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Critical Essay by J. Charles Washington
SOURCE: "Positive Black Male Images in Alice Walker's Fiction," in Obsidian II, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 23-48.
In the following essay, Washington asserts that Walker does present some positive black male images in her work, and that her criticism of black men and women is in the spirit of helping them to grow and improve.
Now that the controversy over Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prizewinning novel The Color Purple has subsided, it might be worthwhile to re-examine her fiction, specifically, the short stories, in an attempt to resolve the issue of her purported attack on Black males. In particular, her critics charged her with presenting a grossly negative image of Black men, who were portrayed as mean, cruel, or violent, entirely without redeeming qualities. In a review of the film of the novel, the Washington Post of February 5, 1986, stated: "But what is being heatedly discussed is the characterization of Black males as cruel, unaffectionate, domineering slap-happy oafs." Gloria Steinem, a major source of these discussions, writes in the June 1982, issue of Ms. magazine, that "a disproportionate number of her (Walker's) hurtful, negative reviews have been by Black men."
This "disproportionate number" is significant, but only because, according to Trudier Harris, "black women critics have … been reluctant to offer … criticisms of it." The reason for this reluctance, Harris explains, is that "To complain about the novel is to commit treason against Black women writers, yet there is much in it that deserves complaint." With a tone that reveals the high degree of distress and frustration she feels, Harris complains not only about the negative, unrealistic and stereotypical portraits of Black men and women the novel presents, but also about its overall thematic development:
The novel gives validity to all the white racist's notions of pathology in Black communities. For these spectator readers, Black fathers and father-figures are viewed as being immoral, sexually unrestrained. Black males and females form units without the benefit of marriage, or they easily dissolve marriages in order to form less structured, more promiscuous relationships. Black men beat their wives—or attempt to—and neglect, ignore, or abuse their children. When they cannot control their wives through beatings, they violently dispatch them.
Thus Harris's article suggests that the objections to Walker's portraits of Black men are not limited to Black men.
Though this charge came about primarily as a result of the novel, negative male characters appeared in Walker's work long before its publication. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, published in 1970, some 13 years before Purple, is a good example, yet many of those who cried the loudest seem to have taken no notice of this work. Perhaps the best-known voice in the chorus of Walker critics belongs to novelist David Bradley (author of The Chaneysville Incident). Interestingly, he does not object to the male images in Purple, but in a long article written for the June 8, 1984, issue of the New York Times Magazine, he expresses dismay at "some of the things" he finds in Walker's collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, which lends further support to the criticism and controversy the novel aroused and, because of his reputation as a novelist and critic, gives his article a quasi official stamp of approval:
But there is much that dismays me. Some of these things can be written off as polemical excess…. But other excesses are more troubling because they form, it seems, a pattern indicating Alice Walker has a high level of enmity toward Black men [emphasis added].
As part of his support for this contention, Bradley cites Walker's "dismissal and disdain" of individual Black male writers such as Richard Wright and Jean Toomer.
An examination of Walker's works reveals what many of her critics have failed to see: that they also contain positive Black male images. Bradley, in the New York Times Magazine piece, comments on the positive types of Black male characters he has observed:
Black men in Alice Walker's fiction … seem capable of goodness only when they become old like Grange Copeland, or paralyzed and feminized, like Truman Held. If they are not thus rendered symbolically impotent, they are figures of malevolence, like Ruth's murderous father, Brownfield….
However, depending on how one looks at them, that is, the moral/social standard one uses, there are other positive male characters in Walker's fiction who do not fall into these categories. In contrast to the negative label connoting characters who are inherently evil, positive as used here means that there is within them the potential for growth, development and change. This is not to say, however, that they are without human flaws. Such characters are found in several of the short stories in Walker's first collection In Love and Trouble. Her presentation of both negative and positive Black male images, then, would seem to indicate that she is not carrying a feminist banner (or "womanist," her term for a Black feminist) with which she intentionally flagellates Black men.
Having established that Walker hates Black men, and apparently well versed in Freudian psychology, it seems natural that Bradley would locate the cause of Walker's enmity within her family, that is, in her hatred for her father. Similar to his handling of Walker's alleged dismissal of Toomer, however, Bradley chooses particular words of Walker to prove his point, when the truth is otherwise. Building his case against her, he cites her disparaging remarks about Toomer the man, which moreover had to do with racism not sexism, while de-emphasizing her favorable remarks about his work. In fact, what Walker does in Mothers' Gardens is castigate Toomer for his racial ambivalence, while praising his work highly, concluding with: "I love it (Cane) passionately; could not possibly exist without it."
Similarly, Bradley presents only half the truth regarding Walker's feelings about her father, ignoring the significance of the change in them that occurred later in her life. For though in her youth she did harbor strong resentment against her father, blaming him for her family's poverty, as an adult she came to realize that "he was a poor man exploited by the rural middleclass rich, like millions of peasants the world over."
The charge against Walker cannot be supported, for it is based on far too simplistic a view of an artist. Though her work is woman-centered, its wider focus is on the struggle of Black people—men and women—to re-claim their own lives. As she writes in Mothers' Gardens, "I am preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that, I am committed to exploring the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of Black women." Her exclusive concentration on what used to be called the weaker sex who, if no longer as weak as they once were, are still the most oppressed in society does not mean that she is anti-male, but that she has less time and energy to devote to exploring more fully the problems of men or the common causes of the oppression of both.
