Literature Review

My (currently untitled) MA thesis will position James Baldwin as a proto-intersectionalist and will demonstrate how intersectionality in literature has evolved over time. In chapter one, I will analyse Baldwin’s novel Another Country (1962) as an example of an intersectional text. Chapter two will be about intersectionality in lesbian literature (the primary text of which is currently unchosen). The final chapter will feature a close reading of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)through an intersectional lens. I will be using the intersectional theory of Kimberlé Crenshaw as the theoretical backdrop of my analyses, but I also plan to acknowledge earlier pioneers of the (then unnamed) intersectionalist movement such as Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Alice Walker.

            I shall be consulting a host of essays by Kimberlé Crenshaw regarding intersectionality, but the primary essays I will use to support my arguments and investigations are; ‘Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics’ (1989), ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’ (1991), and ‘Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence Against Women of Color’ (1997). Intersectionality, as a term, first appeared in Crenshaw’s 1989 essay ‘Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex’ and she has continued her expansion on the theory to the present day. From my reading of her early essays on intersectionality, I have noticed the lack of engagement of identity intersections outside of heterosexual women of colour. While Crenshaw does, peripherally, deal with issues of class, other genders, ability, and sexuality, she doesn’t stray away from her primary focus for long. Of course, this is no critique of her work – one cannot cover everything, and Crenshaw implored her readers to expand the theory so that it could encompass a wider range of identities. Thus, I will be using her work as a jumping point from which to look at intersections of sexuality, race, ethnicity, masculinity, class, and, quite possibly, ability. Crenshaw’s work is accessible in this way as, alongside her case-studies regarding the lack of legal protections for women of colour in America, her general commentary applies to a wide range of intersecting identities.

            I shall also be considering bell hooks’ 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. The title is an intertextual reference to fellow proto-intersectionalist Sojourner Truth’s iconic speech which she delivered at a Women’s Convention in 1851. Eight years before Crenshaw published her first essay on intersectionality, hooks published an entire book examining the effects of racism and sexism, as overlapping forms of subordination, on black women in America. It may seem unorthodox to apply work that singularly orients itself around women of colour to literature by men of colour, however, these works apply to both Baldwin and Vuong’s novels in many ways! First and foremost, they apply to the depictions of women of colour in their works – such as Hong in Vuong’s novel, and the character of Ida in Another Country. Hong is a woman of colour, an immigrant, and former refugee, who undergoes domestic violence at home and intersectional subordination outside of the home in Hartford, Connecticut. Ida is black and sister to bisexual jazz musician Rufus. Rufus is another example of a character of intersecting identities due to his race, sexuality, and his homelessness. In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the protagonist Little Dog, son of Hong, shares in many of her identities, but is also gay. Furthermore, the authors of these novels themselves are both gay men of colour.

            I will be consulting my copies of Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (2019) and James Baldwin’s Collected Essays (1998) for nuggets of both of their astounding insights and ideas, many of which revolve around their positions as, respectively, a black woman of colour, and a black gay male expatriate. I also plan to read about Alice Walker’s Womanism movement, which was a direct answer to the exclusionary white, middle-class second wave Feminist movement.

            I am also interested in breaking down the theory of monstrosity and likening its specific notions of marginalisation and ostracization to the oppressive measures and ideologies used against those whose identities are intersectional. For this aspect of my thesis, I have been advised to consult J.J. Cohen’s Monster Theory, Judith Butler’s scholarship on monstrosity,and Margrit Shildrick’s Embodying the Monster. Cohen’s Monster Theory includes a handy chapter presenting seven theses of monster culture – this includes an analysis of hybridity, marginalisation, and alienation, which will be interesting to look at in terms of intersectional oppression. Shildrick’s book deals with themes of hybridity and gender, as well. I realise that this approach may sound problematic, but I have a specific reason for it. In his novel, Vuong deliberately parallels marginalised and intersectional identities with the idea of monstrosity. He draws particular attention to the hybridity of monsters in this section of the novel, and inverts the negative associations attached to monstrosity, and, in doing that, celebrates intersectional identity (Vuong 13). I wish to further this parallelism and inversion of monstrosity in my thesis on intersectionality.

            Finally, I shall be referring to a myriad of media for this thesis. I plan to use examples from the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and from Ocean Vuong’s interviews, to support my argument. Who better to consult than the authors themselves? I also plan on watching shows and films that include people with intersecting identities to showcase the future of intersectionality in media. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic which has shut down the libraries in the Republic of Ireland, I will be using databases such as JSTOR, and search engines such as Google Scholar, to conduct the majority of my research. When I cannot avail of information online, I will be ordering books from the online stores of local independent bookshops.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Another Country. Penguin Classics, 2001.

Baldwin, James. James Baldwin: Collected Essays. Library of America, 1998.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “MONSTER CULTURE (SEVEN THESES).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Mar. 2020.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence Against Women of Color.” Reconstructing Political Theory: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Mary Lyndon Shanley and Uma Narayan, Polity Press, 1997, pp. 178-193.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, 1989, p. 139-168. HeinOnline.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Standford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6 (July 1991), pp. 1241-1299.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Pluto Press, 1982.

I Am Not Your Negro. Dir. Raoul Peck. Magnolia Pictures, 2017.

Morrison, Toni. Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations. Chatto & Windus, 2019.

Shildrick, Margrit. Embodying the Monster. Sage Publications Ltd., 2002.

Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Jonathan Cape, 2019.

Unnamed/Undecided works by Judith Butler and Alice Walker.

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