The rhetoric of mobility, the politics of consciousness: Julia Mood Peterkin and the case of a white black writer.
There is confusion over why On a Plantation, one of a handful of Julia Peterkin's fictions focused through the eyes of a white character, was never published. Susan Williams claims that Peterkin sought ambitiously to publish the would-be novel, submitting revisions of it to H. L. Mencken even after he advised her to abandon the project, because, as Williams maintains, Peterkin really preferred to write "about white people, especially white people like herself. But when she tried," concludes Williams, "her vision dimmed and the strong, sure voice turned pompous" ("A Devil" xv). In addition, Williams insists that Mencken's condemnation of On a Plantation's preoccupation with "petty, self-absorbed white people" and his approval of the more pointed emphasis on black culture in her early short stories, further discouraged Peterkin from adopting an overtly white perspective. (2) Whatever the case, Peterkin neither completed nor released any versions of On a Plantation. Her papers include drafts of at least one other (undated and untitled) story focused through a white woman's point-of-view, and Boy-Chillen (1932), her first and last attempt at drama, includes a central white character. Most of Peterkin's literary repertoire, particularly her acclaimed novels Black April (1927), Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), (3) and Bright Skin (1932), however, focuses on and through black characters. When read in juxtaposition with these three novels, in the specific context of Peterkin's status as a modern plantation mistress, On a Plantation offers critical insight into the issues at the center of this essay, namely, the intricacies of Julia Peterkin's relationship with H. L. Mencken; the aesthetic politics of her novels; and her enduring reputation as a white "black" writer.
Helen West, the character speaking in my epigraph from On a Plantation, is white, but her subjects are black people and black culture and her conclusions about both summarize whiteness caught in the undertow of encroaching modernity. I read Helen West as an alter ego through which Peterkin projects an image of "blackness" that is at once intelligible, inspirational, inferior, and obsolescent. Nostalgic, mystical, and mythological imagery converges in the passage to thematize black power and subjugation while privileging white prophecy and progress. It is the very discursive process by which, I argue, Peterkin used fiction to advocate against modern forces impinging on her cultural subjectivity.
At the height of her literary career in the mid-to-late 1920s, Julia Peterkin ranked among the nation's foremost "black" writers because of her alleged "realistic" representation of the Gullahs, the black people who lived and worked at Lang Syne Plantation, her home in Sumter, South Carolina. (4) While contemporary scholars no longer (mis)take this white writer for "black," they still largely follow in the steps of H. L. Mencken, likely Peterkin's first critical reader, in placing her among American Realists, because as Mencken observed, she sought to deal "realistically, and yet in fine sympathy" with the lives of black people (My Life 373). (5)
I depart from this long-standing viewpoint, however, and maintain that Peterkin's writing should be read through a modernist, rather than a realist, lens because the "truths" represented in her work reveal as much about her status as a white modern southern plantation mistress struggling in the immediate South Carolina context of the political and social realities of early 20th-century America as they do about her black subjects' collective status--both literal and fictive. From this perspective, I draw from Paul Gilroy in introducing modernity and "the problems posed by the relationship of capitalism, industrialization, and democracy to the emergence and consolidation of systematic race-thinking" into Peterkin's aesthetic and political purvey (55). Her technical apparati reconstruct and ultimately endorse a modern plantation economy, the structural paradigm within which she negotiated political, personal, and rhetorical conflicts between her status and her responses to black poverty, black migration, white terrorism, and white demagoguery. Troubled by an uneasy struggle to "humanize" her black subjects while also benefiting from their proscription, Peterkin's writing reveals the contradiction in her endorsement of the very material conditions that deprived black Americans of equal opportunity and protection under the law well into the latter half of the twentieth century. In short, both the technique and principle of Peterkin's fiction informs our understanding of her politics as modernist, not realist, in orientation.
Evidence that Peterkin lived close to black people over the course of her life may explain why Mencken's observation about her rhetorical objectives remains firmly ensconced in Peterkin scholarship. Despite inconsistencies and errors in available biographical data, it appears certain that Peterkin's relation to Gullah culture began almost at birth. Julia Peterkin was born Julia Mood in 1880. Just six months before her second birthday, her mother died, and a Gullah woman, whom Peterkin fondly referred to as "Maum Patsy," took charge of her upbringing. (Maum Patsy remained her primary care provider even after Peterkin's father remarried and sent her to live with her grandmother.) The Gullahs, a term used to refer both to the language and culture of the group of (former) African slaves who lived along the Carolina and Georgia coasts, remained a relatively homogenous group well into the twentieth century, largely escaping the culturally deracinating effects of dispersion among Americans of African descent. Maum Patsy taught Peterkin the Gullah language; and, according to many of Peterkin's relatives, she learned to speak Gullah as fluently as she spoke ostensibly standard English. Thus, in 1903 when she married William Peterkin and moved from Columbia to Sumter, South Carolina, she was no stranger to the values, rituals, and traditions of the black hands who lived and worked at Lang Syne Plantation. They were all Gullah descendants.
At different times, Peterkin identified herself as a plantation mistress, farmer, housekeeper, wife, mother, or gardener in a conscious effort to downplay her role as writer. (6) When pressed about her writing, however, Peterkin did not deny that her primary objective was to recount the Gullahs' experiences. In a September 1923 letter to Emily Clark, for example, in the wake of white South Carolinians' hostile reactions to her early work, Peterkin tried to justify the focus of her writing and to delineate her position toward her black subjects. (7) "I mean to present these people in a patient struggle with fate," she insists, "and not in any race conflict at all" (219). In a later letter to Joel Spingarn, she builds upon her objectives as she marvels at the favorable review of her work by black artists and critics in New York City in spite of the persistence of white rage closer to home:
When I found the very people on whom I had counted for sympathy here in reading my book, all upset and indignant with me, not even indifferent but quite angry, then I thought, "The negroes may hate me too!" But they seem to understand my intention better than the whites in many cases. This pleases me greatly. I had no intention of doing anything that could be construed as propaganda. I wanted to record my impressions of people who seemed interesting to me. Doing it gave me much pleasure, and I felt that I was quite within my rights in spending my time so. (8)
In an interview with Dale Warren conducted just as Black April was enjoying critical and popular success among black and white audiences alike, Peterkin expands her agenda, limning her creative impulse in a tenor more existential than altruistic:
I write ... to get rid of the things that disturb me. I know it sounds peculiar to you, but that is the reason. On the plantation I am very close to life. It is all about me--several hundred negroes, in fact. It's their lives that I've known. I have seen sickness and death and superstition and frenzy and desire. My eyes have looked on horror and misery. And these things have stayed with me and upset me. I have had to get rid of them, so I have written them out. It is really quite simple. ("Plantation Family" 1)
These passages embody Peterkin's most direct commentary on her art and audience. First, they position black people at the core of her aesthetic vision. Second, they define black people, Peterkin's "subjects," in abstract as well as raw terms of human existence. Third, they register Peterkin's anxieties over white southern misinterpretation of her work, along with her awareness of a responsive black literary and intellectual community outside of the South. Finally, they connect Peterkin's personal life as plantation mistress to her public persona as writer and trace a flow from these identities to her subjects (black people) and their mutual southern society. In these passages, the motives and methods of self- and artistic development crucially coalesce to reveal a personal and professional psychology manufactured in terms of Peterkin's opinion--rather than a realistic representation--of black people and black culture and their influence on her life as a white southern woman. The critic should not fail to miss this point, yet few--if any--examiners of Peterkin's life and writings have acknowledged or endeavored to explore its multiple implications. The implication that this essay centrally investigates warrants consideration both of Peterkin's relation to Mencken, whom she once identified as America's "best critic," and of Peterkin's self-positioning in relation to "her" black "subjects."
