African-American children and the case for community: Eleanora Tate's South Carolina trilogy.
A major source of discontent regarding children's books surfaced for Eleanora Tate when she moved to coastal South Carolina in 1978 and found practically no information on library shelves in her new environs which would help African-American children relate to their history and the history of their community. She was discouraged and disenchanted to find that so much material available to black children focused on slavery but was slanted from the white slave owners' perspective and was marked by a stereotyping and condescension offensive to African-American sensibilities. She thus decided to write a book with a positive viewpoint which would be carefully researched for historical accuracy involving South Carolina black children - modern children - reflecting back on their history. Her intent was to deal with the issue of slavery in terms of neighborhood history and in such a way as to diminish the attitude of shame she claims so many African-American youngsters have. This all-too-prevalent sense of shame is voiced early on by Raisin Stackhouse, the eleven-year-old heroine of The Secret of Gumbo Grove:
... when we read about people doing stuff in history class, it was always about White people when it came to Calvary County. Which was OK, but nobody ever mentioned anybody Black. And when I asked Miz Gore, my teacher, how come we never studied about anybody Black who did stuff around here, she said nobody Black around here had ever done anything good worth talking about. (5)
Seeking to promote the realism of neighborhood history, Tate starts from the premise that, by participating in the community life around them, children can see where they have come from, can learn the history of their particular locale. Her message to young readers, as Dianne Johnson points out in Telling Tales, is," 'This is your story, your history'" (56). In the process of reclaiming their community's past, Tate suggests, children acquire a broader historical perspective and may even find contemporary heroes just as accessible as those projected on the TV screen or those put forth as icons by popular culture. Raisin longs for more African-American heroic models like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and she has no trouble bridging past and present through such figures: "I liked heroes. And I liked to feel good about what people did back in the old days, because it helped me go ahead and feel good about now" (5). Even against the backdrop of such positive emotion, however, there lingers a sense of shame which slices in two directions as Raisin relays next how she is mocked by her friends for being interested in "old-timey stuff" and then admits her own embarrassment at her classmates' ignorance of such famous personages. By the end of the novel, Raisin will have relayed "her strong conviction that involving youth in history connects them to their roots and instills pride in who they are" (Zaidman 635).
In Gumbo Grove, Tate's young history-buff narrator discovers that there is much more to the history of her town than what she finds in her school books. The history of her community is closely linked with the history of her church, the New Africa No. 1 Missionary Baptist Church. Raisin is curious about the people buried in the old cemetery, but when she asks her father about the identity of those entombed there, his only response is, "'Dead people'" (5). However her elderly friend Miss Effie Pfluggins, who has been church secretary for almost half a century and who has the old church records, does know the histories of those who lie in the graveyard, and Raisin agrees to help clean up the old cemetery when Miss Effie offers to share her stories of the dead. Through the character of Miss Effie, Tate taps into the rich African-American oral tradition, thereby allowing Raisin to experience history through storytelling. Miss Effie's narratives are wide-ranging, moving from poignant old slave stories to the history of the prisoners' plot to a violent account of how Raisin's great uncle was dispossessed of valuable beach property by prominent members of the white community. These tales make history come alive for the child and fire her imagination, while simultaneously underscoring the need for African Americans to tell and hear their own stories and histories.
