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Critical Essay by Janet Mason Ellerby
SOURCE: "Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family," in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 105-17.
In the following essay, Ellerby examines McMillan's depiction of the African-American family in Mama, Disappearing Acts, and Waiting to Exhale. In contrast to other mainstream white, middle-class models, Ellerby asserts that "McMillan's polemical novels reject the dominant patriarchal family values reinforced by the Waltons and the Cosbys and propounded by the Christian right."
In Terry McMillan's first novel, Mama, Mildred's husband is holding fiercely to his notion of being the "man of the house" within the nuclear family:
Crook … found his thick brown leather belt…. Then he made her drop her coat next to it, then her cream knit dress, and then her girdle. When all she had on was her brassiere and panties, he shoved her into the bedroom where she crawled to a corner of the bed. Crook kicked the door shut and the kids cracked theirs. Then they heard their mama screaming and their daddy hollering and the whap of the belt as he struck her.
"Didn't I tell you you was getting too grown?" Whap. "Don't you know your place yet girl?" Whap.
I juxtapose this disturbing scenario with the following from Jean Bethke Elshtain's Power Trips and Other Journeys in which she writes of society's need for the re-instatement of conventional nuclear family values:
Familial authority … is … part of the constitutive background required for the survival and flourishing of democracy. Family relations could not exist without family authority, and these relations remain the best way we know anything about to create human beings with a developed capacity to give ethical allegiance to the background presumptions and principles of democratic society.
This is not from a Pat Roberson supporter. Elshtain, who explicitly identifies herself as a feminist, makes a case for "the family"—a specific household arrangement of mother, father, and children. She is talking about traditional, mainstream family values—firm, unchanging entities—as the means to secure democracy. Ironically, her stance puts her in the camp of the socially conservative right, those who cheered George Bush when he maintained that we need a nation closer to The Waltons, who applauded Dan Quayle's condemnation of Murphy Brown as a single parent, and who want the Legal Defense Fund abolished because it helps poor women get divorces.
McMillan, however, resists following the script written by mainstream American discourse that imposes the cultural ideals of White patriarchal domesticity across the borders of race, class, ethnicity, and sexual preference. In her first three novels, Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), and Waiting to Exhale (1992), this hegemonic discourse is reconfigured, and her families look nothing like the Waltons. Despite Bush's endorsement, the Waltons represent a damaging American myth, one that idealizes the patriarchal family as the necessary configuration for emotional security and psychological health, the sine qua non for a smoothly functioning, moral democracy. As this myth denies racial, ethnic, and class diversity, it encourages debilitating feelings of guilt, betrayal, and rage, since both minority and mainstream American families often cannot or refuse to conform to the myth's prescriptive ideological values.
The monolithic family values the Waltons represented in the 1970s were reinscribed in the 1980s by the Cosbys, another idealized, intact family with professional parents whose first priority was always their well-dressed, Waltonized children. McMillan's polemical novels reject the dominant patriarchal family values reinforced by the Waltons and the Cosbys and propounded by the Christian right. However, such values are an historical arrangement, a construct that is neither "natural, biological, or 'functional' in a timeless way," nor, indeed, descriptive of the majority of families in this country. McMillan's fiction promotes alternatives to the dominant by reconfiguring family arrangements—what they are and what they might become. Her work is important because it depicts Black family life outside the norms idealized by the White middle class. Furthermore, she refuses to define the Black family as a pathological unit that can do nothing more than sustain the conditions of its oppression. Her novels inscribe a counter-narrative to the popular oversimplification of Black family life.