Mencken's commentary on the South and his support of many southern writers in the early 1920s have been widely seen as instrumental in launching the Southern Renaissance. (9) Many critics have intimated that Peterkin, among other pioneers of the South's "cultural awakening," began writing to challenge Mencken's famous assertion in "The Sahara of the Bozart" (1920) that the region was an intellectual and cultural vacuum. (10) It seems that it is precisely because this essay so largely shaped public perceptions of the South that scholars have not questioned why Peterkin pursued Mencken's opinion of her work. If favorably inclined, Mencken could have the greatest influence in promoting her material and establishing her career. Furthermore, if part of her objective in writing was to counter Mencken's attack on the South, then Peterkin's accomplishment would serve the dual purpose of self-promotion and regional redemption. But if these were Peterkin's goals--and I submit that, in part, they were--how could representing Gullah people, whom she herself once characterized as "persistently ignorant" and "pitifully improvident and wasteful," Gullah experiences, which so disturbed her, and Gullah culture, which, near the culmination of her writing career, she described as vibrant but unrefined and fleeting (Roll Jordan, Roll 9, 23), how could they work toward the achievement of her goals? To elucidate Peterkin's strategies, I shift attention from "The Sahara of the Bozart" to one of Mencken's more obscure works, "Groping in Literary Darkness" (1920). (11)
In this piece, written in the same year as "The Sahara of the Bozart," a key argument that Mencken advances about southern culture resounds in his evaluation of black literature. Mencken concludes that black writers have not yet produced enduring work, citing "race" consciousness and reactionism as, on one hand, vitiating black attempts at "serious" and "realistic" creative expression and, on the other hand, reducing them to melodrama and propaganda ("The Negro" 320). He holds white Americans accountable for black literary pre-occupations, tacitly limning southern whites as particular culprits:
The white man, even in the South, knows next to nothing of the inner life of the negro. The more magnificently he generalizes, the more his ignorance is displayed. What the average Southerner believes about the negroes who surround him is chiefly nonsense. His view of them is moral and indignant, or, worse still, sentimental and idiotic. The great movements and aspirations that stir them are quite beyond his comprehension; in many cases he does not even hear of them. (320-21)
"What we need," Mencken deduces, "is a realistic picture of this inner life of the negro by one who sees the race from within--a self-portrait as vivid and accurate as Dostoyevsky's portrait of the Russian or Thackeray's of the Englishman" . In painting this picture, the artist should adhere to the following formula: "The action should be kept within the normal range of negro experience. It should extend over a long enough range of years to show some development in character and circumstance. It should be presented against a background made vivid by innumerable small details." In closing, Mencken predicts that "the negro author who makes such a book will dignify American literature and accomplish more for his race than a thousand propagandists and theorists. He will force the understanding that now seems so hopeless. He will blow up nine-tenths of the current poppycock" (321).
Regardless of whether Peterkin read this essay, the depth to which the content and form of Black April, Scarlet Sister Mary, and Bright Skin address Mencken's observations is highly suggestive (especially given that Peterkin sought his approval and assistance). The central setting for the three novels is Blue Brook Plantation, and each novel's central characters are black. All reside at Blue Brook, and all have minimal if any interaction with white subjects in the narrative framework. The plantation owners are conveniently, though creatively, "on vacation" at the start of the novels, and each story concludes as the black residents of Blue Brook prepare for the owners' return. Time is measured primarily in seasons, so the calendar year remains unknown. The dialogues, activities, and dispositions of the novels' central characters, however, enable us to speculate that, though they live on a plantation, they are not slaves but paid workers. The day-to-day or "normal range" of the characters' experiences are mapped, with profligacy, philandering, and promiscuity exhibited as common registries among Blue Brook inhabitants. Everyone works. Everyone plays. Education matters to only a few of the elderly folks' children; they go off to acquire the diploma but often return and become reintegrated into a community where good ham-boning, quilting, and sermonizing are more appreciated.
The principal narrator in each novel is articulated to the plantation system, though also somehow outside of the system. Restricted and omniscient points of view merge to tell each story. Commentary on the plantation community's traditions and beliefs is interspersed within the narrative proper, which ultimately vacillates between acculturating and displacing the "outsider" perspective.
Given these novels' form and content, it seems of some consequence that Mencken's prediction in "Groping in Literary Darkness" eventually fits Peterkin who, as has already been noted, was considered among the foremost "black" US writers at the height of her career and among the nation's most accomplished realists. Peterkin's response to the former distinction was loaded. "If it were not that I am a blond," she wrote to Carl Sandburg in March 1925, "I think an effort would be made to prove that I am half black. Maybe I am spiritually," she concluded. In others'--and her own--opinion, therefore, her writing convincingly undercut Mencken's testimony that white people know nothing of the "inner life" of blacks. Moreover, the sum of these details becomes crucial motivating evidence of Peterkin's creative psychology, the framework surrounding her novels' formal and stylistic dimensions, and their interaction with her personal politics. If we suppose that Peterkin wrote with "Literary Gropings" in mind, or at least with similar sentiments in mind, we understand at least two of her motives for making black people her subject. Mencken had helped open the literary market for a "realistic" representation of black culture and black life and covertly challenged white southern Americans to provide the goods. But to speak of Peterkin's choice of "subject" as strictly opportunistic would ignore the added influence of Peterkin's subjectivity on her relation to and representation of black culture and her sensibilities as a modern plantation mistress. In "Seeing Things," Peterkin's most widely referenced but little dissected philosophical piece, Peterkin herself registers these sensibilities.
Peterkin begins "Seeing Things" by revealing that early in her schooling as mistress of Lang Syne, she learned that "the plantation had never tolerated a mistress who could not 'dominize' it. Those too weak or too fearful to 'dominize,'" she observes, "had either been quickly crushed or taken away. There was no escape" (66). Peterkin does not reveal the origins of this legend. But she goes on to explain her reaction to the knowledge that the black people who work at Lang Syne are aware of the myth. (The modification of the verb "dominate" to "dominize" suggests the Gullah "voice" in this legend.) "When I found that some of the old Negroes were watching to see how I met the plantation's challenge, I couldn't disregard it. I tried to find out just what 'dominizing' meant, and at last I made out that in order to 'dominize,' the plantation mistress must achieve enough wisdom and courage to meet any occasion with composure and grace" (66). Although Peterkin does not explicitly note how she would secure this wisdom and courage, she intimates her source in the following series of reflections:
I had always laughed at superstitions; but here, where people lived and died by them, they were hard to ignore, and an uneasiness that was close kin to fear began stirring deep down in my heart. What must I do? How could I find out what I needed to know? I soon discovered that the ability to see is an acquirement. It takes skill to mark differences between things that look just alike, and to make out distinctions between forms that are very close kin. To learn how to do it requires time and patience, and not only a keen wish to know about things themselves but also to know how all things are bound together into one common whole. Our individual worlds are made up of things we perceive, and no two of us ever see things alike. The impressions given us by our senses may be accurate or false; they may be a record of absolute truth, or a jumbled confusion of mistakes; yet, whatever they are, the sum of them constitutes for us the only information we can ever have concerning the particular world we live in. No two of us live in the same world. We must each make our own environment and mold our individual universe, and the only material we have to use for this purpose is what our senses have gathered for us. There is no way out of it. All well-being depends on seeing things. The more we see clearly, the more interesting is the exclusive world that we must make for ourselves. (66-67)
Taken out of the context in which Peterkin expresses them, these reflections may seem rather abstract. But the politics of Peterkin's position and objective as well as her perception of black expectations enable one to envisage a specific aspect of southern history that clarifies her professed anxieties and resolutions. Much like the mistresses of large antebellum plantations, Peterkin must firmly manage Lang Syne's home and hands, requiring her--in the words of a former slave--to know "ever'thing dat am gwine on" (Mellon 195). This requirement, in part, compels Peterkin to gain as much information as she can about the inner and outer workings of black people's lives. Hence, she positions herself among them to learn their habits, their customs, their beliefs, their morals, their likes and dislikes. In the process of gathering this information, she makes discoveries about the people she observes as well as about herself, which ultimately temper her modernism.
