Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Scarlet Sister Mary # 11

I am always eager to read a book that has previously been banned. Of course there is the rebellious side but there is also an intense curiosity to see just what was the big deal?  Well in that regard, this book certainly did not disappoint. Scarlet Sister Mary is a scandalous story of a woman who dared to not only have sex with whomever she pleased, but she was also brazen enough to proudly bear the children of her affairs and parade them around her community without shame or excuse. It is an awesomely daring story-line for a book published in the late 1920s. Of course the extremely heavy hand of Southern-style Protestantism makes it all better in the end, but that was to be expected.

But onto the historical significance of the book... This book disproves a very controversial sentiment held by many about the existence of "African-American Literature."  To quote a reader from GoodReads.org (speaking about Toni Morrison's Sula):

"I want to first preface this with a concept presented by Harold Bloom. Bloom was discussing the admission or omission of 'ethnic' writers from the canon. He argued the reason there were so many white male writers is because, obviously, of societal factors of oppression, but also because they were the ones doing most of the writing. Bloom does not think we should rewrite the canon with new ethnic writers just because there aren't any. He DOES think an ethnic writer is important and should be acknowledged if they are good, but a lot of them are not. A lot of them simply write about ethnic scenarios and nothing else, and this is a very limited scope indeed."
First of all, try to ignore the silly sentiment that writing about ones ethnicity is  bad thing. Ethnicity is a part of the human condition and every writer is guilty of bringing character ethnicity into their novels. The racial and ethnic background of characters has been an issue in each of the 10 books we've read so far even in regards to white characters. But what about the rest of it, is it true? Do ethnic writers only write about "ethnic scenarios?" No, there are many books that are simply just about life but the characters simply happen to be "ethnic." I suppose that stands out to people like Bloom and makes them biased against the subject matter because they can't get pass the fact that they are being exposed to new simple human details. He expects their race to be explicitly spelled out, and when it is, it overshadows the entire plot for him.

To illustrate this, let me tell you about my senior year of undergrad when I was taking a fiction workshop through the English department. As a kid, I always hated that the skin color of Black characters was always described in juvenile fiction but the race of the white characters was always just assumed. (I'm looking at you The Babysitter's Club) So for one of my workshop stories, I decided to just write about my Black characters without once making any attempt to explain their racial, ethnic, or cultural intricacies to the reader. I just wrote and wrote and decided it was up to the readers to sort it out. After all, when a white author of American fiction talks about apple pie, he doesn't feel the need to pause and explain it, right? It's apple pie. "Everyone" eats it. If you don't know what that is, sucks to be you.

Well the result was hilarious. During the workshop review session, my peers blasted the story. They all claimed to enjoy the actual plot and there was quite a bit of fun chatter about the subtext BUT when it came to the characters and the dialogue, they were distraught. "Why does she refer to her ex-boyfriend as being 'high yellow' ? What does that mean? Is he Asian? He didn't seem Asian."  "I don't understand why people kept thinking her hair wasn't real? And why did they think it was 'horse hair' ?"

I would be lying if I said it wasn't fun to see a group of annoyed undergraduates being gently lead to see that White Privilege had thus far protected them from having to read a story about a different culture without any hand holding. They said I should have explained these things, but my argument was, why should I have to explain anything to you at all? Why do all "ethnic" characters have to be explained? Why can't they just be? Why can't you just enjoy the book for the story and deal with the possibility that you might not have your hand-held through the cultural nuances? For once I just wanted to write a book that told a simple story without having to turn the whole thing into a detailed National Geographic style piece on Black American culture.

So are books about non-white people only written within the context of their non-whiteness? Sad to say but yes, they sometimes are. At their worst they are written with a white audience in mind so the characters are explicitly defined by how non-white they are. But at their best, their race is a minor piece of the plot and there is minimal "cultural instruction." Julia Peterkin has given us a book that manages to simply be about "life" and her characters actions and day to day thoughts are not obsessed with white people. The stark contrast is clear when you consider other books written by white women about Black characters where the entire premise is to expose a cultural evil and present the Black characters are victims who are dependent upon white benefactors. The Black characters are left without any thoughts or emotions of their own except in regards to how they wish they could be equal to white people. Their entire existence is presented as one long obsession with whiteness.