In a clear feminist gesture, McMillan's contemporary African American families allocate to men a different space than the patriarchal center. In fact, her fiction appears to be affirming African American patterns of kinship groups based on mutual aid and community participation. The women in her novels rediscover their own sustaining power in kinship bonds which have historically served African Americans well in surviving the physical and psychic atrocities of slavery, as well as the hardships of Reconstruction. In Mama, for example, a woman must rely on centuries old, "jack-of-all-trades" survival strategies as she struggles to raise five children. Then, in Disappearing Acts, a young woman with the apparent necessary ingredients for a happy family learns how these desiderata can be eroded by racism and sexism. Finally, in Waiting to Exhale, McMillan depicts four single women struggling to create a sense of kinship for themselves without husbands. Each novel demonstrates the incapacity of patriarchy to meet the needs of contemporary African American women and the power and security of the kinship groups they form. Taken in sequence, the novels move from portraying isolated, disempowered women to depicting a supportive, empowering community that uses the most dynamic part of the African American tradition of kinship to flourish.
In the sociological literature on the African American family, the diminution of the male as patriarch as a result of slavery's systematic demasculinization was widely accepted. Consequently, the slave woman became the center of the family; hence the hypothesis of the Black matriarchy. However, in Black Families at the Crossroads (1993), Robert Staples and Leanor Boulin Johnson refute this assumption. A matriarchy is a system of government ruled by women, but the authors argue that African American women under slavery had no privileges or power, only the dual challenge of labor and motherhood. Staples and Boulin Johnson argue that what has been mislabeled a "matriarchy" was, in fact, a "two-pronged burden."
Through a detailed study of families freed before the Civil War, E. Franklin Frazier concludes that these families "have been the chief bearers of the first economic and cultural gains of the race," and it is their descendants that are "still found today in conspicuous places in the Negro world." However, the restrictions placed upon the growth and development of those pronounced free by Emancipation were amplified by the stifling conditions of poverty and illiteracy. That slavery and Jim Crow left its mark on African American families is unquestionable. Recently, however, the classic assumption that slavery created the basis for the instability of marriage and an inversion of traditional gender roles within the African American family has been impressively challenged.
Indeed, it was only after Emancipation that strong roles for African American women began to emerge. During the late nineteenth century, freed Black men found it very difficult, sometimes impossible, to obtain jobs, but this was not so for Black women. By 1880, approximately three times as many Black women as White women were in the labor force. And before 1925, 75% of African American families were intact. However, with the migration from the rural South to the Northern cities came the rise of female headed households. Again, this position as head of household is not synonymous with empowerment for African American women. As their families became vulnerable to the traumatizing experiences of urbanization, Black women lost the support of the extended family and the small community. In addition, their roles continued to be molded by racial bias, which forced most into domestic work for White families. According to Bureau of Census reports from 1992, African American women were the poorest of all gender/race groups, increasingly forced to fend for themselves. As of 1991, only 30 percent of adult African American females were married and living with a spouse.
Furthermore, although White feminists have had some success challenging male domination, Black women have often found themselves the victims of male powerlessness that causes "black men [to) … vent their own frustrations on their women." This projection has been vividly represented in fiction by African American writers: in Ann Pelry's The Street, in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, in Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and now in McMillan's fiction. Although many African American feminists have promoted the goals of racial equality, the care and nurturing of children, and the strengthening of the African American family, McMillan's project seems to be somewhat different: she not only calls for a strengthening of the African American family but also urges a reconfiguration of that system.
Even in seemingly healthy family arrangements, most women inhabit conflicting subject positions, One desires autonomy, "defining [herself] and the values by which [she] live[s],… moving into a world in which [she] acts and chooses,… free to shape [her] future." Another is erotic, desiring the affection, companionship, and emotional commitment embodied in the romantic tradition. McMillan's novels allow us to see these subject positions in conflict. Her readers find her depiction of the ways women struggle with these conflicts entertaining and redeeming. In an interview, McMillan explains that women are reading Waiting to Exhale "because they identify—because they want to say, 'I was there, I'm not there anymore,' or 'I'm still there.'… They thank me because they are finally reading about what's happening to them now." McMillan is enacting what Louis Montrose describes as "narrating culture in action, culture as lived in the performances and narratives of individual and collective human actors." Her characters are unique women situated in specific histories, cultures, and classes who are partially dominated by and liberated from the domestic ideology of their time and place. And, as "collective human actors," her characters allow readers to identify with the serious complexity of the patriarchal model that continues to influence gender identity and to limit women's autonomy. As part of the African American literary canon, McMillan's novels situate the African American family as a site of struggle, and as Stephanie Coontz maintains, African Americans "are on the cutting edge of a number of changes in our society."