She learns first that penetrating the depth of superficial appearance requires not only keen observation but also a willingness to suspend expectation and presumption so that concrete, unexpected knowledge can emerge. She acknowledges the effort it takes to neutralize her prejudices in order to recognize black people's humanity and individuality, the diversity and richness of their culture, and the wisdom and courage that their experiences have produced. She learns further that concepts of "reality" and "truth" may mask perception's ability to confirm and distort how we see ourselves in isolation and in relation to the people and forces that surround us. She discovers that our perceptions govern and reproduce over space and time the ways we behave. Here, perhaps, we are invited to read Peterkin's tacit condemnation of tradition and history in that both undermine the terms and conditions that construct them. In other words, both are subject to perception. As a target (as woman) and perpetuator (as southern white aristocratic) of tradition and history, Peterkin evinces a felt sense of betrayal and guilt in light of her revised perspective on black people and black culture. Still, Peterkin's final analysis complicates her recognition of the operations of perception. She concludes that because we are governed by our perceptions, we are charged to tutor our senses to the degree that they enable us to bring order and purpose to our individual existence (a modernist impulse). But because "no two of us live in the same world," the process of forging our individual existence may impinge on the existences of others (as in high modernist formulations on history, tradition, race, class, gender, human sexuality, and so on). In the end it seems we do have a hand in determining how we will live and view the world about us. But the premium we place on our personal lives may compel us to negotiate, even repress, sound perception--for example, our sense of right and wrong--to the detriment of others (resulting in US slavery and the Era of Jim Crow, among other crimes against humanity).
Once she recognizes the historical constitution of the plantation mistress, Peterkin elects to reproduce it through her own activities. This determination underscores her strategic conscription in the myth of (white) Southern Womanhood. Although the construct's oppressive influence on the lives of southern women has been widely documented, Peterkin's philosophical writings indicate that she actually capitalized on the myth, using it to gain access to herself as agent in relation to black people and purchasing power with it through silence in relation to (white) men. (12) We can, thus, speculate that as the development of a black cultural center away from the South encroached on her status as Lang Syne's mistress, Peterkin's negotiation and mediation of her position as "realist" writer of black experiences grew increasingly self-conscious and self-serving.
Although the mass migration of black people from the South to other parts of the country did not accelerate until around 1910, southern historians were recording its impact on the region as early as 1895 (Meriwether). Various developments urged black South Carolinians to mark their exodus in larger numbers than migrants from any other southern state.
In his examination of the development of post-bellum social structure in a South Carolina town, O. Vernon Burton points out that, though the state's black population was diversely tied to the land as owners, renters, croppers, and farm laborers, a disproportionate number worked for wages. Consequently, most black South Carolinians lacked the financial stability and access to opportunities for economic self-sufficiency that land ownership and tenantry afforded their white peers ("Development" 765-67). At the height of the agricultural depression in the South, South Carolina's black population declined by 50 percent, making whites the state's majority for the first time in over a century. Though the boll weevil indiscriminately arrived and crippled cotton production throughout the region, black South Carolinians-mostly farm laborers rather than owners--predictably appear to have suffered the most economic hardship. A decade-long outbreak of tuberculosis that was linked to the economic crisis of the 1920s also seems to have wreaked great havoc in South Carolina's black communities. (13)
Across the South, but particularly in South Carolina, violent white backlash against (majority) black-led initiatives to unionize and lobby for fairer wages and employee benefits stymied labor-class progress, maintaining a veritable antebellum southern infrastructure throughout Reconstruction and for several decades after. The political rise of Ben Tillman, launched in 1885, further constricted South Carolina's black population. As governor, he promoted legislation that imposed a literacy test on all voters. After revisions to the state's constitution--authored by Tillman himself--passed in 1890, public school expenditures for black students in South Carolina decreased from little to almost nothing. Jim Crow laws segregating the state's transportation systems and public facilities all passed under Tillman's regime. Between 1890 and 1898, race riots in South Carolina counties resulted in 16 documented lynchings of blacks. The 1910 gubernatorial election of Cole Blease, who endorsed lynching, provided white violence as a means of black political and social sanction. (14)
Undoubtedly, Peterkin was aware of the developments and events that agitated white antagonism and black unrest, and catapulted South Carolina into cross-cultural mayhem before and after blacks began to leave the state in large numbers. For example, the much-anticipated release of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation--based on Thomas Dixon's infamous novel, The Clansman (1905)--in 1915 met with equal favor among critical and popular white South Carolinian audiences (Moore 30-40). Cries for equal opportunity among disgruntled black veterans of World War I spawned the race riots of 1919 that began in Charleston and spread to most of the country's largest cities. The 1925 self-defense killing of Aiken's white sheriff--small-town Aiken was only 50 miles west of Peterkin's home in Fort Motte--by members of a rural black family resulted in the mob-led execution and lynching of several of the "accused" family members a year later. (15) Even in correspondence with Mencken and Sandburg, Peterkin early marks her fear of Ku Klux Klan retaliation against her or members of her family for her unconventional portrayals of black and white South Carolinians. (16) Yet Peterkin's fictional accounts of Lang Syne's socio-economic infrastructure in Black April, Scarlet Sister Mary, and Bright Skin betray little to no sensibility of South Carolina's actual cultural climate and the imminent threat (and effects) of white violence.
To varying degrees Black April, Scarlet Sister Mary, and Bright Skin open by penetrating the consciousness of character and place at Blue Brook plantation, the site of the three novels' primary action. The link between psychological and physical movement--and removal--at the beginnings of Black April and Bright Skin evokes patterns of repetition between these two novels whereby characters unfamiliar with many or all of Blue Brook's mores enjoy symbolic and actual freedom of mobility about the plantation. The process of learning Blue Brook's culture in these two novels reproduces it from one generation to the next. By contrast, in Scarlet Sister Mary the link between psychological and physical movement evokes patterns of containment whereby characters familiar with Blue Brook's mores secure symbolic and actual freedom of mobility about the plantation by unlearning its culture. This process also facilitates containment. At the outset of the three novels, the conventions of autobiography and ethnography merge to enact the trope of mobility by which Peterkin immerses herself in black plantation culture. The novelist seems determined to understand that culture, to control better the influence of black progressivism on her life. (17) In Black April a struggle takes center stage between emic (black/insider) and etic (white/outsider) perspectives to determine "meaning" at the site of discreet moments of intracultural communication about plantation order and politics. In Scarlet Sister Mary, eric power structures encroach upon Blue Brook citizens to exercise greater authority over black individual growth and cultural development. In Bright Skin emic forces fight back, increasing the psychological and the physical spaces between black and white cultures in ways that, for the first time, escape Peterkin's authority.