Miss Effie knows the significance of her storytelling and the value of the information she is passing on: "'There's things that've gone on... that you're never gonna read in any history book and that the Chamber of Commerce surely wouldn't want told'" (69). The story she tells about Raisin's great uncle Sarvis Exile is a case in point. A fisherman, Sarvis had owned a mile of waterfront property before investors had seen the potential for turning Gumbo Grove into a tourist attraction. When he refused to sell, Ku Klux Klan members burned his house; he lost his land, and within a short time a boardwalk, amusement rides, wax museums, and bingo parlors sprang up on his stretch of beach - all in the name of progress. Raisin's reaction to her relative's personal history is epiphanic:
My brain was whirling. He had it, he lost it, we never got it, but we should have. And I never knew! ... I was ready to rush home to tell everybody what we had almost owned. Almost! ... Nobody had the right to steal Uncle Sarvis's property like that! (56)
Sarvis's story of land loss is only one of many; Miss Effie says of the beachfront property," 'And it 'most all belonged to us then. We don't so much as own an inch of it now'" (44). From her elderly friend, Raisin learns that the history of Gumbo Grove has often been exclusionary: a narrative of so-called community progress. But Miss Effie's stories effectively deconstruct the popular presentation of the community's history as progress by revealing the cost of such "progress" to local African Americans. It is through the oral tradition, through the telling of her own remembered historical narrative that Miss Effie shares with Raisin one of the most empowering means of reclaiming the past.
The adult element of the community does not share the enthusiasm for local history that the old and young female characters do. Miss Effie knows all too well how attitudes of shame can filter down from generation to generation. The church elder who to Raisin is a source of fascinating historical information is, to the child's mother, an old woman "good for spreading gossip" and telling stories that aren't "pretty to hear" (26). To Raisin's father, Miss Effie, though loved by all, is someone who has "gone too far" with her storytelling because "people have a right to privacy about their history" (78). When Miss Effie announces during a Sunday service that she and Raisin hope to write the history of the old church cemetery, the project is immediately denounced as the "devilishness" of "spreading rumors and tales" (35-36). "'We've got to be strict,'" says Miss Effie's major opponent," 'when we go poking around in other folks' business'" (36). To many of Gumbo Grove's inhabitants, the past invokes shameful secrets; they seek to keep the fact of having slaves or prisoners in their background buried in the rundown, weed-ridden old graveyard. Raisin's father tells her sadly, "'Sometimes it's better to forget'" (146).
As Raisin continues to ask too many questions about the past and to delve too deeply into long-buried historical fact, she uncovers the "secret" of Gumbo Grove when Miss Effie covertly gives her the old church records. "'Those books right there are the only Black history Gumbo Grove has.... You got to read 'em and know'" (94), her elderly friend confides. The "secret" centers on the identity of the community's founder: Alexander Morgan Grove Dickson, nicknamed Gumbo and assumed to be white, lies in the old cemetery. Initially elated at her discovery, Raisin is plunged into a maze of confusion when she reads an 1887 entry in the church records regarding disapproval of placing a new granite tombstone on the founder's grave because it "would draw attention to the location of Mr. Dickson's grave and cause 'extended negative emotion amongst the White people'" (102). This exposure of old patterns of prejudice spurs Raisin to a series of probing questions about the present:
... would White people be bothered about the founder being Black if they were told now? ... And shouldn't Black people be proud ... ? Or would they? ... Would they be embarrassed? That's when I began to realize that there was much more to being a historian than I'd ever figured. Maybe I would stir up a lot of trouble and make people, White and Black, have buckets of "extended negative emotion" against me if I kept fiddling around in people's stuff. (102)
Though Raisin goes through a phase of guilt for paying attention to what her mother terms "that bunch of mess" (77) Miss Effie has told her, she eventually receives confirmation of her elderly friend's insistence that "sometimes people need to remember" (158). By redeeming Gumbo Grove's African-American past from oblivion, the child lays the groundwork for attitudinal shifts away from shame - a phenomenon which begins, significantly enough, within her own family. Reading the old church records, her family says," 'There are some really famous people around here; ... does anybody care?'" (148). Her mother admits," 'I've been caring for a long time, but especially ... about Uncle Sarvis.... The least I can do is go clean off his grave' "(149). Long-held silences are ultimately broken as local involvement in the project to renovate the old cemetery increases and Gumbo Grove's black community finally embraces not only its "secret," but its entire history, with pride. Miss Effie's homage to Raisin - "'You made all this happen. You and that history!'" (179) - broadens to include community-wide recognition when Gumbo Grove's young history buff is honored as the first recipient of a local service award. Eleanora Tate's novel strips away the polite ambiguities that all too often cloak representations of slavery and discrimination; it reminds us, none too gently, that silence ultimately only reinforces existing racial stereotypes and a child's confusion.
