Authority, multivocality, and the new world order in Gloria Naylor's 'Bailey's Cafe.'
In what is part of her ongoing search for an authorial voice with which to tell - or, rather, retell - the experiences of women of color, Naylor chooses to locate her fourth novel within a specifically cultured and gendered context where voice and all of its associations are directed toward subverting the myriad forms of authority patriarchy legitimizes and constructing a new world order among partially dispossessed women world-wide. The novel itself is comprised of a series of loosely connected stories - each one from a different woman's point of view - and it culminates with a magically real, communal celebration of the birth of Mariam's son George during the Christmas season. For the first time not only is there oneness among a culturally diverse group whose traditions and customs span the globe, but the voices of women also unify in the ritualization of George's arrival. George's long-awaited birth, like that of the Messiah, could signal either an end or, hopefully, new beginnings for the pluralistic group present. But in this climactic scene, after conjuring an image of global harmony, Naylor denies the reader/audience the privilege of knowing the fate of the young mother and son: Does Mariam find acceptance among an American Jewish community? What is to become of George, now en route to Wallace P. Andrews Boys' Home?
The novel's unresolved closure serves to encourage a participatory involvement from the reader/audience and is a strategy present in much of African American writing.(1) Bailey, the fatherly World War II veteran and proprietor of the cafe, is unable to offer a satisfactory ending to the moving stories that unfold. Instead, he merely invites the reader/audience to empathize with the women whose tragic tales comprise the written text: "If this was like that sappy violin music on Make-Believe Ballroom, we could wrap it all up with a lot of happy endings to leave you feeling real good that you took the time to listen," Bailey informs us in "The Wrap." "But I don't believe that life is supposed to make you feel good, or to make you feel miserable either. Life is just supposed to make you feel" (219).
Naylor uses Bailey's voice in establishing the time, place, mood, and character for each woman's story, except that of Mariam, a curiously virginal unwed mother whose touching account of anti-Semitism and sexism recreates a vital sisterhood among women of color across the Diaspora who often find themselves at odds with notions of female sexuality prescribed by patriarchy. Ultimately, Naylor's goal as creator and sovereign of the decidedly new fictive cosmology which emerges in the novel's ambiguous climactic scene is to effect some sort of unity among the widely disparate voices of women, not just within but outside the text. Karla Holloway, in her discussion of the responsive strategy of black women's narratives, refers to the technique as "a collective 'speaking out' by all the voices gathered within the text, authorial, narrative, and even the implicated reader" (11). Thus, in retelling Mariam's tale, Eve and Bailey's otherwise reticent help-meet Nadine forms a duet, for the male voice is severely limited in its ability to decode the very private experiences the women relate. Bailey can offer empathy but not immediacy between Mariam, the speaking subject, and the reader/audience.
Naylor's particular triumph as a contemporary African American women writer has much to do with her success at moving beyond the one-dimensional portraits of male figures that brought her criticism with the publication of The Women of Brewster Place. Bailey, unlike his fictional predecessors residing at the decaying Brewster, is no mere shadow of a man. He is endowed with a certain psychological depth and complexity of character, despite the ambiguities associated with his assumed name. It is Bailey whose veiled comments offer insight into the close relationship between the written text and the distinctly black oral forms of expression from which it evolves. "Anything really worth hearing in this greasy spoon happens under the surface. You need to know that if you plan to stick around here and listen while we play it all out" (35).
Unfortunately, the other men who people the novel's fictional landscape do not fare as well as Bailey does. They are largely responsible for perpetuating the oppression that the women face. Nowhere is this more evident than in Eve's song. One in a long line of larger-than-life central mother figures in Naylor's canon, Eve is the first customer to arrive at Bailey's. Sexual escapades with Godfather, the stern, dictatorial preacher who rears her, and with the childish prankster Billy Boy, result in her ostracism from her small Louisiana delta home. But it is in her highly symbolic trek from Pilottown to Arabi to Bailey's Cafe that Eve, who emerges as a strong yet sensitive woman with an acute business sense and a love for well-kept gardens, manages somehow to escape the tragic fate toward which she seems destined.
