Talking with Sharon Holland about “Behaving Black Bodies in Gertrude Stein and Gayl Jones”

As I sat in the first-floor coffee shop of the The Graduate Center, CUNY with my undergraduate students from Queens College describing their journeys there, I remembered the scheduling coincidence that allowed me to bring together the conversation of my classroom with Sharon Holland’s work, and with the larger conversation about race, gender, and sexuality that her work invites. The CLAGS Colloquium with Sharon Holland, “Behaving Black Bodies in Gertrude Stein and Gayl Jones” coincided exactly with the final meeting of my Senior English seminar at Queens College, a course in which we focused on Gertrude Stein and Willa Cather, on their engagements with and evasions of historical contests over sex/gender and sexuality. Here was an opportunity to bridge a gap between two spaces of my professional life—undergraduate study in CUNY and the scholarly world of Queer Studies—two spaces, each apparently and discursively different and yet each engaged in contemporary intellectual work on race, gender, identity, and writing. My students would end their undergraduate English majors by stepping literally into the space of post-graduate academic discourse — and I wouldn’t have to miss what Holland had to say about Stein and Jones. Before turning to her announced subject, Holland offered an anecdote about seeing Alexander Calder’s sculptural representation of Josephine Baker (Aztec Josephine Baker, ca. 1929). In her example, Holland detailed a moment of misrecognition, in which she, paraphrasing Stein commenting on her return to Oakland, California, found no there there. In contrast, as Holland was soon to demonstrate, Stein and Jones offer representational examples where black women’s bodies become the narrative, where the matter and meanings of black female bodies are very much there. This opening anecdote suggested the context of Holland’s consideration of these two writers within her larger project of reading modern and post-modern representations of black and female bodies.

Framed by questions about the representations of racial bodies, in general, and of black bodies, in particular, Holland, then, presented us with stimulating close work with examples from two texts: Stein’s Three Lives, and Jones’ Corregidora. Holland’s interpretive work subtly and carefully complicated identity and its representation, and opened into readings of how complex the identities in these texts are, suggesting in the process the sort of rhetorical and historical flexibility we need to see Stein’s and Jones’s engagements with subjective possibilities. She kept our focus on the writing—on how Stein and Jones use language, for example, finding in their “repeating repetition” a shared but different use of lyrical quotidian speech. She described their shared obsessive interest in telling the story of a woman (and their different focus on how difficult that is within the constraints of sex). And she demonstrated the interpretive use of a flexible understanding of race as a sign that is so much already destabilized that its use seems inevitably to mutate, to destabilize the ground it supposedly establishes.

Moreover, Holland suggested a larger historical argument in which Stein might represent a moment in our past and Jones our future. As a scholar working on Stein, I was particularly struck by Holland’s reach into the modernist past in order to re-read “Melanctha,” the center story in Three Lives, and a story whose racial representations have productively troubled readers for several decades. Holland finds in Stein’s representation of the mixed-race protagonist a sign of the impossible purity of whiteness and of the sexual mobility of all women. And, she does what many do not do: she resists Stein’s own effort in subsequent self-representations to separate “Melanctha” from the other stories in Three Lives. In so doing, Holland resists separating Stein’s modernist revolution in style from her representation of black female bodies, and she foregrounds exactly what this separation refuses to see, namely how structurally integral the black female body is to the larger representation of sex/gender and sexuality in Three Lives, and in modernist and post-modernist representations more generally.

Although a colloquium, unlike a classroom in which ideally participants have all done the same reading, offers difficulties for the discussion of specific texts when participants may or may not know them, Holland managed to lead us through some of the local details of these two writers toward a larger sense of how (textual) regulation of black bodies offers a view of the regulation of sexuality more generally. I, of course, was thrilled to witness my students observing how this approach reinforced and extended the work of my classroom where we had been working to historicize sex/gender and sexuality as categories of experience and of thought. Holland’s talk brought my students—and I suspect others in attendance also—to a sense of a larger engagement in thinking about race, gender, sexuality, and writing, and to a larger sense of how the representation of specific black bodies is also a general negotiation of sexuality.

Enjoying Holland’s talk myself, I was also happy with my decision to make the colloquium my final class meeting—bringing English undergraduates at the end of their final semester into the Graduate Center (most of them for the first time), and bringing together our semester’s conversation with the larger conversation. Certainly, there were multi-dimensions of discourse for my students—one the one hand, the familiar, recognizable practices of looking closely at texts and interpreting them, on the other, the less familiar conversations of feminist, critical race, and queer studies. Despite my awareness that many of my students felt themselves thrust into a discursive deep-end, I was intensely aware of and grateful for the reinforcing moment of seeing the same strokes being practiced that we had been using all semester. Although we had been following a similar path in connecting theoretical and historical concerns with our reading of literature, I know that many of my students felt “over their heads” with unfamiliar references. This, of course, is often true for any of us, and yet we somehow have the confidence that we too can participate in a conversation even before we know everything. I hope that some of my students began to think of themselves differently in this way.

The students whom I am discussing do not necessarily imagine themselves as scholars, and certainly most of them do not imagine themselves as queer (or as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). Their willingness to listen and to participate in an unfamiliar discourse—both in my course and in Holland’s colloquium—their reach toward what I would call a queer understanding represents a sort of hopeful moment for me in teaching Queer Studies in CUNY.

On the threshold of two worlds within CUNY, I and my students learned from Holland. Bridging the space of undergraduate study where queer ways of knowing seem still so unfamiliar and the space of contemporary Queer and feminist studies, we learned from Holland’s balance of close attention to language with attention to larger histories, larger frames of meaning. And, we ended our semester productively imagining our contemporary moment as readers of writers so different from one another and from us historically, and yet—as presented by Sharon Holland—so illuminating about how race and gender structure those different historical experiences.

Hugh English is Assistant Professor of English at Queens College-CUNY.