Unlike Raisin, Mary Elouise Avery, the protagonist of Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!, is bored and embarrassed by all the old-timey stuff of African-American history she is supposed to learn in school, yet she recognizes that such history should be a source of racial pride for her. The child worships Big Momma, the aging matriarch of the family, but more than once she manages to lose the black dolls given to her by this beloved role model; Mary Elouise is much happier playing with her white dolls and dreaming of how perfect things will be when a fair-skinned, blonde-haired classmate named Brandy becomes her best friend. bell hooks has observed in Black Looks that "too many ... black people live in a state of forgetfulness, embracing a colonized mind so that they can better assimilate into the white world" (191), and Mary Elouise's narrative would seem to replicate this phenomenon at the level of childhood. In this second novel about Gumbo Grove, cultural dualism leads to psychic tension, identified by Mary Elouise as a split between Mary Outside and Mary Inside (20); from this point of tension the entire book probes the question of whether this child-in-conflict will ever be accepting of who she is. Once again Tate touches on sensitive racial issues as she unfolds a child's struggle to disambiguate competing ideas about skin color, friendship, historical connections, and community pride.
At Gumbo Grove Elementary School we are taken inside a fourth-grade classroom to observe the dynamics of discrimination and the unwitting perpetuation of negative stereotypes through a teacher's ignorance and insensitivity. Mary Elouise seems to like her white teacher, Miss Vereen, well enough unless she's teaching African-American history in preparation for a school play: "Seemed like she found only shameful, old-timey stuff about my people to make us read" (14). Miss Vereen's choice of visual aids is even more embarrassing. She shows offensive pictures of poor blacks sitting on broken-down front porches, eating watermelon, and grinning, or she runs old filmstrips about South Carolina history replete with slaves sweeping floors and wearing rags around their heads (49). Her idea of instilling racial pride is to tell the class sweetly that those" 'who are our wonderful Negro Americans should be proud of what your people have done to rise from such lowly beginnings' "(13). When challenged on the issue of slavery while discussing the Civil War, Miss Vereen condescendingly announces,
"Slavery had nothing whatsoever to do with the war.... The slaves were happy and content. They had everything they needed. They were brought from an uncivilized place to a civilized one." (92)
The fact that in Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! such slurs seemingly stem from ignorance rather than from spite is perhaps Tate's most telling indictment against prejudice. Late in the novel Mary Elouise recalls yet another Vereen gem of wisdom, this one on the topic of poverty: "Miz Vereen said that our folks were all poor, digging in the dirt and picking cotton and tobacco until baseball and basketball came along" (192).
Given such a classroom environment, it is hardly surprising that Mary Elouise, who wants desperately to be in the school play, should balk at her part as narrator of the black history skit. When a black teacher tells Mrs. Avery of her daughter's embarrassment about narrating the achievements of African Americans like Dr. King, she claims Mary Elouise has "a LIT-tle attitude problem" (63). Mrs. Avery defends her daughter, challenging that any teacher who thinks Mary Elouise is ashamed of her race isn't rowing with both oars in the water (64). But her ensuing interrogation of the child when they are alone gives Mary Elouise a big attitude problem when Mrs. Avery mocks her daughter's dark skin and calls her" 'a stupid little ole ugly Black thing'" (67). The girl reacts, predictably, with humiliation:
When kids called each other stupid or ugly or Black, it was one thing. When you own mother called you names like that, it was worse, like it was true. She made me feel ashamed that I had this ole dark skin. I wished I was light-skinned, like she was, or white. (68)
Even after apologizing, her mother says sternly," 'And you're gonna get up on that stage and do [that black history narrator's part] so everybody'll know that you're not ashamed' "(69).
