Black Feminist Aesthetics in Pearle Cleage’s Fylin’ West

“I am writing to expose and explore the point where racism and sexism meet — .”

This statement from her essay Mad at Miles clearly delineates for us, Pearl Cleage’s feminism. Lisa M. Anderson’s essay “A Black Feminist Aesthetic”, gives us a checklist in order to better the understand Pearl Cleage’s Feminist Aesthetics. History-real or imagined is an important tool used to understand the representation of black women’s lives and experiences. Cleage uses a combination of real and imagined history in her play. The melodrama “Flyin’ West” is set during the Kansas Exodus of 1879, when the Homestead Act provided an opportunity for free black people to buy land and move west. As a resistant reader of history, creates a plot and characters that force commonly documented events out of their common interpretations, in order to reexamine a momentous point in the history of the African American race so that a story of four women living on a homestead becomes an icon of the intersection of race and gender.

The issue of addressing the reinvention of black female identity is a key project in black feminism. Karla Halloway points out “the reality of racism and sexism means that we must configure our private realties to include an awareness of what our public image might mean to others”. The quest for self definition is marred by the tension between separating their own internally defined images of self as an African American and the constant objectification as the other. In the characters of Flyin’ West, we see this conflict, in moving towards a self defined identity most obviously in the contrast between the tragic mulatto character of Frank and Minnie and the other three women. Being of both black and white parents, Frank is endowed with skin almost fair enough that he “passes “for white. He is a poet, educated, and well used to moving around in the company of white people in Europe. However the experiences of disinheritance by his white family, and his experiences with the white men of Kansas, leave him incapable of reconciling with his black heritage. Minnie’s ‘Ëœblackness’ is almost seen as something that needs to be beaten out of her. He insults the way her sister’s braid her hair, and confirms the stereotypical image of the black woman as the mule of the world when he says “You’re too black to bring me any good luck. All you got to give is misery. Pure D misery and little black pickaninnies like you”. For Minnie and the other women on the homestead, their internal definition of black womanhood is best characterized in the lines from the little ritual that they sing.

( They hold hands and say):

Because we are free Negro women, born of free Negro women, back as far as time began, we choose this day to leave a place where our lives, our honour, and our very souls are not our own. We choose this day to declare our lives to be our own and no one else’s. And we promise to always remember the day we left Memphis and went west together to be free women as a sacred bond between us with all our trust.

Cleage addresses this conflict in the resolution of the play, when Frank is killed, and Minnie comes to terms with his murder. She is freed from the man’s gaze that tells her what she as a black woman should be, and her survival of these events of the play, culminating in the birth of her daughter lead to a safer space where she can now define her selfhood.

Apart from history and identity, Anderson also mentions ‘wrestling with demons’ and ‘her body, her destiny’ as two other windows from which to examine the feminine aesthetic in Cleage’s play. In Flyin’ West, one may the idea that movement and geographical spaces are metaphor for the triumph over the trauma of slavery and reconstruction. The idea of landing in a safe space, where the female body and community are both free from the Multiple Jeopardies of race, gender and class (Deborah King) is implied in the idea of an exodus or flight ‘west’. Cleage’s play deals with the creation of this safe space, and the stabilised maintenance of that space leading to self reliance and independence.

In this movement towards healing of the oppressed female body and community, we observe that rather than transcending the memory of past violence, Cleage’s protagonists pursue ownership-and hence, control-of their traumatic experiences. In her work “Unclaimed Experience” Cathy Caruth argues that to process and endure trauma “involves the endless attempt to assume one’s survival as one’s own. To this end, the protagonists of “Flyin’ West” attempt a process of narrativization that renders memories of oppression and trauma as less painful and more useful. Miss Leah is the story teller, who narrates episodes of life as a black slave woman on a plantation-she selectively tells her stories according to the demands of circumstance–consoling wounded Minnie with stories of her own sexual objectification under slavery, redirecting the means of Frank’s murder by using an old plantation slave trick, and regaling her newborn granddaughter with stories of “strong coloured women makin’ way for little ol’ you”. Revisiting the trauma of racial violence by narrativization enables them to wrestle with their demons, and also use them as weapons when needed.

The protagonists of the play endure and overcome the racist violence and the sexual oppression they faced as women slaves, or even as newly freed slaves in Memphis by moving to Nicodemus. Cleage then addresses the issue of building the community of Nicodemus through the character of Sophie, who is committed to maintain black control of Nicodemus. She is independent woman who has managed to create a definition of herself as a free woman- a visionary who plans to introduce better education and community life in the town. Characters like Sophie, in Cleage’s imagined history of events, are the ones who enlarge the pre-existing safe places of the kitchen and the church yard to the entire community itself, so that free black people can live and prosper without being subjected to the issues of race and gender that they sought to escape. Sophie also helps to protect this safe space that the women have created for themselves. Through Sophie, Cleage equates the status of the community’s success and its land to the human body, and the rights that black women have to their own body, We see in the speech she makes when she returns from chruch, to see that Frank has assaulted Minnie, that acquisition and retention of land, is only as important as they preserve the bodily safety of the black woman. She has to defend both the geographical safe space as well as the corporeal space.

Though Cleage focuses on racism and sexism, through Deborah King’s essay on Multiple Jeopardies, we must also examine the importance of land as a means for economic independence. Miss Leah is fiercely protective of the opportunity to own and keep land. She feels that despite the insurmountable gap in power between the races in the South, the rules are more equitable in the West. The preservation of their land as a single entity owned solely by them is an important issue for these women. Their refusal to sell out to white prospectors, and their reaction to Frank’s attempt to do exactly so is indicative of the fierceness with which they valued it. The safeness of the created safe space depends on it being owned by black people, on the absence of surveillance/dominating influences that could hinder their self definition.

Lastly, Anderson’s 21st century Black Feminist Aesthetic also engages with the effects of institutional racism on the relationships between black women. Miss Leah is the oldest of the four, and she has lived through slavery the longest, having lost ten children and many more grandchildren because of the proactive of slave trade. Minnie is the only one of them to have been born free. Having been through dehumanising conditions, the women call each other by always using the title ‘Miss’. While, from the life stories of the women, it would seem that Cleage is activating the stereotypes of black women as matriarchs, or lonely single women who are fiercely independent or “less feminine” in comparison to the angelic, fragile vision of the ideal white woman. However, she subverts these stereotypes and takes the audience into a deeper understanding of the way the characters have defined themselves, and how this definition is bleakly in contrast with the stereotypes attributed to them by white Americans. The character of Fannie is one such tool through which Cleage subverts the notions of interaction between a gentleman and a lady. Will Parish treats Fannie “like a precious jewel deserving of my respect, my love and my protection”. He is gallant, and “does not understand how a coloured man can hit a coloured woman..we been through too much together”. However, unlike the while woman who needs the protection of her husband- Cleage’s Fannie and her sisters, are independent and strong, and do not need a man in order to survive. Fannie and Will are Aretha Franklin’s ‘do-right-man and do-right-woman’ and Cleage’s solution to the man-woman relationship that has been damaged by the Multiple Jeopardies. Though Cleage does not address much of ‘motherhood’ per se, it is still an underlying issue as we see the efforts of the women to preserve their land, and to develop it is to ensure a better future for the children they will create. Minnie’s daughter is scene in the last scene of the play, being told stories of strong black women by Miss Leah, and in this we perceive the idea of propagation of oral history- that the experiences of women before her, will positively affect the self definitions of black women in the generations to come.