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Critical Essay by Barbara Christian
SOURCE: "The Contrary Women of Alice Walker," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1982, pp.21-30, 70-1.
In the following essay, Christian discusses how the women of Walker's In Love and Trouble fight to embrace their individual spirits and to overcome convention.
In Love and Trouble, Alice Walker's collection of short stories, is introduced by two seemingly unrelated excerpts, one from The Concubine by the contemporary West African writer, Elechi Amadi, the other from Letters to a Young Poet by the early 20th century German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. In the first excerpt, Amadi describes the emotional state of the young girl, Ahurole, who is about to be engaged. She is contrary, boisterous at one time, sobbing violently at another. Her parents conclude that she is "unduly influenced by agwu, her personal spirit," a particularly troublesome one. Though the excerpt Walker chose primarily describes Ahurole's agwu, it ends with this observation: "Ahurole was engaged to Ekwueme when she was 8 days old."
The excerpt from Rilke beautifully summarizes a view of the living, setting up a dichotomy between the natural and the social order:
… people have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way, and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so against all opposition.
How are these two excerpts from strikingly different traditions related and why are they the preludes, the tone-setters to a volume of short stories about black women?
I am coordinating a seminar on the works of Alice Walker. We have read and discussed Once, Walker's first volume of poetry, and the The Third Life of Grange Copeland, her powerful first novel. The tension in the class has steadily risen. Now we are approaching In Love and Trouble. There is a moment of silence as class starts. Then one of the black women, as if bursting from an inexplicable anger says: "Why is there so much pain in these books, especially in this book?" I know this student; her life has much pain in it. She is going to school against all odds, in opposition to everything and everyone, it would seem. She is conscious of being black; she is struggling, trying to figure out why her relationships as a woman are so confused, often painful. She repeats her question adding a comment—"What kind of images are these to expose to—(pause)?" To whom, she will not say. "I don't want to see this, know this." There is more anger, then silence. But she is riveted on the stories in this and other class sessions, and insists on staying in this class. She seems to all appearances, to be together, well-dressed, even stylish, a strong voice and body, an almost arrogant, usually composed face. But now she is angry, resistant, yet obsessed by these stories.
Alice Walker has produced a significant body of work since 1968, when Once, her first volume of poetry, was published. Since then she has published two other volumes of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias, 1973, and Goodnight Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning, in 1979; in addition to In Love and Trouble she has published two novels, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970, and Meridian, 1976; A Children's Biography of Langston Hughes, 1974. She has also edited an anthology of the work of Zora Neale Hurston, I Love Myself … in 1979, and has written any number of articles among which "In Search Of Our Mother's Gardens" (1974) and "One Child of One's Own" (1978); stand out as significant essays written by a black woman. Another collection of short stories You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down has just been published. Walker, has been a consistently prolific writer of poetry, essays and fiction. A young writer, she is already acclaimed by many as one of America's finest novelists.
Walker's already substantial body of writing, though varied, is characterized by specific recurrent motifs. Most obvious is her attention to the black woman as creator and how her attempt to be whole relates to the health of her community. This theme is certainly focal to Walker's first collection of stories In Love and Trouble.
Who are the characters in these stories? What happens to them? More to the point, what do they do that should cause this young black woman, and many others like her to be so affected? What have they or she to do with agwu or with Rilke's words?
In these 11 stories, Walker's protagonists share certain external characteristics that at first might seem primarily descriptive. All are female; all are black; most are Southern; all are involved in some critical relationship—to lover, mother, father, daughter, husband, woman, tradition, God, nature—that causes them some discomfit. But the external characteristics so easily discerned, are not emblems. They are far more complex and varied. The words, Southern black woman, as if they were a sort of verbal enchantment, evoke clusters of contradictory myths, images, stories, meanings according to different points of view. Who is a Southern black woman? To a white man, those words might connote a mammy, a good looking wench, or Dilsey, as it did to Faulkner. To a white woman it might connote a servant, a rival, or a wise indefatigable adviser, as it did to Lillian Hellman. To a black man, it might connote a charming, soft-spoken, perhaps backward woman, or a religious fanatic and a vale of suffering as it did to Richard Wright. But what does being a Southern black woman mean to her, or to the many that are her?
