“Plenty Daddies”: Parenting in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones

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In a novel where the looming devastation of Hurricane Katrina serves as only a backdrop to the story, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones addresses a bevy of congealing themes while simultaneously targeting specific audiences.  Though the central teenage character’s pregnancy serves as the main arc of the entire plot, the most significant character in the novel has been dead for a number of years.  Salvage the Bones addresses the impact of the loss of a mother, which can be analyzed through two distinct situations: the fallout at the basketball tryout and Esch’s own resolution of what is best for her baby.  This void reemphasizes the cornerstone of Hortense Spillers’ conclusion in “Mama’s Baby; Papa’s Maybe”–that Black women are far more responsible for the trajectory of American civilization than that for which they are credited.  

Randall, the eldest Batiste child, has developed his skills in basketball over the years and is on the brink of becoming eligible to attend a lucrative basketball camp.  This is symbolic of his potential to contribute to the family in the way a traditional parent might. Without a mother around to complement the care their father has provided, Randall, Skeetah, and Esch have each played a maternal role for Junior, the youngest, since his birth.  During one of the most chaotic scenes of the entire novel, however, Randall’s dreams are immediately shredded due to an outburst between Skeetah and a rival dog owner named Rico. These chief dog owners have clearly different opinions of who should retain any of the litter and when any pups can be dispersed.  While Skeetah appears to have a deeper understanding of the developmental phases of newborn puppies, he also fabricates information about the pups and omits the pup he wants the most when he’s itemizing the living ones for Rico.  Though this may appear to be a selfish act, Ward is characterizing Skeetah as the best possible parent for these pups.

Skeetah’s pride and immaturity–traits that perhaps a mother would have monitored and corrected throughout adolescence–led to the impromptu fistfight which, in turn, resulted in Randall’s dismissal from the tryout.  Ward indirectly suggests here that, had his mother been one of the parents who was in attendance that afternoon, perhaps this spout between Skeetah and Rico would have either been stifled. Though their mother’s existence is only mentioned through Esch’s memories, any reader can conclude that she would not have tolerated such behavior in general–and certainly not on a crucial day as this was.

Additionally, the fact that the narrator’s mother passed after giving birth to Junior is an obvious parallel to Esch’s own insecurities about the fate of the baby she learns she will be having early in the book. As the only remaining female on ‘The Pit’, Esch has taken on more responsibilities, notably of feeding and caring for the only younger brother she has. Interestingly, Ward does not portray her promiscuity in an overtly critical manner, a choice that progressively diminishes the long-standing stigma of young women engaging in sexual activity prior to being betrothed.  Throughout the novel, Esch is weighing the potential outcomes of revealing her pregnancy to her family and the baby’s father. While Ward portrays Manny as someone who has sex appeal, she also uses him to exemplify the predatory sex-driven male whose selfish desires will always outweigh the needs of others. When juxtaposed beside much more honorary men in her life like Big Henry, Esch does not settle, predicting that including Manny in her child’s life will only limit that child’s development. Specifically, the culminating moment occurs when Big Henry asks Esch for the father’s identity but is told “[i]t don’t have a daddy” (254). Big Henry lives up to his moniker by expressing to the frightened young mother-to-be “This baby got plenty of daddies” (255).  Ward shows here that a love is what raises children, not necessarily humans. This progressive notion of a woman and her child being better off without a biological parent as a parental figure has roots in all feminism–especially Black feminism.

These two scenes–Randall’s failed attempt to earn a basketball camp scholarship and Esch’s final decision to keep the baby and not include Manny as the part of the baby’s life–parallel the constant theme of the role a parent that echo the tenets of recent Black literary movements and positions.

