Somebody else's foremother: David Haynes and Zora Neale Hurston.
It is not late-breaking news that literary criticism is another form of storytelling, of mythmaking. (Deborah E. McDowell, "Reading" 118)
Introduction: Possessing the Secret of Their Eyes Were Watching God
David Haynes's 1995 novel Somebody Else's Mama "takes the trouble to record the thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds of black women," while its narrative logic ultimately leads to what Mary Helen Washington terms a "common scene recurring in the fiction of black women writers," a scene in which women "share intimacies that can be trusted only to a kindred female spirit" ("' Darkened Eye'" 35). Washington, in her lucid and impassioned 1987 essay" 'The Darkened Eye Restored': Notes Toward a Literary History of Black Women," cites the friendship between Janie Crawford and Pheoby Watson in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as providing one of the clearest enactments of that "common scene" in black women's literature. According to Washington, the conversation between Janie and Pheoby at the novel's end represents an exemplary moment of "female bonding," itself a prerequisite for women's "self-definition" (36). Similarly drawn together and defined by shared story, Paula Johnson and Miss Xenobia Kezee - the central characters in David Haynes's Somebody Else's Mama - are also talking just to each other at the end of the book. The novel thus ends with a convention Washington associates with African American women's literature in general, and Their Eyes Were Watching God in particular. By thus implicitly declaring himself and Somebody Else's Mama to be sympathetic, "kindred spirits" of Hurston and her novel, Haynes intervenes in conventionally gendered constructions of an African American literary tradition.
Their Eyes Were Watching God has constituted one of the most common sites for a contemporary, critical, and textual form of bonding among many African American women literary intellectuals. A number of contemporary black feminist writers and critics (Alice Walker, most famously) have dated their introduction and conversion to the study of African American women's writing from their first encounter with Hurston's novel. Their reading of the book, along with an account of the reading experience as personally and intellectually transformative, has provided them a means of self-definition as black feminist literary critics. These accounts often engage a rhetoric of possessives: The women possess, or are possessed by, Hurston and Their Eyes.
Sherley Anne Williams, in her foreword to the 1978 University of Illinois Press re-issue of the book, recounts her initial, graduate school encounter with Hurston in a time when "Afro-American literature was still an exotic subject" (vi). Having to share with other students the few available copies of a then-out-of-print Their Eyes, Williams reports that, when it had "finally become [her] turn to read" the book, she "became Zora Neale's for life" (vii). Mary Helen Washington, in her foreword to the 1990 Harper & Row edition of Their Eyes, traces a similarly possessive, but more collective, history for black women readers and teachers of Hurston's text:
Like most of my friends and colleagues who were teaching in the newly formed Black Studies departments in the late sixties, I can still recall quite vividly my own discovery of Their Eyes.... Andrea Rushing, then an instructor in the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, remembers reading Their Eyes in a women's study group with Nellie McKay, Barbara Smith, and Gail Pemberton.... By 1971, Their Eyes was an underground phenomenon, surfacing here and there, wherever there was a growing interest in African-American studies - and a black woman literature teacher. (viii-x)
According to this history, the initial reemergence of Hurston's text coincides with the emerging presence of black women literature teachers in the academy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Washington assigns credit for the mid-to-late-1970s' "full bloom" of "the Zora Neale Hurston renaissance" to Alice Walker's remarkable recovery effort, along with Robert Hemenway's 1977 literary biography (x).
But Washington is not so unambivalently celebratory of what she terms "the third wave of critical attention to Their Eyes," a wave initiated, she argues, by a mixed-gender debate (during a 1979 MLA session) about "voice" in Hurston's text. She recalls that, in response to Robert Stepto's assertion that Janie never truly attains her voice in Their Eyes, "Alice Walker rose and claimed hers" (xi-xii). Walker's impulse to "claim hers" (that is, both her own voice and her own book) epitomizes what Washington describes as a kind of reluctance to lose possession of Their Eyes: "If we were protective of this text and unwilling to subject it to literary analysis during the first years of its rebirth, that was because it was a beloved text for those of us who discovered in it something of our own experiences, our own language, our own history" (xiii). This passage invokes not only a rhetoric of representation and possession, but also one of family: More exactly, it establishes a literary-critical matrilineage. Hurston's 1937 text, "reborn" via the midwifery of writer/intellectuals of the '60s-'90s, becomes at once the daughter and the mother of one version of the literary history of black women in the U.S. since the Harlem Renaissance.
