Breath and Contemporary Black Women Writers

Follow the UNC Press Blog for a celebration of women’s histories and women historians throughout March.

Guest post by Aneeka Ayanna Henderson, author of Veil and Vow: Marriage Matters in Contemporary African American Culture

The year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of “Women’s History Week,” which preceded the establishment of March as Women’s History Month. It is an exciting time, though we rarely use #Women’sHistoryMonth as a moment to honor the Black female authors and creative artists that live and breathe among us. Dominant culture often bestows Black women with adulation or flowers only after they have died. It has been more than 25 years since Terry McMillan published her groundbreaking novel Waiting to Exhale (1992) and it remains a powerful late twentieth-century touchstone that influenced fiction, film, and music, including through its film adaptation and iconic soundtrack. Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds’s 2020 Instagram Live listening party celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack and Lee Daniels’ upcoming reboot of Waiting to Exhale with ABC are just two recent examples of McMillan’s deep cultural imprint. As I explain in my book Veil and Vow: Marriage Matters in Contemporary African American Culture, Terry McMillan deserves recognition for the ways in which she shaped the American cultural landscape and depicted varied images of working-class and middle-class Black women.

A trailblazer for Black female writers and creative artists, McMillan chronicled Black women’s intimacy, pain, and pleasure with complexity during a time in which publishers and gatekeepers erroneously claimed that Black people had little interest in reading. In Waiting to Exhale, her third novel, McMillan narrates the lives of Bernadine Harris, Savannah Jackson, Robin Stokes, and Gloria Matthews, four unique protagonists in their 30s negotiating fairy-tale narratives about courtship and marriage. The novel’s extraordinary commercial success helped convince Hollywood and the publishing industry that Black popular texts with Black women at the center are important and viable as it boosted the careers of subsequent Black female writers and artists.

Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
1992 Viking edition
Cover art by Synthia Saint James

I could not imagine writing Veil and Vow without exploring the work of Black female authors and creative artists such as Terry McMillan, Anita Baker, Synthia Saint James, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Meshell Ndeocello because they allowed me the space to intertwine and expands the fields of Black studies, women’s studies, literary studies, and visual culture studies. Alongside these writers and creators, I analyze work by Sister Souljah (née Lisa Williamson), Sandra Kitt, Teri Woods, Sapphire, and Gina Prince-Bythewood. The texts by McMillan and others that I critical examine in Veil and Vow are underexplored and often deemed vapid and formulaic, but significant in African American culture and to our growing conversations about representations of #Blacklove.

The Coldest Winter Ever (1999) by Sister Souljah
Washington Square Press

In Veil and Vow, I argue that foregrounding post-civil rights and post-Black Power popular culture exposes the fiction and “fairy tale” in neoliberal political policy and the political stakes of fictional texts about courtship, marriage, and #Blacklove. I unmask the political stakes of these texts by critically examining them alongside political legislation such as the 1994 Crime Bill or Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. I tackle recurrent questions, including who is imagined as a citizen—a designation bound to who is imagined as a “wife” and “marriageable.” As I explain in Veil and Vow, state apparatuses sanction broad forms of punishment for African American people whether they desire these labels or not.

Love and Basketball (2000)
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Moving across fiction, film, music, book covers, digital media, and other cultural ephemera, I work toward undermining claims framing popular culture as an apolitical cultural domain completely divorced from political commentary, activism, and change. Even as I demonstrate how contemporary cultural texts shape and are shaped by sociopolitical discourse, I resist the impulse to envision popular culture as a sociological or purely realistic text. I maintain that popular culture can offer its audience and readers new ways to think about and reconsider art, imaginary worlds, creative production, and the relationship between a novel, song, or film to a broader orbit of African American cultural production. These connections help breathe new life into these well-known texts. So, I am hopeful that Veil and Vow: Marriage Matters in Contemporary African American Culture will enrich our ongoing conversations about how Black women writers and artists have transformed discourse about marriage, family formation, and #Blacklove during #WomensHistoryMonth and beyond.

In the spirit of #WomensHistoryMonth, I dedicate this post to my mother who introduced me to Terry McMillan and a host of talented Black women writers.

Aneeka Ayanna Henderson is an associate professor at Amherst College.

Check out the video book tailer for Veil and Vow.