Godfather, a figure for male authority, is ubiquitous in his influence within the delta community. Perhaps the most definitive change in Eve's evolving consciousness occurs when she comes to recognize his church as a social construct reflecting the hierarchies of a society which relegates women to the undesirable position of subservient "other": "To be thrown out his church was to be thrown out of the world" (85). Eve's leave-taking occurs as Godfather strips her of the clothes and purges her of the food he has provided. Naked and hungry, she is forced to provide for herself amidst dire economic circumstances. Eve successfully recreates herself, however, in preparation for her role among a community of outcast women. That she has no clear-cut parental ties suggests that she is at once natural and supernatural - more than a mere woman - and her song is replete with references to organic matter, especially the rich delta soil. Godfather claims to have found her "in a patch of ragweed, so new I was still tied to the birth sac" (83). As she grows into womanhood, her burgeoning sexuality, given fullest expression during her earth-stomping with Billy Boy, rekindles her awareness of a vital oneness with the rich earth. One of her many rendezvous with Billy Boy takes place under a juniper bush while Eve is "low to the ground, trying to blend in, with my brown hair, brown-skin, and brown sack dress" (86). At one point, Eve recalls the essence of the Louisiana delta:
The delta dust exists to be wet. And the delta dust exists to grow things, anything, in soft so fertile its tomatoes, beans, and cotton are obscene in their richness. And since that was one of the driest winters in living memory, the dust sought out what wetness it could and clung to the tiny drops of perspiration in my pores. It used that thin film of moisture to creep its way up toward the saliva in my mouth, the mucus in my nose. Mud forming and caking around the tear ducts in my eyes, gluing my lashes together. There was even enough moisture deep within my earwax to draw it; my head becoming stuffed up and all sounds a deep hum. It found the hidden dampness under my fingernails, between my toes. The moist space between my hips was easy, but then even into the crevices around the anus, drawing itself up into the slick walls of my intestines. Up my thighs and deep into my vagina, so much mud that it finally stilled my menstrual blood. Layers and layers of it were forming, forming, doing what it existed to do, growing the only thing it could find in one of the driest winters in living memory. Godfather always said that he made me, but I was born of the delta. (90)
Eve, whose name means 'mother of all living,' is essentially self-generated. She is what Karla Holloway describes as the ancestor, and it is her narrative in particular whose discrete patterns signal the recursive structure present in black women's writing - a structure repeated in the other narratives which comprise the text.(2) Not only does Eve's song, with its references to the Louisiana delta soil, suggest a dissolving of traditional historiography, it reveals a freedom from imposed gender-specific labels. "I had no choice but to walk into New Orleans neither male nor female - mud," she informs the reader/audience. "But I could right then and there choose what I was going to be when I walked back out" (91).
One cannot help but to associate Naylor's fictionalized Eve with her biblical predecessor, who uses her feminine charms to entice a gullible Adam to eat of the forbidden fruit and thus defy divine law. In a similar sense, Naylor's Eve encourages a creative revisioning of the spaces that traditionally have defined women's lives. That Eve walks, she tells us, a thousand years before reaching Bailey's, is an important allusion linking her role among a community of women to the millenial reign of Christ. On one level, she is a redemptive figure for women such as the feisty Jesse Bell, who turns to heroin and female lovers when her marriage into the wealthy Sugar Hill King Family ends in a bitter divorce. The newspaper misrepresents Jesse in its sensationalized account of her divorce. Her lament that she "didn't have no friends putting out the Herald Tribune" suggests the exclusion of the experiences of women of color from the written word and the printed text (118). Yet in the retelling of her story Jesse "reads" her own life-story in such a manner as to subvert the voice of Bailey, who sets up her narrative. According to Jesse, Eve's role in Jesse's recovery is questionable at best. Eve relies upon magic or the power of conjure in curing Jesse's addiction to heroin by engineering a series of well-crafted illusions which allow Jesse to have unlimited access to the enslaving drug. During Eve's unconventional treatment of Jesse, in a moment of exasperation, Jesse tells Eve to go to hell. Eve's rather pointed response directs attention to the ambivalent fictional world that informs the novel: "I think you've forgotten that's where we are" (141).
Naylor's Eve is thus a character that can be placed within the antithetic poles Daryl Dance uses to define the mother-figure in African American writing (123). Neither an Eve, in the biblical sense, nor strictly a Madonna, she resides somewhere between the two extremes. Her ability to manipulate reality and her close affinity with the supernatural are qualities that invite a comparison with folk figures such as the shape-shifting trickster or the revered conjure woman. Despite the many ambiguities surrounding Eve's character, her role in the narrative action is to be considered in terms of her effect on her female wards. Jesse, the omniscient narrator points out, is cured in less than a month.
Naylor sets out to reclaim the stories of women by giving voice to those individuals whose experiences are often excluded from written history. By dedicating her novel to "the two Luecelias: 1898-1977, 1951-1987," for instance, she reveals the novel's blurring of traditional conceptions of time, space, and identity. Her heavy reliance upon Scripture, particularly that from the Old Testament canon relevant to female sexuality, as an intertext sheds light on her attempts to redeem her female characters from the places assigned to them by a male-authored text and to restore their status and dignity.(3) Notions of morality which the Bible sanctions are held up for scrutiny. When Sister Carrie of the Temple of Perpetual Redemption quotes the Bible in condemning Jesse Bell because of her succession of female lovers, Eve, who was reared by a preacher, quotes the book as well: "Thou also, which hast judged thy sisters, bear thine own shame for thy sins that thou hast committed more abominable than they: they are more righteous than thou: yea, be thou confounded also and bear thy shame, in that thou hast justified thy sisters" (135). In her citation of this Old Testament passage from Ezekiel, Naylor thematizes the importance of global harmony among all women regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or even sexual preference. Eve turns Sister Carrie's narrow, legalistic, and homophobic perspective on its ear by stressing the essential oneness between Jews and Gentiles and encouraging a non-judgmental stance toward issues of morality set forth in divine law. In her revisionist use of Scripture, Naylor thus ushers in a new era for women whose lives were once circumscribed by a discourse that is male-authored, and therefore paves the way for a more sensitive reading of the texts of African American women.