With the 1995 publication of his novel Somebody Else's Mama, David Haynes gently alters that received and gendered literary genealogy: He chooses "somebody else's" foremother. His clear indebtedness to Hurston and to Their Eyes Were Watching God could be said, then, to render him a literary "son," one who, to paraphrase Mary Helen Washington, not only "takes the trouble to record the thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds of black women," but places their "experiences... of being black in America" at the center of his novel's content, as well as its form. On the other hand, such crossing of gender lines in contemporary fiction could also suggest that conventional, familial models for literary tradition may not fit as well as they have in the past.
The Politics of Literary Lineage
Ralph Ellison famously proclaimed in "The World and the Jug" (a 1963-64 essay rebutting Irving Howe's "Black Boys and Native Sons") that, "while one can do nothing about choosing one's relatives, one can, as artist, choose one's 'ancestors' "(140). Ellison chose for his own literary ancestry, not Richard Wright - whom he acknowledges only as a non-chosen "relative" - but Hemingway, Malraux, Dostoevski, and Faulkner (140). Obviously, the selection of a literary ancestry always carries a political, as well as an aesthetic, agenda. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his introduction to Reading Black, Reading Feminist, notes that, "whereas most older black male writers deny any black influence at all - or [like Ellison] eagerly claim a white paternity - female authors often claim descent from other black women writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston [e.g., Alice Walker] and Ann Petry [e.g., Ann duCille]" (3-4).
For Mary Helen Washington, as for a number of other black feminist writers and critics, the recovery and creation of a black women's literary lineage has provided a much-needed source of "self-definition"; that is, a literary and critical representation of a black, female, writerly self long erased, demeaned, and ignored by histories, canons, syllabi, and departments of English and American literature. Werner Soilors has cautioned that such sustained privileging of "ethnicity" (over, say, "assimilation") can lead to "an isolationist, group-by-group approach that emphasizes 'authenticity' and cultural heritage within the individual, somewhat idealized group" (xiv). In her essay" 'The Darkened Eye Restored,' "Washington may indeed have "somewhat idealized" the black female literary tradition as being distinguished (particularly apart from African American men's writing) by its sisterly "intimacy" and "kindred spirit." But there have been, and are, clear benefits to establishing an "idealized" group identity based on ethnicity, gender, and other categories of subjectivity; Washington's essay, along with its positive portraiture, helped to identify and to correlate a powerful set of texts - and critics.(1)
Deborah McDowell, in her recent "vote to preserve the category black feminist criticism," describes such aggregation of and among black women scholars as a process of "affective affiliation" ("New Directions" 1920), following Africanist critic Abiola Irele's formulation. Irele emphasizes in his historical contextualization of the Negritude movement "the need felt by the deprived group for a sustaining vision of the collective self and of its destiny" (85). He argues further that Negritude "has been largely a strategy with which to confront the contingencies of history" (113). Up to this point, Irele's formulation indeed seems to describe much black feminist literary criticism from the 1970s and '80s. However, despite his initial acknowledgment of the contingent, historical qualities of the Negritude movement, Irele then risks the label essentialist by asserting the "fundamental unity of African thought underlying the various forms of ideological expression in Africa" as well as the existence of an "African mind" (113). His model of affective affiliation, then, may well match the rhetoric of unity and sisterhood that characterized much black feminist criticism during the 1970s. However, few black feminist scholars today would assert that "fundamental unity of thought" obtains, or has obtained, among them. Indeed, as McDowell herself puts it, "black feminist criticism is an internally (and productively) fragmented discourse" ("New Directions" 20).
