon the autobiographies of both Shakur and Brown, her use of these texts is as evidence of the underrepresented women’s perspective within histories of the Black Panther Party, and as such, her aims are understandably historical and not literary. Margo Perkins, whose book Autobiography as Activism I rely on heavily as a launching point for my discussions on these Black Power autobiographers, remains the only full-length scholarly work devoted to investigating the writings of Davis, Shakur, and Brown as both literary and historical texts.
Yet what makes it difficult to discuss these autobiographies as literary texts is also what distinguishes them as ripe for interdisciplinary analysis—in other words, what can these texts tell us about the cultural moment of Black Power, and alternately, how did the cultural moment of Black Power influence the writing of these texts? To my surprise, what is most glaringly absent in the few scholarly discussions available on the autobiographies of Davis, Shakur, and Brown is what most obviously connects them: their identities not only as black women within the Black Power movement, but as public figures within an increasingly mediated American culture. Given the high profile that each of these women maintained (both wittingly and unwittingly) during the movement, their autobiographies respond to a very unique—and very public—set of social conditions that forces us to reconsider how to discuss these texts within academic and popular contexts. For both a specialized as well as a general audience, autobiographies like Davis’s, Shakur’s, and Brown’s offer a new way of thinking about how the autobiographical genre has been influenced and shaped by modern media discourse.
To begin situating these women’s autobiographies at a crossroads between literary and media discourse, it’s important to consider what exactly “cultural memory” means for the study of media and the Black Power movement. In particular, I am interested in considering Edward Morgan’s assessment that with respect to “public memory of the civil rights struggle,” the realms of history and memory have become distinctly blurred:
Whereas the study of history has traditionally been understood as an empirical and rational undertaking and memory a more subjective phenomenon, increasing interest in terms like public history, collective memory, and public memory suggests that the distinction between history and memory may no longer be so clear. (Morgan 138)
The outcome of this overlap between history and memory means that media can play a disproportionately powerful role in shaping public memory. Unlike the dialogic work of historians and scholars, Morgan argues that public memory of the civil rights movement is “subject to intervening influences” and “the frames of public memory resemble those that permeated media interpretation during the civil rights and other 1960s social movements” (Morgan 139). Morgan’s analysis of public memory is aimed at disrupting the hegemonic tendencies inherent within media as an institutional wing of capitalist culture and its foreclosure of any active discussion surrounding potentially conflicting memories of the civil rights movement. While Morgan’s analysis centers squarely on the mainstream media’s creation of major themes in culture’s memory of civil rights, his use of media texts as agents of ideology is particularly useful for my own analysis of how that same media discourse might likewise have helped give rise to the use of autobiographical texts as a powerful counteragent. Morgan argues that there are three distinct themes that arise out of mass media’s rendition of civil rights within public memory: 1) The media used the Southern civil rights struggle to “legitimize rather than challenge national traditions and institutions”, 2) the media silenced critical voices within the national discussion on issues like racial inequality by rendering them “invisible”, and 3) the media reduced the civil rights story to a “spectator” democracy, turning individuals into a monolithic audience whose only job is to “[cheer] for one or another public representation of conflicting sides” (Morgan 140).
Morgan’s last point—that the rise of the mass media has helped produce a spectator democracy incapable of critical dialogue—is of particular importance in my consideration of Black Power women’s autobiographies. In fact, I would argue that black women’s autobiography, and in particular the autobiographies of public figures like Davis, Shakur, and Brown represent one way of reasserting individual voices and critical dialogue into the media conversation. These women have historically had to factor in the problem of public memory of both themselves and the Black Power movement, even as those memories were still being formed. While negotiating the “I” of autobiography with the communal “we” of racial and gendered identity has always been an issue for African American autobiographers, adding the media’s production of identity into the mix requires us to re-evaluate the challenges facing black autobiographers today.
Throughout this project, I investigate the role of the mass media in shaping the narratives of black women activist autobiographies during the tumultuous period of Black Power, roughly between 1965-1975. I examine how activists like Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown utilize the autobiographical form to not only record their experiences for future generations, but as a way to dispute the powerfully universalizing tendencies of the media in rendering each individual woman’s life experience. My research utilizes primary evidence from the period—newspapers, magazines, book reviews, and editorials, as well as research on the media (surveys, sociological studies) conducted during this period, in an attempt to capture how the public reacted to the type of stories written about these women and in turn, how each writer framed her autobiography in response to this existing conversation between the media and its public audience. In each case, a distinct conversation exists between the media and the autobiographer, forming a unique discourse that illuminates the complexity of racial and gender relations of the time and adding a fundamental layer to our existing histories of the role of women during the civil rights and black power eras. The results of this project will hopefully help us consider how we might better approach the complexities of writing autobiography in the age of mass media, and especially the perils for minority public figures who have dared to tell their stories.