While many African American women are faced with poverty, others are making great professional strides. McMillan's fiction captures this evolving dynamic by looking at both very poor and upwardly mobile, ambitious Black women. She delineates new options for family arrangements to accommodate both women who divorce and women who choose to create families without husbands. She wants to unmask the consistently reified belief that "the most glorious destiny of a woman is reciprocal love with a man" and interrogate "the longing for a unique, synthesizing, romantic connection (with a man) which should result in monogamous bonding and the institution of marriage." In addition, her narratives refute what Patricia Hill Collins calls the "image of 'happy slave,' whether the white-male-created 'matriarch' or the Black-male-perpetuated 'superstrong Black mother.'"
Many women no longer find themselves completely vulnerable to traditional family values. Yet, in much fiction by and about women, the family remains dominant, and plots still move to resolve or efface domestic conflict and impose harmony. McMillan's narratives disrupt such ideological plots by creating narrative spaces where Black families are in crisis, where conflict is not always resolved, where the fissures of contemporary existence are not denied, and, finally, where self-reliance abides with nurturing interdependence.
These themes surface clearly in Mama. The protagonist, Mildred, can only realize her eroticism by way of reckless impetuosity. Although her lack of discretion allows her temporary sexual gratification, it also brings with it the loss of power and autonomy. Mildred learns and relearns that sexual intimacy consistently leaves her vulnerable to emotional and physical abuse.
In the opening quote, Mildred is being beaten because she has challenged her husband's masculine subject position. After, she musters the courage to live without him and lays claim to all that is truly hers, saying to herself:
This is my house … I've worked too damn hard for you to be hurting me all these years…. Like I'm your property…. I pay all the bills around here, even this house note. I'm the one who scrubbed white folks' floors … to buy it…. These ain't your damn kids. They mine. Maybe they got your blood, but they mine.
For Mildred, motherhood is a given; she has no regrets about having had five children. However, part of McMillan's project is to dismantle the stereotype of the resilient African American single mother who can cope with whatever troubles and sorrows life serves her. In fact, Mildred's endurance often sinks "below sea level." Life on her own is so difficult that she continues to put her faith in the mythical family paradigm that includes a steadfast, loving husband who will support his wife and children. She tells her oldest daughter Freda, "A good husband. Some healthy babies. Peace of mind. Them is the thangs you try to get out of life"; however, Mildred's illusions do not have McMillan's endorsement.
Instead, McMillan complicates matters by adding Mildred's erotic desires to the domestic mix. Mildred is not promiscuous, but she wants to have "some fun," and she does attract men. Although her children object, she becomes so erotically aroused by the new men in her life that for awhile "she [can't] remember her children, by name or by face, and in her heart, she [doesn't] have any." But her affairs end as abruptly as they begin, and not without emotional costs to herself and her children. At one point, she pledges to never again "open up her heart so eagerly and generously," but, driven by impossible bills, she turns tricks, hosts poker parties, remarries, divorces, and moves from house to house, from state to state. The constant is her efforts to maintain some form of family stability and financial security by replacing the "man of the house," but each new partnership ends in a disappointing betrayal. Through Mildred, McMillan shows just how tenaciously women will hold on to the ideological promise of rescue by the "right" man; Mildred is a disturbing example of the enduring power of the hegemonic.
Inevitably disappointed, Mildred alone must make a family for her children. However, her ability to do so is conflicted and limited; she can neither give nor receive affection from her children. Ironically, she becomes a patriarch herself, handing out orders and making hostile threats. McMillan does nothing to glamorize single motherhood or to explore the opportunity that a matriarchy might offer; in fact, she undermines the lingering master narrative that the absent father can be effectively replaced by the strong, enduring, loving Black matriarch.
