Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

James Olney


This study entails an examination of the works of six authors (Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor and Simone Schwarz-Bart) whose works are shaped by values and perceptions influenced by their experiences of sexual, racial and social marginalization. While I acknowledge differences in origin, beliefs and personality, I explore the common ground which unites them, and more specifically the complex ties that bind their individual "writing I" with their environment--"communitas," to use Victor Turner's term. This study is also an exploration of the modes in which these six writers create their idiosyncratic selves out of the continued tension between the writer's "I" and the "communitas" to which she claims to belong. Furthermore, while addressing the links that connect these authors' works with larger literary categories (i.e, the novel, autobiography, African-American and Caribbean literary traditions, literature written by women), I distinguish what is specific to each of these narratives in their affirmation of distinct black female selves. In my first chapter, I investigate the social and historical strictures that have governed the development of both specific black narrative traditions in the New World and of the so-called "black female literary tradition" since the publication of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Following my initial discussion of the trope of confinement in works by black women, in my second and third chapters I explore the diverse representations of place and time within black cultures from Africa and the diaspora. In chapter IV, I discuss the particular constraints that determine the construction of specifically female identities in the texts by these six authors. This discussion takes into account: the role of female-male relationships, the retention of strong African-centered traits concerning maternal roles and mothering; and the crucial part played in most of these texts by same-sex bonding and identification. In the fifth chapter, I study more closely two autobiographies (Lorde's and Angelou's) and show how they partake of the self-genesis of black women's selves in America and the Caribbean. Finally, to avoid the essentialist fallacy, my conclusion is open-ended; I demonstrate how these six authors' narrative techniques and uses of voices re-affirm the constant need to merge the individual and the communal voices in an ultimate celebration of identity and continued survival against all odds. Throughout this study, my intention is to show that each author's definition of an idiosyncratic female--or male--self depends in part on spatial, temporal and social paradigms of blackness and femaleness. These individual definitions serve as a chronicle of the way in which multiple social, cultural, historical and linguistic factors create ever-expanding black female literary traditions in the Americas.