The earliest event that we learn about in Black April is the birth of April's illegitimate son Breeze on Sandy Island, a dilapidated plantation located close to fecund Blue Brook. Details of locale initially explain why Breeze is removed from his birthplace to live with Big Sue at his father's plantation. As Big Sue explains to Breeze's mother, "I cooks at de Big House. An' no matter if de buckra is at Blue Brook or up-North whe' dey stays most o' de time, I has all de victuals an' money I wants. I has more'n I kin use. It's de Gawd's truth. You'll sho' have sin, if you don' give me dat boy to raise" (44). Shortly thereafter, a second and third motive are linked to her desire to rear Breeze. "I'll train em good," she insists. "I'll fatten em up. I'll learn em to have manners. Dis same boy might git to be foreman at Blue Brook yet. E comes from dat foreman breed.... April's de foreman at Blue Brook, an' e'll help me raise Breeze. E tol' me so las' night" (44-45). The intimation that April seeks in Breeze a ready successor to his position as plantation foreman and that he charges Big Sue to assume partial responsibility for his training supports a narrative development centered upon Breeze's acculturation to Blue Brook plantation. Unlike the majority of Blue Brook's black constituency, Breeze mediates field and house space under Big Sue and April's tutelage. What he learns over the course of the novel is seemingly designed to prepare and empower him in the end to assume authority over the lives and conditions of the plantation's black subjects. Here, we are invited to see how aspects of Breeze's education in Black April parallel the role that education plays in Peterkin's own life once she becomes mistress of Lang Syne. The link between Breeze's limited knowledge and the omniscient narrator's consciousness further buttresses the correspondence between these processes. As the only perspectives through which considerable depth of information and characterization is presented, Breeze's psychology merges with that of the narrator's to process, order, and evaluate what they observe of plantation life.
Initially, both uncritically bear witness to a wealth of cultural configurations that reveal the pragmatism, resilience, and diverse personalities of Blue Brook's citizens. "Thick description" of these dynamics highlights the processes through which the characters build and maintain strong cultural ties. In the quilting session, for example, which constitutes one of the novel's earliest "ethnographic" scenes and Breeze's initial encounter with Blue Brook culture, ethical and social boundaries relax to facilitate utilitarian interests at Blue Brook. This process is further registered in Breeze's observations of the plantation's theistic orders. Breeze witnesses community members cultivating and practicing a syncretized religion whereby the performative and transformative rites of conjuring and Judeo-Christianity merge to promote communal cohesion, ancestral veneration, and a symbiosis between humans and nature that invests greater spiritual authority in individuals than institutions. This cultural phenomenon is most evidenced in Maum Hannah's religious practices. Her habit of harmonizing her own brand of preaching with that of the Christian minister invokes the call-and-response pattern so central to conjuring rituals. Heir to the "string of charm beads [her] grandmother had brought all the way from Africa when she came on a slave ship," and cultivator of the source from which "the fires that burned in all the Quarter houses" generated, Maum Hannah is the oldest direct living connection the community has to its ancestral origins (18, 112). Therefore, it is of little wonder or consequence to church members that this matriarch inflects signs of African spirituality into the Christian liturgy.
That she is accustomed to "taking part in the service" in this way signals a key change in the ceremony marked by the "new" town preacher's objection to her behavior (186). Maum Hannah's initial oblivion to his admonitions and her subsequent rejection of his method of renewing the Ten Commandments point to an apparent disjunction between clergy and congregation that de-Africanized Christianity breeds. Its effects are importantly focalized through Breeze:
Maum Hannah's head dropped, her chin was on her breast, her eyes were shut tight, her lips moving in whispers. Breeze could tell she was praying alone, quite apart from the preacher and the congregation which had strangely become two beings: one, a lone, black, shiny-skinned, shiny-eyed man in the pulpit, repeating God's commandments, in the high singsong, and clapping his hands for the people to respond; and the congregation, now knitted into a many-mouthed, manyhanded, many-eyed mass, that swayed and rocked like one body from side to side, crying to God in an agonized, "Do, Lawd, help us keep dis law!" A shrill voice screamed out of the rumbling body, "Hallelujah! I feel de sperit!" A chill crept over Breeze. He felt something strange himself. He couldn't hear his own voice in the flood of shouted praying, but he knew he was one with the rest. (188)
Considering Maum Hannah's withdrawal from the mockery that the church service becomes, and Breeze's awareness of his own involuntary contributions to that mockery, Susan Williams reads each as an omen, a signal of the declining influence of African traditions on central and sustaining elements of Blue Brook culture ("Foreword" xi). But the observation of a valuable cultural dynamic whose evolution has the potential to threaten the plantation order urges shifts in narrative development and characterization that not only renew Maum Hannah's authority but also unmask a social incentive for suppressing the pulse of Western influence encroaching on Blue Brook's black community. "Is you gone plum crazy, Breeze.)" Big Sue asks when he rises in church to follow his newly inspired religious inclinations. "You ain' got no business seekin'! If you miss an' find peace an' git religion you couldn' bat ball on Sunday wid li'l young Cap'n when he come! Not if you's a Christian!" (193). Capitulating to Big Sue's command, Breeze sits down and, thus, keeps change at bay. He takes a moment, however, to reflect on Big Sue's hypocrisy.
Big Sue didn't care if he burned in Hell. Many a time she had told him how those wicked, hell-bent buckras spent Sundays in sin. Riding horses. Singing reels. Dancing and frolicking on God's day. Young Cap'n played ball, baseball, under the trees, on the Sabbath, just as if it were the middle of the week. Big Sue said God didn't like people to even pick a flower on Sunday. And now she wanted him to have sin right along with those brazen white people. (193)
In this passage, the convergence of free indirect and free direct discourses marks a fundamental maturation in Breeze's consciousness and status at Blue Brook from cultural observer/outsider to cultural critic/insider, and signals his mind-spirit divide from the consciousness of the novel's other central focalizer. Increasingly Breeze registers an awareness of the link between black cultural values and practices and the broader social dynamics of plantation life that the outsider perspective governs.
Crucially, in this frame of mind he recalls Big Sue's attitudes toward education: "Big Sue said she had never bothered to learn to read and write. She didn't have any use for either.... The old people didn't believe in book learning. They thought learning signs and charms more important, and they discouraged having school. Learning magic would be better for [Breeze] than learning books" (123, 137). Black objection to education registered here does not lack historical grounding. In fact, for decades after the Civil War, high rates of illiteracy among members of many rural black communities reflected individual choice as well as lack of opportunity (Mellon 177). In Black April, however, "book-learning" is cast in the same disruptive light as de-Africanized Christianity because of its potential to undermine the plantation order. Nevertheless, unlike the narrative line of religion, the narrative line of education does not achieve closure by the end of Black April. Breeze's rejection of "God and the Devil" and final initiation into Blue Brook's community through sexual experimentation with Emma do little to squelch his curiosity about school or the words on a printed page (227, 304, 311). Thus, it seems that education in Scarlet Sister Mary effects a kind of continuity whereby this novel takes up the cause that Black April is unable to achieve.