On her forty-eighth birthday, Mildred, struggling with alcoholism, starts drinking in the morning. Her sister-in-law, Curly, brings her a gift—an old picture of Crook, now dead, Curly and Mildred, pregnant with Freda. On the back Curly has written "We always was family. Remember us that way." But Curly's attempt to recreate the family fails. In fact, the picture depresses Mildred so much that she drinks until she passes out. Still, McMillan wants to end on a positive note. Freda, also battling alcoholism, returns home; she has stopped drinking completely; Mildred decides to attend community college. The novel concludes as Mildred does something she has never been able to do before—she tells her daughter she loves her, and they embrace "as if they hugged each other for the past and for the future." A healthy relationship between mother and daughter is a stronger base from which Mildred and Freda can move in positive directions. Given the social constraints of their culture, this image of family is the best McMillan can realistically provide. The embrace is a start, one in which the patriarchal center has been erased, but the authoritarian matriarch is not inscribed as an ironic mirror. Instead Mildred and Freda represent one reconfiguration of family: one parent and one child finding emotional surcease and connection in one another.
In her next attempt to reconfigure family, McMillan gives us Zora Banks of Disappearing Acts. Unlike Mildred, Zora has financial autonomy. She is a teacher and talented singer who describes herself as "a strong, smart, sexy, good-hearted black woman." However, like Mildred, she has had experience with the destabilizing effects of heterosexual desire: "I've got a history of jumping right into the fire, mistaking desire for love, lust for love, and, the records show, on occasion, a good lay for love. But those days are over." However, Zora still locates her opportunities for happiness within a monogamous heterosexual relationship. She admits, "As corny as it may sound—considering this is the eighties and everything—there's nothing better than feeling loved and needed." She is cautious but still under hegemony's sway.
Gayle Rubin argues that to attain a female identity that will conform to the patriarchal family paradigm requires a process of repression and restraint, "based largely on pain and humiliation." The culmination of this process is the "domestication of women"; women learn to live with their oppression. Jane Flax maintains, "The family is the source of women's oppression because under patriarchal domination it is the agency in and through which women and men are engendered—replicating men who dominate, women who submit." That Rubin's and Flax's observations are applicable to Black women is made manifest by Zora's story, which also serves to realistically represent Staples's and Boulin Johnson's argument that many Black men believe, as do many White men, that women who can provide parity in the family threaten masculinity.
When Zora meets Franklin, we witness the impossibility of equality within the traditional family, because authority is automatically given to the male. Franklin, a handsome, intelligent Black man, works sporadically as a construction worker and drinks heavily. Zora's resolution to maintain her equanimity when faced again with sexual desire is quickly overturned, and her subservience is quickly established: Franklin automatically assumes the position of power in the relationship. Zora allows herself to adopt again an emotionally risky subject position within the discourse of domesticity. In spite of her steady job, her artistic talent, her education, and her middle class family ties, she has less capacity to determine the outcome of their relationship than Franklin, who possesses none of these advantages. When she says to him, "This is dangerous, you know," it is Zora who is in danger.
McMillan is unwilling to glamorize their day to day romance; instead, she pinpoints all the outside elements that bring conflict into their home. Franklin is often unemployed because of racism and his own drinking. He should be in the less dominant position, because he can contribute very little to their economic livelihood; however, it becomes Zora's responsibility not only to unobtrusively support him financially, but also to prop up his brittle ego. Her autonomy is threatened further by pregnancy. Franklin insists she have the baby, perhaps to bolster his faltering male ego. Because he knows that Zora wants to maintain rather than transgress conventional family values, he promises to get a divorce so they can marry. Again McMillan demonstrates the tenacious pull of the dominant ideology that delineates a sequence beginning with love and followed by marriage and children.
Their son's birth does nothing to bring the couple under the protective umbrella of the nuclear family. Franklin, in fact, is jealous of the infant. Deprived of most socially acceptable ways to feel "in charge" of himself and his family, Franklin resorts to the only kind of strength he still has—physical force. He rapes Zora. When she begs him to stop because he is hurting her, he shouts at her, "I want it to hurt." When he is finished, he orders her to stay in the bed, saying, "I want you to sleep in it, so you'll know you slept with a real man all night."