Focal to Walker's presentation is the point of view of individual black Southern girls or women who must act out their lives in the web of conventions that is the South—conventions that they may or may not believe in, may or may not feel at ease in, conventions that may or may not help them to grow. And because societal conventions in the South have much to do with the conduct of relationships—man and woman, young and old, black and white, our female protagonists, by their very existence, must experience and assess them. So naturally, Walker's women are in love and trouble. However, unlike Toomer's women in Cane, who too are restricted by their race, sex, and origins, Walker's women are not silent. Her women are not presented through a perceptive male narrator, but through the private voices of their imaginations or through their dearly paid for words or acts.
The way in which Walker uses point of view, character is not mere technique, but an indication of how free her protagonists are to be themselves within the constraints of convention. If they cannot act, they speak. If they cannot speak, they can at least imagine, their interiority being inviolate, a place where they can exercise autonomy, be who they are. Through act, word or dream, they naturally seek to be "characteristically and spontaneously" themselves. In order to defend the selves they know they are, they must hold to what is difficult, often wishing, however that they were not so compelled. As all natural things, they must have themselves—even in conflict. So their agwu, their personal spirits are troubled, as they strain against their restraints. And their acts, words, dreams take on the appearance, if not of madness, of contrariness.
What specifically are some of the conventions that so restrict them, causing their spirits to be troubled even as they seek love? It is interesting to me that the stories from this volume my students found most disturbing take place within the imagination of the character. And that often that character mentally sees herself as different from her external self. She sees a different self—a dangerous self, as if a reflection in a mirror.
Roselily is such a character. The form of her story, itself a marriage ceremony, is a replica of the convention, the easy solution to which she has been oriented. As a poor black woman with four illegitimate children, she is, it seems, beyond redemption. Thus, her wedding day, attended as it is by satin voile, and lily of the valley, is from any number of viewpoints a day of triumph. But she, how does she see it? Walker does not use "I," the first person point of view, but the pronoun "She" throughout this marriage ceremony, as if Roselily is being seen from an external point of view. Yet what she does is dream: "She dreams; dragging herself across the world." It is as if even in Roselily's mind, the being who wonders about, questions this day of triumph, is both herself, and yet not herself.
Troubled, though feeling she should not be troubled, Roselily's meditation on the words of the ceremony is intensely focussed, almost fixated on images of entrapment. "She feels old. Yoked." "Something strained upward behind her eyes. She thinks of the something as a rat trapped, cornered, scurrying to and fro in her head peering through the window of her eyes." Even the flowers in her hand, flowers associated with the sweet South, seem "to choke off three and four and five years of breath." Yet because of her condition, she feels she should not feel this way. She should want: "Respect, a chance to build. Her children at last from underneath the detrimental wheel." What she feels is—trapped in her condition—trapped in her deliver from that condition.
As Roselily struggles with her agwu, as she resists the urge to rip off satin voile, to toss away lily of the valley, her dreaming also gives us insight into the complexity, sheer weight of the conventions that have trapped her. Different sets of values are affecting her life. They are as different, as they are black, in the way they restrict her or allow her to grow. One set of values seems to be giving way to another, satin voile to black veil. Tradition is undergoing change, affecting the society's definition of her role as a woman, intensifying the conflict within herself.