Tate turns once again to the richness of the African-American storytelling tradition as a means of presenting historical perspectives which run counter to those voiced by Mary Elouise's teacher and which can simultaneously reverse such inculcations of shame as those articulated by Mrs. Avery. The appearance at her school of two local members of the National Association of Black Storytellers, attired in traditional African garb and telling awe-inspiring tales of African ancestry, is nothing short of a revelation for Mary Elouise. She confesses, "I thought there were only cannibals and monkeys and lions in Africa, like Miz Vereen said" (105). The child is particularly attracted to the beautiful young woman named Imani Afrika, whom she dubs "the storytelling lady" (104); Imani, a native South Carolinian, stuns Mary Elouise when she relates how as a child she used to pretend she had blonde hair, blue eyes, and light skin (131) because she was "what the old people called 'color struck'" (132). Mary Inside is caught off guard:
This woman was reading my mind. I tried changing the subject. "Are you a real African?"
"I said African-American, which means my ancestors came from Africa, just like yours did."
"I ain't African," I said. "I was born in South Carolina."
Miz Imani laughed. "... just like me. You will always have your African heritage. Be proud of it." (132)
Shortly after the storytellers' visit to her school, Mary Elouise spends a weekend with Big Momma, the dark-skinned grandmother after whom she is named. Not long before that weekend the child had experienced a flash of generation-bridging insight about skin color that makes her feel less self-conscious: "Miz Imani sure was pretty.... And of course, Big Momma was!" (135). Mary Elouise seeks comfort in Big Momma by unburdening herself about what troubles her most: her inability to make the blonde-haired Brandy her best friend, the misinformation from Miss Vereen, and the abuse her mother has heaped on her. Carrying the wisdom of the ages, Big Momma's consoling words give perspective to what has occurred and act as a balm to Mary Elouise's low self-esteem. When her granddaughter shares a book on African history given to her by Imani, Big Momma confirms the storyteller's message: "'So you don't need to ever be ashamed 'cause some of our kin were slaves. There was a whole lot more to us than what we did to keep the master happy' "(171). When she tells the child a family story about her great-great-grandmother Lela, who had come straight from Africa and had tribal scars on her face, Mary Elouise wants to know if this ancestor had a bone in her nose and went naked. Reassuring Mary Elouise that Lela had no bone in her nose and definitely wore clothes, Big Momma underlines a lesson about the oral tradition that Raisin had learned from Miss Effie:
"But it's all right for you to ask questions, Namesake.... If you don't ask, you won't know. Your questions make me remember, so I can pass everything on to you." (173)
The combined effects of what Mary Elouise has learned in school and what she has culled from the storytelling of Imani and Big Momma lead her to recognize of the fact that history is "composed of competing and conflicting representations and meanings" (Peterson 984). It is the powerful influence of the oral tradition, however, which is ultimately transformative and which resolves the tension between Mary Outside and Mary Inside. Mary Elouise becomes the proud and confident narrator of the black history skit and thanks not only Dr. King, but all African-American heroes, for helping to set all people free. She enters into "the kinship of a shared community of experience," thereby becoming an active participant in that "crucial continuity between past and present that must be maintained in order to insure the future" (Fisher 148).
Like its sister novels, the third book of Eleanora Tate's South Carolina Trilogy exposes the intricate web of interconnections between family and community problems; simultaneously, it moves in a new direction to explore from an African-American child's coign of vantage increasingly complex issues of personal and social conscience. How does a young girl cope with the pressures of competing family loyalties? What is her role when drugs, violence, and crime invade her usually sleepy rural town and begin to destroy it? Where does her individual responsibility lie when the agent of this destruction is her own father? A Blessing in Disguise probes deeply into such questions, revealing that life rarely provides easy answers or tidy resolutions. With a carefully crafted combination of realism and sensitivity, Tate delivers a timely wake-up message young readers need to hear.
