The South’s complicated history has, for better or worse, given rise to some of the most significant works of art and literature in the American canon. When considered together, they amplify one another and offer a fuller understanding of the complexity of human experience in the region. The Gibbes, in partnership with woman-owned bookstore Itinerant Literate, offers this multidisciplinary opportunity with She Persisted: Women of Letters and the American South, a literary counterpart to the visual works on display as part of ongoing visual arts exhibition, Central to Their Lives. These events focus on female creatives in particular, a nod to the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage.
She Persisted is a singular event and a conversation with facilitator Julia Eichelberger, director of Southern studies at CofC; Nikky Finney, recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry; and Michele Moore, author of the Charleston-based novel The Cigar Factory. “I’m really honored to have been asked to talk about the literary counterparts to these visual artists and what women in the South have done and are doing to express their individual voices and interpret their lives in the region,” says Eichelberger. “This is a chance to put literature in conversation with visual art and be in a space together where we can talk about how important it is to find your own voice and to encourage the creative voices of others.”
During the event, a slideshow of select images from Central to Their Lives provides a backdrop to the conversation. All of these women, artists and writers alike, were confronting the same social landscape that held so tightly to traditional values. “That’s something that’s true of a lot of the women in this exhibit. They faced various challenges and barriers whether it was opportunities to go to art school and the time to produce art or what other people expected of them as women artists,” says Eichelberger. Their work gives visual context to the discussion of women’s literature from the early 20th century to the present.
Some of the South’s best literature comes from the inkwells of 20th century women like Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Kate Chopin. Hurston and Walker were some of the first writers to give representation to women of color in literature, insisting that human value is more than skin deep. Their writing laid the foundation for writers like Finney who grew up in South Carolina in the midst of the civil rights, black power, and black arts movements. As stated on her website, Finney’s poetry addresses, “Black girl genius unrecognized, Black history misplaced and forgotten, and the stories of women who prefer to jump instead of ride the traditional tracks of polite and acceptable society.” Finney also takes a deep dive into the limitations placed on women’s sexuality and relationships.
Writers like Chopin and Welty grappled with traditional notions of white Southern womanhood. The antebellum South placed white women on a pedestal, prized for their femininity, delicate nature, and physical beauty. Chopin and Welty refused to view femininity through such a narrow lens. “These were writers who are inviting us to rethink what female identity means, looking beyond some of the social roles that were provided for women, and seeing that there’s a human being in there who may have inhabited that role but that there’s so much more to the person than that,” says Eichelberger. By rejecting this idealized version of womanhood, these women were also rejecting traditional Southern values and the notion of the Lost Cause, a mindset used to perpetuate slavery and racism in the South.
Welty, says Eichelberger, “was a forerunner for someone like Michele Moore because Welty was interested in giving voice to a lot of different characters and sort of getting inside their heads and letting readers see the fullness of their lives.” Moore’s novel, set in 1950s Charleston, tells the story of women who worked in the cigar factory, segregated by skin color on different floors but living parallel lives. The novel breaks the popular historical narrative by acknowledging the presence of a working middle class, much less the story of women within this group.
“We still haven’t really made up our minds as a culture regarding what it means to be a woman, or a man for that matter, and female identity is something that continues to be problematic for a lot of people,” says Eichelberger.
Attendees are welcome to view Central to Their Lives before or after the program. The Gibbes will be selling the exhibition catalogue and Itinerant Literate will be selling copies of The Cigar Factory, publications by Finney, and other relevant titles. Finney and Moore will also hold book signings.