She comes from a Southern black community, poor, Christian, rural, its tradition held together by "cemeteries and the long sleep of grandparents mingling in the dirt." Here she can be "bare to the sun." But she must be poor; she must work in a sewing plant—work from which no growth will occur, work only for the purpose of survival. Here she must be a mother, preferably within the confines of marriage, where her sensuality will be legitimatized and curbed. But even without marriage she must be a mother. Tradition decrees it. Here the responsibility of her children's fathers are minimized, their condition as restricted as hers except they have mobility, can drive by "waving or not waving." Here the quality of suffering is legitimatized by Christianity, as rooted in sorrow as the graves of her grandparents. Here there is nothing new, as the cars on the highway whiz by, leaving behind a lifestyle as rooted in the past as the faces at this country wedding.
What is new comes from the North, challenging this traditional way of life. New gods arise, affecting the quality of Roselily's life. What freedoms do these new conventions afford her? The nameless New England father of her fourth child, brings the god of social justice. Though he exalts common black people, he cannot "abide TV in the living room, 5 beds in 3 rooms, no Bach except from 4-6 on Sunday afternoons." He cannot abide the backward ways of the people that in the abstract he wants to save.
To the man she is marrying, God is Allah, the devil is the white man, and work is building a black nation. But he cannot abide the incorrect ways of Roselily's community, their faith in a white Christian God and their tolerance of sensuality. Just as the old women in the church feel that he is "like one of their sons except that he had somehow got away from them," he feels that this community is black except that it has gotten away from its blackness. For him, a veiled black woman in his home is a sign of his righteousness, and in marrying Roselily he is redeeming her from her backward values. With him, she will have black babies to people the nation.
Whether Southern or Northern, traditional or modern, rural or urban, convention confines Roselily to a role, a specific manifestation of some dearly held principle. As a result, her agwu though expressed only in her dreaming, is even more troubled by change. For even as she glimpses possibilities, she is left with the same vision of confinement. She can only dream that "she wants to live for once. But doesn't quite know what that means. Wonders if she has ever done it. If she ever will." Not even the I do that she must speak in order to accept the delivery from her condition is allowed, in this story, to interrupt the dreaming. She does not speak aloud. Her dreaming is as separate from her external behavior, as this Mississippi country church is from her future home, cinder-filled Chicago. But at least she can, in her imagination, know her confinement to be troublesome and recognize in a part of herself that this change is not the attainment of her fulfillment.
As the first story in this volume, Roselily's meditation on her condition touches major themes that will be explored in most of the others. Distinctions between the shells of convention, to which people are usually oriented, and the marrow of a living, functional black tradition is examined in most of these stories in terms of the span and degree of freedom afforded the black woman. Like "Roselily," "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," focusses on the limited image of black femaleness within Southern tradition. Only now the image is no longer a "peasant" one but a black and middle class one as modified by the sweet smelling idealizations of the Southern Lady.
Both Roselily and Myrna's stories are couched in the images of sweet smelling flowers. But while Roselily's name emphasizes the natural quality of her Southern environment, Myrna buys her artificial scents from the shopping mall. Her creamed, perfumed body proclaims her a well kept lady and evoked images of the delicate, decorative Southern belle. But the South's mystique, as evoked through Roselily's name and Myrna's perfumes chokes rather than pleases both these women. Natural or artificial, peasant or lady, they are trapped by myth.
To all appearances, for that is what counts, Myrna has succeeded in ways that Roselily had not. Myrna, after all is married to Reul (Rule), an ambitious Southern black man, who wants her to have babies that he will support, and who insists on keeping her expensively dressed and scented. But, although Reul and Roselily's new husband are worlds apart, they agree on basic tenets: that the appearance and behavior of their wives mirror the male's values, and that their women stay at home and have babies. Both women must, in their physical make-up, be the part. Roselily must be clearly black; Myrna must look non-black, like a Frenchwoman or an Oriental. Both must wear appropriate uniforms: Roselily's black veil, Myrna's frilly dresses. Both must withdraw from the impure outer world, providing a refuge for their husband and children. But while Roselily does not know what she wants to do, when she is rested, Myrna knows that she wants to write, must write.
