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Andrea Lee

(b. 1953)

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(b. 1953), fiction writer and journalist.

Andrea Lee was born in Philadelphia in 1953 and graduated from Harvard University. Her first book, Russian Journal (1981), is based upon her experiences in Russia during 1978–1979 and received a National Book Award nomination, as well as the 1984 Jean Stein Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Currently a staff writer for the New Yorker, Lee lives in Europe with her husband.

Andrea Lee is best known for her 1984 novel, Sarah Phillips, composed of stories that were first published in the New Yorker. Each is a vignette taken from the life of the title character, the daughter of a prosperous Baptist minister and school teacher mother. Set in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sarah Phillips comments on contemporary discourses around race, class, and gender and problematizes the meanings of resistance in the postintegration era.

Critic Mary Helen Washington compares Sarah Phillips to works such as William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), and Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928), books in which privileged black characters seek to escape the trials and responsibilities that attach to their racial identities. Sarah Phillips also invites comparison with the growing number of novels and autobiographies set in the period after court-ordered desegregation: Jake Lamar's Bourgeois Blues (1991), Trey Ellis's Platitudes (1988), Lorene Cary's Black Ice (1991), Itabari Njeri's Every Good-bye Ain't Gone (1990), Darryl Pinckney's High Cotton (1992), Stephen L. Carter's Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991), Connie Porter's All-Bright Court (1991), and Jill Nelson's Volunteer Slavery (1993). These later works explore the covert forms of racism that emerged during the eras of integration and affirmative action, the various responses these social changes produced, and the complex interconnections among constructions of race and class.

Lee's characters are complexly drawn, her descriptions nuanced, her sensibility both haunting and ironic. Yet neither Russian Journal nor Sarah Phillips is an especially popular work. This is perhaps the case because both books resist generally unspoken constructions of black women's lives. Some readers dismiss her work, considering it insufficiently assertive of a politics of resistance. However, to the extent that both works refuse to conform to conventions of representing “blackness” and “black womanhood,” they raise challenging questions for the reader about what we mean when we use those terms. Sarah Phillips prompts fruitful consideration of the ways in which social and economic class position shape the meaning of racial identity.

W. Laurence Hogue, “The Limits of Modernity: Andrea Lee's Sarah Phillips,” in MELUS 19 (1994): 75–90.Sarala Krishnamurthy, “Andrea Lee,” in Contemporary African American Novelists, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson, 1999, pp. 267–272.

Valerie Smith

Subjects: Literature

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