In Scarlet Sister Mary, shifts in focalization between omniscient and limited perspectives delve frequently into Mary's consciousness. Mary is the character whose "unschooling" begins when she abandons naive notions of love and marriage, and embarks on a journey toward self-discovery and spiritual renewal. As Daddy Cudjoe foretells: "You's young, honey. You ain't got much sense, but you'll learn better.... You can' nebber blongst to nobody, honey, an' nobody can' blongst to you. But Ki! Dat ain' reason fo cry! You breth come an' go might sweet when e free, but you strive fo hold era. Den e bitter!" (70) Mary's sexual and gender politics eventually position her at odds with the whole of Blue Brook's Christian and domestic communities. That the governing consciousness of the novel readily sanctions Mary's stance vis-a-vis Christianity is perfunctory; it merely echoes the theme central to the structure of Black April. However, the link between Mary's rejection of Christianity and domestication adds dimension to the narrative approval Peterkin grants to Mary once she decides to renounce her wedding vows. Almost simultaneously, however, the narrative underwrites a reciprocity between Mary's acquired status within the plantation order that ultimately impedes black cultural progress.
Consider, for example, the scope of the authority Mary believes the love-charm affords her and what, in the end, that authority is predicated upon. When Mary believes she has conjured June, she wonders of his praise: "Did June mean all the things he was saying to her now? Did she look as young as a single girl? Did he think as much as he said? Her heart seemed to stop beating. Her breath was cut off" (99). Reassured of her desirability in her relationship with June, Mary is "able to laugh and dance and sing again, her flesh had got back its old smoothness, her old sadness and weariness and bitterness were left behind"; her renewed sexuality is now an extension of her mind, body, and spirit (105). Mary's newfound psychosexual identity also reformulates her attitudes toward men and women: "Thank God, she knew men at last, and she knew that not one of them is worth a drop of water that drains out of a woman's eye" (105). A perspective shift to stream-of-consciousness confirms Mary's opinion: "Men are too much alike, with ways too much the same. None is worth keeping, none worth a tear; and still each one is a little different from the rest; just different enough to make him worth finding out" (137). Women, on the other hand, "were all her rivals and competitors, except Maum Hannah"; but "certainly Maum Hannah was so old she could hardly be counted a woman. For she lived in another world.... To her, human men were no more than children who needed to be fed and encouraged and warmed and pitied" (119). What the women in her community fear most, Mary concludes, is "the power she had over their men ... whom she lured boldly and without shame" (122).
Reflecting on the source of her "power," Mary proudly observes: "That charm, old and worn as it was now, still stood by her faithfully. It had never failed her. She prized it and cherished it as if it were God's best gift instead of something that would send her to the bottomless pits of perdition" (122). It "did nothing but draw the men she liked to her, and hold them as long as she wanted them, no more than that" (123). Again she mentally notes the effect the love-charm has on her trinomial existence: "Her flesh got back all its old smoothness, her body its old supple grace. She could laugh and sing while she worked. All her weariness left her, all her sadness and bitterness were gone, sorrow was far behind her" (122). Indeed, even when the community aggressively begins to condemn her actions, Mary's confidence is reassured when she gains a loyal ally in Buddha Ben: "When Mary first began sinning openly, Buddha Ben tried his best to stop her, then when he found that nothing he said made her change her ways, he began defending her and holding that whatever people crave to do is good for them to do. If Mary fed her children and clothed them and trained them to be brave-hearted, to work, and to have manners, that was enough to expect of her" (121).
Mary's character undoubtedly experiences a kind of re-invention that enables her to believe that she can "rule herself and her feelings" once she wrests both from Christianity and July's dominion (93). However, even Buddha Ben's defense of Mary intimates that the "self" she embraces is fashioned in exclusively sexual terms. Its life depends not only on Mary's willingness to use her body for psychospiritual gratification, but also on Mary's ability to secure ego-affirming responses from men and hostile reactions from women. In the end, it seems that Mary grants the body the authority over her mind and spirit that Christianity initially exercises. In Mary's case, we see readily that the danger of this body-mind-spirit connection is that it places promiscuity, rather than healthy sexuality, on a plane equal to religion. When we move beyond the effect that Mary's promiscuous lifestyle has on her personal and social condition, we see further the extended damage her attitude and behavior pose to other innocents.
Although Mary initially assures Maum Hannah that none "o [her] gals will walk straight in [her] tracks" (117), she eventually trains at least one of her daughters to follow her example. "It don't pay to love mens too much," she counsels Seraphine. "When a man finds out fo-true a 'oman is crazy bout em, he don' crave dat 'oman no mo. Dat's de very time e gwine crave some new 'oman altogedder. Gawd made mens so. It don' pay to love no one man too much. It's all right to like em. But don' never let yousef tink on one man all de time" (158). The moment in the novel when Mary offers her daughter this advice is crucial, for it comes upon the heels of Seraphine's return from school, a forlorn, new mother. In addition to reassuring Seraphine that she, like her mother, will survive abandonment and endure as a single parent, Mary guides her daughter to the "tracks," encouraging her to reproduce through her existence a pathology that is ultimately self- and culturally-destructive.
Once Seraphine returns to Blue Brook, she abandons all hope of completing her education and adopts the life of a plantation domestic. This course, no doubt, is pleasing to Mary, whose numerous offspring countervail her tacit fear of being alone (107). However, the link between Mary's experiences, the advice she gives her daughter, and the changes that occur in Seraphine's status and motivation once she returns to Blue Brook discloses a greater narrative incentive governing Seraphine's condition. Deprived of an education and determined to follow her mother's example, Seraphine soon adopts the same attitude toward progress and plantation life that Mary claims shortly after July forsakes her. "If she had the heart," the narrator begins, "she would go away and leave everything, everybody. She could find work of some kind in the town, and yet," Mary's consciousness interjects, "this was home. She had known no other place in her life. The very earth here was a part of herself, and it held her so fast she could never leave it, no matter what came" (73). In spite of--perhaps, even, because of--the opportunities that removal from Blue Brook might afford her, Mary rests in harmony with this land, her "peaceful" position symbolic of the pastoral vision so central to the preservation of Peterkin's increasingly modernized plantation way of life. (18) The trouble here is not so much the naturalization of Mary's attitude toward the plantation prior to her psychospiritual transformation, but the narrative validation this vision seems to enjoy after she achieves "liberation."
The shift in narrative focus from Mary's conjugal condition, that is, her monogamous devotion, to her licentious behavior after July leaves also registers a deeper penetration of Mary's attitude toward her environment. She ponders over and speaks candidly about Blue Brook's owners, about changes taking place on the plantation, and about the effect that both have on the lives of black people. Mary curses alike the hay-press, newspapers, and books now found at Blue Brook--all of which were made by white people. "Such things were dangerous," she insists (108). Seconding Big Boy's opinion that the hay-press is "a blind contraption made by white men," she calls into suspicion "what book-learning might do" to a person (107, 108). Indeed she doesn't discount Big Boy's observation that "so much book readin might be changed Seraphine from how e was" when he goes to town to see her and Seraphine does not respond to his call (135). In this spirit, Mary sounds much like the elders of Blue Brook who urge Breeze to read natural signs rather than the printed page. "Spoken words are safer," Mary observes. "They can cut and sting and beat down almost any enemy. They can bring tears or make people split their sides with laughter. Instead of reading all the time out of books and papers covered with printed words [one] would do better to learn how to read other things: sunrises, moons, sunsets, clouds and stars, faces and eyes.... Book-learning takes people's minds off more important things" (108).
