#2. The Importance of Being Heard: The Voices of Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, and bell hooks

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Tempo di lettura: 8 minuti

Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, and bell hooks share, to a certain extent, the struggle of emerging as female writers in the American society of the twentieth century. The undeniable common trait among these three authors is the opposition between whom they aspired to be, their ambition of becoming intellectuals, and other people’s expectations — linked to the roles they were required to have within the society in which they grew up. Through the power of writing, these three strong female voices manage to denounce the marginalization and the expropriation they experienced in the American social dimension. This paper, aiming at highlighting the relations among the authors, displays the dissimilar yet connected approaches they had to language in their attempt to overcome their social and cultural marginalization, simultaneously trying to offer an image of the firm criticism they had towards the US socio-cultural dimension in which they grew up. 

Through the power of language, these three authors, denouncing their liminal dimension in the US social dimension,  express the need to find their place in the world. Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, and bell hooks have three different – yet connected – ways of conceiving language. Rich, in her essay “When We Dead Awaken”, coins the concept of re-vision, an “act of survival” (18) with which she means the process “of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction” (18). Thus, re-reading old texts by adopting a new perspective implies looking backward in order to move forward: we cannot understand the present and evolve if we do not take into account the past. According to Rich, therefore, to speak is to exist and speech is never a neutral act since the speaking subject, surrounded by a specific cultural environment, is immersed in a network of interpersonal relations. The author envisions speech as the act of breaking long-established silences and as a means to finally express what had remained unsaid for centuries. Highlighting how “it seemed to be a given that men wrote poems and women frequently inhabited them” (21), Rich notices that while language and writing were almost uniquely destined to men, women, though often object of the poem, were consistent with certain stereotypes since they “were almost always beautiful, but threatened with the loss of beauty, the loss of youth … or they were beautiful and died young” (21). This gendered dichotomy exacerbates the liminal dimension of women in the US social dimension generating confusion and dissatisfaction for a young woman who, like Rich, aspired to become a writer in XX century America, as in “looking eagerly for guides” (21) and trying to find “her way of being in the world” (21), “she meets the image of Woman in books written by men … but precisely what she does not find is … herself” (21). In re-reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Ones Own, Rich finds out that language is not how it may superficially appear, instead, it is a multilayered reality; through a text, in fact, we can see multiple nuances. Consequently, the act of re-vision is needed to sort out the conflicts underlying language. However, such transformation requires the freedom “to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment” (231-232) that can only exist out of any compromise, which would limit the possibility of choice. 

If on the one hand Adrienne Rich highlights the necessity of freedom to carry out an act of revision and therefore move forward, it is Gloria Anzaldúa who exercises it in her letter “Speaking in Tongues”. Addressing women of color and empathizing with them, Anzaldúa, in fact, manifests the urgency to accede to the possibility of being recognized in language, thus attempting to overcome their social liminality. Rich’s act of re-vision therefore is echoed in Anzaldúa’s letter, especially when the Chicano writer highlights how “we can’t transcend the dangers, can’t rise above them. We must go through them and hope we won’t have to repeat the performance” (165).  The dangers to which she refers include the lack of privileges and the discrimination colored women experience in the United States — where they occupy an even more liminal dimFension than white American women like Rich — and the prejudices that perhaps result in the frustration of feeling set aside in language. As Rich saw discourse as a means to break to silence and raise her voice, Anzaldúa insists and focuses specifically on the silence of women of color. Following up on Rich’s imaginative transformation of reality, Anzaldúa, in fact, addresses women of color with the words of the Chicana writer and feminist activist Cherrie Moraga: “words are war to me./ They threaten my family” (166). This prompts a conflict within her identity: she feels divided between the loyalty to the people she cares about and the self-inflicted withdrawal from language. Thus, similarly to Rich, Anzaldúa is aware that language can be hurtful and relegate oneself to a liminal dimension; nevertheless she also acknowledges its liberating potential, since it represents the means “to become more intimate with [oneself,] … discover[ing] … preserve[ing oneself and] … achiev[ing] self-autonomy” (169). She sees, therefore, language as a means to gain power, denounce one’s truths and unite women of color in a collectivity. Thus, by choosing the letter form and addressing her “dear hermanas” (165), the Chicano author creates a sort of private space in which she can finally feel free to publicly expose and make visible her struggle in an excluding linguistic landscape simultaneously, however, creating boundaries and excluding in turn those — white men — who had previously relegated her and the women of color she addresses — with the homogenous subject “we” —  to an outlying social dimension.

