Wallace, Michele Faith 1952–
Michele Faith Wallace 1952–
Throughout her life Michele Faith Wallace has worn many hats: those of the scholar, feminist, and writer, among others. In 1978, her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Super-woman pushed Wallace into the national spotlight, eliciting both praise and criticism. For more than a decade since then, Wallace has taught at universities, spoken to groups, and written widely on issues of race and gender for both scholarly and popular publications.
The daughter of musician Robert Earl and Faith Jones, an artist, Wallace enjoyed a middle-class upbringing in Harlem, New York. Though her parents divorced when she was four years old, Wallace’s mother remarried in 1962. Wallace attended private schools, went to summer camp, and, in 1960, toured the major European museums with her mother.
Wallace’s father, who was addicted to heroin, died of a drug overdose when Wallace was 13, and as a teenager, Wallace and her mother clashed repeatedly. As a result, Wallace spent five weeks in a juvenile detention center run by the Catholic church. There she confronted the poverty, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy of the other detainees. After graduating from high school at age 17, Wallace lived for a summer in Mexico, where she joined a rather tame commune. When her mother asked the U.S. embassy to intervene, Wallace returned to the states.
Although Wallace’s mother was a leading black feminist, and Wallace had grown up in an atmosphere in which she was expected to become a career woman, Wallace accepted the feminist role only after a great inner struggle. “People didn’t become feminists to have fun,” Wallace recollected to Lisa Jones in a Village Voice interview. “We became feminists out of a sense of duty and obligation. It’s an ethical system, a politics, and a philosophy, but it’s not really a life for most of us.” While working toward a bachelor degree in English and writing at the City College of New York, Wallace already considered herself a feminist.
At age 26, Wallace published Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman.In it she analyzed the Civil
At a Glance…
Born January 4, 1952, in New York, NY; daughter of Robert Earl (a musician) and Faith Willi (an artist; maiden name, Jones) Wallace; married Eugene Nesmith (a playwright and professor), 1989.Education: City College of the City University of New York, B.A., 1974, M.A., 1990. Attended New York University, c 1990s.Politics: Democrat.Religion: Agnostic.
New York University, instructor in journalism, 1976-78; University of Oklahoma, visiting assistant professor of English, 1984-85, assistant professor of English, 1985-87; State University of New York at Buffalo, assistant professor of American studies, 1987-89; City College of New York, assistant professor of English and women’s studies, 1989-92, associate professor of English and women’s studies, 1992—; City University of New York Graduate Center, assistant professor of English and women’s studies, 1991-92, associate professor, 1992—; Rutgers University, Blanche, Edith, and Irving Laurie New Jersey chair in women’s studies, 1996-97.Village Voice, columnist, 1995—.
Addresses: Office—City University of New York, English Dept., New York, NY 10031.
Rights and Black Power movements in terms of their effects on black sexuality, concluding that black men came to equate masculinity with political power. Citing a tendency among black men to date white women, Wallace argued that black men believed the only way to achieve power in a white-dominated power structure was to assert their sexual prowess over white women. Daniel Moynihan’s 1965 report on the black family further supported the supposition that black women, as superwomen, can thrive independently of black men, which Wallace maintained further fueled antagonistic relations between the sexes.
In the second part of the book, Wallace argued her case for black feminism, stating that black women are denied both racial and sexual equality. She suggested that black men and women have, to a certain extent, accepted the myths about them. Wallace then cited this factor as contributing to the creation of sexual and racial barriers for black women.
In short order, Wallace found herself in a firestorm of criticism for which she was ill prepared. Her detractors accused her of unfounded generalizations and devaluing the Civil Rights movement. Other commentators, however, hailed the work as serious, well written, and valuable. Publishing such a controversial work was a watershed in Wallace’s life. “I think doing Black Macho was a rite of passage for me,” Wallace told CBB. “I left my previous status and embarked on this journey of marginality to a different status. It was a long period during which I was floundering, trying to find out where I was going. I half wanted to go back to where I was before publishing Black Macho.” In 1981 Wallace suffered a breakdown and left Yale University, where she had been enrolled in the American Studies program. Eventually she returned to academia to study, teach, research, and write.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Wallace revised some of the positions she supported in Black Macho.For example, in the introduction to the 1990 edition of Black Macho, she noted of her work: “If I had to do it over again, I would no longer maintain that black macho was the crucial factor in the destruction of the Black Power movement. While it may be a valid interpretation of events to say that a brand of black male chauvinism contributed to the shortsightedness and failure of the Black Power movement, there are other interpretations equally valid.”