As in "Roselily," "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay" takes place within the imagination of the character. But while Roselily dreams during her wedding, Myrna's imagination is presented through her entries in her writing notebook. Unlike Roselily then, whose critical musings never move beyond her interior, Myrna's break for freedom lies in trying to express herself in words. However, like Roselily, as Myrna confronts the conventions she is expected to adhere to, she also experiences discomfit within her agwu.
As is often true with Walker's stories, the first few sentences succinctly embodies the whole:
I sit here by the window in a house with a 30 year mortgage looking down at my Helena Rubenstein hands…. And why not? Since I am not a serious writer, my nails need not be bitten off. My cuticles need not have jagged edges.
These first lines not only tell us that Myrna's story will be told through her entries in her writing notebook, we also begin to realize that she knows her value is perceived to be in her appearance and social position, not in her creativity. And because she has no external acknowledgement of her value as a writer, she, with some irony, doubts her own ability. Her husband's words to her, written as an entry, clearly summarizes society's view:
Everytime he tells me how peculiar I am for wanting to write stories, he brings up having a baby or going shopping, as if these things are the same. Just something to occupy my time.
As a result of her own doubts, constantly reinforced by her husband, magazines, billboards, other women, doctors, Myrna is open, both sexually and artistically to Mordecai, an artiste. He rips her off on both counts precipitating the mental breakdown and her aborted murder of her husband that we see developing in her entries.
The presentation of entries, which begin with September 1961, go back in time and finally move beyond that date, is crucial to Myrna's story. For when we meet her, she has already tried to write and been rebuffed by her husband. She has been ripped off by Mordecai, has attempted murder, has been confined to a mental institution and has eventually been returned to her husband. Like Caroline Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, the entries that make up the substance of this story express the anger and rage, in madly logical terms, which drive the house-prisoned woman writer crazy.
But the story goes beyond that impotent rage. Having tried the madness of murder and failed, Myrna concocts a far more subtle way, contrariness rather than madness, to secure her freedom. Now she says yes to everything, the smiles, the clothes, sex, the house, until she has yessed her husband to fatigue. She triumphantly tells us that "the women of the community feel sorry for him to be married to such a fluff of nothing," and she confides that "he knows now that I intend to do nothing but say yes until he is completely exhausted." Cunningly, she secretly takes "the Pill," insuring her eventual triumph over him. But it is her discovery of the magnificence of the manipulation of words that brings her to a possible resolution of her troubled agwu. Like Ralph Ellison's nameless narrator's grandfather in Invisible Man, she yesses them to death, though in a peculiarly female way.
In saying yes to mean no Myrna uses the manipulative power of the word and secures some small victory. But it is a victory achieved from the position of weakness, for she has no alternative. Like countless Southern belles, she has found that directness based on self-autonomy is ineffectual and that successful strategies must be covert. Such strategies demand patience, self-abnegation, falsehood. Thus at the end of this story, Myrna has yet to act: "When I am quite, quite tired of the sweet, sweet smell of my body, and the softness of these Helena Rubenstein hands, I will leave him and this house."
What happens then when a black woman goes against convention, transgresses a deeply felt taboo, and says No directly and aloud? In perhaps the most powerful, certainly the most violent story of this volume, the woman in "The Child Who Favored Daughter," speaks practically one word in the entire story, "No." By saying "No" with such firmness she resists convention, insisting on the inviolability of her agwu.
This story is as important in the light it sheds on the black men in other stories, Reul, and Roselily's Muslim husband, as it is in its own right. Moving back and forth between the imaginations of the woman and her father, it presents in almost cinematic rhythm, a black male and female point of view. In committing the most damnable act for a black woman, falling in love with a white man, the Child who favored Daughter sorely touches the vulnerability of the black man who has felt the whips of racism. To a compelling degree, Reul's desire that Myrna be feminine and Roselily's husband's insistence that she be pure and sheltered are related to these men's need to be on par with the white man. To have a wife who is a visual representation of one's financial achievement, or to protect and keep pure the black woman, despite the white man's often successful attempts to drag down the race, are goals essential to their view of themselves as men. Racism then has the effect, not only of physically and economically restricting these men, but also of reinforcing their need to imitate the oppressor's conventions in order to match his worth.