The narrative voice of twelve-year-old Zambia Brown in A Blessing in Disguise gives compelling expression to a pre-adolescent's dream of the good life: expensive clothes, flashy jewelry, fancy cars, ready cash. The product of a broken home, Zambia finds life with her cousin Aretha and her kindly but old-fashioned Aunt Limo and Uncle Lamar in their "itsy-bitsy, countrified, do-nothing" town of Deacons Neck to be the epitome of deadly dull existence (1). She trusts her luck is about to change, however, when her father, a shady smooth-talker named Vernon "Snake" LaRange, opens a new nightclub on her street. The child projects her hopes onto her father because it is easier than coping with her chaotic feelings about her alcoholic, drug-addicted mother, who is permanently hospitalized in Charleston: "When kids asked what was wrong with her, I said she had cancer.... I didn't let myself think too much about her." This shame-ridden admission is immediately followed by an ego-soothing counter-confession: "I thought about my daddy, Snake, a lot" (5). As these thoughts consume her more and more, they fuel her fantasies and energize her imagination. Just as Mary Elouise's overindulgence of her daydreams about befriending the fair-skinned Brandy in Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! has contributed to the tension between Mary Outside and Mary Inside, so Zambia's escape into ever-increasing flights of fancy about Snake plunges her into denial and dramatically diminishes her ability to distinguish reality from illusion.
Zambia is attracted to Snake's flash and glitter, and she is fond of bragging to her friend Lupe," 'Girl, my daddy's rich, rich, rich!' "(36). By refusing to see beyond this glitzy surface image, her childish imagination embraces his lifestyle as the essence of glamor. Such romanticized notions are predicated on a desperate need to fill the void of paternal absence by shaping Snake in the image of a newly caring parent. Zambia herself perceives at least the basic operative of this need clearly enough and expresses it to her friend early on:" 'Lupe, see, it's like I wish I had my own family. You and Aretha got you own dads right there with you. I don't'" (31). This clarity of insight is rapidly clouded, however, as is evidenced by the following exchange in which Lupe reminds Zambia of those who really care for her:
"And give your uncle some credit for feeding your silly behind all these years...."
"Okay, Uncle Lamar's all right. I just want it better. Maybe Snake has a bank account set up for me. Maybe he has me in his will. Maybe - ." (43)
The word maybe increasingly becomes the key to Zambia's far flung hopes, and when Snake opens his nightclub in Deacons Neck, her fantasizing goes into frenzy: Maybe now the father who has always had as little to do with her as possible will invite her to live with him and her fifteen-year-old twin half-sisters, Meritta and Seritta, in Gumbo Grove; maybe now they can be a "real" family and business partners, "Snake and Daughters, Inc." (65); maybe now he'll "buy her new clothes and teach her stuff, straight up, and everything'll be def" (85).
As we witness the dynamics of deepening denial, it becomes clear that Zambia's illusions about Snake are increasing in direct proportion to the number of reality checks she receives. The more others present her with evidence about the sordid reality lurking beneath her father's facade, the more defensive, defiant, and possessive of her fantasies she becomes. The clues about her father come from a wide variety of sources: an elderly neighbor, her aunt and uncle, her pastor, Lupe, and even Snake himself, who warns, "'This is a lesson from your ole man to you. Never do a deal unless you know exactly what you're gonna get' "(67). These words presage the inevitable downward spiral which will ultimately force Zambia to the painful recognition that her father is in truth everything his nickname implies.