Alone again, Zora comes to realize the damaging subject position she has consistently inhabited when in love. She asks herself:
How many times have I let myself deflate and crumble inside their hearts, dived into their dreams and made them my own? How many times have I disappeared into the seams of their worlds …? And what am I going to do with this ton of love in my heart?… And what about the passion that's freezing in my bones right now? What am I supposed to do with it?
Through Zora, McMillan demonstrates how female erotic desire and desire for family lead strong women to vulnerable dependency. Because McMillan has a vision, she cannot conclude the novel by conforming to a generic plot formula of re-united bliss and forgiveness. Franklin does eventually return; he is faring better, but states bluntly that he is not back to stay. Zora tells him that she is leaving New York with the baby. When she suggests that he come and get them when he is divorced, he refrains from telling her that, in fact, he is now divorced. We must assume that Franklin is withholding this information in order to block any immediate attempt to re-establish the relationship; his ambivalence about a long term commitment to Zora and their child is significant. As the novel ends, they are settling down to a game of Scrabble and a night of sex, but McMillan lets us see no further into the future. What is clear is that both are better able to cope with the vexing problems of their lives not as a family unit, but on their own. Rather than conferring sustenance and security, the attempt to create a conventional domestic arrangement diminished Franklin and disempowered Zora. Zora and her child are returning to her hometown and family life with her father. There is potential for a new familial configuration here, one in which Franklin, as husband and father, is not integral or necessary.
In Waiting to Exhale, McMillan continues her reconfiguration project, again tackling the problems of families in crisis and the frustrations of single women striving for autonomy concurrent with meaningful heterosexual relationships. The title comes from one character's remarks about what it feels like to wait for all that she has been taught to desire and expect—marriage, security, intimacy, children. She has been holding her breath for years, waiting; her life has been a preparation for her real destination—creating a family. In this novel, McMillan's raunchy and bitter language strikes a resonant chord that echoes the sentiment of thousands of women today. Here she meshes fiction with "culture in action" in order to make specific the point suggested in the two preceding novels; a husband is not an obligatory ingredient when constructing a family.
Rather than call for a strengthening of the African American family based on the patriarchal, mainstream model, or on a matriarchal model, McMillan makes a bold move, reconfiguring the family on a model that hearkens back to early African American kinship patterns, where obligations extended beyond the nuclear family. Many of today's African American leaders see not only self-reliance but also kinship obligation as the critical components for the social organization of Black people. Waiting to Exhale revolves around four women all of whom are struggling emotionally, though not financially, as single women who find their lives frustratingly lonely and incomplete. One character, Robin, had been unwilling to revise her image of the family she believed she deserved:
We would have a houseful of kids…. I would be a model mother. We would have an occasional fight, but we would always make up. And instead of drying up, our love would grow. We would be one hundred percent faithful to each other. People would envy us, wish they had what we had, and they'd ask us forty years later how we managed to beat the odds and still be so happy.
But she has had to relinquish this ideal; bluntly she admits, "I was this stupid for a long time."
The women embark on various ventures to find a "real life" with a loving man. For example, they go out dancing together, but only one of them, Bernadine, has a good time and only because she meets a man. The others, Savannah, Robin, and Gloria, feeling dejected and unattractive, go home alone. As Gloria turns out her light, she wonders, "Why are we all out there by ourselves? Are we just going to have to learn how to live the rest of our lives alone?" In the context of the personal lives of single, heterosexual women in contemporary culture, Gloria asks the most compelling question in the novel. McMillan does not appear to want to answer with a resounding "Yes." "Alone" for her does not appear to be a completely satisfying option; but "together" clearly needs redefinition.
After two unredeeming affairs, Savannah answers the question for herself; she is, in fact, going to learn how to live alone in her own home with a sense of contentment because, she insists, "I can't afford to do this shit anymore. It costs too much. And besides, being lonely has never made me feel this damn bad." Her relationships with her extended family and her friends provide her with the emotional sustenance continually denied her in relationships with men.