This commitment to Black women—itself an act of love—no less than her treatment of Black men, is a likely basis of the negative criticism Walker has received. For much of it is an expression of homophobia triggered by any notion of women loving women, in the eyes of some readers, male and female, its "logical" conclusion is lesbianism equated with a virulent hatred of men. Many of these individuals became convinced of the correctness of their reasoning when in Purple Walker not only presents a lesbian relationship but also shows it to be extremely fulfilling.
What these readers fail—or refuse—to realize, however, is that for all of the suffering and violence Celie experiences from Black men, she does not grow to hate them; in fact, her eventual rejection of them is no more permanent than her brief flirtation with lesbianism. Both are simply steps in the process of learning to love herself and finding her own identity, which is the author's main concern. Of equal significance to her is the means of strategy by which this growth takes place—that is, women loving and reaching out to support each other. The strategy is not fail-safe. Some errors are expected, but if they occur, the author implies, the moral risk is worth the human gain.
It is clear that Walker's commitment to women has nothing to do with sex at alt. And the same can be said of the homophobia that fuels the controversy. On the contrary, both have everything to do with power—women's gain and men's loss of it. For their own empowerment and control of their own destiny, women must commit themselves to each other and to creating their own identity. The failure "to define ourselves," Audre Lorde writes in Sister Outsider, is that "we will be defined by others—for their use and to our detriment." Homophobia, the handmaiden of sexism, becomes a useful tool in men's efforts to define and control women. Additionally, Lorde writes, "the red herring of lesbian baiting is being used … to obscure the true face of facism/sexism."
Far from being a purely emotional reaction, homophobia reveals itself to have a political dimension, seen in the efficacious role it plays in maintaining power or the status quo. Frequently it is used by some men who attempt to rule Black women by fear, who threaten them with emotional rejection: "'Their poetry wasn't too bad but I couldn't take all those lezzies.'" Ishmael Reed, the novelist who has rightfully often decried the degeneration of Black males in American society, is not above this kind of emotional blackmail if, faced with competition from a Black female, it contributes to his own personal gain. Complaining that he had sold only eight thousand copies of his last book, Reed is reported to have said, "if he had been a black lesbian poet [emphasis added] he would have sold many more."
This complex nexus of cause and effect, of power struggles and political ploys underlying the often turbulent relations between Black men and women lies at the heart of Walker's works. Out of it emerges the negative criticism she has received. It is inevitable that she would arouse hostility, for in her struggle to help Black men and women overcome the oppression that binds them, she refuses to be intimidated or ruled by anything other than her own conscience.
We should pause here to note exactly what "oppression" means in Walker's works. Her target is not racism itself, but the Black men and women whom it affects, not society, but the lives of her characters. Recounting human tragedies because the characters themselves are largely responsible for their own fate, though their fate may have its being in racism, Walker's fiction explores a much more personal kind of oppression: that which the individual inflicts on himself or on another individual. The good to be derived from this central focus Walker explains in Mothers' Gardens in her analysis of what she feels is a major failing of Black writing:
It seems to me that black writing has suffered because even black critics have assumed that a book that deals with relationships between members of a black family—or between a man and a woman—is less important than one that has white people as primary antagonists. The consequence of this is that many of our books by 'major' writers … tell us little about the culture, history, or future, imagination, fantasies, and so on, of black people, and a lot about isolated (often improbable) or limited encounters with a nonspecific white world.
Unlike the books of these "major" writers, Walker's works tell us a great deal about the lives of Black people, and it is ironic that her reward has often been controversy and harsh criticism. Her persistence in the face of it springs from her commitment to truth and honesty. Like most Black artists concerned about freeing Black people from their past mistakes, she too believes that "the truth shall set you free." In Black Women Writers, Barbara Christian writes that "there is a sense in which the 'forbidden' in the society is consistently approached by Walker as a possible route to truth." In contrast to many Black writers who are reluctant to criticize Black males because they fear it will exacerbate an already precarious situation between Black men and women, the "forbidden" Walker exposes is the role Black men, both the positive and negative types, have played in the oppression of Black women.
Examples of the purely negative type of Black male abound in Walker's work, among them the men in The Color Purple; however, as mentioned, one of the most glaring examples is the younger Grange Copeland, hero of The Third Life, of whom Barbara Christian writes in Black Women Writers: "Grange Copeland hates himself because he is powerless, as opposed to powerful, the definition of maleness for him. His reaction is to prove his power by inflicting violence on the women around him." The cyclical nature of this phenomenon is seen in the life of Grange's son Brownfield, perhaps the most monstrous character in all of Walker's fiction, who brutalizes his children and his wife and then murders her.
The role played by the positive type of Black male found in In Love and Trouble is no less destructive on the lives of Black women, for it often means only a change in the kind of violence inflicted; that is, emotional violence predominates over the physical kind. But there is a major difference in the men who cause the oppression, and it is this distinction which allows us to label them positive rather than negative and which supplies the hope that change is possible. While the men in Purple and Third Life shock us with their unspeakable cruelty and violence not only because they are fully aware of their immoral behavior but also because they often revel in and enjoy inflicting pain, the men in In Love and Trouble are never monsters of this type. On the contrary, they are at all times human beings who reveal a variety of human strengths and weaknesses.
