IN AFRICA AND THE AFRICAN DIASPORA. 1996.
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Andrea Benton Rushing, eds., Washington,
D.C.: Howard University Press. 286 pp. $17.95 paperback.©
Women in Africa and the African Diaspora
is an eloquently illuminating addition to the thin bibliography on black
feminism. In this book, eighteen essays by eminent black female scholars
explore important segments of the black woman's life and give a succinct
judicious and fair-minded portrait of the trials, tribulations, and
accomplishments of women of African ancestry in Africa itself, and in
the diaspora. Split into three sections, the story that emerges weaves
around themes such as the theory and method for the study of black feminism,
the black woman's status and her role in her native African society,
the achievements of the African diaspora women in various fields, the
sometimes terrifying agonies of black women in various walks of life,
and a comparative study of the images of black women in Western literature.
The Western reader, used to judging other
peoples not by their own standards but by what Caucasians deem appropriate,
would find the essays in Part II of the book particularly intriguing.
This section of the book is allocated to Africa, a continent whose history
has for so long been distorted, misinterpreted, and misunderstood in
Western circles. Whether it is Niara Sudarkasa's piece on "The
'Status of Women' in Indigenous Africa Societies," Andrea Benton
Rushing's essay "On Becoming a Feminist: Learning From Africa,"
or the jointly produced piece by Harriette Pipes McAdoo and Miriam K.
Were on "Extended Family Involvement in Urban Kenyan Professional
Women," the results are illuminating portrayals of the least-understood,
but often-condemned aspects of African culture.
Taking advantage of various research
tools in their favor, tools such as Rushing's ability to read the Yoruba
language, the time spent among the Yorubas of Western Nigeria, personal
contacts with African feminists and an inside understanding of their
female culture, the contributors interrogate some common, but erroneous
assumptions of Western feminists about the African woman. Rushing's
study, in fact, reveals striking similarities in the African, African-American,
and Haitian women's "combination of fierce dedication to their
children, dawn-to-dark work days, strong religions faith, and mouths
that were...weapons" (p.121). She discusses the "matrilineal,
matrifocal" culture of the Akan-speaking people of Ghana and reveals
the powerful role of the Queen Mother, the economic power of often-unschooled
market women and the political leverage it gave them (p.123), and uses
those examples to dispel the once-fast-held notion that African women
were silent drudges who were subjected to bearing many children, to
the practice of female circumcision, and to accepting their husbands
polygamous privileges unquestioningly.
Niara Sudarkasa's analysis of the status of women in indigenous African
societies reveals that, except for the Islamized societies of sub-Saharan
Africa, women were conspicuous in high places in pre-colonial times.
She says women in pre-colonial Africa were queen-mothers, queen-sisters,
princesses, chiefs, and holders of other offices in towns and villages
(p.73). All of the essays dealing with the role of women in traditional
pre-colonial Africa agree that African women played far more important
roles in the economies of their societies, where many were involved
in farming, trade, and craft production, than previously conceived in
Europe and America.
The contributors caution against the
presumption that black women worked outside the home solely because
of economic necessity rather than due to the choice of tradition, the
kind of presumption that seems to say that the black woman, like her
white counterpart, would choose the role of housewife and mother over
that of a working wife and mother. Everywhere, black female and male
roles are shown to compliment each other.
Studies in parts III and IV of the book show that the black woman in
Africa and in the diaspora had well established rights long before the
era of female liberation movements. The idea of giving these women respected
rights was not borrowed from Europe, as some analysts have labored to
write. The misconceptions about the black family, that became widespread
among Europeans and Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century and are
still very much alive today have fooled many into studying the black
woman from the perspective of the white woman. They failed to take cognizance
of the fact that the place of the black woman was not just in the kitchen.
Thus in order to give the academic world a rational understanding of
the role of the black woman, these lady-scholars took an Afro-centric
view of the black woman.
There is a clear explication of certain
vital themes in their writings: the impact of slavery and colonialism
on women in Africa and the diaspora, the role of women-singers in African
American poetry, images of black women in New World literature, African
Diaspora women as black culture bearers, and their patterns of social
and political interactions. There is no denial in the book of the disadvantages
that black women suffered as a consequence of the social system that
was rooted in centuries of contact with the white man as evidenced in
the transatlantic slave trade. That trade laid the groundwork for European
imperialism and forces of modernization which for so long denied black
women equal access to formal education.
The book is a lucid popularization of
a dramatic and enlightening story; the story is presented both accurately
and honestly, critically as well as understandingly. The book certainly
offers informative reading for university undergraduates and the general
public. Freshmen with little or no backgrounds in Africana studies as
well as lay readers shall be attracted not only by the intrinsic interest
of the story, but by the interpretations and conclusion. At the college
level, the book can be used not only to augment lectures in introductory
courses, but also as a focal point for a more detailed approach to topics
in Black Studies.
Fuabeh P. Fonge
Department of History
North Carolina A&T State University