The Treatment of Race and Gender in Rita Dove
Björn Michael Itrich
University of Wales, Bangor
Traditional black literature since the 1960’s tends to operate according to the creed: “Black literature BY blacks, ABOUT blacks, directed TO blacks. ESSENTIAL black literature is the distillation of black life,” Ekaterini Georgoudaki states. However, similar opinions had been voiced much earlier than the 1960’s. Langston Hughes stated in his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” that no black artist can be truly called a black artist, if he intends to be a poet for black and white. He reports the following incident:
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of himself.
Behind Hughes’s comment lies the assumption that even “[w]ithout going outside his race [...] there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work.” Hughes’s suggestion that the black artist take his material solely from within the black community limits the choice of topics for the black artist and restricts his scope. Furthermore, Hughes claims that the black poet writing about the relations between black and white may contribute “his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humour that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears.” The black writer, according to Hughes, has to obtain a particular style, marking him clearly as black.
The same pattern can be found in a particular type of feminism which claims that women should be writing for women about women’s issues. Hélène Cixous writes in the introduction to her 1975 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa:”
I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do [Cixous’s emphasis]. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal . Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement [my emphasis].
As Hughes argues for a type of black writing distinct from the white ideal, Cixous argues in favour of a separate literary culture for women by women. She even goes as far as arguing that literature should contribute to a definition of womanhood. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar follow the same line in “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Gilbert and Gubar argue that the continuous presence of a man-dominated literature influences the works of women writers negatively: “[...] the woman writer does experience her gender as a painful obstacle, or even a debilitating inadequacy.” They recommend “trac[ing] the difficult paths by which nineteenth-century women [...] repudiated debilitating patriarchal prescriptions, and recovered or remembered the lost foremothers who could help them find their distinctive female power.”
Rita Dove is both a black and a woman writer. By analysing a selection of poems from the collections Thomas and Beulah and Grace Notes this essay will argue that Rita Dove goes beyond the traditional and restricting notions of gender as presented by Cixous, and Gilbert and Gubar, and does only comply in parts to Langston Hughes’s definition of a black artist. By breaking the boundaries of traditional black and women’s writing Dove will be seen to find a more open and more inclusive representation of race and gender.
 Ekaterini Georgoudaki, “Rita Dove: Crossing Boundaries,” Callaloo 14 no. 2 (Spring 1991) 420.
 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. (New York: Norton, 2001) 1313.
 Hughes 1314.
 Hughes 1314f.
 Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. (New York: Norton, 2001) 2039.
 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. (New York: Norton, 2001) 2027.
 Gilbert and Gubar 2035.