Three Novels about Black Girlhood

In 1970, three novels were published that had Black girls as protagonists that struggled against sexism, classism, and racism.

The Third Life of Grange Copeland

Alice Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), is set in southern Georgia. This novel depicts the insurmountable difficulties that faced many uneducated and oppressed African Americans of the 1920s through the early 1960s–people whose hope faded and whose rage flared as each year's injustices fell upon them. Amidst the strife and struggle of life within a society dominated by racism, fear, and rage, three generations of an African American family struggle to survive.

This novel was not received with thunderous applause. Critics objected to the savage-like characterization of Brownfield. But like many African American women writers of the 1970s, Walker's purpose in telling this story is not to pick the sores of the African American male image. Her objective is to remove the blinders from the eyes of history so that the “real” stories of African American women's strengths and weaknesses can reveal themselves.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The bestselling first volume of Maya Angelou's serial autobiography inaugurated a new era of African American women's writing. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings contains many of the themes that would become central to feminist theory and practice in the 1980s. Taken from the first verse of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem “Sympathy”, the title articulates the woman writer's empowering recognition of her ability to sing her own song despite the cultural odds against her. “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,” Angelou writes. “It is an unnecessary insult.”

Set mostly in Stamps, Arkansas, the work traces the events in the lives of Marguerite Johnson and her brother who are raised by their grandmother, Momma Henderson, the owner of a general store, and their crippled Uncle Willie. Angelou paints a vast historical fresco of life in the segregated South and in the cities of St. Louis and San Francisco during the 1930s and early 1940s. Part autobiography, part fictional picaresque narrative, part social history and commentary, this story confers an exemplary quality to the experiences of the narrator whose childhood is spent shuttling back and forth between rural and urban America. The book begins and ends with intense physical experiences that teach the narrator that she can trust her body, that it is a source of power and knowledge rather than the liability that her racist and sexist society dictates.

The Bluest Eye

Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye was heralded for its sensitive treatment of African American female identity. It is the tragic story of a young African American girl, Pecola Breedlove, whose loneliness and desire for love and attention is manifested in her desire to have blue eyes. The novel opens with an epigraph from a Dick and Jane primer that presents an ideal family with a house, mother, father, children, cat, dog, and friend. The story that shapes the novel is narrated through the eyes and voice of Claudia McTeer, whose narrative shifts the reader's attention to a very different world from that of the primer. Before she commits the taboo of telling the community the secret of Pecola's demise, however, she connects her own childhood desire to dismember white dolls, and her transference of that hatred to white girls, with her desire to understand why white girls were loved and African American girls, were not.

Published in the midst of the period of pride in blackness associated with the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Bluest Eyeultimately calls into question the aesthetics of beauty that, in the words of the novel, “originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”

Black Girlhood