 

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Subconsciously Selfish: Motherhood in Part One of Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ (1929)

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In an era that was bursting with independent thought and expression, at least one Harlem Renaissance author designed a story that balances the past and present for women of African descent who have immersed themselves into white culture and are cultivating a new lifestyle in the process.  For a novel so rich in exposing racial inequalities and the personal hardships of women whose core identity has become buried due to social pressures, Nella Larsen’s Passing–specifically, the details also exhibits how some African-American women in the early twentieth century were selfishly shedding a notably natural, maternal bond with their own children and redirecting their attention to advancing their own social status and reputation.  

Throughout the novel, Irene and Clare exchange a series of perspectives on their lives, their pasts, and their outlooks.  Interestingly, however, their children are commonly mentioned only as afterthoughts during these talks. The theme of selfishness presents itself just before a previous meeting between the two main characters is detailed.  In the opening flashback of this first encounter after twelve years, Irene is trying to gather some gifts she’d promised to get for her two sons while she was in Chicago and they were at summer camp. This detail doesn’t need to be unpacked too deeply because children being sent to camp is not necessarily a selfish act on the mother’s part.  What is bizarre and revealing about this moment in the story is how Irene, after failing to find her son a specific book, witnesses a stranger who “toppled over and became an inert crumpled head on the scorching cement” (1083). While not everyone is trained to address the needs of someone who might have fainted from heat exhaustion, Irene reveals a lot about herself by simply walking on and seeking out a tea to help her relax.  After taking a second cup of tea on the roof of the Drayton, she eventually remembers her unfulfilled promise to her son and compares his desire for a specific drawing-book to her husband’s desire for “invariably [wanting] something that was difficult or impossible to get” (1083). Irene is clearly burdened by her son’s wishes, which shows a disconnect between mother and son that was not commonly exhibited in the works of female authors prior to Larsen.  

Once Irene and Clare reunite in the flashback, their conversation focuses on the past at first.  This information clearly adds depth to the relationship between the two characters, but there is one notable absence from their initial exchange: neither one thinks to ask the other about their own family right away.  Conversation styles differ among all people and within all eras; however, it seems rather unnatural for each woman to offer information about their children so deep into their conversation. In fact, Larsen’s own description of Irene’s references to her son are mixed within a slew of other life events.  The reader is left wondering if Larsen herself believes children to be just as insignificant as her own character does.

Specifically, Irene displays a gaudy amount of selfishness shortly after sharing her life over the last twelve years with Clare.  Even though “Clare drank it all in,” Irene does not reciprocate by politely asking about her old friend’s family and life; in fact, she “had a very definite unwillingness to do so” (1088).  Before Irene departs, however, Clare has the opportunity to wedge her daughter’s name into the conversation, though she is forced to use the ten-year-old as incentive for a second meeting with Irene (1089).  During their second, even shorter, encounter, Clare mentions her daughter again, though the daughter is away at a lake with other children. This anecdote continues the unprecedented theme of detached motherhood.  Other critics might suggest that there is a clear parallel between the adult women characters consciously allowing their children to build their sense of independence while subconsciously struggling with their own, which is a challenge for all parents regardless of role or gender.  However, I posit that these women have never truly be invested in their children’s lives or success. Lacking within the descriptions of either woman is a longing to be reunited with their children. Neither one loses track of their busy social schedules because they are deep in reminiscence about holding their babies, nursing them, or teaching them anything.  The children–really, their absence–emerges as a symbol of each woman’s selfishness. Here, Larsen is signaling a significant change of motherhood in the black community by presenting characters of higher social status.

Before the end of part one, the final, damning encounter that summarizes this apathy toward children involves a guest of Clare’s named Gertrude Martin.  These women all knew one another from their youth, and they are sharing experiences about “passing”. The seemingly harmless exchange about gender preference for their newborns catapults rather unexpectedly after Gertrude mentions that her husband had wanted a girl.  Clare, drink in hand, states to the group that she’s “afraid” to have any more children because she “nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that [the baby] might be dark” (1096). Unlike before, this single line demands to be unpacked.  