The positive classification also depends on the perspective from which one views them. For instance, Ruel, the antagonist/-husband in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," who fails to recognize his wife's ambition to write or her need for her own identity because he only sees her as a housewife is, in my view, not a negative character. A product of the social mores of his time stemming from the morally sanctioned patriarchal tradition which fostered them, he is as much a victim as his wife of a seemingly permanent mind-set in society which neither of them created and which will bind them until they realize that they must set themselves free. Similarly, while it may be considered immoral by some, a man who marries for money, in this case at the invitation of the female, as Jerome Washington does in "Her Sweet Jerome," is no more negative than a woman who does the same. To label him such would require applying to him the same pernicious double standard of which women have always been victim.
A second significant cause of the oppression of the Black women in these stories, as it relates to their interaction with Black men, is their mistaken definition of themselves as women. Their own blindness about them selves and about what they can and must do for themselves is given strong emphasis, which is another important sign that Walker is searching for the truth, and that her interest is in finding causes, not assessing blame. The female protagonist of "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," for example, is spiritually and emotionally imprisoned by her husband's limited definition of her humanity and sits waiting deliverance from her life of useless dissipation, completely unaware that what she desires most lies within her own power—that, in other words, she must be the agent of her own deliverance. Such behavior on the women's part does not correlate with positive male characters. It does mean, however, that the men's behavior is no worse than that of the women, their alleged victims. They are in fact equally responsible for their problems and for the suffering they inflict on each other.
A particularly effective example of a Black woman whose attempt to free herself goes awry because, ironically, she tries to reverse roles and play the one her husband had played is that of Margaret Copeland, wife of Grange. After years of suffering his adultery and brutality, she resorts to a similar kind of immorality as she begins sleeping around with a number of men, among them Shipley, the white man for whom her husband works and by whom she has a baby. Her eventual suicide, then, is the result of both her victimization by her husband and significantly, of her own guilt feelings about her immoral behavior and illegitimate half-white child.
Similarly, many of the women in In Love and Trouble share culpability in their own downfall, and this fact plays an important part in softening the negative image of their Black men. For though it is not always the case, and a man or woman must bear responsibility for his/her immoral behavior no matter what the circumstances, the men's role in the oppression of these women is often aided by the women's contribution to or willful participation in—sometimes, even, a masochistic invitation of—their own victimization.
The variety of problems and character types found in these stories is perhaps the most convincing evidence of Walker's preoccupation with presenting the full range of Black humanity—"the survival whole" of her people—as seen in the individual lives of her characters. To reiterate, what we are seeing, then, is not a common theme of oppression, but a multiplicity of themes based on the individuals' responses to it. Like her female characters, the Black male characters are shown to be individual human beings. Regarding them as such, one will find among them several positive Black male images or characters, which is the thesis of this essay. Because most of the stories have female protagonists and male antagonists, in such a case the selection of stories has to be based on those in which the male antagonists are sufficiently developed to give a substantial view of their characters. From this group, two have been selected for examination: "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay" and "To Hell with Dying."
Even though this essay concentrates on the Black male, to understand and appreciate the total picture or truth that Walker offers requires an equally close scrutiny of the female characters, as well as the plot and language of the stories. For, as indicated, it is the interaction between the male and female, reflected in the interrelatedness of literary elements, that allows us to see the not always blameless victimization of the Black female as well as the not always villainous actions of the Black male, but the common humanity of both.
"Really, Doesn't Crime Pay" takes place within the pages of Myrna's writing notebook. "Myrna" is never used within the story itself. To identify her, the name appears in parentheses only as an undertitle.
On the surface, the notebook entries tell about Myrna's desire to be a writer and her dissatisfaction with her life as a housewife. Spending her days in idleness and useless dissipation—she does not have to work—she falls prey to a young Black charlatan or amateur writer, Mordecai Rich, who seduces and then abandons her, leading to an emotional breakdown. One day while sitting in the doctor's office, she discovers that he has published under his own name one of her stories that she had given him. Later that night while in bed, she attempts to murder her husband Ruel, who had ridiculed her desire to be a writer, insisting instead that she have a child and become a housewife.
On a deeper level, the story is a tragedy about a young Black woman who has talent but who lacks the understanding, courage and know-how to break the restrictions placed on her and to create the meaningful identity she craves and needs. Her insecurity about her talent and her own self-worth resulting in extreme self-hatred, leads to her victimization by Mordecai and to her attempted murder of her husband, whom she blames for her plight and to whom she transfers her frustration and hatred.
Myrna's entries in her notebook are significant in revealing her character and exposing the tragic nature of her situation. Walker skillfully establishes the interrelatedness of the literary elements of theme, character and plot. Allowing us to see inside Myrna's head and heart, we observe more than twenty years of rage and anger bottled up there, which is more than enough to drive anyone mad. Since the entries in her notebook are both the plot as well as samples of her writing, what they also allow us to see is not only the quality of her writing and the sensitivity and talent required to produce it, but also the tragic waste of them and her life due to her failure to act or to attempt to solve the dilemma she faced.