But "The Child Who Favored Daughter," though encompassing the sexist results of racism, goes beyond them. For it is based on an apparently universal ambivalence men have toward the sexuality of their female kin, especially their daughters. Thus, it begins with an epigraph, the equivalent of which is found in every culture:
That my daughter should
fancy herself in love
with any man
How can this be?
And only a few words later, Walker underlines the result of such a sentiment. Succinctly defining patriarch, while exposing its absurdity, she introduces the father in this story in conceptual terms: "Father, judge, giver of life."
Walker juxtaposes points of view of the Child and her Father by using the parts of this definition, judge, giver of life, as pivotal areas of contrast. As Father, the man judges his daughter based on one piece of evidence, a letter she has written to her white lover. As in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," the written word takes on immense significance as proof of the woman's autonomy outside the realm of the man's kingdom. In an indelible way, the Child's written words are proof not only of her crime against her Father and societal conventions, but also of her consciousness in committing it. Thus we are introduced to her: "She knows he has read the letter," as she prepares herself for his inevitably harsh judgment. Her Father, too, is mesmerized by the letter itself, for it is both a proclamation of her separateness from him, and, ironically, a judgment on his life. The words he selects to remember from the letter heighten our sense of his vulnerability: '"Jealousy is being nervous about something that has never, and probably won't ever, belong to you."'
Again, as in "Roselily," although we are inside the characters' psyches, Walker uses the third person "She" and "He" rather than the first person "I." But here, its usage has a different effect; for unlike Roselily, neither the Child nor her Father are presenting a different self to the world. Rather the "She" and "He" used in the absence of personalized names give the characters, an archetypal quality, as if the Child stands not only for this individual black woman, but for all daughters who have transgressed against their father's law; and the Father stands not only for this bitter black man, but for all fathers who have been sinned against by their daughters.
That particular interpretation of the Child's act is organic to the story since the Father, not the Child defines himself as a patriarch. The Child does not see him as Father but as her father. There are other men who exist besides him; other laws that also govern. Her act proclaims this. Her words in the letter make it clear that she cannot be owned. It is precisely this difference in their interpretation of their roles that causes his agwu to be so agonized that it inflicts trouble on hers.
To the man in this story, he is Father, she is Daughter, a possessive relationship that admits no knowledge of any individual histories or desires. It is true that he clings to an individual history, his sense of his first betrayal by a woman who he loves. But that apparently individual story leads us back to the archetypal, for this woman is his sister, is called "Daughter," the original Daughter, rather than a particular name. Her image blots out all individualized details in other women, until all women, especially those who are "fragmented bits of himself," are destined to betray him. Sister, Daughter, he perceives them and their actions as a judgment of his own worth and capacity to be loved. From his perspective, because they have such power over him, they cannot exist apart from him. They must exist for him; because of him. Thus he must control them: "If he cannot frighten her into chastity with his voice he will threaten her with the gun." That he feels is his right as Father, as "judge."
The authority vested in him as Father implies then not only that he has the power to enforce obedience, but that he has a right to this power precisely because he is the "giver of life." Walker intensifies the archetypal tone of this tale by repeating two sets of poetic motifs in a relationship of tension between nature and time. One motif, "Lure of flower smells / The sun" emphasizes the sensuality of nature. The other "Memories of Once / Like a mirror reflecting" transforms the temporal into an eternal moment, obliterating the possibility of redemption. The Father's perception of himself as the "giver of life" is juxtaposed in the story to the keen awareness of his sister and daughter's sexuality, vital and beyond his control. He is affected by their sensual bodies, naturally capable of giving life, his daughter's "slight, roundly curved body," his sister, "honey, tawny, wild and sweet." His ambivalence toward that part of them that he can never have, that part of them that will naturally take them away from him, intensifies the physical feeling of betrayal he imagines has been dealt him by women.
