Monday, February 4, 2013

Scarlet Sister Mary

The eleventh book on our list is 1929's prizewinning Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin. It's the story of a fiercely independent young black woman in the post-slavery coastal south who lives her life outside the moral expectations of her community. She gets pregnant before she gets married, then she marries the wrong man, and after he leaves her she has a bunch of kids with a bunch of different men and never feels too badly about any of it. She has something like nine or ten children, some with men who were one night stands. She's a pretty sexually independent character for the 20's.

Over the 20-some years the novel covers Mary has her ups and downs. She falls in love and gets her heart broken. She has children and some bad things happen to them. While I thought that Mary's story was a good story, the most notable thing about this novel is that it is an emotional, empathetic, well-rounded portrait of a black woman that was written by a white woman. From the South. In 1929.

Julia Peterkin was a highly educated white woman from South Carolina whose husband owned a cotton plantation (but of course this is post slavery, so they were not slave owners). On a normal day the population of the plantation's land included 500 black people and six white people. Accounts of Peterkin's life describe her as having genuine affection and respect for the black people who worked on her plantation.

Over the course of her career she wrote five novels, all of them about the lives of black people, and earned the respect of contemporaries like Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois. Scarlet Sister Mary was her second book and was the first novel featuring black main characters to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The historical significance of Scarlet Sister Mary is unquestionable, but as a piece of literature it leaves a lot to be desired. Peterkin's efforts to realistically portray the internal lives of those who are so different from herself is admirable, yet the lens of history reveals that she too often compares her black characters to animals. The few references to whites are largely critical, and yet still leave her black characters looking superstitious and ignorant.

Like when the cotton fields are treated with pesticides to kill a massive infestation of boll-weevils, "The white landowners sent poison machines to scatter poison dust over the fields. Night after night the strange things droned and whined spreading their poison clouds, but the rain always came and washed the fields clean and fresh again." The observation made by the black community is unsophisticated, but we can see that for all their advanced agricultural technology the white farmers are not able to kill the weevils.

Later in the story, one of Mary's sons, Keepsie, has his leg cut off in a terrible accident while hay bales are being bound. Keepsie, "knew Big Boy had warned him about going close to that hay-press. Big Boy told him it was a blind contraption made by white men and it would cut off a boy's arm or leg as quickly as a wire." Fortunately for Keepsie, a (white) doctor was nearby at the time of the accident to safely amputate the damaged limb and save the boy's life. Here again the technology developed by white people is viewed critically, as being dangerous, but the black folks are hurt by it because they do not understand it.

When Keepsie wants to go to school to learn to read, Mary objects, "The same white people who made that hay-press made newspapers and books. Such things were dangerous. Keepsie ought not to tamper with them. Who could tell what bookreading might do to him." The midwives of the community are similarly skeptical when white laws require them to learn new ways to 'catch chillen,' or deliver babies, saying, "white folks had a new way to do it now," and, "White people are curious things. They pass laws no matter how fool the laws are, and put people in jail if those laws are not kept." In these examples Peterkin places her strong, smart black characters against literacy and medical science, two features of modern (white) society that could have helped to improve the lives of Mary and her community members.

These and some other small problems aside, it's still easy to understand why Peterkin's novel was notable at the time of its publication. She was an American pioneer in the same spirit of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, although her writing is not as good as theirs. Her portrayal of Mary demonstrated that black people were complex, emotional, intelligent human beings, no so entirely different from anyone else. When Mary's no good husband, July, runs off with another woman after less than a year of marriage, Mary's grief is palpable. I'm sure any woman who's ever had her heart broken by a complete jerk could sympathize with her as she lays in bed sobbing, barely able to get up for days at a time.

In 1950 Zora Neale Hurston wrote an article for the Negro Digest called, "What White Publishers Won't Print." She tells a quick story about Julia Peterkin, "The author of Scarlet Sister Mary complained to me that her neighbors objected to her book on the grounds that she had the characters thinking, 'and everybody know that Nigras don't think.'" She goes on further to explain the cultural importance of understanding minorities for who they are, rather than for who they are perceived to be:

"But for the national welfare, it is urgent to realize that minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem. That they are very human and internally, according to natural endowment, are just like everybody else. So long as this is not conceived, there must remain that feeling of insurmountable difference, and difference to the average man means something bad. If people were made right, they would be just like him. The trouble with the purely problem arguments is that they leave too much unknown. Argue all you will or may about injustice, but as long as the majority cannot conceive of a Negro or a Jew feeling and reacting inside just as they do, the majority will keep right on believing that people who do not look like them cannot possibly feel as they do, and conform to the established pattern."

Those words were written 21 years after Scarlet Sister Mary won the Pulitzer Prize.  This year will mark 84 years since its publication. How well are we, as a nation, as a culture, able to understand the lives of those who are different from us?

I think we still have some work to do.

Next on the list is Oliver La Farge's story of Navajo love, Laughing Boy. The book jacket says it was the first novel about Native American life to receive the prize. Here's hoping it's a good read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed catching up on the blog today...