The house where she spends her days of idleness is like a prison to her. There she fritters away the hours with her jars and bottles of cosmetics, symbolizing her spiritual decay, indulging herself; "her hands—in Herbessence nailsoak, polish, lotions and creams." Although she still writes, and has done so for some twenty years, her doubt about her talent and her unwilling acceptance of the role society has created for her are seen in her words, "I am not a serious writer…." Her feelings about herself begin to change after she meets Mordecai Rich, whose flattery helps banish her insecurity. After showing him some of her work, she says, "Mordecai Rich praised me for my intelligence, my sensitivity, the depth of the work he had seen." What Walker shows us here is the self-doubt which causes Myrna to act contrary to her own moral instincts and which is the basis of her vulnerability; for she understands quite clearly what or whom she is up against. Recognizing Mordecai Rich for what he is, she says, "I think Mordecai Rich has about as much heart as a dirt-eating toad." It is this vulnerability, specifically, her need for praise and recognition, that cause her to succumb to him; after he reads a story of hers, this thought runs through her mind:
If he says one good thing about what I've written, I promised myself, I will go to bed with him. (How else could I repay him? All I owned in any supply were my jars of cold cream!)
So devoid of self-esteem that she feels the jars of cold cream are all she possesses of value, since she cannot give them to him, she resorts to sex as an expression of her gratitude. For if all else fails, sex is always considered a valuable commodity. Myrna kept her word by giving herself to Mordecai, and the effect was immediate, albeit, regrettably, ephemeral:
He took me in his arms, right there in the grape arbor…. After that, a miracle happened. Under Mordecai's fingers my body opened like a flower and carefully bloomed….
Walker never lets the reader forget that Myrna is conscious or fully aware of her acts. In fact, it is this awareness on her part that makes her appear less sympathetic, and the man with whom she commits adultery less villainous, in the readers' eyes. The above passage, for instance, concludes with Myrna's thought, "And it was strange as well as wonderful. For I don't think love had anything to do with this at all." What increases the antipathy toward her even more, however, is her use of her week-long sexual encounter with Mordecai, unknown to her husband, of course, as a way of striking back at him for his failure to recognize her need: "I gloat over this knowledge. Now Ruel will find out that I am not a womb without a brain that can be bought with Japanese bathtubs and shopping sprees."
Putting all her hope for a change in her life in Mordecai, she declares, "The moment of my deliverance is at hand." He abandons her, however, and soon thereafter she begins to reveal signs of an emotional breakdown. As her condition worsens, Ruel tells her she acts as if her mind is asleep, to which she makes the mental notes: "Nothing will wake it but a letter from Mordecai telling me to pack my bags and fly to New York." Clearly, this indicates the confusion in her mind about what change is needed to bring about the happiness she craves. This change is not an external one, although new scenes, sights and surroundings would no doubt help alleviate her mental depression. What she actually requires is a fundamental modification in the way she thinks about herself. Thus, it is not Ruel alone who needs to know that she is not "a womb without a mind," but she too must realize that she has the capability of being both "womb" and "brain"—both a housewife and artist; in separating the two or failing to see the alternative available to her, she commits the same kind of error that Ruel makes. Complementing this confusion in her mind is another serious mistake on her part: her lack of self-involvement in changing her condition. And so she sits waiting for deliverance, expecting Mordecai to do for her what only she can do for herself.
That Walker sees the solution to Myrna's problems as one of her own making is found in Mothers' Garden, in the author's analysis of the escape route by which Black women have traditionally sought and succeeded in securing their spiritual survival. This route, based on an intuitive sense which enabled them to know how to get what they needed, was their flexibility combined with an enormous capacity for work: this enabled them to be both worker and creator, both wife and artist. Using her mother, who bore and raised eight children, as an example, Walker first explains that many of the stories she writes are her mother's stories; then she adds:
But the telling of these stories … was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist…. My mother adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in. And not just your typical straggly country stand of zinnias, either. She planted ambitious gardens … with over fifty different varieties of plants that bloom(ed) profusely from early March until late November.
The conclusion of this anecdote illustrates the enormous will and energy required to maintain the garden:
Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass, and laid out new beds. When she returned from the fields she might divide clumps of beds, dig a cold pit, uproot and replant roses, or prune branches from her taller bushes or trees—until night came and it was too dark to see.
With this as the norm, one can see how far from it Myrna is. Not compelled to work to support herself, her life of ease, which would have given her ample time for self-development, cannot be compared to the lives of drudgery of the generation of Black women to which Walker's mother belongs. Myrna's easy life is of little consequence, however, for in addition to her fragile emotional nature and her blindness about the deeper cause of her problem, she lacks the pragmatism which would have enabled her to find a solution to her problem. Without it, acting instead in response to her feelings of self-hatred, she continues to destroy the life she has by contemplating suicide and by commiting cruelty against her husband. Interestingly, no critic, male or female, has commented on the cruelty and violence this female character inflicts on her husband, actions which make her no less negative than some of the males in Walker's works. After release from the hospital, where she has recovered from her breakdown, she resumes her life of uselessness and idleness. She also continues to deceive her husband, who still hopes for the birth of a child, by religiously taking birth control pills. Illustrating her enjoyment of the pain she inflicts on him, it is, she says, "the only spot of humor in my entire day when I am gulping that little yellow tablet…." Her spiritual death, then, is seen not only in these acts of cruelty, but also in her refusal to give birth to life. As for her sterility and failure to come to grips with her life, she says:
I go to the new shopping mall twice a day now [emphasis added]; once in the morning and once in the afternoon, or at night. I buy hats I would not dream of wearing, or even owning.
