Quick Reference

It is important to understand gender as different from sexuality. Sexuality concerns physical and biological differences that distinguish males from females. Cultures construct differences in gender. These social constructions attach themselves to behaviors, expectations, roles, representations, and sometimes to values and beliefs that are specific to either men or women. Gendered differences—those that society associates with men and women—have no necessary biological component. Instead of biology, socially agreed upon and constructed conduct, and the meanings cultures assign to that conduct, constitute the area of gendered difference.

Labels of “essentialism” can attach themselves to arguments that gender and sex have an inherent relationship. However, a cultural essentialist, who is interested in issues of gender, may argue that a historical relationship exists between gender, a culture's experience, and its public identity and representation that is so pervasive and so intimate that it seems nearly inherent.

The study of gender in African American literature considers the way in which the texts of black writers have distinctive and unique expressions in men and women writers. Critical and theoretical studies may explore the consequences of gendered identity upon the structure, theme, or style of African American texts. The historical development of these textual markers of gender across the tradition of the literature may also be a focus. Cultural essentialism has some place in such studies because African American literature has a racial identity. Discussions of gender and racial identity provoke vigorous argument because socially constructed differences are a matter of debate and discrimination and because essentialism of any design holds a pejorative context among many theorists.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the insistent surge of the civil rights movement and Black Power movement into the political fabric of life in the United States made the issue of race and its political and social stratifications the signal cultural issue for these decades. Dramatic political activity within the women's movement during the same era eventually matched the intensity of the critical attention to race. Contention surrounds the attention garnered by each agenda. Many identify white women as the women's movement's targeted beneficiaries. In an often competitive play for power and visibility, white women arguably shadowed and dominated the movement for racial equity and authority. Notably, contemporary reflections on the civil rights and Black Power movements launch equally critical challenges to the masculinist authority of these organizations.

Among the most significant and prolific in establishing the cultural text of gendered studies has been bell hooks in her penetrating analyses of culture and gender. In Ain’t I a Woman (1981) hooks established the parameters of the debate asserting that conversations about black people “tend to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.” Hooks returned to this forceful declaration of the frames of the eventual debate in Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (1984), a conversation about radical social and political change that obligated a confrontation with intersecting dynamics of gender constructions and cultural identity. Her work vigorously engages the complicated spheres of power within the domains of race, class, and feminist thought and in many ways is a disciplinary standard and touchstone for contemporary cultural studies.


Subjects: Literature — United States History.

Reference entries