"Father, judge, giver of life," yet he cannot control it. Has he created it? Walker uses, throughout this story, images of Nature which overwhelm his senses: "the lure of flower smells," the busy wasps building their paper houses, the flower body of the Child. All around the Father life escapes his control, in much the same way that his daughter's body and her will overpowers him. Like Nature, his sister, and daughter, are "flowers who pledge no allegiance to banners of any man." As he will burn the wasps' paper houses down "singeing the wings of the young wasps before they get a chance to fly or to sting him," he must protect himself from "the agony of unnameable desire" caused by his sensuous wayward daughter.
If he cannot control the life he has given, then he must take it back. The violence the Father inflicts on his Daughter, for he literally cuts off her sexual organs in biblical fashion. ("If their right hand offend thee, cut it off") confirms his own sexual desire for her. It also underscores his fear of her proclaimed autonomy, her independence from him, which is based on her sexuality. In destroying her sexually, he is destroying that unknowable part of himself that he feels is slipping out of his control:
… he draws the girl away from him as one pulling off his own arm and with quick slashes of his knife leaves two bleeding craters the size of grapefruit on her bronze chest (emphasis mine).
This Father kills his Daughter, not with the phallic gun, but with a knife, the instrument used in sacrificial blood ritual. He sacrifices her, to his definition of himself, what he and therefore she should be. And the brutality of his act also suggests that he must doubly kill her since he cannot attack the other object of his rage, her white lover. He kills in one blow, his desire for her and his long-frustrated rage at the white man. No longer can the white man despoil his sister or his daughter, for they no longer exist; no longer must he love what he cannot control. Now he is left with "the perfection of an ancient dream, his nightmare" and the gun, the child he now cradles, which he can completely control.
The Father's troubled agwu stands in contrast to the child's throughout this ballad of a tale. Her agwu is threatened from without; but it is not troubled within. Like Nature, she must be herself, grow and defend herself in her own way, not as defined by her father nor society. She must have herself even though she has learned that "it is the fallen flower most earnestly hated, most easily bruised," and that she has been that fallen flower the moment her father presumed to give her life. So, she cannot "abandon her simple way of looking at simple flowers." So she accepts her father's beating, rising from it strong-willed and resolved, and she cannot, will not deny that she loves whom she loves. It is her composure, paradoxically her contrariness, and her lack of torment which echoes for the father the original daughter's preference for the Other, worse—her complete indifference to his pained love. Thus, her ability to be so surely herself results in her destruction. Her inner spirit and her outer actions are as one, she is a woman. To her Father though, she must act and speak as a Child, though she may think as a woman, for then her sexuality will not be a danger to him.
"The Child Who Favored Daughter" lyrically analyzes two constraints of convention which, when fused, are uniquely opposed to the growth of black women. For it merges the impact of racism, not only on society but on the person, with the threat woman's sexuality represents to patriarchal man. One feeds the other, resulting in dire consequences for the black woman who insists on her own autonomy, and for whom love, the giver of life, knows "nothing of master and slave." For such a woman strikes at the heart of hierarchy, which is central to racism and sexism, two variants of the patriarchal view of life.
The young protagonists of "Roselily," "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," and "The Child Who Favored Daughter," develop from one story to the next in their awareness of the conventions imposed upon them, and in their insistence on growing and defending themselves in their own way. Associated with the flowers of the South, their relationship to sweet-smelling nature mirror their consciousness. Thus, Walker presents Roselily as one who clutches lily of the valley, the symbol of her new condition, even as she questions her deliverance, though only in one part of her mind. Myrna does more than dream. Although she douses herself with gardenia perfume, the symbol of her comfortable prison, she writes of her intention to free herself, and has learned the difficult strategy of saying yes to mean no. The Child Who Favors Daughter goes even one step further. She will not give up "her simple way of looking at simple flowers," and her spoken word, "No" is a declaration of her internal freedom of mind. She is destroyed by her father and by convention, however, precisely because she tries to grow in her own way.