Bernadine begins an affair with a married man, James, that does seem to hold a promise of some kind of future for the two of them—partly because James's wife dies after a long illness and partly because he can say to her, "I'm not interested in … starting something I can't finish. I play for keeps." This kind of informal verbal commitment is rare for a male character in McMillan's novels, but it is also quite clear that Bernadine will not be defined again, as she was in her first marriage, as dependent and inferior.
Gloria, struggling with being overweight and overworked, suffers a heart attack. She almost has to die before Marvin, the widower across the street, decides he will become a part of her life and blurts out to her doctor a false, unasked for claim that he is her husband. Marvin and James, the only two men who want to establish long-term connections, do so after they have watched someone either die or almost die. McMillan seems to be suggesting that it takes the most dire circumstances for men to make genuine commitments.
At the novel's close, Robin, pregnant by a married man, decides to keep the baby who will, she believes, give her something that no man has yet been able to provide—family. She says: "I'll finally have somebody I can love as hard as I want to. Somebody who needs me." And she remarks that it will be to her girlfriends that she will turn for support and advice. McMillan is creating four different possibilities for what it is to be family in the present social configuration. The Cosby family is nowhere to be found, nor is the long-suffering but enduring African American mother. Although two of the women have found romance, these men are not husbands. Gloria and Bernadine are excited about the prospect of erotic intimacy, without sacrificing of their autonomy. Hillary Radner observes that while the novel works against the romantic paradigm, it "does not exclude heterosexual exchange as a moment of feminine pleasure…. The hero is no longer all powerful, but in his place; he generates only one relationship among many in a community in which the feminine dominates." McMillan draws vivid portraits of women who are successful at liberating themselves from the desire for the patriarchal family, replacing that delusional construct with African American patterns of communal interdependence.
Politicians tell us that in families without fathers, children are at a greater risk of dropping out of school or joining a gang, being physically ill and mentally fragile. McMillan gives us narratives that can help us counter the bleak univocality of such predictions. Unlike Petry's The Street, written in 1946, in which Lutie must desert her son Bub because their poverty, loneliness, and desperation have led her to commit murder, in McMillan's fiction, children are offered the possibility of moving in positive directions. In Mama, Freda has pulled through the despair of alcoholism; in Disappearing Acts, Zora is seeking a better, more stable home in which to raise her son; in Waiting to Exhale, Gloria's adolescent son has joined the "Up With People" brigade, and Bernadine and Robin are better able to care for their children within the kinship system they have established. McMillan is suggesting that there are ways to create supportive, secure and intimate families even though men do leave. In Waiting to Exhale, it is clear that these women are going to be one another's family, a family based on loyalty, trust, and enduring concern, that is more resilient than their heterosexual relationships.
In order to create a collective resistance to the hegemony of dominant family values, women need to maintain a vigilant awareness of the seductiveness of this norm as it speaks to their own desires and fears. In her fiction, McMillan jettisons conventional domestic ideology. In so doing, she clears ground for reconfigured African American families that allow for the complexity of female desire. She also challenges the ideological centrality of heterosexual romance, while still celebrating loving trust, respect, commitment and connection. Her narratives affirm; her characters offer possibility.
McMillan has been disconcertingly diminished by those who should know better. Prize-winning African American women writers and others have dismissed McMillan's novels as pulp fiction. Radner remarks, "Too self-conscious to be considered 'trash,' [Waiting to Exhale] nonetheless constitutes a 'good read' that cannot be dismissed as the symptom of masculine domination, since the novel constitutes a strident diatribe against traditional gender norms." Perhaps McMillan does not write with the same polished facility as Walker, Morrison, and Naylor, nor does she have the historical range of some of her contemporaries, but it is only critical blindness that prevents readers from seeing that McMillan's work is squarely within the African American canon. It is time for a serious critical re-assessment of McMillan's work within African American scholarship. Alone neither of the three novels considered here can stand as a literary master work; taken together, however, the novels are a significant contribution to understanding the evolving African American family.
This section contains 4,981 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)