Reading the "outsider within": counter-narratives of human rights in black women's fiction.

Author:McCoy, Shane

In Pedagogies of Crossing (2005), M. Jacqui Alexander asserts that human rights are not rights at all; in fact, human rights do little to mitigate the violence perpetuated by late capitalism and the legacies of imperialism and colonialism. Alexander's point of contention brings to bear the fact that passing a declaration of human rights and condemnation of human rights' abuses by the United Nations, among other groups, institutes a "dominant knowledge framework" that continues to perpetuate unequal power structures (2005; 124). Writing for The Guardian, Eric Posner makes the case that international human rights laws have shown little evidence that the top-down approach is even effective ("The Case Against Human Rights" 2014). The hegemonic ideological framework of human rights is largely controlled and dictated by the United States and other Global North nations in an exercise of paternalistic control in defining 'freedom' and autonomy for the Global South. (1)

As a teacher of literature and composition at an elite public institution, I often encounter students who have taken-for-granted assumptions about global politics and human rights. In order to intervene in the post-feminism/post-racism world of many undergraduates in the UnitedStates, the cultivation of skepticism in the literature and composition classroom becomes a primary pedagogical responsibility for radical teachers who desire to disrupt rights-based discourses that perpetuate neoliberal ideas of social justice and normalize stereotypes of the Global South. How do we as teachers cultivate skepticism in our students regarding the exceptionalism of the United States as ideal purveyor of social justice and human rights? How might counter-narratives in post-colonial black women's fiction function as a pedagogical tool that disrupts students' naive assumptions about human rights, in general, and women's rights, in particular? Finally, how might counter-narratives affect students' perceptions of racialized women in the Global South? To intervene in this dominant narrative, my essay focuses on the function of counter-narratives in black women's fiction as a useful pedagogical strategy for teaching about human rights in the undergraduate composition classroom. I frame my analysis within theoretical debates in critical pedagogy and turn to what Stephen Slemon (1992) defines as the "primal scene of colonialist management"--the literary studies classroom--in order to examine the ways in which contemporary post-colonial black women's writing problematizes the rhetoric of "women's rights as human rights." Despite the common belief that white middle-class undergraduate students are consuming "exotic" literature when reading post-colonial or immigrant fiction, as noted by scholars Kanishka Chowdhury (1992) and Inderpal Grewal (2005), I maintain that counter-narratives are useful for intervening in the reproduction of a "patriotic education" (Sheth 2013) that undergirds rights-based discourse, in general, and human rights, in particular, as desirable global policies that mitigate the violence of social injustices. Michelle Cliff's Abeng (1984), Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy (1990), and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah (2013) perform a counter-"cultural technology" in teaching about human rights in literary studies through the lens of, what Jodi Melamed calls, "race radicalism," that is cultural production that interrupts the totalizing effects of neocolonial and imperial discourses so often produced in dominant Western literature (Represent and Destroy 47) (2).

Patriotic education also reproduces stereotypical images of foreign nations that has a profound influence on how students construct cognitive schemas of racialized women in post-colonial contexts (Bracher 2013). In the post-9/11 era, the "woman question" becomes even more salient as a cause for war in attempts to rescue "brown women from brown men" (Spivak 1995) in Afghanistan. (3) While much of the feminist literature on human rights has focused on the Muslim hijab (4) and female genital mutilation (5), a focus on the pedagogical function of teaching about women's rights through literary texts that feature the perspectives of "outsiders within" deserves attention. In "Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought" (1986), Patricia Hill Collins argues that the "outsider within" status "has provided a special standpoint on self, family, and society for Afro-American women." The field of Black feminist literature "reveals that many Black intellectuals, especially those in touch with their marginality in academic settings, tap this standpoint in producing distinctive analyses of race, class, and gender" (1986, S14-S15). Through intersectionality, the "outsider within" lens exposes the limits of singularity in gender analysis and allows for distinctive analyses of "nation" for, as I argue throughout this essay, counter-narratives produced by post-colonial black women writers make privy the position of the cultural outsider to American students who often hold naive views of human rights discourses as cultural insiders in the United States, specifically the complexities of lived realities within local contexts and the need for community-based practices that allow women agency over their own lives. 'Black' has traction as a transnational political category; thus, 'black,' in this essay, functions as a category of analysis in connecting Abeng, Lucy, and Americanah and the critical material brought to bear on these texts. Through critiques of structural and institutional inequities, Cliff, Kincaid, and Adichie strategically produce oppositional "outsider" narratives that are wholly unfamiliar to American students and trouble the hegemonic narrative of 'women's rights as human rights,' which implicitly positions the 'third world woman' in a subordinate position (Mohanty 1988; Spivak 1995). (6) With insight drawn from black feminist thought and critical pedagogy, I construct a counter-curriculum that intervenes in a reproduction of global human rights policies constructed through neoliberal ideologies.

Texts that Teach: Counter-Narratives of 'Women's Rights as Human Rights' in the Composition Classroom

Each text I examine throughout this essay offers several teachable moments for enabling students with a critical consciousness that critiques mainstream narratives of human rights. What these texts show young undergraduate students are the local and global social, political, and cultural milieus that complicate rights-based discourses. The political function of black women's fictions interrupts the totalizing effects of hegemonic narratives that speak for women in the Global South. To explain further, 'women's rights as human rights' is explicitly concerned with only gender difference; single-issue politics do not attend to differences of race, class, sexuality, citizenship status, and geographical location. To account for racialized women's lives in post-colonial and transnational contexts, intersectionality must be deployed as a reading practice by students and teachers in order to account for "the importance of race, class, gender and sexuality as interlocking and mututally constitutive" (Hong ix). First theorized by Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality focuses on the "ways in which race and gender intersect in shaping structural, political, and representational aspects of violence against women of color" (1991, 1244). The failure to deploy intersectionality and account for the "interlocking nature of oppressions" (Hill Collins S20) by the Global North, in general, and Western feminist organizations, in particular, influences a single-narrative for women's rights. (7) Inderpal Grewal argues that this discourse "attempts to universalize and stabilize the category of 'women,' at the same time as it addresses their situations in important though limited ways" (342). In this way, 'woman' is thought to be "a normative European or 'American' subject gendered as woman, who is white and heterosexual" (Grewal 351). Claims to universality and universal suffrage in human rights discourse presuppose how oppression manifests culturally, socially, and politically within post-colonial civil society. Only through an intersectional reading practice can racial, ethnic, class, and geographical location be recuperated as sites of difference.

Pedagogically, the historical frames that Abeng, Lucy, and Americanah feature bring in to focus for student readers how black women's counter-narratives can be self-reflexive and critical of both local and global contexts; counter-narratives, as a tool, disrupt the hegemonic stories that participate in the erasure of post-colonial subjects' agency through interrogations of the local sociopolitical contexts from which these stories emerge, especially as they brush up against interlocking oppressions, such as sexism, racism, and classism, within the aftermath of colonialism and the on-going enterprise of imperialism. What I hope to show students through the use of both intersectionality as a reading practice and these particular texts is how the internal strife that plagues post-colonial nations in both the past and present speak to the pernicious effects of colonialism and imperialism even when the Global North crafts neoliberal social justice initiatives in human rights legislation that attempts to mitigate this historical violence. I contend that literature, in general, and post-colonial black women's fiction, in particular, affects how undergraduate students perceive racialized women in post-colonial contexts. Through intersectionality as a reading practice, I aim to affect how undergraduate students uncover "homogenizing and universalizing theories" in human rights policies that perpetuate unequal relations of power and render racialized women in the post-colonial context voiceless and invisible (Grewal 351). By exposing the...

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