By contrast, Irele's model of affective affiliation depends upon a marriage of critical and creative texts which testifies to and constructs an essential commonality among modern Africans. For Irele, the critic is not so much a storyteller or mythmaker, as McDowell observes ("Reading" 118), but a "mediator between the writer's consciousness and the responses of his larger audience of readers" (32). Along with T. S. Eliot, Irele believes the "critical" and "creative," or "affective" and "intellectual," faculties to be distinct, though interdependent, in their forging of a distinct literary tradition (32). The modern Africanist literary critic's task, he argues, is to "give a true reflection of the work," while demonstrating and assessing its "integrity and specificity," its Africanness (33).
Irele thus creates a signifying chain among the "embodiment of an African spirit," the "affective," and "literary creation in Africa today." For modern Africa, he believes, it is primarily "in and through literature" that "a distinctive mode of thought and feeling" is to be realized (174). Irele associates a certain kind of empowering identity formation with the emotional content of fiction (153), while he believes it to be the business of critics to disclose that content (40). Irele's "affective affiliation" represents, then, not a literary-critical model for intellectual aggregation (like that among contemporary African Americanist, feminist literary scholars), but a literary-emotional model for a critically mediated, historically and geographically local, and contingent community paradoxically founded upon an essential "African self" (153). It is precisely this sort of representational function (for authors, literature, or criticism) that scholars such as Deborah McDowell and Hazel Carby reject.
For example, both McDowell and Carby have questioned Zora Neale Hurston's pre-eminence, her representative status, within many contemporary constructions of an African American women's literary lineage. In her 1987 book Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, Carby contends that Hurston's oft-assumed status as "founder" of such a tradition rests upon literary-historical inaccuracy, or at least partiality (198n12). She objects to Hurston's "ahistorical" concentration on the rural folk (165), arguing that to privilege a Hurston-Walker lineage is "effectively [to] marginalize the fictional urban confrontation of race, class, and sexuality" rendered in the works of writers such as Larsen, Petry, West, Brooks, and Morrison (175). McDowell, too, has cautioned against the assignment of an exclusive literary maternity to Hurston. She points out in a 1984 essay that, "while much has been made (with Walker's encouragement) of Walker's obvious debt to Zora Neale Hurston, there has been virtually no acknowledgment that she owes an equal, though different, debt to black women writers before Hurston." McDowell reminds us that to focus on Celie's folk voice in The Color Purple at the expense of Nettie's letters is to neglect the "written" legacy of nineteenth-century black women writers like Frances E. W. Harper ("'Changing Same'" 46).
Yet Hurston remains foundational in many versions of African American women's literary tradition, and a by-now almost reflexive, matrilineal pairing of Walker and Hurston has persisted throughout the '80s and into the '90s. As recently as 1993, Hurston and Walker scholar Lillie P. Howard edited a volume titled Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston: The Common Bond. In the volume's preface, Howard maintains that the Hurston-Walker "connection is compelling, spiritual, literary, haunting, comforting, timeless, and adequate grist for our literary mills" (xiii). This notion of a nearly mystical, certainly familial, bond between the two writers was launched by Walker herself in several essays from the 1970s(2) and in her 1979 anthology of Hurston's writings I Love Myself When I Am Laughing. Walker in the '70s wrote explicitly of "the happy relatedness of Zora, my mother, and me" ("Saving" 12). Subsequently, many black feminist scholars of the '80s and '90s went on to establish literary-formal links between Walker and Hurston.(3) In 1985, SAGE published an essay by Alma S. Freeman about the "spiritual kinship" of Hurston and Walker, and in 1987, it published Geraldine Smith-Wright's "Revision as Collaboration: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as Source for Alice Walker's The Color Purple." Smith-Wright argues that the Hurston-Walker "collaboration" provides a black, woman-centered model of cooperative literary relationship quite unlike Harold Bloom's white, male-centered "competitive" theory of the "anxiety of influence" (20-21).