From Autobiography Theory to African American Autobiography Theory:
If we briefly survey the landscape of autobiography theory, beginning with Georges Gusdorf in the 1950s through the rise of identity politics in the 90s, there exists a marked trend gravitating from the notion of autobiography as a highly individualized mode to the idea that autobiography has the ability to depict group or communal identity. Black Power women’s activist autobiographies in particular tend to draw attention to the tensions that arise around writing narratives of selfhood whose goals encompass both individual needs and political agendas, agendas that are intimately tied with the historical contingencies of those activists’ particular experiences. Moreover, because these activists’ lives were so highly publicized, external media discourse became integral to their narratives of selfhood, both as a source of anxiety as well as a source of power. These multiple agendas and competing discourses make it difficult to categorize activist autobiographies as merely “political” texts, and even more difficult to imagine where autobiography theory belongs when dealing with narratives of self that interact so directly with the world “outside” of the text.
Based on debates scholars have been having since the 1950s, it’s not entirely clear whether activist autobiography should be analyzed the same way we might approach fiction or poetry or more innately “creative” genres. If there is one thing the reader of autobiography expects above else, it is that the life of the text is indeed the life of the author. Take, for example, when Barrett Mandel suggests that readers consume autobiography “to satisfy a need for verifying a fellow human being’s experience of reality. They achieve satisfaction when they feel strongly that the book is true to the experience of the author…” (Mandel 58). The equivocation between text and author is tantalizingly fallacious on numerous levels, the most obvious being of course that once written the life of the text is no longer exclusively the domain of the autobiographer, but a separate entity with a life of its own. As autobiography theorist Georges Gusdorf states, “Autobiography is therefore never the finished image or the making, a doing; memoirs look to an essence beyond existence, and in manifesting it they serve to create it” (Gusdorf 47). It is Gusdorf as well who suggested that “…autobiography is a second reading of experience, and it is truer than the first because it adds to experience itself consciousness of it” (Gusdorf 38). At the heart of Gusdorf’s conception of autobiography is the sense that the genre opens a window into the very essence of experience more true, in fact, than truth itself. The act of writing autobiography transforms the genre into a new species that transcends “fiction or fraud,” where the truth lies in the artistic value of autobiography as not only a genre, but as an experience between the reader and text. For Gusdorf, the beauty of autobiography lies in “a truth affirmed beyond the fraudulent itinerary and chronology, a truth of the man, images of himself and of the world, reveries of a man of genius, who, for this own enchantment and that of his readers, realizes himself in the unreal” (Gusdorf 43).
Gusdorf wrote his highly influential essay “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” in 1956, helping legitimize a space for autobiography as a genre worthy of intellectual and theoretical study. In the intervening 50 some odd years, the landscape of autobiography theory has changed drastically, adapting to the times by incorporating the reality of postmodernism as the dominating cultural paradigm for most of the second half of the 20th century. The heavy hand of Sartre, Barthes, and Derrida slowly deconstructed any resolute belief in essence and absolute truth. In the burgeoning arena of autobiography studies, James Olney’s seminal essay “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment,” along with the larger anthology of autobiographical essays collected within Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (1980), reflects not only the changing face of autobiography theory, but also the changing concerns of autobiographers within an increasingly diverse literary scene. While a majority of the autobiographies treated within the anthology would fall mostly under the rubric of “great works,” the collection devotes legitimate attention to women’s autobiography and black autobiography, both of which at the time were still highly underserved, especially in autobiography theory. Yet the incorporation of collective forms of identity like gender and class as paradigms within autobiography theory (and literary theory at large) was also problematic. The transition from taking autobiography beyond the singular notion of a “truth of the man” to that of a more communal sense of identity seemed to reproduce essentialist notions of self by merely transferring essence from the individual to the group.