She is very much like most of Walker's elder protagonists in that their agwu's too, are not troubled from within so much as they are from without. A major difference between the Child and these elders, Hannah Kemhoff, Mama in "Everyday Use," the old woman in "The Welcome Table" is that they have survived. Perhaps they too had walked the paths of a Roselily or Myrna until they came to the realization that there is nothing more precious than being characteristically and spontaneously themselves. Too, they have become the repositories of a living tradition, which they know not only in conventional forms but more importantly in its spirit.
The old woman in "The Welcome Table" exemplifies the agwu that, though troubled from without, is aware of what is necessary for its fullness and tranquility. Her story is about her relationship to God which, for her, is above and beyond any conventions to which people have oriented their solutions. In contrast to the young flower heroines of this volume, she is described in nature imagery that expresses endurance rather than sensuality: "She was angular and lean as the color of poor gray Georgia earth, beaten by king cotton and the extreme weather." Rather than smelling of flowers, she smells of "decay and musk—the fermenting scent of onionskins and rotting greens."
Again, Walker uses the third person, "She" and "They," rather than the first person "I." This time she uses it so that we can hear both the old woman's mind and those opposed to her agwu, so that we can experience the contrast in spirit. For what she must do is prepare herself to be welcomed into the arms of her Jesus. For that overwhelming reason, she goes to the big white church without any regard for the breach of Southern convention she is committing. All that she is concerned with is the "singing in her head." In contrast they see her act as contrariness. For they see her as black and old, doubly terrifying to them because one state awaits them all, and the other frightens them. So they are able to throw her out of their church even as they beseech their God, according to convention, for protection and love.
Walker contrasts the two points of view in "The Welcome Table" in much the same way as she does the Child and the Father in "The Child Who Favored Daughter." Neither the old black woman nor the white congregation has names or specific identifying characteristics, except that each lives in Georgia. This absence of personalized detail gives the characters a quality that is both archetypal and Southern while it emphasizes the contrast in the way the old woman and the white congregation relate to Southern convention.
On one hand the white congregation does not see the old woman as worthy enough to enter their church, precisely because she is black and old, yet, they relate to her in familial terms for exactly the same reasons. Their confusion about how they are to react to her unconventional act is expressed in their uncertainty about whether they addressed her in the traditional familiar terms, "Auntie," or "Grandma." Their emphasis on this point is characteristic of the contradictions inherent in the white South's relation to its black folk. The old woman on the other hand is clear about her actions. She ignores them, is clearly bothered by these people who claim familial ties with her, yet know her or care about her not at all. In ignoring the conventions, she exposes the tradition of black and white familial ties as nothing more than form. All the sacred words of this tradition are brought into question by her simple act: "God, mother, country, earth, church…. It involved all that and well they knew it."
It is significant too, that the white men, all of whom seem younger than the old black woman, are the ones who express this confusion. It is the white women who are clear about their true relationship to this old black woman, for they do not idealize it. From their point of view, in her coming to their church, this old black woman challenges the very thing that gives them privilege. Both they and she are women—but they are white, their only claim to the pedestal on which they so uneasily stand. They know they can only hold their position if that pedestal is identified with the very essence of Southern convention, and that this old woman, and others like her, are literally and symbolically the bodies upon which that pedestal rests. Just as sexism is reinforced by racism in "The Child Who Favored Daughter," so in "The Welcome Table" racism distorts the natural relationship that should exist between woman and woman, and mutes the respect, according to convention and nature, that the young should have for the old.
