The reactions of my students to Lee's novel have not been unlike those of Smith's, who were "disconcerted" and "discomfited" by it. In fact, my students were openly hostile and angry - to the extent that I was barely able to conduct a rational discussion. Their aversion led me to conclude that, while the text does not lend itself to the classroom, there must be something very worthwhile talking about in Sarah Phillips if the text could trigger responses so utterly different from those generated by works of Gloria Naylor, Paule Marshall, Ann Petry, and Toni Morrison. For this reason alone I am most grateful to see the novel back in print.
One of the complaints of long standing among many African American readers of African American literature has been that the general reading population has not been interested in reading about black people, other than characters whose lives are totally consumed by race, and thus distorted - characters who are somehow stunted or less than whole individuals. Where in the literature, it has frequently been asked, is the voice of the well-fed, non-abused, physically healthy African American individual who grows up in a house with neither rats nor roaches, with both a father and mother to love her and a reasonably supportive community? Yet contrary to Mary Helen Washington's prediction that "a novel by a black writer which exalts class privilege and ignores racism is bound to find wide acceptance," Andrea Lee's novel, insofar as it does those things, has been clutched with fond regard to few bosoms. I would argue, along with Val Smith, that we need to explore this text because of what it reveals about the intersection of class values with those of color and race. If, as has been so frequently asserted, the black middle class, in achieving its socioeconomic goals, has traditionally abandoned the working and non-working (frequently unemployed these days) classes, then we should not shun a book that shows us something about that relationship. We should read it, study it, discuss it - not act as though it and whatever phenomena it represents do not exist. Whereas I believe there to be something in what Washington says about the novel, her words need tempering for, as Smith concludes in her forward, "Sarah Phillips promises to shed light upon middle-class African American life in the second half of the twentieth century."
The center of the novel, and the section I will concentrate my brief comments on, is the second chapter - chronologically earliest in time - titled "New African," for there the primary focus of the book, the relation of Sarah Phillips to African American history and culture, is addressed. Everything else in the novel surrounds this point in time, even the first chapter, which takes place long afterward, at the furthest reach of the novel's duration. The tension between the perspective of the retrospective narrator and the character is signaled by the bold and daring effrontery of the challenging, defying, and extraordinarily self-deprecating assertions of the narrator as she declares her existence to the reader:
The previous June I had graduated from Harvard, having just turned twenty-one. I was tall and lanky and light-skinned, quite pretty in a nervous sort of way; I came out of college equipped with an unfocused snobbery, vague literary aspirations, and a lively appetite for white boys. (4)
The "lively appetite for white boys" sets her at odds with her history only if she sees herself as African American, for knowledge and understanding of the African American past - the casual wholesale rape by white males of African American females - does not allow space for women who conceive of themselves as black yet have a "lively appetite for white boys" - except as, at best, self-confessed traitors to the race.
The basis of her appetite is her apparently (but only "apparently") successful struggle, as depicted in "New African," against the African American past as rendered in her firm resistance to the baptismal rite as administered by her father, a baptism which if undergone would signal her capitulation to the values of the African American past. The nightmare she has in the first chapter, "In France," about a struggle with an old black woman "with a dreadful spidery strength in her arms," emerges from the central episode of the novel, in "New African," where at the age of ten she literally engages in a physical struggle with the figure of her nightmare, an old black Philadelphia churchwoman, Aunt Bessie, who is her nursemaid. On a baptismal Sunday, Aunt Bessie, having decided that Sarah should "go on up and accept Jesus," proceeds to drag her down the aisle toward the baptismal pool. Sarah resists:
The two of us began a brief struggle that could not have lasted for more than a few seconds but that seemed an endless mortal conflict - my slippery patent-leather shoes braced against the floor, my straw hat sliding cockeyed and lodging against one ear, my right arm twisting and twisting in the iron circle of the old woman's grip, my nostrils full of the dead-leaf smell of her powder and black skirts. (28)
Then Sarah escapes and interprets it as a victory: "It was the first time I had won a battle with a grownup." If Sarah had indeed won the battle, then there would be no Sarah Phillips, for the whole novel is about the tensions arising from the problematics of her situation, not the least aspect of which involves her being the child of parents who, despite their commitment to the struggle for civil rights, nonetheless flee from the neighborhood of her father's church to the suburbs. The class differences between her family and the members of her father's congregation are glaringly apparent.
The first chapter, "In France," shows us the horrible results stemming from her rejection of her racial past. The second, "New African," reveals the primal source of her intolerable and unbearable situation in the world. The surrounding chapters show her discomfort, her disease in her non-African world, a world she seems willingly to have chosen and to relish. Her position is marginal, though, and she is forever haunted by the shadows of a past rejected and despised, but not wholly: "The ambiguousness of my rejection of the old church gave me at times an inflated sense of privilege (I saw myself as a romantically isolated religious heroine, a sort of self-made Baptist martyr [in the Western tradition of Joan of Arc]) and at other times a feeling of loss that I was too proud ever to acknowledge" (29).
Sarah Phillips tells of the narrator's attempt to acknowledge that past to the extent that she is able, to explain, perhaps to herself, why she is in the peculiar, psychologically distressing and deeply humiliating position she describes in "In France." In some profound ways the novel shows the price to be paid for rejecting the racial past, the resulting disrespect of self and the crushing diminishment of self-esteem. All these are painfully revealed in the first chapter when her "white boys" gratuitously insult her, signifying mercilessly about her parentage and birth, putting her in the dozens, a variety of cultural discourse she has presumably escaped but ironically has not.
The book is far more complicated than it at first appears. If Sarah Phillips were simply a celebration of the lightness of Sarah's color and the privilege of her class, then the book might be as politically contemptible as some readers have seen it as being. But there is more to it than that. The author is firmly aware of the tensions produced by the intersections of race, class, and color. The novel is something of a confessional enterprise, in which the author acknowledges the stress and guilt resulting not only from her failure to embrace her African past but also - and just as painfully - from her simultaneous denial of her father and mother, her personal, direct connections to the African American community and its past. Andrea Lee's Sarah Phillips is, as Smith's introduction makes abundantly clear, a novel to be reckoned with.
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|Author:||Gibson, Donald B.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1995|
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