Such a move to revise or replace Bloomian "anxiety of influence" as a model for literary lineage has characterized much consciously political and oppositional literary criticism of the past two decades[middle dot] Twenty-six years after the publication of The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, feminist, black feminist, and queer literary studies practitioners are still grappling with Bloom's model, along with its oedipal foundation (Bloom 5-14). Ironically, it is exactly the gendered, raced, and familial nature of Bloom's model to which its critics generally object[middle dot] Christopher Lane's 1993 essay "Gay Tradition and the Anxiety of Influence" cites the "problem of legacy and affiliation" inherent in another critic's model of a "male homosexual literary tradition," a model that still relies (a la Bloom) on a "patrimonial metaphor between writer and reader" (296-97). Perhaps the earliest and most well-known feminist revision of the anxiety of influence came in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). Citing the masculinism inherent in Bloom's model of "strong [male] poets" who wish to deny the influence of their literary predecessors, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar ascribed "anxiety of authorship" (rather than influence) to white British women writers of the nineteenth century. Gilbert and Gubar asserted that the woman poet's lack of known literary ancestors, coupled with her alienation from male contemporaries, made for an anxious experience of authorship itself (45-49).
In 1985, Dianne Sadoff added race and class to the mix, arguing that "we must revise" both "Bloom's and Gilbert and Gubar's models of influence" when "we consider contemporary women writers of color" (5). Sadoff develops a "revised theory of literary influence" on the basis of what she terms a "black matrilineage" from Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker[middle dot] In describing the Walker-Hurston connection, Sadoff seeks to replace Bloom's "masculine models of family structure" with "female-centered paradigms" (9) and to replace the "ambivalence" and "anxiety" of Gilbert and Gubar's model with "idealized but necessary celebration" (12). Here she joins the many black feminist critics who have underscored black women writers' tendency toward "political and cultural alliance ... across generations" (Sadoff 12). For example, Deborah McDowell, although she does not embrace the notion of a unique or singular Hurston-Walker maternal line, does concur about the feminist collectivity that more generally distinguishes literary influence among black women writers. According to McDowell, that influence indeed does not follow a Bloomian, oedipal model of literary anxiety - nor does it follow an "adversarial and parodic" Gatesian model of "signifyin(g)." Black women writers, McDowell points out, often "reverently acknowledge their debts to their literary foremothers" ("'Changing Same'"48). Thus, there appears to be agreement among feminist African Americanist critics that Bloomian anxiety of influence does not provide a good model on which to organize an African American women's literary tradition (or any nonwhite/heterosexual/male literary tradition, for that matter).(4) But neither, as we have seen above, does Irelian affective affiliation, whose essential, familial subtext - though certainly more subtle - is unmistakable.
Indeed, the term affiliation itself bears closer analysis in this context. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word affiliate derives from the Latin ad (meaning 'to') + fili-us (meaning 'a son'). The OED dates the earliest usage of the term affiliation from 1751, when it meant 'adoption; the act of taking a son.' Among the ancient Gauls, the OED reports, "affiliation was a sort of adoption only practiced among the great." As of the mid-nineteenth century, affiliation was still very much associated with an accession to power, although not necessarily a male one: The term signified an alliance of a lower, subordinate, or younger branch of a particular lineage or organization with a higher, central, or more established branch. This history of the word discloses its etymological traces of hierarchy and patriarchy. At the same time, this etymology reveals a striking similarity between Irele's "affective affiliation" and Bloom's "anxiety of influence." The term affiliation, with a lineage steeped in maleness and power, highlights the dangers (if not the inappropriateness) of ascribing either an Irelian or a Bloomian - and therefore gendered and familial - model to contemporary scholarly and literary communities.(5) David Haynes's implicit intervention in received African American literary lineages may help us identify an alternative model, one that does not rely so surely on a metaphor of a male- or female-headed literary household.
Affiliation versus Consolidation: Somebody Else's Mama in a Black Feminist Literary Tradition
David Haynes achieves in his 1995 novel Somebody Else's Mama precisely what Mary Helen Washington and Geraldine Smith-Wright in the late 1980s associated exclusively with African American women's writing. Somebody Else's Mama acknowledges its debt to an African American woman's literary legacy, while it recognizes, centers on, depicts, and values the intellectual and emotional vitality - the interior life of its black women characters. At the same time, the novel is quite aware of what Ann duCille in 1994 termed "the pain and disappointment" which result from the failure - or at least the present-day unachievability - of many forms of healthy community, especially a diverse scholarly community concerned with the careful study of African American women's stories (duCille 624). Nevertheless, Haynes's novel persists in its constructive imagination and assertion of alternatives to habitual models of community, including literary community. To begin with, Somebody Else's Mama represents a perhaps unprecedented connection between an African American male writer and an African American female literary "ancestor." Benedict Anderson argues that communities are "to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined" (6). In Somebody Else's Mama, Haynes imagines (both literal and literary) community in a particularly feminist and sympathetic style.