In her analysis of this story, Barbara Christian, writing in The Black Scholar, concludes that what I regard as Myrna's cruelty to her husband is part of her way of "securing her freedom," based on what appears to be a well thought-out strategy of "contrariness." Myrna happened upon this strategy, Christian continues, through her "discovery of the magnificance of the manipulation of words…." In such a case, one wonders why Myrna did not begin to recognize or gain more faith in her own writing ability after the publication of her story that Mordecai had plagiarized. Other parts of this strategy of "yessing them to death" are her lies about trying to conceive a child while her husband exhausts himself every night trying to impregnate her, as well as her acceptance of his advice to go on frequent shopping sprees. I strongly disagree with this interpretation, for the evidence drawn from the story itself leads to the conclusion that Myrna's condition renders her incapable of rational thought, and that, instead, her reaction is a purely emotional one typifying the destructiveness of the individual who suffers from an identity problem.
Christian also says that Myrna's strategy "secures some small victory, but it is a victory achieved from the position of weakness." What must be emphasized here, however, is not the "victory" but the "weakness," specifically, her weakness of character; for her actions produce no change in her life, certainly not the crucial one she hopes for. This same weakness casts suspicion on her declaration that one day she will leave her husband. It is highly unlikely that she ever will because she has learned nothing from her experiences. At the end of the story, the clearest sign of her total capitulation is her complete abandonment of her writing.
Ruel, Myrna's husband, is cast in the traditional mold. A solid, lower middle-class type, he is a 40-year-old Korean war veteran who works in a store and raises a hundred acres of peanuts. Steady, immovable and unchanging like the earth he cultivates, he clings to life in the same small southern town in which he was born and reared. In fact, he has traveled beyond its confines only once when he went off to war. Though he claims the experience broadened him, especially his two months of European leave, it did not change him or affect his thinking in any fundamental way. Because his character had already been shaped by the values of a Southern tradition hundreds of years old, the brief, passing moment in Europe did not—indeed, could not—penetrate the deeper core of his being. Referring to these values as "the web of conventions that is the South," Barbara Christian states that "they have much to do with the conduct of relationships—man and woman, young and old, black and white…." The reflection of this, as well as the unchanging nature of these values, is seen in Ruel's ideas of what married life entails, that is, the fixed roles that marriage partners must play, which are the same ones he learned in childhood, passed down to him from his father. It must be noted, however, that these values are not limited to the South, for they are the foundation of the patriarchal tradition known and practiced throughout the world.
Men of this type do not permit their wives to work, as he does not, even though in his case, it may mean that he has to work two jobs to supply his wife with the things he thinks she needs or wants. Not just a reflection of the male ego, this social pattern is in keeping with the men's expectation that the freedom and time it gives their women will enable them to more easily perform their "duty" as wives and mothers. Seeing this duty as the only appropriate one for a female, Ruel naturally thinks that his wife's writing is "a lot of foolish vulgar stuff' and that she is "peculiar" for wanting to do it. This "unnatural" desire of hers is a threat to him, for its exposure to the public will cause him embarrassment. Conversely, the traditional role he urges on her will confirm his normalcy and masculinity. And so, whenever she mentions the subject of writing, "he brings up having a baby or going shopping…."
When Mordecai Rich appears, Ruel is slightly jealous but does not feel threatened. How could he be disturbed by such "a skinny black tramp," when he, Ruel, is all an ideal husband should be, which is how he sees himself. However, it is his preoccupation with himself, with his own needs and self-image, that blinds him to the needs of his wife. Failing to see his own shortcomings, he readily dismisses the signs of her distress because he cannot see that she has a problem. Failing to do so, he would never believe that he might possibly be implicated in its cause. For this reason too, he only begins to notice her and to feel that something is wrong with his life after Mordecai abandons her and the signs of her oncoming nervous breakdown are too obvious to be ignored.
What we see in this couple, then, is an identically matched pair of individuals with an interesting kind of incompatibility that renders them incapable of helping each other. Both, therefore, share the blame for the deterioration or destruction of their relationship. In both individuals, the root of the problem is not immorality, but fundamental character flaws. In Ruel's case, it is his selfishness or egocentrism based on his belief that what is good or right for him is also good enough for his wife. It must be re-emphasized, however, that his behaviour, which is typical of many men everywhere and therefore universal, has its basis in the mores of the patriarchal tradition, a tradition which regrettably makes little allowance for the spiritual needs of women.
Because he is a plain, common, everyday type who is unaware of any other tradition or set of values and therefore blameless, Ruel is not a negative character. In contrast to his wife, even his faults are virtues. For though he is preoccupied with his own image and his own life, it is devoted to and expressive of his love for her. Therefore, he is never cruel, brutal or violent. Rather, his life is characterized by hard work, as he struggles to provide her with a decent home to live in and other material possessions she needs or wants. Mindful of his role and image as provider, he feels ashamed of the wooden house he purchased for his wife, with its toilet in the yard. Constantly trying to improve their life, he dreams of a better home for her, telling her, "One day we'll have a new house of brick, with a Japanese bath." Finally, it is ironic that what Myrna considers his greatest fault, his insistence that she have a child, is in fact the greatest expression of his love for her, since he believes, as most men and women do, that a child will cure her illness and provide her with the self-fulfillment she needs.