Despite the mounting physical evidence of the negative impact her father's club is having on her neighborhood, Zambia chooses to attach blame to others. Even when she and Aretha find a crack vial in their own yard, her thoughts are still protective of her fantasies:
Maybe Snake could put up NO LITTERING and NO DRUGS signs. Maybe he could make folks not bring drugs over to Silver Dollar Road in the first place. I mean, it was making him look bad, like everything was his fault. I wanted him to look as good to everybody ... as he did to me. (113-14)
Zambia's persistent, desperate attempts to reconcile the flesh-and-blood Snake with her fantasized image of a newly caring father are shattered in an explosive encounter with her uncle. Frustrated and angry with his niece's obstinate refusal to see beyond Snake's flashy exterior, Lamar exposes some brutal truths about the man who has "nothing under his flash but evil ways" (115):
"That guy fed your momma cocaine till she went crazy, then turned her out in the street to be a hooker - . ... He's your father, true, but he's no good." (116)
Nearly hysterical, Zambia runs to Snake in search of refuge, but he just laughs as he closes the door in her face: "'Shuh, I ain't got time for that.'" Having hoodwinked herself for so long, the shock of reality is piercing:
How could Snake have done that to me? He'd promised! But he called me stupid like he didn't care about what happened to me. And laughed at me! (117)
A major turning point in the novel occurs for this child in crisis when Limo at last reveals the entire unsavory history of Zambia's parents: "'... now you know the truth from somebody who loves you'" (146). Having "bawled like [she] thought [she] was gonna die" (147), the release of tears makes the burden of reality bearable: "Reality was that my mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict and dying, and my father was a criminal, but it wasn't my fault, and I still loved them both" (146-47). Not only is Zambia finally able to accept reality herself, she is also able to facilitate Limo's acceptance by suggesting that her aunt's failure to sign a local petition against her brother ought to be rectified: "'Shouldn't you face reality and move on too ... ?'" (147). Not until Zambia and two other youths are victims of a drug-related shooting, however, are neighbors stirred to stage a Unity in the Community march to make their street drug-free. And only then does Zambia fully comprehend the wisdom of the age-old dictum that even the most painful situation can be a blessing in disguise. The heroine of the last book of the South Carolina Trilogy ultimately becomes one of those resilient children described by Joyce Hansen as "strong enough not to follow the crowd even when the crowd turns out to be members of their own families" (645), and as such she is a convincing channel for values considered by Tare to be essential to the education of middle-grade readers.
Eleanora Tate's imperative as an author is to tell the story of the competing dynamics of African-American children's lives, in their own language and from their unique perspective. Her novels shed light on pockets of ambivalence and darkness and confusion in children's experience; through their rich cultural linkages her works create unique contexts of heritage. Through the medium of realistic African-American children's fiction, the South Carolina Trilogy creates both historical and ethical contexts "for the young within which they can interpret and respond more positively to the circumstances of their present lives" (Moore and MacCann 37). By means of very different paths, the protagonists of The Secret of Gumbo Grove, Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and A Blessing in Disguise come to recognize the value of community and a concomitant responsibility to themselves as active contributors to that community. Only through such recognition, Tate's fiction suggests, can African-American children be empowered.
Fisher, Dexter, ed. The Third Woman. Boston: Houghton, 1980.
Hansen, Joyce. "Young Adult Books." Horn Book 63 (Sep.-Oct. 1987): 644-46.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End P, 1992.
Johnson, Dianne. Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth. New York: Greenwood, 1990.
Moore, Opal, and Donnarae MacCann. "On Canon Expansion and the Artistry of Joyce Hansen." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15 (Spring 1990): 33-37.
Peterson, Nancy. "History, Postmodernism, and Louise Erdrich's Tracks." PMLA 109 (1994): 982-93.
Tate, Eleanora. A Blessing in Disguise. New York: Delacorte, 1995.
-----. The Secret of Gumbo Grove. New York: Bantam, 1988.
-----. Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! New York: Bantam, 1992.
Zaidman, Laura. "Eleanora Tate." Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. Ed. Laura Standley Berger. Detroit: St. James P, 1994. 634-35.
Carole Brown Knuth is Professor of English at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York. Her areas of specialization include Irish studies, contemporary British literature, and ethnic American fiction. She has published numerous articles on James Joyce and has most recently focused her scholarly activity on Southern women writers, especially those in the field of children's literature.
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|Author:||Knuth, Carole Brown|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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