Her aversion to learning as whites do is, perhaps, most intensely announced when she discovers that a new law will force plantation midwives to take a series of classes to receive training in new delivery procedures. "White people are curious things," she complains to Buddha Ben. "They pass laws no matter how fool the laws are, and put people in jail if those laws are not kept. People had come into the world over the same old road ever since Eve birthed Cain and Abel, and now, everybody had to learn how to birth children a new way. It was enough to upset the whole world" (121). Her animosity toward white people who supplant traditional systems with laws is equally directed at black people who obey them: She "resented many of the ways and customs of the plantation people who never stopped to think about things, and accepted ideas and beliefs which were handed down to them, the same as they accepted the old houses where they were born and worked in the same old fields which their parents and grandparents had salted with sweat" (121). Mary does not, however, imagine removal from Blue Brook as a way to break its ideological power over its black constituency. Surveying the land and its history, she muses: "Black people used to make up a part of the plantation's wealth the same as the carriage and saddle horses with their well-rubbed, shining hides. They were valued according to their strength and sense. The weak and stupid were sold. Only the best were kept. A good thing" (138). These thoughts supplement and reinforce Mary's earlier attitude about the plantation and her "place" in its order. She identifies herself among its prized possessions, and she embraces it as her own.
That this gesture signals the culmination of Mary's journey toward self-actualization brings into focus a few vital points. First, it illuminates disparities between Peterkin's and Mary's gender and sexual politics, which nevertheless support the same plantation order. Second, it highlights a symmetrical, even symbiotic order among the novel's black women characters' faith and fecundity that ground them to the land. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it links formal education to all things "white," exposing at once "outsider" fear of black progressive values and methods for restraining them. In the end, it seems that Scarlet Sister Mary cultivates neither a sincere desire nor a viable means through which to escape plantation life. Thus the consciousness of this novel provides solid evidence of Peterkin's determination and ability to control the system and lives she governed at Lang Syne.
The importance of this creative achievement cannot be over-emphasized, for it underscores the tenacity with which Peterkin held onto her way of life. It also intimates the extremes to which she may have been willing to go to maintain that order. In addition to promoting black ignorance and female promiscuity, there is in Scarlet Sister Mary a pernicious patterning of black family division rested upon forced and willful removal of fathers from homes. This phenomenon harks back to the days of slavery, underscoring a linkage between antebellum and modern societies that continues to divide black communities today. But one cannot stop at reading the breadth of Peterkin's creative gesture as altogether proscriptive. Her frequently expressed candor about the value of plantation society and black culture speaks volumes of her willingness to confront the privilege of her own subjectivity vis-a-vis black people, even if only to affirm it in the end. This fact bears renewed significance when we consider Peterkin's last novel, Bright Skin.
The continuity of setting and characterization across the three novels' openings invites comparison between Peterkin and Blue's consciousness that may at first seem difficult to make. Blue has neither the insight that enables Peterkin via Breeze to penetrate the depths of black cultural practices nor the confidence that empowers Peterkin via Mary to control the plantation's order. But when we consider the degree to which narrative development seems--almost to the very end--to escape Blue's consciousness, a reciprocity between his opening status, his lack of character, and Peterkin's perspective on black and plantation culture begins to materialize.
As in Black April, the character perspective most in accord with the governing narrative consciousness is that of an outsider to the plantation. Unlike Breeze's removal from Sandy Island, however, Blue's relocation to Blue Brook is more physically abrupt and psychologically disruptive. "Roused from sound sleep before dawn," Blue's father announces: "Wake up, son, an' put on you clothes. Me an' you is gwine off. Dis house ain' no decent place for we to stay in" (11). Without learning the details of his mother's transgression, Blue discovers that the indecent condition into which his home has slipped is directly related to something she has done to his father. Determining that he will not abandon her, however, Blue assures his mother "I'll be back soon." But she silences his compassion with an announcement of her own: "I won' be here.... I'm gwine off my own self" (13). Her words later resonate in Fancy's flat assertion: "You Pa's gone an' left you" (3). At the outset of Bright Skin, Blue's character stands in striking opposition to any other abandoned character across the three novels precisely because he is a young boy forsaken by his mother and father. Unlike Breeze, Blue is not sought out by a distant cousin. Unlike Big Sue and Mary, Blue lacks the fortitude of experience to sustain him after his mother and father leave. Thus the salience of Big Sue's words echoed in Fancy's claim--"I was wishin I had a boy-child to wait on me"--and Blue's father's counsel--"be mannersable, to mind what he was told"--runs shallow in the consciousness of a character who is unfairly matched in a war with rejection (36, 17).
The rejection that Blue faces at the novel's beginning becomes a likely extension of the rejection that Peterkin is forced to deal with once Lang Syne's constituency begins to "abandon" her. Despite the understanding and appreciation of black culture she eventually demonstrates, Peterkin must also accept the fact that she never really achieves "insider" status. Finally, Peterkin must acknowledge that in spite of her conviction and determination to sustain the plantation's order, Lang Syne can no longer contain a people whose history conveys their struggle to secure self-determining freedom and equality of opportunity. Thus Peterkin's modernism in Bright Skin is earmarked in a complex network of narrative lines: Blue's indoctrination into plantation culture; the interplay between etic observation of Blue Brook's socio-racial politics and emic analysis of slave history; and Cricket's maturation from a "no-nation bastard" to a New Negro (94).
The inclination to read Cricket's character as a descendent of tragic mulattos figured in literary history would not be unfounded. Throughout the novel she is distinguished and alienated from Blue Brook's black and white populations in color and status: "A bright skin ain' got no place in dis world. Black people don' want em an' white people won' own em" (94). Cricket herself frequently confirms her condition through lamentation--"You'd be down-in-de-heart too if you was a bright skin"--and pride--"I'm glad I ain' got em," she says of "blue gums," and "I ain' black like you," she charges when Blue intimates that she cannot bear a white baby (57, 67). There are, however, significant differences between the narrative developments that shape the consciousness of Cricket and other literary mulattos, differences that ultimately place her outside the "tragic" tradition and reinforce Bright Skin's modernist formation.
For example, in a series of events that recall cultural politics in Black April and Scarlet Sister Mary, Cricket is positioned as the target and perpetuator of attitudes and activities that revise scenes from Peterkin's earlier novels for rhetorical effect. We bear witness to a spontaneous hog-butchering ceremony in Bright Skin that, much like the sewing session in Black April, appears to provide an opportunity for examining collaboration between opposing communal fronts. Though the ritual strives to cultivate the same spirit of harmony and cooperation of the gathering at Maum Hannah's house, it ultimately sustains the mental caste that distinguishes field and house servants. In fact, it is not until Cun Hester, Cun Jule, and Uncle Ben finish cleaning the hogs that house hands--Aun Missie, Uncle Wes and Aun Fan--arrive to enjoy the fruits of field labor. Moreover, Aun Missie forbids Cricket to eat the pig-tails that she and Cooch and Toosio--field workers' children--are roasting because Cricket lacks the "strong insides" needed to digest them (167). In the end, therefore, the value of the ceremony depreciates along the class lines it reinforces.