It is not only his moral fiber and love that establishes Ruel as a positive male image, but also his innocence. All of these qualities produce the sympathy we feel for him. Such a solid, respectable person could not be the monster his wife makes him out to be. Such a decent person does not deserve to be the cuckhold she makes of him or the victim of the cruel tricks she plays on him. Even after Myrna's attempt to murder him, it is clear that he never understands her, or the real source of their problem. Rather, Ruel blames Mordecai, "cursing [him] for messing up his life." After Myrna's recovery, Ruel makes repeated attempts to impregnate her, never once suspecting that she is deliberately thwarting conception of the child he desperately wants. When she fails to become pregnant, he sends her to a gynecologist. When this step also fails to produce the desired result, he finally learns one irrelevant fact: irrelevant because it will not change him either: As Myrna says, "He knows now that I intend to say yes until he is completely exhausted."
Lacking knowledge of himself and therefore incapable of changing, Ruel faces a hopeless situation. But what he represents is an important part of what Walker wishes to show us. Even such basically good men as Ruel are often unwitting contributors to the destruction of relationships between Black men and women.
As David Bradley notes in his New York Times Magazine article, Walker's stories with older men protagonists (in their sixties onward) contain overwhelmingly positive Black male images. This change results from a major shift in theme. Sexual or marital relations between Black men and women, with all the attendant stress and pain they entail, are not the central focus. Rather, the author's interest is in presenting the experiences of the old as a legacy for the young, as she explains in Mothers' Gardens: "Next to them (Black women), I place old people—male and female—who persist in their beauty in spite of everything. How do they do this, knowing what they do? Having lived what they lived. It is a mystery, and so it lures me into their lives."
Because many of Walker's stories are based on her own experiences (or, vicariously, on those of her mother), those about older men are a necessary part of the evidence that shows she does not hate Black men. How could she, after having learned in her youth the kindness and love these men are capable of giving? If she views younger men with less charity than she extends the older ones, it is because she sees the Black male's development as having a predictable, unchanging pattern. That is, their aggressiveness and penchant for violence begins in the adult years, reaches its peak in the middle years and recedes in the later years. In Bradley's New York Times Magazines article, she comments on this phenomenon by saying, "One theory is that men don't start to mature until they're 40"; and then she amplifies her point by explaining:
I knew both my grandfathers, and they were just doting, indulgent, sweet old men. I just loved them both and they were crazy about me. However, as young men, middle-aged men, they were … brutal. One grandfather knocked my grandmother out of a window. He beat one of his children so severely that the child had epilepsy. Just a horrible, horrible man. But when I knew him, he was a sensitive, considerate man.
The point, then, is that because Walker understands Black men and knows what they are capable of, she can criticize younger men without hating them and praise older men for the positive image, which is their legacy.
The one story of this kind in In Love and Trouble is "To Hell with Dying," the first story Walker ever wrote, her first published one, and her "most autobiographical." "It is autobiographical though, in fact, none of it happened. The love happened." It is easy to understand why it was so successful, for it is a beautiful story, suffused throughout with love and rendered in poetic language. Described by Walker as a story "about an old man saved from death countless times by the love of his neighbor's children," it is as much, if not more, about what the old man's love does for the neighbor's female child, who narrates the story. And since it is about love, it is much more about life than death, as the title indicates.
At the beginning of the story the main character, Mr. Sweet Little, is about 70; the unnamed female child narrator is about 4; at the end, he is 90, and she is 24. In the span of twenty years, the living out of a lifetime love affair occurs as he moves from old age to death, and she from early childhood to adulthood.
As the story begins, when she is still a young child, the relationship between them has the aura of a sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Walker creates this sexual feeling, which shimmers just beneath the surface of the story, apart from but parallel to the poetic language. It remains only a feeling, however, because the love between the old man and young girl is pure and wholesome.
The plot itself is simple. Mr. Sweet, a diabetic and alcoholic, periodically falls ill, sinking so low that everyone believes he is dying. Each time, however, he is revived or saved by the ministrations of the narrator, who, taken to his home by her parents, climbs on his bed and kisses and hugs him. This ritual, which her older brothers and sisters had performed before her, was always initiated by her father's call, "To hell with dying, man; these children want Mr. Sweet." These revivals occurred when Mr. Sweet was in his 70s. In his 80s, he lived a peaceful life and was no longer threatened by death. The narrator had grown up and was away from home studying at the university. When he was 90, she was summoned home because Mr. Sweet was again near death. As she had so often done in childhood, she tried to save him, but this time he did die, leaving her with the gift of his spirit and with the realization that he had been her first love.
In any relationship, sexual or otherwise, what is important is the giving, co-equally and unreservedly. However, if Mr. Sweet gives more than the narrator, which seems to be the case, that is entirely appropriate; for far more important than the needs of the old man, whose life is nearly over, are those of the young girl, whose life is just beginning. What he gives her, among other things, and what she needs at this stage of her life, is a sense of her own self-worth, of her own self-esteem. He makes her feel that she is physically attractive and, significantly, has the power to control her own destiny.
Because Mr. Sweet's frightening bouts with death always occurred when he was in bed and usually at night or early morning, it was necessary for the girl to exercise her healing powers there. This structuring of the situation, which conjures up the thought of the restorative powers of sex, contributes to the feeling of a sexual relationship between them. The physical contact between them also strengthens this feeling: "'To hell with dying …' was my cue to throw myself upon the bed and kiss Mr. Sweet all around the whiskers and under the eyes and around the collar of his nightshirt were he smelled so strongly of all sorts of things…." This particular healing event, which the narrator recalls as the first time she actually remembered participating in one of Mr. Sweet's "revivals," occurred when she was seven, an age at which she would have been conscious of sex and sexual differences. A final detail of this ritual is its privacy and intimacy: "My parents would leave the room to just the three of us [her brother was with her, although she invariably did the reviving]; Mr. Sweet … would be propped up in bed … with me sitting and lying on his shoulder and along his chest." Her sexual awakening and love are further seen in her wish that she had been old enough to be the woman Mr. Sweet had really loved but lost when he was forced to marry his wife, Miss Mary.
