Re-Reading Madness and Blackness in Black Women’s Fiction

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Therí A. Pickens’s Black Madness :: Mad Blackness

Cover of Black Madness :: Mad Blackness by Therí A. Pickens (Duke University Press, 2019)

Black Madness :: Mad Blackness is Therí Alyce Pickens’s brilliantly “wayward” second book that challenges us to “think about how we think when we think about Blackness and madness” (xi). Over the course of an introduction and four “conversations” around Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2006), Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000), Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series, and Mat Johnson’s satirical novels as a set of theoretical texts, Pickens reveals how prevailing ideas about Blackness and madness specifically, and race and disability broadly, prove inadequate at capturing what she identifies as a “complex constellation of relationships” that “are constituted within the fissures, breaks, and gaps in critical and literary texts” (3). Black Madness :: Mad Blackness challenges accepted understandings of race and disability through her simultaneously rigorous yet “messy” consideration of Blackness and madness.

Though Black Madness :: Mad Blackness makes strident interventions in critical race studies, disability studies, critical mad studies, and Black feminist studies — to name only a few — it makes few, if any, hard arguments. Instead it masterfully “open[s] up two fields to each other” (x). As such, it eschews linearity and narratives of progression in form and content. For example, rather than having chapters that build up to or unfold a central argument, the book is arranged according to conversations that overlap, diverge, and converge. Pickens’s analysis often is as robust — and shadier — in the endnotes as it is in the main text. While most of the book focuses on Black women’s speculative fiction, the last conversation examines the Black satirical novel. What initially appears as an outlier, however, proves to be a bridge that allows us to “[…] think about what Black novels do writ large” (22). There is no conclusion as such because, as Pickens writes, “No one can end a discussion about intertwined Blackness and madness neatly, if at all” (x). In fact, Pickens includes an alternative front cover at the end of the book. In this self-proclaimed “mad Black book,” there are only gestures toward endings but many more potentials for new beginnings. Though compact, Pickens’s book is rich, complex, and provocative from the front cover (both of them) to the notes.

In what follows is a necessarily reductive overview. Each “conversation” in Black Madness :: Mad Blackness is multifaceted, touching on several key conversations in both critical race studies and disability studies. Yet, following Pickens through her constellation of ideas is never unwieldy or confusing thanks to her craft and control over her structure and prose. In “Conversation 1: Making Black Madness,” Pickens turns to Octavia Butler’s vampire novel, Fledgling (2006), to outline the contours of what she calls Black madness. She begins this chapter by putting pressure on the largely accepted idea that race and disability are mutually constitutive. Pickens writes, “Notwithstanding the utility of mutual constitution as a historicizing tool, it cannot — as a methodology — fully account for how race and disability interact on a body or between bodies” (27). Mutual constitution, as in idea, “only leaves room for recuperative historical or emancipatory projects,” neither of which are adequate nor capacious enough to capture the complex experiences the Black mad, particularly in intimate, interracial encounters (20-21). Historical projects that recuperate the Black mad presence rely on linear narratives of progression that are inherently incapable of and antithetical to holding Black mad subjectivity. As Pickens reminds us, “Blackness is not meant to be part of history but rather its object,” and the “Black mad” are “removed from space” to make room for “the more recognizable [white] subject,” abled and disabled alike (29). “To be mutually constituted,” as Pickens illuminates, “implies a reciprocity of creation” (27).  Yet this is rarely the case. Revising her own arguments that rely on mutual constitution as a guiding principle, Pickens “find[s] that we not only lack a critical vocabulary for describing Blackness and madness simultaneously, but it is also assumed that one must take priority over the other” (34). This is a particularly startling observation for critical race scholars who critiqued the once rampant use of analogy to discuss race and disability for this very reason. Within an interracial dynamic, one identity will be more prominent, more impactful than the other (28). On the other hand, reclamation projects attempt to locate and celebrate agency where there is none or only restrictively so. Pickens sees these projects resting in claims that Black mad transform people or systems. In other words, like historicizing projects, the Black mad exist in service to others. Like historicist projects, these, too, rely on linear narratives of progression from conflict to resolution that the Black mad frustrate.