Gertrude and Clare, the two women who have “passed” into the white mainstream of American, support one another’s thoughts about how frightful it is to bring a baby into the world because, as “passers”, there is an apparent risk of the child’s skin tone being dark. This fear of the child being dark-complected is an obvious reference to the overt challenges for blacks that they have heard about, witnessed, and projected for the future.  Embedded within that, however, is a stunning amount of shame that was not found in the literature from earlier women writers of African descent. Notably, Irene counters this shame by announcing to the group, “One of my boys is dark” (1097). To sidestep any tension, Clare says that “coloured people…are too silly about some things” and switches the focus to “deserters like [her]” and a former associate named Claude Jones (1097).

This redirection suggests that Clare is well aware of how women within the black community have varying opinions on the future of their race.  It seems, however, that the dominating theme among this novel is that children who enter the world as dark have will have a lifetime filled with strain and disappointment, which is incredibly heartbreaking, yet believable at the same time.

Imagery and Repetition in Audre Lorde’s “Power”

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On an early Saturday morning in the spring of 1973, on-duty New York City Police Department undercover officer Thomas Shea shot ten-year-old Clifford Glover, who was walking with his father toward his father’s place of employment. Three years later, the jury–eleven white men and one African-American woman named Ederica Campbell–acquitted the then thirteen-year law enforcement veteran after a lengthy trial.  Black feminist Audre Lorde commemorates this moment in American history with her poem “Power,” and through the use of evocative imagery and repetition, she cements young Clifford Glover’s memory in the minds of every reader.

The opening four lines invite the reader to elevate his or her understanding of what power is and how poetry holds the opportunity to endure.  “The difference,” the poem begins, “between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children” (642). This bold, uncomfortable imagery introduces the gut-wrenching saga Lorde suggests Glover’s mother had over the course of the three years that passed between the day of her son’s death and the acquittal of his killer.  Lorde, who had emerged as a highly vocal figure in the Black Arts movement, aggrandized her platform as an activist-poet by re-telling the narrative through terrifying, vivid images such as “blood from his punctured cheeks” and how, upon finding him, the mother was “thirsting for the wetness of his blood” (642). These visual portrayals reinforce the opening statement from the poem because they express how Lorde is, in a way, risking her own reputation (and, perhaps, her own life) by protesting the outcome of the case and deliberately detailing the child’s unwarranted death instead of justifying the jury’s verdict.  

Thematically, Lorde’s speakers throughout the poem are exasperated with the failed legal system and widespread racism throughout America.  Through the use of gory imagery, the reader is placed beside Glover’s bleeding body and can feel the mother’s kisses on her son’s head (642). This use of pathos is intentionally shocking because, it stands to reason, Lorde believes her readers will only genuinely care about the victims in crimes such as this if they too can experience what Clifford Glover’s mother experienced.  

Interestingly, the title word appears at three significant passages within the poem.  First, from the perspective of Glover’s mother, Lorde writes that she (the boy’s mother) is “lost / without imagery or magic / trying to make power / out of hatred and destruction” (642).  Lorde is vicariously demonstrating how any mother whose young child was stripped away from her would be inclined to use the emotional reaction in the most positive way possible to honor the victim’s legacy.  Secondly, the poem’s speaker–arguably Lorde herself since so much attention is paid to the potential influence of poetry–creates a tragic image of the diminutive black woman in the deliberation room being bullied by the other eleven jury members.  By being literally outnumbered and out-manned, Ederica Campbell succumbed to the presumed relentless emotional- and physical abuse though, for a short while in that room, she had with her a level of power. In the final stanza, the speaker returns to the vital necessity to be able to differentiate between poetry and rhetoric.  If she fails in this, her power “will run corrupt as poisonous mold / or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire” (643). This serves as a call to action to all poets–especially black feminist poets–to remind them that their powerful words truly can change the trajectory of the racial divide that has existed in this alleged “land of the free” if they are brave enough to produce and share them.  