A creative juxtaposition of chapter titles drawn from the realms of music and drama with individual narratives reminds the reader/audience of the close relationship between the written text and the performance mode likely serving as inspiration for the novel. The title of Sadie's touching narrative, "Mood: Indigo," for instance, is taken from Duke Ellington's popular 1931 jazz composition, and Naylor admits that Sadie and suitor Iceman Jones floated into her consciousness on the strains of that tune (Due F2). More than any other musical form, it is the blues, with its characteristic repetition-with-a-variation scheme, that anticipates the discrete linguistic patterns of the text. An enigmatic epigraph serves to introduce the novel:
hush now can you hear it can't be faraway needing the blues to get there look and you can hear it look and you can hear the blues open a place never closing: Bailey's Cafe.
The stories which comprise the novel echo and reecho each other, but resist closure. In an interview with Toni Morrison, Naylor mentions that she feared the sense of finality suggested by her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place (582). Already she had begun the emotional trek to Linden Hills, whose environs are visible from Brewster. Within the tradition of African American women's fiction Naylor's texts are unique in that they are symbiotically related: Brewster's community activist Kiswana Browne is from the middle-class Linden Hills; Cocoa, in Mama Day, is a cousin to Willa Prescott Needed, who perishes along with her husband and son in the apocalyptic flames which destroy the Needed home in Linden Hills; Cocoa's husband George sees Bailey's Cafe from Harlem. That Mariam's son, also named George, is to attend Wallace P. Andrews Boys' Home echoes the story-line in Mama Day, for Cocoa's husband is a product of that academy.
What the narrative moves toward is the creation of a reality deeply rooted in the black vernacular that more closely reflects the particular experiences of marginalized women across the globe. The unusual location of Bailey's Cafe, which exists everywhere and nowhere, points to its symbolic significance. The cafe is situated "between the edge of the world and infinite possibility" and represents the unexplored boundaries of a creative consciousness that is at once both black and female (76). Echoed throughout the stories the women relate is female subjectivity to male desire. Such is the case with Sweet Esther, whose pervasive hatred for men stems from the commodification of black women within the context of a rural economic system. Esther suffers exploitation as her elder brother barters her to an older, propertied farmer in exchange for higher sharecropping wages. Passively, Esther surrenders to the farmer's whims while he chooses to be intimate with her only in the cellar of his home. The pink and lace-trimmed bed where she must sleep alone reveals her confinement to a socially prescribed gender role. Her monologues point to a profound self-hatred in a world that evolves no terms for her existence:
I like the white roses because they show up in the dark. I don't. The black gal. Monkey faced. Tar. Coal. Ugly. Soot. Unspeakable. Pitch. Coal. Ugly. Soot. Unspeakable. (95)
By demanding white Christmas roses from her male callers at Eve's, who are allowed to visit her only in a dark, secluded basement, Esther, whose name means 'I will be hidden,' relives her painful past.(4) She also adds her solitary voice to those of the other women whose stories are included in "The Jam," and therefore breaks the troubling discursive silence surrounding her tragic life.