If Haynes could be said to possess a Jamesian imaginative sensibility, that sensibility is most evident in his portraits of women characters, as nearly every reviewer of his novels has noted. Michael Harris of the Los Angeles Times notes that Haynes "is especially good with his women characters" (60). Novelist Sandra Scofield notes "the strength of the women" in Haynes's 1996 novel Live at Five, a book she finds otherwise unremarkable (11). In The New York Times Book Review, author Jill McCorkle describes Miss Kezee, the "cantankerous old woman" and title character of Somebody Else's Mama, as having "the old-time strength of Eudora Welty's Phoenix Jackson and the sharp-tongued wit of Tina McElroy Ansa's modern-day matriarchs" (21). Significantly, McCorkle here compares Haynes and Miss Kezee specifically to two American women writers and their women characters. In fact, Haynes and his Somebody Else's Mama locate themselves most readily in relation to an African American women's literary tradition - in part by their implicit claiming of Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God as literary predecessors.
Haynes's treatment of Hurston and her most famous novel matches black feminist critic Geraldine Smith-Wright's criteria for the "empathetic" revision of the works of "earlier sister-writers" (21). Somebody Else's Mama responds to Their Eyes most obviously at the level of plot and narrative detail, but also corresponds to Hurston's work more subtly through its exploration of the potential for, and power of, a collective identity for African American women. Granted, Somebody Else's Mama does not precisely match Their Eyes in either form or content. But, as Smith-Wright argues in regard to Their Eyes and The Color Purple, although "two writers' subjects might not be parallel with regard to content and tone, when the later writer re-sees the antecedent work through her artistic imagination, the result is a new text that responds creatively and sympathetically to its predecessor" (21).
Somebody Else's Mama is about a contemporary, middle-class, African American family living in the small, all-black Missouri town of River Ridge.(6) Al and Paula Johnson, both in their late thirties, were college sweethearts who married and now have twin eleven-year-old sons. Paula is a middle school teacher (as Haynes himself has been), and Al, who owns, writes, and edits the local newspaper, is running for mayor. Paula is the product of a wealthy St. Louis home; after her father died when she was only five, her mother took over his thriving insurance business, ran it with resounding success, and raised Paula to do things "right" - that is, according to rigid, upper-class standards (100). Al, too, was raised in a well-to-do, but decidedly less high-brow, home in River Ridge, where he and Paula and their sons now live. When Al's mother, Xenobia Johnson Kezee, takes ill in her St. Paul home, Paula decides that they must take her in, in part to compensate for her neglect of her own mother during her illness and death several years earlier. But the stubborn and colorful Miss Kezee, as Al's mother calls herself, proves a difficult familial project for Paula. The relationship between the two women - its tensions and its resolution - lies at the heart of the novel and provides the setting (the "common scene") for its realization of connection between African American women across lines of age, color, and class.
Al and his mayoral candidacy, on the other hand, provide a context for the novel's imagination (without realization) of other forms of connection. Al is running on a platform of "consolidation." He and his campaign manager, his long-time friend Walter, are proposing that River Ridge merge with a nearby, mostly white town in order to prevent the dissolution of both towns as a result of economic and social decline.(7) This notion of "consolidation" metaphorizes the novel's presiding questions: How and with whom should we construct our alliances, with whom should we identify? The novel examines "consolidation" based on a wide range of categories and criteria: family and "blood" relationship, race, gender, economic interests, class, region, sexual orientation, and sexual attraction. It also imagines the possibility of "consolidation" across, or in spite of, such categories - specially family, race, class, and gender. Somebody Else's Mama does not resolve all the complex questions of alliance that it poses, but it does take narrative steps toward such resolution. Formally, the novel "consolidates" the stories of its characters by shifting smoothly from one character's perspective and consciousness to another's - with Hurston-like free indirect discourse in combination with first- and third-person narration establishing these narrative shifts. Indeed, to a degree formally, and certainly thematically, Hurston's Their Eyes proves to be a powerful textual "kindred spirit" for Haynes's novel.