There is a strong connection between the sexual mood, the plot and the general theme of solutions to problems in relationships between Black men and women. This relationship between the little girl and the old man, which bears such a strong resemblance to and contains all the usual ingredients of normal man/woman relationships except for sex, acts as a model for those in which sex is the primary—in many cases, the only—factor. The conclusion to be drawn or the lesson it teaches is nothing new but bears repeating. If men and women would base their relationship on love above all else, these relationships might be much more successful. The sexual ingredient could only increase this likelihood by cementing the bond between them because it would be an addition to, not a substitute for, the love they already have for each other.
The gift of love the girl gave the old man, reflected in the numerous times she retrieved him from the brink of death, was matched in kind by gifts he gave her. First, his response to her, which may not have been as miraculous as it seems, gave her a tremendous sense of power. Usually occurring during or after his bouts of drinking, these frequent brushes with death may have been attributable to the alcohol, in combination with his diabetes, or to the self-pity induced by it. They may also have been a plea for attention or love, especially after his wife died. That they were not entirely spontaneous, that their cause was more emotional than physical, is seen because they were often preceded by certain recognizable signs, such as his crying while playing his guitar. On one occasion, as he was leaving the narrator's house after having displayed the tell-tale signs, her mother noted that "we'd better sleep light that night for probably we'd have to go over to Mr. Sweet before daylight. And we did."
Whatever the cause, the attacks appeared to be real, so real, in fact, that the doctor was usually called. Other than as part of what makes the story intriguing, however, the reality or cause of them is not important. What is significant is the mystery of death, paralleling Walker's comment that the events of the story are not real, only the love. More specifically, she shows us a way of conquering death or giving it a human dimension by treating it as a normal part of life. To get the point across, she gives us a child's perspective of death as an ordinary event, even fun, which has an ordinary cure, love. In contrast is the usual adult perspective of death as something horrible, and based on their supposed superior knowledge of causes and cures, they presume to exert control over it but cannot. In the end they are as confounded and perplexed as ever by its mystery.
The certainty of death's arrival, even though the threat of it had occurred no less than ten times, and of the narrator's ability to thwart it, set her and her family apart from the rest of the community: "All the neighbors knew to come to our house if something was wrong with Mr. Sweet…." This responsibility placed great stress on the young girl, for, as she says, "these deaths upset me fearfully, and the thought of how much depended on me … made me nervous." It should be noted, however, that the fear she expresses is more of failure than of death itself. But she did not fail, and the success she always had, as well as the feeling of power and accomplishment it gave her, served to increase her feeling of self-esteem; at the same time, the "fun" and love she associated with the revivals helped remove her fear of death.
It did not occur to us that we were doing anything special; we had not learned that death was final when it did come. We thought nothing of triumphing over it so many times, and in fact became a trifle contemptuous of people who let themselves be carried away. It did not occur to us that if our own father had been dying we could not have stopped it, that Mr. Sweet was the only person over whom we had power.
In addition, Mr. Sweet also helped increase the girl's sense of self-esteem by making her feel that she was physically attractive. While this is important generally, it was particularly so to a young girl, whose fate was decided by the beauty of face and body, as well as by her own attitude toward it. The blemish she possessed, a low hairline, which may have led her to have negative feelings about herself, was removed by the power of Mr. Sweet's touch, quite by accident, it seems: "Looking into my eyes he would … run a scratchy old finger all around my hairline, which was rather low, down nearly to my eyebrows, and made some people say I looked like a baby monkey." Through the power of his voice, as well as his overall attitude toward and treatment of her, he did even more to make her feel physically attractive: "Mr. Sweet used to call me princess, and I believed it [emphasis added]. He made me feel pretty at five and six, and simply outrageously devastating at the blazing age of eight and a half."
What made Mr. Sweet so likeable to the narrator as a child was his difference from other adults she knew: "Toward all of us children he was very kind, and had the grace to be shy with us, which is unusual in grownups." This difference affected her because Mr. Sweet's behavior gave her a more positive image of adults, specifically, males, than the ones she had usually known. The children also liked him because he was capable of becoming one of them, treating them as if they were equals. An expert guitar player who loved to sing, sometimes, when he was "feeling good," he would dance around the yard and play with them. As much as for what he did, they liked him for the way he looked: "He was a tall thinnish man with kinky hair going dead white. He was a dark brown, his eyes were very squinty sort of bluish…." Not only did Mr. Sweet's actions help increase the children's tolerance for adults, but the fact that he, their ideal playmate, was an old man also helped remove the barrier between youth and old age: "We never felt anything of Mr. Sweet's age when we played with him. We loved his wrinkles and would draw some on our brows to be like him." As a boy, the narrator's brother was most affected by the positive image of Mr. Sweet: "What he would do while I talked to Mr. Sweet was pretend to play the guitar, in fact pretend that he was a young version of Mr. Sweet…."