 

Hurston’s Janie: Changing the Narrative of Black Female Protagonists

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In a novel replete with striking imagery, revealing dialect, and weighty themes, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God features an unprecedented protagonist whose integrity and will eventually carried her through three marriages and various instances of verbal- and mental abuse.  Though each husband has a distinct function in her life and in the novel, the manner in which each marriage concludes exhibits a slightly different facet of the main character, which escalates how female lead characters continue to abandon the long-standing gender roles and social expectations of black women, especially those in the American South.  

By characterizing a woman whose insistence of being respected by her husband leads her to shake free of her first marriage, Hurston introduces a character whose self-respect outweighs the apparent social norms of her time.  Logan Killicks was far from romantic. Their marriage was nothing short of an arrangement where Janie served far more as an employee than as an equal or a lover. Thus, as Janie is offering this stage of her life to Phoeby, the scant details focus solely on Killicks’ comparison of Janie’s apparent laziness to his “fust wife” who “never bothered [him] ‘bout choppin no wood nohow” as well as how Janie “done been spoilt rotten” (26).   In rapid-fire narrative style, Janie meets Joe Starks and shares their flirtatious tryst with Phoeby. During Killicks’ final scene, Killicks is described as overly tired–something many men in this book have in common–but Janie pushes forward with the notion of leaving him for someone else. He downplays her idea as a waste of time because “‘[t]’ain’t too many mens would trust yuh, knowin’ yo’ folks lak dey do” (30). Arguably, at that precise moment in her first marriage, Janie could envision her future with Killicks and more than likely resolved to leave him at the earliest opportunity and accept Joe Sparks’ offer.  This clearly demonstrates how Hurston intentionally clashed Janie’s self-respect with the complacency of black characters presented before her. T

Janie’s relationship with Sparks displays a new set of roles and opportunities for her.  As the wife of someone whose initiative and ability to build a black community is unparalleled by any other resident, Janie’s social status escalates, even though Joe never affords her the opportunity to speak publicly.  However, to say Sparks simply duped her into this marriage to legitimize his social status in a town full of strangers might overstep the truth. Both men so far had previously cooed rhymes to her, a gesture that Janie values and clearly wished had continued.  Like Killicks, any romantic feelings Joe held toward Janie are quickly suffocated by his selfish desire for power and raising the town’s level of respect for him.

Throughout the twenty years they were together, Janie rarely challenged Joe and settled into her slim pocket of the store and home while her husband enjoyed a career of being touted as a great leader.  When she did publicly confront his misogyny and attack his manhood, he shunned her by sleeping in a different room. Hurston describes this short phase of their relationship as the “sleep of swords” and directly challenges the hypocrisy of Joe’s insults: “Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look so small when he did it to her all the time?” (81).  Here, Hurston launches from her predecessors’ descriptions of this imbalance and bullhorns to the reader that this uneven trajectory simply cannot continue as women struggle to achieve equality.

What is vital to the closing of this chapter of her life was how Janie maintained respect for the man who used her throughout her early adulthood.  Her loyalty toward Joe up to the bitter end of his life exhibits how Hurston sees women as respectful and selfless. Upon meeting Tea Cake, however, Janie is challenged by the townspeople because starting a new relationship after the passing of a husband is, to them, a clear sign of disrespect.  Janie refuses to fall into that social trap, however. By exhibiting a believable, multi-faceted woman in this novel, Hurston dispels the limited roles for black women and clearly instructs them to abandon these social norms and live the life they want.

Tea Cake’s selflessness is apparent by putting himself between the dog and Janie.  Later, she demonstrates reserve and respect toward her dying husband and even regrets how his illness is affecting her ability to tend to him (182).  In the horrifying moment of their final battle, Janie’s self-defense leads her to shoot her husband, which reinforces Hurston’s desire for women to balance altruistic loyalty and self-preservation.  The faceless, nameless jury excuses her from punishment, which also suggests that all of Janie’s actions–from escaping a slave-like marriage to Killicks to killing a diseased Tea Cake–have become universally accepted.  The fact that Janie has outlasted three men, two of whom succumbed to death, further emphasizes that women who strive for self-improvement while shifting out of the pre-established social norms can and will live much longer, fruitful lives.