Like the all-black Georgia town presided over by Joe Starks in The/r Eyes, Haynes's River Ridge has a history of black governance. Al's father, who is now dead, was a long-time mayor of River Ridge - and he bears more than a passing resemblance to Hurston's ("'I God'") Mayor Starks. Al Senior woos and subdues his wife - Al's mother, Miss Kezee - in much the same way Jody won Janie Crawford Killicks. Miss Kezee remembers, in the vernacular voice that distinguishes her perspective,
There I am, at home, living in St. Paul, having me a good life. Had me a little piece of job. Some money. And here come that old A. B. Johnson.... Fool say, "Come on down the river with me. We got us a town got nothin but Negroes. We run the whole thing. You like it down there." Talking all that kind of mess.... Talking about how down in River Ridge he own this and he own that and weren't no more important colored man in all a northern Missouri. (78)
Unfortunately, Al Senior is also even more repressive and abusive than Joe Starks. As Miss Kezee (then Mrs. Johnson) says to him," 'You don't want me.... You say it very day. The way you talk to me. The way you look at me. Don't feel like nothing around here. Almost since I came here'" (152). But Miss Kezee has her Tea Cake, as well, in the form of her lover, and later husband, Charlie Kezee:
They sit on the riverbank and fish. The river flows by silent. Sometimes it roils like a stew. They catch shy glances of each other now and then.
The woman is not supposed to be with this man....
They stare at each other's faces. The man has a kindness the woman sees that makes her feel new. She trembles. The man rubs the outside of his wrist across her breasts.
"Men have been slapped for much less," the woman says.
The man does it again. The woman grabs some hair on his chin and tugs it gently. They kiss and she pulls away.
"Too old for this mess," the woman says.
"You're not old at all," the man answers.
The woman strolls away, down the bank. The man does not follow. She turns to look at him. He is looking at her with round, wet eyes. A round, dark man. Her heart is filled with love for him. He indicates for her to return to him and she does. (45-46)
Although Miss Kezee's is, as several reviewers have noted, the book's most engaging voice, Paula represents its primary concern. Paula is of the "generation" of women who succeed Miss Kezee and Janie Crawford and, with some ambivalence, inherit their life-stories. Indeed, in the book's very first paragraph, Paula misreads her mother-in-law's associations with the river she insists upon visiting:
Paula hated the river. She hated the smell of it, the way it looked, all the old-timey, hocus-pocus, mystical nonsense about the Mississippi River. The river with secret ways. Old man river. The wise one. The river that got under your skin and into your soul. The river that did something to you. She hated that bull. These old black folks got on your nerves with all this mess - their "folk wisdom" and so-called life experiences. (3)
Paula presumes that the river embodies a vaguely collective, folkish history rather than the quite personal and sensual past it actually evokes for Miss Kezee.(8)
Throughout the novel, Paula has difficulty understanding and negotiating a relationship to black women who differ from her by age, education, and/or class. Shopping in a supermarket with her mother-in-law, she "strained to see any connection" between her "college-refined gentleman" husband and "this country-talking old thing." In the same scene, Paula encounters in an aisle a "big-breasted mean-looking black woman in a purple tank top" who "grabbed up a toddler and swatted his bottom" (9). With "food stamps" and "beer and soda and crackers," this is a woman Paula's mother would have termed a "Gertie": "poor obese... with uncombed hair, dangling a cigarette, and trailing a bunch of kids." Paula, by contrast, "would never even have a food stamp in her wallet, let alone consider using it. Her family would starve first" (10). Later the same day, at a campaign party for her husband Al, Paula carries on an uncomfortable conversation with the fastidious Mamie Berry, one of the River Ridge's "half dozen... middle-aged, professional women, prima donnas all," a woman like Paula's own mother (82). Paula shares race, gender, and maternity with all these women - but apparently little else. In relation to one another, each represents "somebody else's mama."