As a critic of literature and other expressions of culture, Wallace had long been aware of her precarious position as a black woman striving to be taken seriously by a white male-dominated academic establishment. As such, Wallace became one of a small number of black women scholars who have developed theories of black feminist literary and cultural criticism and at the same time reached out to a more general audience as well. “Quite consciously I write in order to challenge, tease, entertain, educate, and enlighten the woman I think of myself as having been when I wrote Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,” Wallace wrote in the introduction to Invisibility Blues, a collection of previously published essays. “I see that woman as being at the intersection of white’ and ‘black’ culture and ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture… I calculate that what will amuse and divert such a reader will also be of interest to the range of readers, white, black, male and female, academic and generic, with whom I seek to establish dialogue.”
Wallace has also written often about visual culture—that is, film, television, the visual arts, design, fashion, and advertising. “The visual image has become increasingly more important over the last 40 years. Many people are not aware that they’re being bombarded by images,” Wallace told CBB, citing examples of computers, books, television, and billboards. In Invisibility Blues, also the name of her column for the Village Voice, Wallace commented on contemporary black arts and culture, discussing the work of her artist mother, as well as other black writers, filmmakers, and entertainers. “With this new collection of essays,” noted Barbara Burford in the New Statesman and Society, “Michele Wallace has returned like a prophet from the wilderness, her perception sharpened and her rigor honed, to claim her voice and her right to speak as a black feminist.”
Of longstanding interest to Wallace has been the high visibility yet lack of voice black women exercise in American culture. In studying images from films of the early twentieth century, she identified and explained the stereotypes she found, with the goal of recasting them. “An example of a case in which a black women is given a great deal of visibility but not given the opportunity to define her voice is the mammy,” Wallace expressed during an interview with CBB. “It’s an old stereotype in American culture—no one knows how long. It involves a large, older black woman who is very nurturing—for example, Hattie McDaniels in the film Gone With the Wind.”
Citing talk-show host Oprah Winfrey as a modern example of the mammy figure, Wallace maintained that the image is both positive and negative. “It isn’t entirely negative, but it’s negative in that it takes away their [black women’s] opportunity to define themselves. The positive thing however is that there is great truth in it,” Wallace added. “Black women have great nurturing capacities. She [black woman] is the backbone and the great strength of the black community. That’s one reason why the stereotype still survives, and there is a great affection for her.”
According to Wallace, visual equality can be very deceptive. For example, other highly visible African Americans are celebrities, such as athletes, actors, and singers; yet Wallace pointed out that many more black lawyers and doctors exist who are successful than African American athletes. “Black athletes who make all this money are a very small percentage of black people who are successful, but the way in which their images are exploited gives the impression that becoming a star athlete is something a black boy can do,” Wallace told CBB.
Visual parity can also give a false impression of racial equality, Wallace asserted during the CBB interview. “There is a sense in which the critique of racism suggests that there is visual parity, but I’m concerned that the visual equality and diversity isn’t going to change things for the people who are at the bottom,” Wallace said. “At the same time that we’re accepting black images in the media, we’re approving welfare reform, building more prisons, and doing other things that suggest increasing intolerance for the people who are dependent.”
By the late 1990s Wallace saw herself as being on the periphery of the women’s movement, which had lost much of its previous momentum during the reactionary political times. While she continued to value the role of the cultural critic, she shifted her emphasis from theory to primary sources, and focused on preserving the feminist legacy. “I think feminism has been enormously successful and [has] had a tremendous influence,” Wallace told CBB. “It’s not something everyone has to convert to, and it is something that needs to constantly evaluate its tactics. I’m arguing in favor of it to remain small and in favor of small changes in society. I don’t like feminism when it gets cocky and swollen and big. When it’s small and sensitive, I’m enormously pleased with it.”
Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Dial, New York, 1978.
Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory, Verso, New York, 1990.
Black Popular Culture, edited by Gina Dent, Bay Press/Dia Center for the Arts, Seattle and New York, 1993.
Contributor of numerous articles to scholarly journals and anthologies as well as popular periodicals, including Essence, Ms., and Zeta.
Contemporary Authors, volume 108, Gale, 1983, pp. 509-10.
Wallace, Michèle Faith, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, rev. ed., Verso, 1990.
Wallace, Michèle Faith, Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory, Verso, 1990.
African American Review, spring 1995.
Art in America, July 1989, p. 89.
Essence, February 1991, p. 36.
New Statesman and Society, November 30, 1990, p. 39.
October, winter 1995, pp. 5-47.
Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1993, p. 59.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a CBB interview with Michèle Faith Wallace on August 21, 1996.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski