Terry McMillan's novel was among a chorus of late twentieth-century books that signaled a reawakening in the African American cultural imagination and revealed a strong interest in the representation of Black love, romance, and marriage.
Episode by Aneeka Ayanna Henderson.
Episode read by Kassandra Timm.
Aneeka Ayanna Henderson is a professor of American Studies at Amherst College. She is the author of Veil and Vow: Marriage Matters in Contemporary African American Culture.
On the morning train at 7 am in Chicago during the 1990s, it was quite common to see women outfitted in sneakers and notched-collar trench coats, schlepping dog-eared novels with cover art featuring striking images of Black women and men. These novels, peeking out of tote bags and coat pockets seemed to emerge as the train departed from the station. The chorus of texts by Terry McMillan and Sister Souljah among others, heralded a late twentieth-century reawakening in the African American cultural imagination, revealing that writers and readers had a keen interest in the representation of Black love, romance, and marriage.
You’re listening to Remarkable Receptions — a podcast about popular and critical responses to African American novels.
Despite its depiction of Black love, reign on the New York Times best-sellers list, and successful film adaptation, Waiting to Exhale incited several spirited responses from critics. A range of writers and scholars, from literary critics to clinical psychologists, attacked McMillan and her work because of her supposed negative depictions of Black male characters and apolitical story.
Unfortunately, Black female writers were no stranger to this condemnation as it mirrored the criticism of work by Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. A close reading of the black male characters and compelling civil rights iconography in Waiting to Exhale, nevertheless, undermines some the novel’s harshest critiques.
Set in Phoenix, Arizona, Waiting to Exhale features four middle-class protagonists—Bernadine Harris, Gloria Matthews, Savannah Jackson, and Robin Stokes. When Bernadine meets her suitor, James Wheeler, a civil rights attorney who has waged a battle to make Arizona honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday, she is quickly dumbstruck. In their very first handshake, Bernadine is “positive she felt some kind of current run from her palm to her arm and straight to her head, and then it permeated her whole body,” mimicking the parlance of romance.
This characterization of Wheeler makes it difficult to imagine how McMillan’s hostile critics overlooked her heroic portrait of politically active Black male characters who are able to effortlessly seduce the novel’s Black female characters.
Savannah and Robin end the novel single, but Bernadine and Gloria close the novel in romantic relationships with Black male characters. The novel exemplifies the ways that Terry McMillan’s texts are caught between doubting and desiring “fairy-tale” notions of romance in order to defy politically entrenched myths about dysfunctional African American families.
Her work is powerful because it snarls a delicate line. On one side the institution of marriage operates as a form of protection against systemic obstacles for some of the most vulnerable members of society. On the other side, that same institution works as a mechanism that can make those members more vulnerable to systemic obstacles.
Though critics have disparaged them, texts by McMillan and her peers are remarkably complex and offer fresh insight about the power of Black popular culture and representations of Black love, romance, and marriage.
This episode was written by Aneeka Ayanna Henderson. She is the author of Veil and Vow: Marriage Matters in Contemporary African American Culture. The episode was edited by Elizabeth Cali and Howard Rambsy.
This podcast, Remarkable Receptions, is part of the Black Literature Network, a joint project from African American literary studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas. The project was made possible by the generous support of the Mellon Foundation. For more information, visit blacklitnetwork.org.