If nothing else, Black women can certainly tell a story. And where others are more subdued or might strain unto artificial performance and nearly-rehearsed expression, such embellishments to a tale are attributes we can’t help but deliver automatically. While the privileged classes were fortunate enough to bask in the glamour of the novel and epic poems they created using the tools provided to them (and in private), African slaves in America and African-American people had little more than memories and stock details to communicate events, stories and characters. In the African and Black American traditions, women are the most prolific and ascended “griots.” The stories had to be told, and told very well.
For us, that sort of “Hnn huh” and “Shut yo mouf!” gossip heard on Sunday afternoon porches and Wednesday tarry sessions is inseparable from our childhoods and adult camaraderie among other Black women. The frequency in which “gossip” appears in African-American film and literature relates to the private nature of information as it was passed during the African slave trade and American slavery of Africans. For the slaves, all knowledge was illicit and most utterances censorial. If stories and information were told, they were condensed into micronarratives with repetitious elements and non-sublime punch lines or denouements. Recall a group of Ohio Black women in a circle in Beloved, sharing the tale of the “Baby Ghost’s” resurrection and subsequent “whipping” of Sethe. Recall the Black women on the porch when Hurston’s Janie returns to town, so many stories pinned to her back and swirling from the dust under her feet. Hear Octavia Butler’s time-travelling slave women hint at their strange disappearances and lacunas. And notice, how the characters had to keep it “short” and sweet, but ever wide and sometimes bitter.
Not too much time. Slavemaster’s watching. Men returning. Chores waiting. Children crying. Money is short. God coming back. Boss firing. Tell me a story. Use your hands. Play your face. Disguise your voice. Make it count. Quick.
Top-Ten Timeless Short Story Collections by African-American Female Authors:
Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston by Zora Neale Hurston
The Sleeper Wakes: Harlem Renaissance Stories by Women edited by Marcy Knopf (featuring Jessie Fauset, Angelina Grimke, Dorothy West, et. al.)
Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara
In Love & Trouble by Alice Walker
White Rat by Gayl Jones
Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
Breeder & Other Stories by Eugenia Collier