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One thing you should know about Hilton Als’ The Women: It’s supposed to be about black women, yet the cover features a picture of a man and a women, both of whom are white. If you keep this in mind you’ll know all you need to about the book, and more importantly, about the author. The cover is the quintessential symbol of The Women, for it is a voice of racial androgyny that speaks in Als’ book, one that eschews logic and bends reality like hot iron over the anvil of white pages.
The Women is a rough sketch of five black women and one gay black man. It begins with a portrait of Als’ mother, whom he introduces as “the Negress,” the essential figure in the book. Als defines the Negress as many things: “a colored female, and a single mother, reduced by circumstances to tireless depression…a romantic wedded to despair…she gives birth to children who grow up to be lawless.” But Als also sees the Negress as a “forgotten strain of puritanical selflessness…a perennial source of news and interesting copy.” The truth is that Als isn’t quite sure what the Negress is, save that she is sad and has had a hard life.
It is through this cracked lens that Als sees his mother, an immigrant from Barbados who spurned marriage to Als’ father and migrated to New York. She seems as if she could be a rather interesting person, yet as she slips from Als’ pen onto the page she becomes sad and shallow. Her only purpose in The Women is to reinforce Als’ definition of the Negress. The reader never really cares about Als’ mother. She is portrayed as such a tragic cartoon that you wonder why you should waste your tearsthe women was clearly doomed from birth.
While Als’ simplification of his mother does a disservice to the reader, at least he can claim that it’s his mother and that consequently he has the clearest picture of her. But as Als moves into other waters he loses that luxury. His portrayal of the women in the Black Arts movement is sinfully simplistic, particularly of the poets Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni. But first he dismisses the men: “The male faction of the black revolutionary movement was irresponsible and childlike.” Such generalizations are strewn throughout The Women.
Als saves his harshest words for the female poets of the Black Arts movement, whose work he characterizes as “limited” and “empty.” But Als offers two measly poems as evidence for his case. To be sure, some of the work to come out of the Black Arts movement was “limited” and “empty.” Yet to make such a claim about all the poetry of a particular period requires a tremendous leap in logic.
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But logic in The Women exists only as a barrier, which Als hurdles with ease, or smashes like the brittlest of glass. The Women does not exist in the realm of rules and reality but in the nether world of speculation and what-ifs.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Als’ analysis of Malcolm X’s mother. Als again dresses Malcolm’s mother in the garb of the Negress. Using quotes from Malcolm’s autobiography, Als argues that Malcolm feared his mother because she was intelligent. “One of the more powerful examples,” writes Als, “in contemporary literature of the black American author’s fear of the Negress.”
While Als’ analysis is filled with quotes from Malcolm’s autobiography, not a single one of them indicates that Malcolm was afraid of his mother. In one place Als quotes Malcolm as writing, “My mother and father…seemed to be nearly always at odds. Sometimes my father would beat her. It might have had something to do with the fact that my mother had a pretty good education.” Als presents this quote as proof for the sentence that immediately follows: “Malcolm disliked his mother’s intelligence because he admired it. For him to admire it without malice would have been to accept his own nature as a Negress, which he could not do in order to be that figment of his imaginationa black male.” The bad reasoning implicit in that statement speaks for itself.
Als finally reasons that in “the famous photograph of Malcolm in his house with a gun, looking out the windowI believe he’s on the lookout for his mother.” Come again? How about the fact that Nation of Islam leaders had said that Malcolm was worthy of death. How about the fact that his house would be firebombed within days of the picture being taken. How about J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous memo about preventing “the rise of a black messiah.” Malcolm had enemies coming out of the woodwork. Watching for his mother? Only if she had an Uzi.
Als sums the Autobiography up as “a primer on how not to write about the Negress.” Funny, last time I checked the book was called The Autobiography of Malcolm X, not The Autobiography of Louise Little.
Als goes on to offer brief sketches of Dorothy Dean and Owen Dodson. Dean he terms a “fag hag”; she was a well-educated black women who basically spent all her time around gay white men, and according to all accounts wished she were white. The fact that Als sees Dean as some sort of heroine says more about Als than it does about Dean.
The portraits of Dean and Dodson are remarkably banal. Unless the reader has some compelling reason to finish the book (like having to review it), he or she will be overcome by the urge to close it and staple it shut, lest more time be wasted out of his or her life.
The Women is a tragedy on many levels. The main one is that the reader actually learns more about Als than about any of his subjects. What is uncovered is not pretty. In one particularly disturbing scene Als reflects on “the man I fucked at ten.” He goes on to describe the act in some detail. Als’ description of fucking an adult is an attempt to mask a tragic event; a façade that allows him to pretend that he had a degree of power, it allows him to pretend he had a choice. Als didn’t fuck any man at 10. He was taken advantage of. He was raped.
The Women exists only in Als’ mind and completely outside reality. It clearly required a minimal amount of talent and perhaps a smaller amount of thought. The Women is lamentable not because of the tales it spins, but because someone actually published it. CP