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“My Body the Lesson”: Queering Black Women’s Subjectivities in The Street and Symptomatic


As twentieth-century black women writers, Ann Petry and Danzy Senna have used the form of the novel to construct multifaceted black women’s subjectivities through what Mae Henderson refers to as “simultaneity of discourse”. By including characters in their novels that inhabit non-normative bodies, both Petry with The Street(1946) and Senna with Symptomatic(2004) expand our notions of what it means to be female and black. This paper will theorize the “queer of color” identities of two particular female characters introduced in these novels: Mrs. Hedges, a marginal character in Petry’s famous novel, and the unnamed protagonist of Senna’s lesser known work. Undefined gender identity and ambiguous racial identity, respectively, open up the possibility in the texts that these complex black female characters represent non-normative sexual orientations as well. Initially, my literary analysis reveals how Petry’s disfigured, masculinized Mrs. Hedges works in dialectical relationship to the her protagonist, thereby depicting the single black female in the urban ghetto as a threat to U.S. heteropatriachy of the 1940s. Subsequently, I turn to Symptomatic—in the same urban landscape some 50 years later—to explore in greater detail how Senna’s protagonist is queered by her non-normative body. To expand an understanding of how physical difference constructs the subjectivity of black women, I apply a queer of color theory to my literary analysis of these two texts and make essential connections to emergent disability studies.

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