|dc.description.abstract||Although Black women's literature existed before the late twentieth century, in the 1970s and 1980s, critics began debating seriously the evaluative criteria that should define the tradition. The activism of writers and critics, such as Alice Walker, not only helped position Black women's literature in academia, but also insisted that it reflects a unique voice that warrants its examination in a context that is both race- and gender conscious. In "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism," Deborah McDowell urges "Black feminist critics to... consider the specific language of Black women's literature, to describe the ways Black women writers employ literary devices in a distinct way, and to compare the way Black women writers create their own mythic structures" (qtd. in Mason 5). Her gynocritical approach to Black women's literature, and that of other womanist critics, allowed for a further specialization of the evaluative criteria that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. suggested defined the African-American literary tradition as a whole. However, despite the work of Deborah McDowell and her contemporaries, "Black women artists, in the last decade of the twentieth century, remain semi-muffled, semi invisible and relatively obscure," according to Frieda High Tesfagiorgis (228). Tesfagiorgis' claim refers to the lack of a critical discourse that moves the art and "artwriting" of Black women beyond the "defensive posture of merely responding to their objectification and misrepresentation by others" (228-9).
This paper argues that in order to move the evaluation and analysis of Black women's narratives beyond the extent to which they are a response to marginalization and objectification, critical discourse must consider the role of African motifs in the texts. This thesis examines key African-centered womanist themes-- the oral tradition and its influence on the way language is used in texts, spirituality and self-actualization against the backdrop of community--in works by Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker and emerging authors in the black women's literary canon. The argument is grounded in how these themes manifest in the works of select African women authors and in works by African-American women. A discussion of current theories for evaluating African-American women's works demonstrates the lack of a theory that grounds work by African-American women, specifically, in an African centered womanist literary framework.||