Enter the Diva: Spectacle as Survival Strategy in African American Literature
by Nicole Katze '11 M.A.
Nine years ago, supermodel Naomi Campbell was accused of throwing her crystal-encrusted Blackberry at her housekeeper, again. Eventually, she pled guilty to reckless assault, and as part of her sentence was required to complete five days of community service. Campbell showed up in haute couture every day, creating a scene that paparazzi showed up to capture. Cleaning the streets in a stunning silver Dolce & Gabbana gown, she became a spectacle, and most of the public soon forgot why she was there.
According to Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Africana Studies Program Aisha Damali Lockridge, Ph.D., Campbell embodies elements of the “Diva,” a trope her research introduced to African American literary studies that is given a rich and layered treatment in her book, Tipping on a Tightrope: Divas in African American Culture (Peter Lang, 2012).
Like Campbell, “The Diva is not afraid of the spectacle and instead of fearing it, manipulates it to her own ends,” Lockridge writes. As defined by Lockridge in the book, the Diva “…smashes open the world and takes what will help her to be the person she wants. The Diva is active and defined by her refusal to submit to protection; her desire to know herself and the world; her willingness to flout cultural expectations of Black womanhood; and her interest in her developing sexuality. The Diva moves beyond liminal [threshold] spaces by acting on her world, instead of letting it act on her.”
Noting the suggestion of an early Diva appearance in Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Lockridge traces the Black Diva in texts from the Harlem Renaissance (1920s) forward. She describes the Diva performing throughout African American literature in novels long taught in English classes, offering a new way to understand these women and their otherwise outrageous behavior. Helga Crane in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928); Janie Crawford in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); Sula Peace in Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973); and Liliane Lincoln in Ntozake Shange’s Liliane (2011), can all be read with the reader’s eyes focused on the Diva. Lockridge also considers what happens to the Diva when she enters the male gaze, when in the opening moments of Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It (1994),” he makes specific reference to Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“The Diva is a character who is performing for survival,” Lockridge says. “She’s able to do the things she wants to do — that other people don’t think she should do — by forcing the audience’s attention onto her performance. It’s a subtle sleight of hand. Like Harriet Jacobs, who narrates a modesty that the audaciousness of her life reveals to be untrue, or Sula Peace, whose indiscriminate sex partners have nothing to do with external stimulation or validation, these characters, too, perform a sleight of hand. They perform the survival necessary for them to live desires beyond expectation.”
Suggesting a new trope in African American literature is no easy task and teaching one can be even more challenging, says Lockridge, who offers courses in African American Literature, African Diaspora Literatures and Africana Studies.
“I’ve found myself wondering — if I can see this new trope, what others are we overlooking? What does this new lens mean for how we’ve interpreted literary texts until now?” she says.
By posing these questions and sharing them with her students, Lockridge hopes they will leave her classes as discerning readers and critical thinkers. She carries this purpose into SJU’s growing Africana Studies program by creating new classes with an interdisciplinary focus. She has also engaged leading African American scholars for lectures and classes and originated a Black History Month film series.
“I want students to challenge what they think they know about diverse literatures and literature in general,” she says. “I want to complicate the idea of what it is to be American, and to help students form a deeper understanding of Black experiences.”