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a look at… Shockley, Ann Allen

popular short story writer and novelist, as well as librarian, critic, and editor, Ann Allen Shockley treats both interracial and lesbian experiences.

Shockley was born June 21, 1927, in Louisville, Kentucky, the daughter of social workers Bessie Lucas and Henry Allen. She received her B.A. in 1948 from Fisk University, where she worked for many years as archivist, librarian, and professor, and her M.S.L.S. in 1959 from Western Reserve, now Case Western Reserve. In 1949, she married teacher William Shockley, whom she later divorced.

She is best known for her ground-breaking lesbian fiction: Loving Her (1974) is arguably the first novel to offer a black lesbian as its primary character.

Loving Her centers on an interracial relationship between Renay, who is black, and Terry, who is white, and equates that relationship with a journey into self-discovery. A novel of development, Loving Her moves inward. It opens with the breakup of Renay’s marriage and subsequently focuses on her inner awakening: the recovery of her dream of becoming an accomplished pianist and the discovery of her lesbianism.

Reflecting a sensibility that predates the black, lesbian, and women’s liberation movements, Renay’s empowering bond with Terry frames racial difference as a secondary issue: a skin-deep phenomenon within the relationship, a vehicle for homophobia without. In a reworking of The Well of Loneliness, with which it invites comparison, Loving Her casts lesbianism as the nourisher, and heterosexuality as the violator of female, familial, and racial integrity.

Shockley, who has named herself a “social[ly] conscious writer,” extends her fictional treatment of interracial and lesbian experiences with her collection of short stories, The Black and White of It (1980), which celebrates the gains women have made in the wake of racial and sexual oppression.

In “A Birthday Remembered,” Tobie, the biological daughter of the protagonist’s deceased lover, embodies those gains. She is a confident, well-adjusted adolescent who considers “Aunt El” family, recognizes the importance of personal independence and economic self-reliance, and identifies her deceased mother’s relationship as having been loving, legitimate, and a model to emulate.

Shockley’s stories are scenarios of survival much more than of living. In “One More Saturday Night Around,” principal character Marcia endures stolen moments in motel rooms with her former college lover, now married. Far from ideal, these trysts represent a determination and resourcefulness complicated by tangible obstacles.

Shockley consistently explores possibilities for social transformation across sexual and racial divides. Challenging the homophobia that, according to her 1979 essay “The Black Lesbian in American Literature: An Overview,” pervades the black community, her second novel, Say Jesus and Come to Me (1982), situates its lesbian love story amid feminist meetings and religious revivals. The juxtaposition of evangelicalism and lesbianism is surprising and subversive.

Shockley’s works offer complex, wide-ranging portrayals of lesbian experience. Though at times character and plot development are inconsistent, and though awkward phrasings tend to reduce descriptions of lovemaking to hilarious detail, her fiction constitutes a brave contribution to lesbian literature.

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