Like Gusdorf, Olney thinks of autobiography not necessarily in terms of truth per se, but as something more than truth:
Is there such a thing as design in one’s experience that is not an unjustifiable imposition after the fact? Or is it perhaps more relevant to say that the autobiographer half discovers, half creates a deeper design and truth than adherence to historical and factual truth could ever make claim to? (Olney 11)
According to Olney, the question of “historical and factual truth” in autobiography is the wrong question all together. What we should be asking is how the process of creating and consuming autobiography reflects a far more vast set of experiences than the singular vision of the autobiographer. Olney argues for how the genre gives the reader access into the secret realm of not just individual experience, but cultural (communal?) experience:
In the hands of other critics, autobiography has become the focalizing literature of various ‘studies’ that otherwise have little by way of a defining, organizing center to them. I have in mind such ‘studies’ as American Studies, Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and African Studies. According to the argument of these critics (who are becoming more numerous every day), autobiography –the story of a distinctive culture written in individual character and from within—offers a privileged access to an experience (the American experience, the black experience, the female experience, the African experience) that no other variety of writing can offer. I am anticipating myself somewhat now, but I would suggest that this special quality of autobiography—that is, that autobiography renders in a peculiarly direct and faithful way the experience and vision of a people, which is the same experience and the same vision lying behind and informing all the literature of that people… (Olney 13)
By bringing in this notion of not just a person but “a people,” Olney hints at the idea that autobiography need not only address the life of the author, but can speak for an entire group of people. Olney’s expansion of Gusdorf’s conception of autobiography is important precisely because it does take into account the idea of cultural identity and how individual experiences can offer unique insight into cultural identity (or experience, as Olney terms it). Echoing his earlier sentiment that autobiographers are able to half discover and half create a “deeper design and truth,” Olney’s more expansive notion of autobiography as capable of creating a “peculiarly direct and faithful” rendering of “the experience and vision of a people” picks up on what I would call the language of authenticity that both he and Gusdorf attach to autobiography.
It is this language of the authentic that grants “privileged access” into the various cultural “experiences” American identity has to offer. What perhaps comes across as most problematic in both Gusdorf’s and Olney’s conceptions of autobiography is the idea that somehow any text, whether it be autobiography or fiction, could capture the essence of an individual (in Gusdorf’s case), or an entire group of people (as is the case with Olney). Furthermore, what does it mean for a reader to have “privileged access” to such experiences? Where Gusdorf more unequivocally accepts the idea of autobiography’s ability to capture the essence of experience, arguing that “Autobiography is therefore never the finished image or the making, a doing; memoirs look to an essence beyond existence, and in manifesting it they serve to create it” (Gusdorf 47), Olney is inclined to remain somewhat suspicious of the process, asking “Can a life be written?…These questions that trouble the art of biography do not disappear when the individual who lived the life undertakes to write it—on the contrary, they become rather more complex and demanding” (Olney 20). While Olney uses slightly different terminology, his idea of how autobiography captures something that transcends historical and factual truth closely resembles Gusdorf’s idea of essence. Though both writing at different times and in different cultural climes, the question of truth for Gusdorf and Olney becomes one more closely linked with a philosophical idea of authenticity, and how autobiography can be a vehicle for creating a more authentic version of the self through the self-consciousness of writing autobiography.
By extension, Olney’s awareness of how this question of authenticity has broad applications for group identity creates a unique set of problems that complicates how we would view the role of autobiography in fields like African American studies. As Olney notes, “Even more than American Studies, Black Studies courses and programs have been organized around autobiography—in part, no doubt, because (as John Blassingame has pointed out) black history was preserved in autobiographies rather than in standard histories and because black writers entered into the house of literature through the door of autobiography. From Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, from Olaudah Equiano to Maya Angelou, the mode specific to the black experience has been autobiography” (Olney 15). The central role of autobiography in African American studies is no secret—from slave narratives, testimonials, first hand accounts, epistles, sermons, gospels, memoirs—all of these forms are autobiographical in nature and have served to record the experiences of a people historically denied access to the world of letters. Yet to return to Olney’s assertion that “autobiography renders in a peculiarly direct and faithful way the experience and vision of a people, which is the same experience and the same vision lying behind and informing all the literature of that people” (Olney 13), it is the idea that this vision is somehow the “same vision” for all people of a certain group that might sound most jarring for contemporary literary scholars, trained to red flag any blanket statement thrown over an entire cultural or ethnic group disregarding individual differences in experience and historical context.
What might be most problematic then in thinking of autobiography as “the mode specific to the black experience” is the idea that 1) there exists a uniform black experience and 2) the black experience can somehow be transmitted, without complications, to an audience. Coupled with the continuing concerns of truthfulness/essence/authenticity (however problematic these terms may be) in autobiography that are paramount within not only the realm of autobiography theory, but also popular consumption of autobiography, the stakes of reading and writing black autobiography have always been and continue to rest on dangerous footing, where the notion of “speaking for” is inescapable so long as there exists an audience for autobiography. For while the purposes of autobiography from the standpoint of the autobiographer are infinite and oftentimes indeterminate, the purposes of an audience reading autobiography seem to remain the same: to gain that privileged access, as Olney would say, into another individual’s or group’s experiences.
There are risks that attend any consideration of group identity, especially because it’s so easy to begin extrapolating universals out of particular situations. Take for example Roger Rosenblatt’s essay “Black Autobiography: Life as the Death Weapon,” where the universal quality of black experience lies at the heart of his reading of black autobiography. Rosenblatt argues that, “[black autobiography] exists as a special form of literature because there are discernible patterns within the black autobiographies that tie them together and because the outer world apprehended by black autobiographies is consistent and unique, if dreadful” (Rosenblatt 170). He further remarks that the response by readers of black autobiography “is equally astonished and rhetorical” (Rosenblatt 170). Written in 1976, his essay represents an early attempt to reconcile the problems of group identity within a slowly dissembling individualistic paradigm of autobiography theory. In doing so, Rosenblatt falls into the camp of looking at black autobiography as “speaking for” African American culture, precisely in the way that Olney suggests autobiography can represent the whole vision of a people. Rosenblatt’s analysis (which focuses primarily on Malcolm X and Richard Wright) argues that, “There is a mirror principle operating in all of black writing, one that shows black heroes functioning in continual opposition to the white lives about them. In a sense the literature itself is a mirror into which the characters are locked. Everything they think, feel, and do seems turned the wrong way” (Rosenblatt 173-74, emphasis mine). In the end, Rosenblatt concludes that, “Since the ‘argument’ of black autobiography is against the existing universe of which the narrator was and is an essential if uncomfortable part, the ‘argument’ of the work is extended against the self. Black autobiography annihilates the self because by doing so it takes the world with it” (Rosenblatt 179-80). While what Rosenblatt claims about the annihilation of the self is arguably tenable within the context of his psychoanalytic analysis of Malcolm X and Richard Wright’s autobiographies, he uses these analyses to speak for all black autobiography and in the process, rather fatalistically finds that all black autobiographies are suicide notes, “briefs in their own defenses, briefs for salvation, since suicide is a sin.” Regardless of whether or not you agree with Rosenblatt’s conclusions, it is his willingness to ascribe specific characteristics to all black autobiography that fails to take into account, for example, the existence of black women’s autobiography.
Even more troubling, however, is that outside the realm of autobiography theory, outside the walls of literary studies, and beyond the world of academia, there exists the real world in which experiences take place. In this world, Rosenblatt’s belief in a universal black experience, however theoretically problematic, holds water. And in fact, a reader of black autobiography would find it all too easy to corroborate Rosenblatt’s assertion that the outer world for black autobiographers has indeed been universally “dreadful.” Rosenblatt, in identifying the types of similarities in experience that connect all black autobiography, exposes the unavoidable challenges for black autobiography in having to anticipate how a readership will react to a genre that ostensibly “speaks for” a community of others whether it wants to or not, while at the same time resting on the fundamental assumption that such autobiographies create genuine/truthful representations of life for black Americans. The role of the audience, and indeed, the power of the audience, rings especially true in considering the part black autobiography has historically played in promoting and sustaining social movements like abolition and civil rights. The life stories of black writers had the opportunity to bring to light the wretched conditions of slavery and later segregation, instigating social action by appealing to a sympathetic audience of readers. The audience becomes, so to speak, the physical extension of the text capable of acting upon ideas asserted through these texts.