Similarly, the African American writer and feminist activist bell hooks, in the chapter “Intellectual Life” of her book Teaching Critical Thinking inserts the individual dimension of the “I” in a wider collective landscape, but, unlike Anzaldúa, the communitarian dimension here is not a group of women, it is the “segregated” (135) South of the US. In this environment, in fact, bell hooks “knew that what she did not want to be was a teacher” (135) — the “I” is enfolded in a set of shared beliefs that depicted the teaching profession as requiring “skills [she thought she] … did not have” (135).  She eventually discovered “a passion for working with ideas, for critical thinking, and theory” (136) which led her to be an intellectual. Nevertheless, because of the criticism she underwent at the beginning of her career, detectable in the negative “feedback [she] … received from students, colleagues, friends and family” (137), hooks experienced the same withdrawal Anzaldúa felt from language, as she “found … [herself] … wanting to withdraw, to return to working in solitude, which had been … [her] lot before … [her] work received public attention” (137). By the end of  “Intellectual Life”, hooks even goes so far as to show her gratitude when she argues that she has “been especially lucky to receive feedback from students and from readers about the way [her] … work has helped change their lives for the better” (139). Thus, hooks’ core message is to “pursue a life of the mind” (138) that she encounters thanks to the power of reading. The freedom Rich talks about is therefore mirrored in hooks’ almost spiritual healing process that enables her to shift from an intelligent African American young woman with limited choices in the social dimension of the US South to a cultural critic in “an anti-intellectual society” (136).

Thus, I believe that the three authors express — though with different voices and intensities — a firm and strong criticism towards the US socio-cultural dimension in which they grew up, attempting to find their own way and overcome their marginalization. However, if on the one hand, one may argue that Rich’s act of revision seems to embody a qualitative means to undermine the obsolete roles that patriarchy keeps assigning women, on the other — perhaps because of Rich’s belonging to the middle class and her impossibility to grasp the complexity of the cultural situation of the time —  her analyses leaves out other important social issues such as ethnicity, sexuality, class and disability, which, as in the case of hooks and Anzaldúa, determine a two or threefold process of subordination and spatial alienation. Thus, notwithstanding their different origins, Anzaldúa and hooks had to deal with racial discrimination and, understanding the emancipating power of language and writing, raised their voices to denounce their social marginalization and liminality as women of color — if in fact Anzaldúa states that she “became apt at, and majored in English to spite, to show up, the arrogant racist teachers who thought all Chicano children were dumb and dirty” (166), hooks claims that “smart black girls from poor, working-class backgrounds had two choices: cleaning other folks’ houses or teaching school” (136). What further groups in these three writers is their political commitment “during the heyday of civil rights and women’s liberation” (hooks, 136) — the so called second wave of feminism, in fact, could not disregard the revolutionary voices of Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, and bell hooks. However, in the arch of time from the 1950s to the present that the three authors’ texts cover, not much has changed in what concerns the rights of women — moreover, systemic racism in the US is a daily reality that seems hard to extirpate. In any case, we cannot deny that these three authors and their reinterpretation of language and writing set the base for a rethinking of women’s role and position in US society.

di Silvia Buzzo con Andrea Acqualagna

Works cited

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” College English, vol. 34, no. 1, Women, Writing and Teaching, October 1972, pp. 18-30

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Speaking In Tongues: A Letter To 3rd World Women Writers.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983, pp. 165-174

hooks, bell. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York, Routledge, 2010

L’immagine è tratta da https://ambicular.com/skuawk-download/school/aaron-burden-2.jpg

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