 

Gwendolyn Brooks and the Unknown

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Upon winning the Midwestern Writers’ Conference poetry award in 1943, Gwendolyn Brooks pieced together what became her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (325). In it, her gritty view of the south-Chicago neighborhood offers an unfiltered look into the lives of the area’s inhabitants and focuses on the domestic clashes between generations, social classes, siblings, and lovers.  On the heels of The Harlem Renaissance and World War II, Brooks deposited a unabashed reality of an American community whose stagnant state was the direct result of a government who provided virtually no assistance to returning black soldiers or their families.  A sense of identity and the unknown world is prevalent throughout a majority of this early published work. Two of the poems from A Street in Bronzeville carry with them a recurring curiosity and appeal toward the unknown.  A third poem, also published in 1945, continues her philosophical attention toward the unknown through the actions of a suave young man.  

This attention to the unknown appears in “kitchenette building”, a poem that juxtaposes personal ambition and personal obligation.  “Dream”, Brooks writes, “makes a giddy sound” which indicates how exciting aspirations can be. Immediately thereafter, however, she contrasts that with “strong” terms such as “rent” or “satisfying a man” (326).  This suggests that one’s dreams must come secondary to the daily obligations, especially for those in neighborhoods such as Bronzeville who are limited to living within tight quarters and represent a socio-economic reality for post-World War II readers.  The ambitions and advancements of the Harlem Renaissance artists should not be dismissed, but Brooks’ image of a family struggling to retain housing and the bare necessities such as food strike down the lofty goals of equality and immersion in white culture.  This speaker, the poem suggests, will be satisfied if there is enough “lukewarm water” remaining after the last child has bathed (326).

In “Sadie and Maud” Brooks exposes how two sisters’ different paths into adulthood sharply contrast the implied wisdom and direction of their parents or predecessors.  Sadie did not further her education and ended up with two children and no husband, which led to her sister and parents being ashamed of her (328). The final stanza, however, suggests that Maud’s conservative, academic route might have fulfilled her (and, presumably, her parents’) goals, but doing so also left her without a family of her own.  Maud, possibly on the advice of the previous generation, is falling in line with the politics of respectability in that furthering her education is the sole opportunity to enjoy a more fruitful existence. Yet, the implication with the final image of being “all alone/In this old house” is that Maud’s decision was the poorer of the two because she is left in an isolated state (328).  Presumably, Maud is the first of her lineage to qualify and attend college, which becomes the unknown presence in this poem. With no other details to apply, we are left connecting Maud’s academic aspirations with her lack of a family with whom she can enjoy the fruits of her scholarly labor. Brooks, thus, suggests a cautionary tale to her modernist readers because they may not wish to make the same sacrifices as Maud does in the spirit of gaining social acceptance in the educated world.  

Thirdly, the dense poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” offers a different spin on the unknown.  The entire poem details the minute-to-minute actions of a local ladies’ man whose entire existence is based in mystery and materialism.  Throughout the verse, the man’s previously unknown actions are delivered by an omniscient speaker. The previously unknown doings of Satin-Legs are suddenly now paired with this much broader announcement about humanity: “People are so in need, in need of help/People want so much that they do not know” (330).  Brooks is commenting on the ever-present magnetism toward instant gratification in the modern world by suggesting “they do not know” about the voids in their lives. Sexual satisfaction–unlike a healthy, more conventional intimate relationship–simply cannot endure. Brooks vocalizes this warning to her readers that abandoning traditional values and replacing them with satisfying selfish desires will ultimately doom the moral code of society.  

Though Gwendolyn Brooks was clearly inspired by the art and writings of Harlem Renaissance giants, she establishes a less abrasive morality in her poems by orchestrating recognizable individuals and painting cautionary images of black community members who have inched closer to forgetting or abandoning a traditional moral compass.