Jennifer Mattson

Black female writers shake things up


By Jennifer Mattson, Special to USA TODAY

“At last, a number of older Black women writers can stop holding their breath and exhale,” writes Maya Angelou in her praise for Shaking the Tree: A Collection of New Fiction and Memoir by Black Women, edited by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah. The new anthology showcases the next generation of African-American female writers who are defining a new era of contemporary American literature.

Shaking is made up of 23 excerpted essays and chapters from books published in the 1990s. Weaned on the works of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Jamaica Kincaid, the authors are their mothers’ daughters, and yet nothing like them. They are the children of black power, Fat Albert, and the Reagan and Bush presidencies. Unlike their parents, this new wave of writers doesn’t see the world in black and white. They are biracial and multicultural — children of mixed heritage who identify as black and white.

In “Larchmont,” from her book Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca Walker, writes about being black and Jewish. After moving from the Bronx to the predominantly white New York suburbs, Walker is painfully aware that others perceive her as black, although she never identifies herself that way.

In “July 1978,” from her memoir The Book of Sarahs, Catherine McKinley writes about growing up black in a white family. McKinley was one of a few thousand black and biracial children adopted into white homes in the 1960s and ’70s.

McKinley and Walker, like several authors in the anthology, write about outgrowing the rigid classifications of race, while, unfortunately, the people around them have not. The collection is filled with stories of black women trying to find their way in a world unknown to their parents. They write about a life their mothers could only dream of. Some attended posh boarding schools, others earned their MFAs and write for a living, a career previously unheard of for black women.

While at times Shaking the Tree seems somewhat hastily compiled, what it lacks in good editing it makes up for in its intimate, personal stories.
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