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.
"I knew I was a Negress... I saw myself in my mother's eyes; the reflection showed a teenage girl, insecure, frightened and vengeful." Thus does Als, a black man, introduce the story of his mother's life and his intense identification with it, which, he feels, affected the direction of his sexuality. It is the first of three powerful essays on race and sexual identity in the black community. The other two essays explore the life of a legendary black "fag hag" and the culture of what Als dubs the gay "nigerati." Als, a staff writer for the New Yorker, does a highwire act, perched between an anguished portrait of his mother and himself and a dispassionate examination of a segment of black urban culture whose males feel they have two role models--"bad niggers" or victimized mothers. Both postures often coalesce in an ambivalent mix of pride and humiliation. Although he deals with familiar themes of black attitudes toward color, white values and perceptions, his vision is both original and wrenching. Altogether, this is a provocative, engrossing vision of both homosexuality and black culture.