Peterkin's novel was undoubtedly about Black people but the plot was not dependent upon their racial identity. This story could have been about any group of people, in any town, in any country, and in any time period with the change of just a few words. They just happened to be Black, she didn't mask their Blackness, and she did very little explaining even when it would have been helpful for the reader. At one point she makes a massive loaded reference that, to me, was more shocking than the sexually explicit story line:
"They pass laws no matter how fool the laws are, and put people in jail if those laws are not kept."
She blatantly makes reference to the economically-driven prison farm system of the post-Reconstruction-era south that kept thousands of Black men in legal slavery for decades after the signing of the Emancipation Declaration. Interested readers can get a quick overview here in a book review on the subject. It was still a very powerful institution at the time this book's publishing and there is no doubt that her husband lost a sharecropper or two to it. I wonder if she could have gotten away with that little line had she dared to explain it? It was as if she were taunting her reader: "Want to have Black culture spelled out for you? Well, then go talk to a Black person and experience if for yourself!" It surely would have ruined the pace and flow of the novel had she made some grand pause to explain some deeper political situation that her isolated characters likely weren't even fully privy to anyway.

If I wanted to be critical of the story, there is plenty to criticize. The constant animal comparisons were frustrating beyond belief but they made sense considering the time period and her lens as the wife of a large landowner. I really have to give the woman credit for seeing her husband's sharecroppers as being anything more than beasts of burden at all. Her characters were genuinely nuanced and interesting as PEOPLE despite her frequent references to things like "breeding" and "stock." And of course her constant portrayal of happy slaves singing in the fields who picked cotton with ease was pretty laughable and ridiculous. But again, as their employer, I doubt anyone ever dared to honestly complain to her about how backbreaking their work was.

The extreme naivety of her characters could be argued as being racist but I would like to argue that it was instead quite possibly realistic, especially for the Gullah people of South Carolina. Whether she thought these particular people were superstitious, ignorant, or uneducated has nothing to do with their race. It has a lot more to do with their rural isolation. (The characters in the 1934 Pulitzer winner Lamb in His Bosom are equally superstitious, ignorant, and uneducated while being very much white.) She takes her time to describe the rural world but never allows her main character to see the "town" for herself. Even when people leave to see the world, they only come back when things go wrong so her view of the non-rural world is wholly negative and inferior. The effect is that we are just as blind as Mary about the potential benefits of the modern world and suddenly her ignorance and suspicions about useless things like books and diplomas seems understandable.

As a kid, I had the pleasure of chatting with a centenarian woman who was born the child of sharecroppers in 1890s Mississippi. When I asked her if she remembered where she was when she heard about the Titanic, which must have sunk while she was a young adult, she looked at me as if I was insane. She laughed at me and asked why on earth I thought that in-between long hot days of picking cotton that she or anyone else on the plantation might have picked up a newspaper to read about some boat sinking in some ocean she had never seen. That I even thought she had been literate was hilarious to her. Her world back then was church, cotton, family, food, church, and more cotton. The specific affairs of the world beyond her plantation were not her concern, much like Mary.

Overall it was an incredibly interesting read and a pretty entertaining story. Her skill as a writer is unquestionably solid. Peterkin created a world and the reader happily soaks in all of its thick and meaty details. Even if this book wasn't so historically significant, I'd still suggest people read it just to get lost in her excellent writing!


Maria said...

Love your take on this. I wish I'd been in your fiction workshop!

Ellen said...

Louise you write beautifully, like my Maria. Now I want to borrow her edition!

Louise Treadwell said...

Thank you! I'll ship it back to Maria asap so you can get your hands on it. I wish this title would enter the canon at least at the collegiate level. It really does deserve to be studied.