“Conversation 2: A Mad Black Thang” turns to the worlds of Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber to consider madness within the context of Black spaces. The change in context requires a change in interpretive strategies that result in the undoing of the Black mad subject of “Conversation 1” as it transforms into the mad Black. Pickens posits mad Blackness as an alternative to the historicizing and reclamation projects as “mad Blackness refuses linear temporality, invaginate space, deposes ocular for sonic knowledge, embraces silence, pursues control, and relinquishes power, all at the same time” (71). In “Conversation 3: Abandoning the Human?” Pickens understands Tananarive Due’s African Immortal series as a heuristic that allows Pickens to “consider three major concerns: how or whether the human has purchase when one desires Blackness (forever); how the ideology of ability functions; and, finally, what happens if/when the modes of analysis that privilege the human fall apart for those it was designed to protect” (83-84). In the final segment, “Conversation 4: Not Making Meaning, Not Making Since,” Pickens asks, “if the value of Black madness and mad Blackness increases, do Black madness and/or mad Blackness retain the same meanings?” (96). More specifically, she is interested in “how does a shift away from abjection as a primary meaning of Blackness and madness transform the value of each?” (99). Significantly, over the course of the conversation, Pickens reveals the difficulty and perhaps undesirability of untethering abjection from Blackness and madness. “Abjection, then, is not the incomplete truth the Black novel tradition needs to or seeks to avoid. Instead, it becomes part of — not primarily or exclusively — the creating and the theorizing” (111).

As I read Black Madness :: Mad Blackness, I kept returning to Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man (1976). Based on the current body of criticism on Jones’s novel, it seems nearly impossible to critically engage Eva’s Man without postulating some version of the argument that the novel is either subversive or disgustingly stereotypical when neither reading adequately captures the complex yoking of Blackness and madness in the book. In the story, Eva Medina Canada is incarcerated in a psychiatric prison after poisoning and (attempting) to castrate her lover with her teeth. The novel, organized as Eva’s first-person rendering of her story, slowly upends generic expectations of time, characterization, and plot as Eva jumps back and forth through time, collapses and conflates characters, and confuses and contradicts details of her story. For some critics, the novel ceases to make sense. Even Jones, herself, in an interview with Claudia Tate admits that it can be difficult to talk “intellectually” about Eva’s Man.1 Eva’s Man is a mad Black novel; it “refuses linear temporality, invaginate[s] space, deposes ocular for sonic knowledge, embraces silence, pursues control, and relinquishes power, all at the same time,” to return to and reiterate Pickens’s definition (71). Even more frustrating than the formal elements of the novel is Eva herself. As a Black mad and mad Black character, she frustrates efforts to historicize and reclaim her. Written at the tail-end of the Black Power movement, Eva’s Man reveals the limitations desiring Blackness as her Black madness fails to do the political work of countering negative stereotypes of Black womanhood. It fails to make positive meaning as it seems to tether Blackness to utter abjection. Though Eva bitingly dissuades readers from analyzing her with her cries of, “Don’t you explain me,” 2 as Pickens argues of Mat Johnson’s satirical fiction, the novel, loops readers into that very act as it “forces readers to participate through their interpretation” (100). Eva’s Man, as a mad Black novel, seems impossibly contradictory. Yet Pickens’s revelations offered, to me at least, a heretofore unknown critical clarity, even as it demanded I sit within the discomfort of open-endedness that such a mode of reading demands. Yet, herein lies the power, beauty, and significance of Therí Pickens’s much needed intervention. Mad Black folks are not here to comfort or stir us. They do not exist in service of whatever social, political, or cultural agenda in which we seek to mobilize them. In exhorting that we accept this, Pickens’s frees us from the constraint of having to rebuke, recoup, or reclaim, opening up critical possibilities.

  1. Claudia C. Tate, “An Interview with Gayl Jones,” Black American Literature Forum 13, no. 4 (1979): 146.
  2. Gayl Jones, Eva’s Man, Reprint edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 168.
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Anna Hinton

Anna Hinton is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Texas and specializes in 20th and 21st-century African American literature and literature of the African diaspora. Her current book-in-progress, Refusing to Be Made Whole: Disability in Contemporary Black Women’s Writing, merges Black feminist and critical disability studies theories and methodologies to articulate how contemporary Black women writers present becoming disabled as a traumatic and violent aspect of Black womanhood on one hand, but nevertheless embrace this relationship in order to imagine personal and communal healing, on the other.