The biases of class-consciousness gain greater registry in the "lessons" that Blue and Cricket learn about field workers and activities. "Sunday ain' no day to bat ball an' dat Quarters ain' no place for you," Aun Fan advises Blue in a mode significantly different from Big Sue's advice to Breeze. "De foreman's gran-boy ain' to run wid every common somebody," she concludes (48). "Dis Quarters is for field-hands," Cun Fred informs Cricket when she expresses interest in living there. "Would you pay a day's work every week God sends for rent of a broke-down house? Not one o' you people ever jerked a hoe or put dey hand on a plow" (53). Here, Cun Fred perpetuates a biased connection between degeneracy of home and occupation that he links to character in his assessment of Cricket's playmate: "Cooch don' come from decent people" (55). Aun Missie later echoes Fred's opinion when she lumps all field hands in the same corrupt category: "All those Quarter people were common. They quarreled over pigs and chickens, stole from one another, scandalized everybody. Rain or shine they had to do whatever Cun Fred said from raking pine straw for the stables to scattering stable manure in the fields" (88). Again, Aun Missie reproduces negative opinions of field servants when she prevents Cricket from participating in any social activities with children from the Quarters. As the narrator points out, "Aun Missie never let Cricket go anywhere at night except prayer-meeting. She had to dance at home or not at all" (221). Initially, she does not even allow Cricket to go to school for fear she will adopt a field-mentality.
Aun Missie's (among other non-field workers') determination to condition Cricket's attitude toward field residents and activities underscores the fact that, like Blue's, Cricket's sense of Blue Brook mores is untutored. They are both in the process of "learning" culture. Whereas Blue's "learning" of these mores acclimatizes him to Blue Brook, Cricket's "learning" drives her away from the plantation to Harlem. We see evidence of this motivation in Cricket's revision of Blue Brook religion and the "mis-education" she seeks and secures from Man Jay and Cun Hester. (19)
Several scenes in the novel unfold in which Cricket participates in or observes religious ceremonies that distinguish her spiritual power and vision. For example, she chooses to contribute to Children Days at the church by reciting Psalm 23, and she so moves the congregation that she elicits from its members shouts and songs of praise (158). At Uncle Wes's funeral she responds to the rehearsed wails, howls, and death-cries of women mourners with chilling silence and austerity (175, 191, 194). She also nearly breaks the burying tradition by placing flowers of an inappropriate color on Uncle Wes's grave because he "ever loved ... white blossoms" (188). When the time comes for community children seeking salvation to provide their testimony, Cricket shocks the crowd with the story of her awakening:
Seems like I was dyin, an' I was awful scared. Big Pa come to drench me, but somebody pushed de bottle out his hand an' give me a glassful of medicine white same like milk.... Dat same somebody told me not to drink Big Pa's teas, neither take any kind o' medicine, long as I live.... I couldn' see em, but e talked like Uncle Wes.... When I drank de medicine, two lil white baby chillen come. Dey had gold hair and dey skin was white like de sun ain' never shine on em. Dey fastened two sets o' white wings on my back.... Seems like Uncle Wes was squeezing his 'cordion, so I flewed by de music, but my feet was on de floor. ... De tune been Sallie Ann. (213)
When juxtaposed with Cooch's and Toosio's common and perhaps false testimonies, Cricket's honesty minimizes the humor in her vision. Indeed, the authenticity and value of her dream are confirmed when we realize that its principle figures and primary motive accomplish the task of converting Cricket's spirit. After the untimely deaths of Big Pa and Uncle Wes (the only two adults at Blue Brook with whom she shares genuine intimate connections), Cricket's self-confidence and motivation deplete. Her dream suggests their collaborative effort to "nurture" her spirit back to vivacity and to assure her of their continuing protection. Moreover, the dream assures Cricket that she doesn't have to mourn with tears; she can express her sorrows through dance--the medium through which she best distinguishes her character. Thus Cricket's decision in the end to remove herself and her spirit from clerical scrutiny enacts the mis-education she aggressively begins to pursue after her awakening.
Peterkin first insinuates Cricket's desire to break with tradition and authority when the character defies Aun Missie's wishes and learns to read. Her earliest instructor is Man Jay, who later teaches Cricket how to write. As Man Jay tutors Cricket's intellect through standard education, he also leads her to unconventional knowledge sources. For example, Man Jay's mother Bina introduces Cricket to Old Blue, her ex-communicated grandfather who, upon returning to his ancestors' home, adopts the name "Reverend Africa" and eventually settles in Harlem as a preacher (56). Man Jay later assists Big Pa's memory through song when Cricket asks him to narrate the story of his father's reign in Taki. The events that Big Pa recalls cast his father en route to America, a survivor of the Middle Passage (135). It is ultimately Man Jay's collaboration with Cun Hester that solidifies Cricket's knowledge of her history and encourages her to revise her self- and cultural-images.
For days Blue watches from afar as Cun Hester and Cricket engage in deep conversation. He "wondered what those two talked about so much, for Cun Hester's mind tarried on what was over and gone. Maybe Cricket wanted to find out all about those Big House white people. What good would that do her? They were dead and gone" (224). Blue's observation is critical, here, in light of Cun Hester's early narration of her father's history: "My Daddy knew more about God an' Jesus dan any preacher ever was. My Daddy was wise. An' straight talkin too. E belonged to white people but e didn' let nobody fool him" (180). She goes on to revise several Bible stories such that they align white people with the Devil and black people with Christ. Indeed, she indicates that white people crucified Jesus because they did not want to sell the riches they accumulated as the Devil's constituents. When asked if she believed any white people were in Heaven, she responds, "Mighty few.... White people traded dey souls for dat fire an' food. Dey fetched black people to dis country an' learnt em sinful ways. White people has much to account for" (183). Although Blue (and readers) never learn exactly what Cricket and Cun Hester talk about, the narrative invites us to assume that Cun Hester inflects her racio-cultural politics in their discussion, for soon after her sessions with Cun Hester, Cricket expresses her desire to leave the plantation. "It ain' money I crave," she tells Blue. "I want to go off an' see somebody new" (231). She registers a deeper motive in a later comment: "If I stay on here ... nothin ain' ahead for me but to dry up an' get sour like Aun Missie" (233). Cricket's awareness of the pathology that plantation culture breeds among women conflates with her earlier awakening to its detrimental influence on Blue Brook's religious ceremonies and communities.
Cricket's exodus from the plantation marks the novel's end, but Peterkin underscores that Cricket is not leaving Blue Brook for the first time. The relevance of the second removal to Harlem is heightened by the fact that Blue--the character who remains confined to the plantation by choice and by design--watches her departure. The moment brings closure to the literal and symbolic journey that Peterkin travels over the course of three novels from cultural outsider (Breeze) to cultural insider (Mary) to cultural negotiator (Blue and Cricket). Crucially, it also opens a new path for the writer and the characters she creates. After Bright Skin, Peterkin stopped writing fiction altogether and published only a few essays. Susan Williams and Elizabeth Robeson allege that this move constituted Peterkin's (unfortunate) reversion in later life to a kind of "Old South" mentality. Ironically, neither Williams nor Robeson considers the possibility that Peterkin's mind was always already of the "Old Order."