In what is an original revision of the classic Christmas story, the text culminates with a portrait of a radically transformed society where all externally imposed limitations and labels are blurred.(5) Prefigured in The Women of Brewster Place by Mattie Michael's dream/nightmare of the women's communal efforts to dismantle the restrictive brick wall at the novel's ambiguous end, the utopian postwar new world order that emerges in Bailey's Cafe is one constructed around Mariam, a type of Madonna who gives birth to the future, figured by young George. Mariam, the outcast mother, is a bridge between the past and future in terms similar to those critic Daryl Dance sets forth. "She is unquestionably a Madonna," Dance writes regarding the African American mother, "both in the context of being a savior and in terms of giving birth and sustenance to positive growth and advancement among her people" (131). Eve, whose act of scoring the plum is a conscious ritual reversal of the genital mutilation that Mariam has endured, assumes the role of midwife at George's birth.(6) Consistent with the woman-centered cosmology that Naylor is bent on recreating, a new social order appears with a family of choice replacing the traditional nuclear family. Moreover, there is harmony between opposing rituals and traditions drawn from a multi-cultural community. Gabriel, a Russian Jew, presides at the naming ceremony. Like the messenger angel who visits the biblical Mary and announces the birth of Christ, his role in the text is that of guide or foreteller, for it is he who offers Mariam directions to Bailey's Cafe. Naylor elevates the dispossessed women in the text to a position of honor with what is a womanist reconceptualization of the once-burdensome domestic sphere. It is Peaches who, at first, intones the gospel song inscribing the identities of Mariam and George:
Anybody asks you who you are? Who you are? Who you are? Anybody asks you who you are? Tell him - you're the child of God. (225)
As the other members of the group join in with the singing of this popular Christmas carol, now a cultural code among an international community of outcasts, their voices unite in a call-and-response pattern that expresses the hope for world peace:
Peace on earth, Mary rocked the cradle. Mary rocked the cradle and Mary rocked the cradle. Peace on earth, Mary rocked the cradle. Tell him - was with the child of God. (226)
The systems privileged at the novel's end - oral, female, and collective - not only bear a recursive relation to those present in the unwritten modes serving as the text's beginnings, they also suggest an end to the old dispensation of a male dialectic. In this regard, Bailey's Cafe, a culmination of the concerns Naylor explores in her earlier novels, represents a maturity of voice and vision for the talented writer, even as it reveals her attempts to revise codes of power, dominance, and assertion present in a male text. Rather than being an end, the novel heralds what is an auspicious new beginning. In her efforts to define herself as a writer on a contemporary literary landscape, Naylor dares to engage important issues affecting women of color world-wide and thus rescues the stories of women from silence and oblivion. At a time when women across the globe are experiencing unprecedented oppression, Naylor's voice is a clarion that demands to be heard.
1. Jill Matus (49-63) discusses at length the rather problematic ending of Naylor's first novel, and her insights are relevant in an examination of Bailey's Cafe.
2. Holloway offers a thoroughgoing analysis of the ancestral figure in black women's narratives in Moorings and Metaphors. Within the larger context of her discussion of the characteristic features of African American writing, Toni Morrison presents a definition of the ancestor that sheds light on Naylor's characterization of Eve in "Rootedness" (343).
3. I am indebted to Mae G. Henderson's discussion of Toni Morrison's Beloved for insight into Naylor's womanist appropriation of Scripture.
4. The biblical Esther is a Jewish maiden who, as queen of Persia, was used by God to deliver ancient Israel from massacre. Her supreme act of bravery entails defying secular law forbidding uninvited entry into the king's court. Despite her willful self-assertion, Esther obtains the king's favor and engineers the deliverance of the Jews. She is a heroine - a redemptive figure among colonized Israelites - and Naylor's naming her character after this Old Testament figure suggests the attempt to create a fictionalized world peopled by women of epic stature who resist the limitations patriarchy imposes.
5. Naylor employs here a rhetorical strategy reminiscent of that used by Reverend Jesse Jackson in pointing out the hypocrisy of the Republican presidential administration, whose social policies revealed an insensitivity to the particular needs of historically disenfranchised groups. In Reverend Jackson's carefully aimed broadsides, the Biblical Mary becomes a symbol for the economically disadvantaged single mother, and King Herod is a figure for an indifferent and at times hostile political system.
6. Naylor's treatment of genital mutilation or female circumcision recalls that involving Tashi in Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy.
Dance, Daryl C. "Black Eve or Madonna? A Study of the Antithetical Views of the Mother in Black American Literature." Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Ed. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York: Anchor, 1979. 123-31.
Due, Tananarive. "Naylor's Specialty: Braised Characters in Soul-Searing Tales." Miami Herald 8 Nov. 1992: F2.
Henderson, Mae G. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-membering the Body as Historical Text." Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense Spillers. London: Routledge, 1991, 62-83.
Holloway, Karla F. C. Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Woman's Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992.
Naylor, Gloria. Bailey's Cafe. New York: Harcourt, 1992.
Naylor, Gloria, and Morrison, Toni. "A Conversation." Southern Review 21.3 (1985): 567-93.
Matus, Jill. "Dream, Deferral, and Closure in The Women of Brewster Place." Black American Literature Forum 24 (1990): 49-63.
Morrison, Toni. "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." Black Woman Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Anchor, 1984. 339-45.
Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: Harcourt, 1992.
Maxine Lavon Montgomery is Associate Professor of English at Florida State University, where she teaches courses in American, African American, and multiethnic literature. Her articles have either appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as African American Review, CLA Journal, and The Literary Griot. A former McKnight Junior Faculty Fellow, she recently completed a book-length manuscript entitled Rewriting the Apocalypse: The Image of the End of the World in African-American Fiction.
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|Author:||Montgomery, Maxine Lavon|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1995|
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