The Women

A New York Times Notable Book

Daring and fiercely original, The Women is at once a memoir, a psychological study, a sociopolitical manifesto, and an incisive adventure in literary criticism. It is conceived as a series of portraits analyzing the role that sexual and racial identity played in the lives and work of the writer’s subjects: his mother, a self-described “Negress,” who would not be defined by the limitations of race and gender; the mother of Malcolm X, whose mixed-race background and eventual descent into madness contributed to her son’s misogyny and racism; brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, who rarely identified with other blacks or women, but deeply empathized with white gay men; and the late Owen Dodson, a poet and dramatist who was female-identified and who played an important role in the author’s own social and intellectual formation.

Hilton Als submits both racial and sexual stereotypes to his inimitable scrutiny with relentless humor and sympathy. The results are exhilarating. The Women is that rarest of books: a memorable work of self-investigation that creates a form of all its own.
This memoir is a meditation on what it means to be black, gay, and female in U.S. culture. Als, a gay man, writes about his mother; his sisters; Malcolm X’s mother; and Dorothy Dean, an African-American woman who was at the center of New York’s gay male circles. But his real subject is–as he puts it–what it means to be a “Negress” in white culture. Examining how race and gender shape all of our attitudes toward what it means to be a “woman,” “man” or “homosexual,” Als gets at the root of self-definition in a world that constructs very limited options. The Women is elegantly written and moves us through a variety of ideas and emotions with a fluidity that is both graceful and startling; it is unique in contemporary writings about race, sexuality, and gender.

Nanci Arvizu, Writing and Reviews Editor

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3 Comments

  1. In Service of Others Hilton Als begins his book with his mother who never explained why she left Barbados. His mother worked as a housekeeper, a hair-dresser, and as a nursery school assistant. She was generous, polite. His mother was not bitter about not being married unlike many of the women in the congregation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Beford-Stuyvesant. Her favorite hymn was “I Surrender All”. 

  2. Excellent prose, but… It’s worth saying at the outset that I met Owen Dodson several times before his death when I was a child. His most influential artistic home was not Harlem (and he certainly cannot be called a Harlem Renaissance author because his work did not coincide with that literary period). In fact, Mr. Dodson’s chief artistic and professional contributions were done after the 1940s and 50s in Washington DC and the South, and Mr. Dodson was born in Brooklyn. 

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