To my mind, a critical reason that scholars such as Williams and Robeson have not, do not, or cannot account for the broad-ranging implications of Peterkin's modernism is integral to her widely documented, multiple associations with the Harlem Renaissance. While extensive consideration of these linkages falls beyond the scope of this particular project, it is worth noting that the objective of many influential Renaissance writers seems on the surface very much like the one scholars attribute to Julia Peterkin and, as elements of her credo suggest, Peterkin ascribed to herself. A principal belief among Renaissance writers was that the geographical relocation and urbanization of black people would provide the means for innovative black cultural expression and that this, in turn, would re-shape the nation's cultural landscape, empowering black Americans to exercise the social and political rights that a democratic society guaranteed but that history denied them. In the novels of Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Rudolph Fisher, Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston, which lay bare the sordid sides of intracultural connections and the limits of progress for black women, black spatial freedom and authority are imagined as enabling and privileged rites. In the poetry of Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Arna Bontemps, which deploys indigenous expressions of black life as well as black urban experiences, manipulations of folk practices and customs facilitate the altruistic goals of exposing inequities, distinguishing the contributions of, and imagining greater cultural influence for black people in America. The suspicious nature of the resemblance between Peterkin's and Renaissance writers' manipulations of the trope of mobility is further obscured by the favor with which Renaissance personalities themselves praised Peterkin and her work.
In a review of Green Thursday (1924), for example, W. E. B. Du Bois described Peterkin as a "southern white woman" who nevertheless "has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth" ("Browsing" 81). Juxtaposing Black April with contemporary southern fiction, Alain Locke observed: "No novel has come out of the South more racy and redolent of its peculiar soil.... Blue Brook, the novel's fictional plantation setting, and its earthy plantation negroes is as carefully studied a portrayal of peasant life as American literature has yet produced" ("Negroes and Earth" 172). Of the same work, Countee Cullen remarked: "No attempt is made ... to burlesque the Negro or to make anything of him except a human being." (20) In a letter to Peterkin, James Weldon Johnson praised Scarlet Sister Mary as "a fine story ... written with great beauty, clear insight and deep sympathy." (21) In addition to these key figures, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Walter White also commended her work. In fact, of all the Renaissance notables who early commented on Peterkin or her writing, none cast either in a less than glowing light. (22)
That Harlem's collective testimony remains a kind of authenticating document that Peterkin scholars use to validate the value and accuracy of her fiction points to a layer of Peterkin's legacy that still needs excavating. I believe that excavating this testimony and other aspects of Peterkin's example will yield greater understanding of the complexity of her work. The rather revealing problem inherent in her enduring status as a white black writer is that she was, in fact, a conservative white southern woman writing on black subjects. Regardless of her concern for the black people who lived with and worked for her, Peterkin's fiction constructs an upwardly mobile black southern population that threatened her status as a modern plantation mistress. Her apparent desire to preserve her position in Lang Syne's economy exposes the contradiction in her reputation as a Realist recorder of the black American experience and makes the case for reading Peterkin's writing within a modernist framework much more salient.
(1.) I excerpt these comments from several drafts of On a Plantation, Peterkin's unpublished novel, collected among the Peterkin papers, Archives of the South Carolina Historical Society (SCHS), Columbia, South Carolina.
(2.) Mencken maintains that Peterkin elected to abandon the novel after submitting only one draft to him (My Life 374).
(3.) Peterkin was awarded a Pulitzer in 1929 for Scarlet Sister Mary. Her popularity as a writer spread rapidly in the aftermath of the publication of Green Thursday (1924), her first short story collection.
(4.) As Susan Williams notes, many early reviewers of Peterkin's work admittedly found it difficult to discern her race because of her penetrating portrayal of black culture ("A Devil' x). For example, see "[Review of] Black April," Chicago Defender, clipping, qtd. in Williams 82.
(5.) See, for example, Williams, Robeson, Ross, and Hutchinson.
(6.) See Perkerson; Meade, "Springtime Pilgrimage"; "Milestones"; Warren; Peterkin to Emily Clark (Apr. 1928) in Innocence Abroad 227; and Peterkin (letter) to W. H. Kovan, 20 Jan. 1938.
(7.) With the publication of "Missy's Twin" in Oct. 1922, Peterkin began receiving hate mail. The Columbia State, the most widely circulated newspaper in South Carolina and a paper born out of the state's anti-populist sentiments, refused to print original reviews of her work until the release of Black April. Peterkin's family also initially responded unfavorably to her writing. At the age of 21, Peterkin's son, Bill, fearing for the family's reputation, urged her to write about other white southern women or southern gentlemen, not black people. See Clark, Innocence Abroad 217; Lewis Jones 137; and Latimer 9-17.
(8.) Undated letter in Joel E. Spingarn collection.
(9.) For example, see Durham, intro, to Peterkin's Collected Short Stories 50; Rubin, William Elliott 252; O'Brien 53; and Davidson, Literary Correspondence 16, 19, 132, 260.
(10.) See especially Brickell, "Literary Awakening" 138-39; and Williams "Devil," x, 31 and" 'There's No Way'" 145.
(11.) "Groping in Literary Darkness," originally featured in Smart Set, was republished in H. L. Mencken's Smart Set Criticism as "The Negro as Author" (1968).
(12.) In her study of white women and politics in antebellum Virginia, Elizabeth Varon carries her analysis of this power paradox beyond conventional studies, refreshingly recognizing it as "a commitment to the traditional gender order, in which women deferred to the leadership of men, with a passion for politics and a desire to be heard" (9).
(13.) See Newby, Black Carolinians 200-01, and "Negroes Support Health Drive" 2.
(14.) See Carlton, 18-19, 40-41, 60-63, 115-16, 135, 161-62, and 244-45; Gerald Johnson, 71-72; and Kremm and Neal, 172-86.
(15.) For accounts of the case against the accused black Lowman family, see Walter White papers, October 20, 1928, and Rope and Faggots. See also Ginzburg 175-78.
(16.) See Mencken papers, 1922, 1925; Sandburg papers 1923; and "The Klan in 1928."
(17.) These patterns structurally recall Gertrude Stein's narrative technique in Three Lives as well as her conceptualization of migratory modernism in The Making of Americans.
(18.) Robeson argues that Peterkin shifts between antipastoral and pastoral modes in Black April and Scarlet Sister Mary to inflect Victorian and Modern affinities. See "The Ambiguity," 773-74 and 776. I disagree with this reading of the motive, and would argue instead that what appears to be antipastoral (e.g., the absence of white owners in the novels) is the strategic removal of some pastoral elements to accentuate others.
(19.) I borrow this term from Carter Woodson whose Mis-Education of the Negro (1933) re-orders history to highlight black contributions to American culture and evidence black oppression by standard knowledge systems.
(20.) Cullen, "Black April," Book Notes from Meridian Book Shop I (1927), in Julia Peterkin Author File, Bobbs-Merrill Manuscripts.
(21.) Johnson to Peterkin, 18 Aug. 1929, Bobbs-Merrill Manuscripts.
(22.) As many Peterkin scholars have noted, Peterkin often socialized with white Harlemites such as Carl Van Vechten in New York and Joel Spingarn at Lang Syne, her plantation home in Sumter, South Carolina. Hughes also visited Lang Syne, but Peterkin claims not to have been at home at the time of his arrival.
Bailey, Hugh and William Dale II. "Missus Alone in de 'Big House'." Alabama Review 8 (1955): 43-55.
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Nghana tamu Lewis is currently Asisstant Professor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University.
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|Author:||Lewis, Nghana tamu|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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