The role of audience and its powerful relationship to autobiography sits squarely at the center of these earlier considerations of autobiography. Yet in each case, these considerations are merely acknowledged without necessarily being fully addressed. Olney sees the audience of autobiography as being of equal importance with the autobiography itself:
The study of autobiographers have done this—how they discovered, asserted, created, a self in the process of writing it out—requires the reader or the student of autobiography to participate fully in the process, so that the created self becomes, at one remove, almost as much the reader’s as the author’s. (Olney 24)
Likewise, Mandel in “Full of Life Now” concludes:
The content of an autobiography is not alone sufficient to create truth. What actually transforms content into truth of life is the context that contains the content. By the context I mean the writer’s intention to tell the truth; the ratification through the actual choices he makes word by word, as well as in his tone, style, and organization; the assumptions that permeate the book, giving rise to content while overlapping the reader’s own sense of lived experience in the world. I would argue that it is the reader’s willingness to experience and cocreate this context that allows autobiography to speak the truth. (Mandel 72)
Rosenblatt similarly connects autobiography and audience when he writes:
The self in autobiography is alone, but so is the reader…They are equal in exchange, equal because of the experience of the artifact. On this level—which is the one level where men may help each other—the artifact and the polemics are one. (Rosenblatt 180)
Olney’s assertion that the “created self” is equally a product of both the reader and the author; Mandel’s argument that the reader “cocreates” the experience of autobiography; and Rosenblatt’s idea of an “equal exchange” between autobiography and reader—all of these claims regarding the role of audience have particularly powerful implications for black autobiography. While Olney, Mandel, and Rosenblatt gesture toward some theory of audience, Gusdorf thinks of autobiography as a closed set, something vacillating endlessly between the autobiographer and his/her autobiography:
In the final analysis, then, the prerogative of autobiography consists in this: that it shows us not the objective stages of a career—to discern these is the task of the historian—but that it reveals instead the effort of a creator to give the meaning of his own mythic tale. Every man is the first witness of himself; yet the testimony that he thus produces constitutes no ultimate, conclusive authority—not only because objective scrutiny will always discover inaccuracies but much more because there is never an end to this dialogue of a life with itself in search of its own absolute. (Gusdorf 48)
The goal of autobiography for Gusdorf is not to discern “objective stages of career,” but rather to give meaning to the autobiographer’s “mythic tale.” In black autobiography, whose goals and purposes have always had an inimitable relationship to its audience, this closed circle theory of autobiography simply doesn’t work. In contemporary theory the goal of objectivity is as problematic for an autobiographer as it would be for a historian; the audience expects truth regardless if it exists or not.
After all, how can we expect an autobiographer to treat his or her existence objectively when an audience would never be able to do the same? The sets of assumptions and experiences that collide when autobiography meets audience is what makes black autobiography a particularly communal and pointedly political process. Olney points out that it is the graphe, or the act of writing, that mediates between the autos (self) and the bios (life), arguing how “it is through that act that the self and the life, complexly intertwined and entangled, take on a certain form, assume a particular shape and image, and endlessly reflect that image back and forth between themselves as between two mirrors” (Olney 22). However, like Gusdorf, Olney stops just short of anticipating how the act of writing also takes a formerly closed circle of identity and puts it out there in the world. In black autobiography, the graphe is a necessarily politicized move, specifically because of how writing has played an unparalleled role in building black identity within a historically hostile mainstream culture.
It is of course somewhat unfair to hold Gusdorf or even Olney up to the standards of contemporary theory, where the various identity-centered academic programs mentioned by Olney as newly proliferating in the 1980’s have already had several decades to advance and revisit many of the initial (and foundational) concerns of autobiography theory. Even feminist theories of autobiography in the late 80’s were not as forgiving, striking down Gusdorf and Olney’s fascination with the individual and the self. Take for example Shari Benstock’s feminist intervention, in which she argues that such individualist theories tend to “represent authority, to represent the phallic power that drives inexorably toward unity, identity, sameness. And it is not surprising that those who question such authority are those who are expected to submit to it, those who line up on the other side of the sexual divide—that is, women” (Benstock 19-20). Benstock views the self of women’s autobiographical text as often “decentered” and discontinuous, resisting the authoritative and unifying tendencies of individualist autobiographical theory. She further stresses how the Western canonical tradition of autobiographical writings does not “admit the internal cracks and disjunctions, rifts and ruptures” and instead promotes a species of criticism where “the dissection of self-analysis premises the cohesion of a restructured self” (Benstock 20). Likewise, though Susan Stanford Friedman cites Gusdorf’s contribution to autobiography theory as “undeniable, especially his assertion that autobiographical selves are constructed through the process of writing and therefore cannot reproduce exactly the selves who lived” (Friedman 34), she is also quick to note that, “Gusdorf’s work raises serious theoretical problems for critics who recognize that the self, self-creation, and self-consciousness are profoundly different for women, minorities, and many non-Western peoples” (Friedman 34). Friedman further argues that, “individualistic paradigms of the self ignore the role of collective and relational identities in the individuation process of women and minorities” (Friedman 35). Elizabeth Fox-Genovese emphasizes the inherently political nature of black women’s autobiography, arguing that:
To categorize autobiographies according to the race and gender of those who write them is to acknowledge some relation, however problematical, between the text and its author and, more, between the text and its author’s experience. And to acknowledge this relation is to dispute prevailing theories of the multiple deaths of the subject, the self, and the author. Much contemporary theory has found the relations between politics—understood broadly as a collective human experience—and the text problematic. These autobiographies defy any apolitical reading of texts, even—perhaps especially—when they seem to invite it. (Fox-Genovese 66)
Feminist scholars like Benstock, Friedman, and Fox-Genovese revised Gusdorf and Olney’s concentration on the self and the individual by acknowledging how women’s and minority autobiography represent their own distinct autobiographical traditions where the “I” is always deeply (and politically) connected to a “we.”
Though these early theorists acknowledge the critical role audience plays in how we theorize autobiography, in the case of Olney, Mandel, and Rosenblatt, audience represents an ending point, the final step in understanding how autobiography works. None of these theorists went so far as to make a connection between audience and the impact audience might have in a culture where the unequal distribution of power creates an unavoidably political witches’ brew for black autobiography. The feminist autobiographical theories of Benstock, Friedman, and Fox-Genovese, on the other hand, implicitly take up the issue of audience by connecting the autobiographer directly with his/her communal identity beyond the text.
As Craig Werner suggests, for early black autobiographers writing during the anti-slavery movement “…the primary significance of graphe for most black writers has been that it provides proof of a self capable of participating in the discourse—literary and political—that shape the lives of that self and the community from which it cannot be separated” (Werner 85). In other words, graphe for these black writers was an evidentiary act of literacy, defying the dehumanizing rhetoric of slavery and forcibly asserting a humanity that was never supposed to be allowed to exist within American culture. Werner identifies three major stages of development in black autobiography, including:
“…an exploratory stage during which the slave narrators develop the conventions that enable them to shift attention from graphe to bios and autos; a long period during which black writers—however profound an understanding of the abstract problems associated with the writing process their work in other genres might reveal—rely almost exclusively on the conventional voice in their autobiographical works; and a recent stage, which I would label “Afro-Modernist,” during which a variety of political and cultural forces have resulted in the reemergence of graphe as a central concern of Afro-American autobiographers whether or not they would associate themselves explicitly with (post)modernism. (Werner 88)
These stages emphasize how the goals of black autobiography have needed to adapt to the historical and political conditions of the time in order to maximize a greater good for the black community, undercutting much of the individualistic paradigm of autobiography laid out by Gusdorf. At the core of Werner’s reading of black autobiography is the very real power of audience, where “Black autobiographers were forced to recognize that the ultimate success of the political project demanded an increase in the size of the sympathetic white audience” (Werner 86). As members of the black community, black writers of autobiography were subject to the very real consequences of writing for an audience whose sympathies were never guaranteed.
During the era of Black Power, autobiographers had to adapt to an audience whose general knowledge of civil rights and Black Power were largely bounded by the constraints of media discourse’s “objective” stance, a stance that often was anything but objective. Autobiographies of public figures and activist women like Davis, Shakur, and Brown represent a type of narrative that uses autobiographical experience to not just expose injustices and further a political agenda, but talk back to a media that until only recently has become an effective two-way street for communication. While our modern world has all but taken for granted that we can personally comment on any story from anywhere and at anytime, Davis, Shakur, and Brown used autobiography to comment on how the media chose to represent their lives, at times refuting their media representations and at others, reinforcing that representation. The autobiographies of these women reflect the rise of an emergent mass media institution and its effects on public opinion, and in particular, how this mass media might in turn shape the writing of black women’s selves in autobiography. Taken as a group, these women’s autobiographies demonstrate the complexity of the Black Power movement, showing us that what connected these autobiographers was not always a verisimilitude of shared experience or politics (though such connections certainly existed), but a concerted effort to forcibly carve an alternative personal history and public counter discourse that could break through the increasingly powerful reach of mass media, popular culture, and the distillation and distortion of history. Just as slave narratives adopted strategic forms and narrative perspectives in order to combat the pervasive pro-slavery discourse, Davis, Shakur, and Brown constructed their respective narratives in order to address the most egregious misrepresentations made against them in the public eye. As highly scrutinized public figures occupying the contentious category of “militant black woman,” each of these women found themselves in a unique position to resist popular media discourse on Black Power. Collectively, they set a precedent for the modern political autobiography as not just the story of a life or of the black community, but a calculated response to media discourse and public opinion.
In Chapter One, I examine the print media’s representation of activist and scholar Angela Davis. Specifically, I argue that the media’s use of language surrounding issues of race, revolutionaries, and black power reveals an often tense relationship that at times reproduces the racialized thinking of the period and at other times, resists and reshapes the terms of the debate. The cumulative effect of constant media coverage of the New Left, Black Power organizations, race riots, and the Vietnam War produces a heightened sense of danger, violence, and uncertainty throughout American culture, especially regarding black revolutionaries. The unprecedented levels of media coverage regarding Angela Davis’s role in the Marin County Courthouse shootout, the FBI manhunt that ensued, and her eventual capture and trial serve as a case study in how the media not only shaped public opinion on Davis, but how Davis would in turn use her autobiography as a means of responding to the media’s attempt to isolate her experience from the larger struggle for black liberation. By tracing Davis’s presence in the media from the early 60's through mid 70's, I demonstrate how her autobiography not only addresses the cultural hysteria of the moment but also anticipates the lasting political power of experience in countering institutional master narratives.
In Chapter Two, I look at the relationship between the autobiography of Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur and the news media as evidence of a society struggling to reset the balance of power in a culture where justice and criminality occupy increasingly blurred arenas. Focusing on Shakur’s high profile arrest in the shooting death of a New Jersey police officer, I examine the print media’s treatment of her story from her initial arrest through the end of her trial. In particular, I consider the power of then deputy police commissioner Robert Daley’s widely read work of investigative journalism, “Target Blue,” and its role in establishing Shakur’s guilt outside of any criminal court system. Daley’s investigation into the Black Liberation Army becomes an opportunity to reestablish order in what seemed to be a failing justice system, launching Shakur into the public eye and painting her as a cold, calculating criminal. Against these extraordinary circumstances, Shakur’s autobiographical account becomes a calculated subversion of what is “right” in society both morally and legally, no easy feat given the taint of heavy news coverage and racial bias in public opinion. By comparing Shakur’s rhetorical strategies to the popular discourses of law and order dominating news media coverage, I show that Shakur’s autobiography forcibly rejects the discourse of black criminality and sets out to prove that there can be no real justice in a racist culture. It is this culture of violence and black criminalization that serves not as the backdrop to Shakur’s autobiography, but the focalizing point for her experiences as a black activist, fugitive, and political prisoner.
In my final chapter, I examine Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power and the role of the media in co-creating Brown’s public identity alongside her own personal manipulation of identity. As one of the few women allowed into the inner circle of Black Panther leader Huey Newton, Brown’s autobiography opens a door into the masculinized ethos of black power and the effects of her unlikely rise to power within this world. At the time of her autobiography’s publication, Brown faced accusations of “airing dirty laundry,” revealing many of the more unsavory aspects of the Black Panther Party and its extralegal practices. Her simultaneous critique of and participation in questionable ethical practices, including the perpetuation of misogynism and physical violence within the BPP power structure, illustrates the extent to which Brown’s identity remains contested even as she attempts to immortalize her own mythology of self. By looking at Brown’s autobiographical self alongside her presence in the media both during the heyday of the Black Panther Party and at the time of A Taste of Power’s publication, the resulting conversation unveils the encroachment of media discourse into Brown’s very conception of self.
While autobiography has always been a vital literary form in African American history, the autobiographies of black activist women like Davis, Shakur, and Brown foreshadow the particularly overpowering presence the media will play in shaping the lives of minorities in the public eye. As media technologies advance and citizen journalism rises to the forefront of public dialogue, autobiography will remain one of best hopes for reviving critical dialogue within national conversations on race, gender, and civil rights.