According to white Southern thought, Christianity is the system upon which its culture and definition of woman and man is based. At the center of that system is the image of a white Jesus. Ironically Jesus' picture, which she has stolen from a white woman she worked for, is the old black woman's source of solace. But Walker does not present the old woman's white Jesus as an affront to her blackness; rather through the dynamics of her imagination and her culture, the old woman transforms this image into her own. For instead of being the meek and mild Jesus, her image of him is one of righteousness and justice. The words of the old spiritual, the epigraph of this story, embodies this old black woman's relationship to her Jesus:
I'm going to sit at the welcome table
shout my troubles over
Walk and talk with Jesus
Tell God how you treat me
One of these days
One stereotypical image of the Southern black woman is that of the fanatically religious old mammy so in love with a white Jesus that she becomes the white man's pawn. "The Welcome Table" obliterates that image as it probes the depth of black Southern tradition. For this old woman cracks the conventional shell of white Southern Christianity, and penetrates the whiteness of Jesus' face to "the candle … glowing behind it," for she insists on the validity of her own faith and tradition, and on the integrity of her relationship with her God. Walker further reinforces the integrity of a black Christian tradition, of which Southern black women were the heralds, by dedicating her composition of her spiritual in prose form to Clara Ward, the great black gospel singer. For, like the slaves in their spirituals, the old black woman in "The Welcome Table" makes Christianity her own, going beyond its European images to its truth as it applies to her. It is her spirit that "walked without stopping."
This old woman's act, and the acts, words, even dreams of so many of Walker's protagonists in this volume appear to others, sometimes even to themselves, as manifestations of the innate contrariness of black women. The term, contrary, is used more often and with greater emphasis in Afro-American culture than it is in white culture. In fact, blacks often use it as if they all suffer from it. Yet behind their use of the word itself is a grudging respect for, sometimes even a gleeful identification with, a resistance to authority.
However, Walker's analysis of the contrariness of her main characters goes beyond the concept of unfocussed rebellion. Her women behave as if they are contrary, even mad, in response to a specific convention that restricts them, and they pay a price for their insistence on retaining their integrity. Even when they triumph, their stories are rooted in the pain…. Walker insists on probing both the white society and the black community's definition of black women. For in both worlds, words such as contrariness or a troublesome agwu are used to explain away many seemingly irrational acts of women; without having to understand them as appropriate responses. Her protagonists often discover that since they are black they are perceived by whites as "the other," or since they are women they are perceived by men as "the other." In either world they are not the norm. Their deviant behavior, then, is expected and therefore need not be understood.
That is why the excerpt from Amadi's The Concubine sets the tone so precisely for this volume, for Ahurole's contrariness, even in a black culture not yet affected by racism, is explained away as natural. Her life as an African woman is planned for her, regardless of her personality, desires, or development. And such a plan is so rooted in tradition, that Ahurole is allowed in her society to have this one outlet, which will neither change her situation or cause others to question it.
Yet Ahurole's story is not the story of Roselily, Myrna, The Child or the Old Woman. For these black women must not only bear the traditional definitions of women in their culture, they must confront, as well, the sexist myths of another race which oppresses them. The conventions that they are expected to hold to, are not even the conventions of their own communities, but ones imposed on them. It is no wonder then that these women seem mad whenever they insist on being "spontaneously and characteristically" themselves.
The stories in In Love and Trouble, provoke readers, especially black women, the audience to which they are clearly addressed, not only because of the pain or violence in them, but because Walker subversively admits to the contrariness of her black female protagonists. It is as if she says we do think as they suspect we do; we do speak and act as they say we do. What she does is to interpret that contrariness as healthy, as an attempt to be whole rather than as a defect of nature or as nonexistent. And in exposing the contrariness, in demonstrating its appropriateness, she assesses the false paths of escape from psychic violence that so many of us are wont to believe in or follow—those easy conventions that we would like to see as solutions. These stories act out Rilke's words, for they show that there is no possibility for any living being to be whole unless she can be who she is. More disturbing they show that no matter how she might want to appear, no matter what conventions are imposed on her, no matter how much she resists herself, she will oppose those who inflict trouble on her. In the final analysis then, these stories are about the most natural law of all, that all living beings must love themselves, must try to be free—that spirit will eventually triumph over convention, no matter what the cost.
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