Uncertainty exists about the effect Mr. Sweet's drinking had on his bouts with death and about its effect on his life in general. There is no doubt, however, that the children considered it a plus: "His ability to be drunk and sober at the same time made him an ideal playmate…." The fact that her mother "never held his drunkenness against him" also seems to suggest that she did not consider him immoral for doing it. Moreover, while it may have been a reflection of some flaw in his character, it was not an overwhelmingly controlling force in his life. Though he did often give in to it, he always remained its master: "Although Mr. Sweet would sometimes lose complete or nearly complete control of his head and neck so that he would loll in his chair, his mind remained strangely acute and his speech not too affected."
A stronger, more ominous force operated on his life, but it did not destroy him completely either: "Mr. Sweet had been ambitious as a boy, wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or sailor, only to find that black men fare better if they did not. Since he could not become one of these things he turned to fishing as his only earnest career…." What this suggests about his character is that he is a man who remained spiritually alive in spite of the racism he faced, over which he had no control. The spiritual aliveness, symbolized by his love of and ability to create music—"playing the guitar [was] his only claim to doing anything extraordinarily well"—enabled him to recognize and take advantage of other alternatives. From these, he made his own choice, which meant that, as with his drinking, he controlled his life. Moreover, he had learned early the uselessness of blaming fate for his problems and accepted responsibility for his own actions, for in most cases fate had nothing to do with them. He, not fate, had impregnated Miss Mary and therefore had had to marry her, even though he had been in love with another woman. He was not sure that Joe Lee, her "baby," was his own child, but he accepted the consequences of his actions, as she defended them, and did what he had to do by marrying her.
Finally, his tendency to remain in control of his own life is seen in his relationship to death. He was able to defeat death so often, which is perhaps the most important of his gifts to the narrator, because he was not ready to die. Her mother invariably shed tears whenever Mr. Sweet lay dying, the narrator states, "although she knew the death was not necessarily the last one unless Mr. Sweet really wanted it to be" [emphasis added].
All of these gifts of love from him to her were matched by her continuing love for him, which endured throughout her adult life and extended even beyond his death. A sign of this love was the attention she showered on him whenever she could, even though he was now in no danger of dying:
When Mr. Sweet was in his eighties I was studying in the university many miles from home. I saw him whenever I went home, but he was never on the verge of dying…. By this time he not only had a moustache but a long flowing snowwhite beard, which I loved and combed and braided for hours. He was very peaceful, fragile, gentle….
On his ninetieth birthday, Mr. Sweet decided that he was ready to die, but not before he gave the narrator, who rushed home to see him, his final gifts of love. Perhaps the most valuable of these is the beauty of his dying. Shorn of ugliness and fear because of the kind of man he was and by the closeness to him of those who loved and cared for him, it occurs "in a shack overgrown with yellow roses" making the "air heavy and sweet and very peaceful." Having successfully performed the revival ritual so many times in the past, though now a grown woman and aware her effort must surely fail, the narrator, transported back to those earlier times, is tempted to try it again. But, and here is noted another valuable lesson this dying brings, it will be a vain attempt. This lesson is brought home to her by the realization of the passage of time and hence the inevitability of death, reflected in the faces of her own parents, "who also looked old and frail." Her father is a willing participant, intoning the familiar line he had uttered so many times before. She, too, does her part, as Mr. Sweet does his, tracing her hairline with his finger. But it did not work this time, because Mr. Sweet had made up his mind that he was ready to die: "I closed my eyes when his finger halted above my ear, his hand stayed cupped around my cheek. When I opened my eyes, sure that I had reached him in time, his were closed."
After his death his final gift to her was his spirit, symbolized by his guitar. "He had asked them months before to give it to me; he had known that even if I came next time he would not be able to respond in the old way." Ironically unaware of his importance to her, the narrator states that Mr. Sweet gave her his guitar because "he did not want to feel that my trip home had been for nothing." On the contrary, the significance of his life and death, which she now fully realizes, is summed up in the final paragraph of the story:
The old guitar! I plucked the strings, hummed "Sweet Georgia Brown." The magic of Mr. Sweet lingered still in the cool steel box [emphasis added]. Through the window I could catch the fragrant delicate scent of tender yellow roses. The man on the … bed … had been my first love.
The moral emphasis found in Alicé Walker's works reveals her adherence to two different but similar traditions of art, the classical Greek and the ancient African, both of which form the basis of the Afro-American or Black Aesthetic. The Greeks had confidence in the immense power of art "as a molding or formative agent in developing human feelings and motivations"; and according to Leopold Senghor, "all African art has at least three characteristics: that is, art is functional, collective and committing or committed." Thus, Walker's works demonstrate her love for her people, both men and women, for, reflecting the ideals of both of these traditions, these works are predicated on the belief that man is inherently good and that, therefore, if flaws in his character exist, through the use of art that educates they can be removed and the personality restored to health. Rather than being a sign of enmity toward Black men, then, her criticism of them and of Black women is the strongest reflection of this love. She gives praise where praise is due; however, her strong moral sense, courage and commitment to truth and honesty will not allow her to shrink from criticizing where criticism is due, in order that future improvement can be made. This look toward the future, seen in her desire to bring harmony between men and women by improving human character, echoes the most distinctive ideal of the classical tradition—"to complete human potentiality in the light of the highest standard of excellence or nobility."
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