Miss Kezee, along with her life-story, crystallizes these multiple questions of affiliation with other black women (in the face of class, familial, age, and educational differences) - that is, questions of identity - for Paula:
Here was a woman who disrupted her life: with her divisiveness, her contrariness by her mere presence. A woman who represented attitudes and ideas Paula disdained. A woman who made her, in a fundamental way, question what it meant to be a black woman.
To be a black woman: she'd spent her whole life puzzling that out. What was the right way to be? Who had the secret formula?
... she checked out her sisters everywhere: to see which of them was the woman she was, should be, might become.
And, after all, didn't it come down to this, come down to this feisty frail creature trembling on the bed? She knew one thing: this old woman had better not be her future. (208-09)
Paula seems willing to have Miss Kezee represent a collective-racial folk past, but not her own personal future. But Paula nevertheless must discover "what... if anything... bound her to this woman." Her decision to bring the failing Miss Kezee into their home becomes, then, not so much an obligation as a "compulsion" (209). One of Miss Kezee's St. Louis neighbors applauds Paula's decision, saying, "'We got to see to our own, don't we?'" Paula, along with the book itself, wonders not just about the wisdom of such a "simple" policy, but about the possibility of determining who truly constitutes "our own" (36).
The very title of the novel suggests that familial, blood relationship may not be an adequate, or at least the only legitimate, basis for identifying "our own." That Miss Kezee is Paula's mother only "in law" certainly highlights the institutional, the constructed and discursive, nature of their initial relationship. Already frustrated by her duties as mother and wife, Paula wonders why she has taken on the added burden of Miss Kezee, "somebody else's damn mama, for God's sake" (11). But Paula's even more vexed and never-resolved relationship to her biological mother (her mother "in blood") challenges the "naturalness" of that connection as well. Paula has trouble rationalizing her relationship to either woman.
Of course, Miss Kezee has corresponding doubts of her own about Paula: "Who this girl and who do she think she is?... Why'd [Al] marry a triflin gal like this in the first place.... what he want to marry a ugly yella gal like this for anyway?" (5). But as Paula continues to care for her and begins to show interest in her past, Miss Kezee relents: "This girl, Paula runs her fingers through my hair, rubs gentle at my scalp with the oil.... She ain't a bad girl.... Girl says, Tell me about your life in St. Paul. First time she act like I got a life up there" (74). Such gradual convergence of their life-stories distinguishes the relationship between Paula and Miss Kezee, in contrast to the relationship between Paula and her own mother, and, even more starkly, in contrast to Al's relationships both with Paula (his wife) and with Miss Kezee (his mother).
Al is preoccupied with gendered notions of "privacy" (61, 179). He believes that mothers like Paula "smother everything with words." But "boys are more private," he concludes. "They don't like to do all that talking and sharing shit that mothers want to do" (61). In seeking to maintain his own privacy, Al consciously withholds from Paula information about his campaign and the upcoming election, deciding that "... in every marriage there are some things it is best to embargo, to draw a line around" (136). He will "draw a line around" his "political life" in order to have his "own space," a space that is explicitly male: "This election: This was my idea. Mine and Walter's" (187-88). At the same time, Al denies interest in or knowledge of his mother's present condition and past life:
I figure if she wants or needs our help, she'll ask for it.... What I actually know about her is not much, and a lot of what I do know is contradictory or confusing.... Paula is always on me to tell her more about the past. As if I'm holding out on her.... [Mama] never tells and I don't ask. (130-31)
Here again, Al "draws a line" around the exchange of (female) "words," his mama's story and history, according to his own gendered policy of "don't ask, don't tell." Even formally, Al's story remains disconnected from that of every other character. Told entirely in first person, Al's narration remains bounded figuratively by his "I"/"eye," and literally by its own chapters. Miss Kezee and Paula, on the other hand, share chapters, with one woman's perspective shifting without warning into the other's.
Al's intratextual refusal to be either storyteller or audience offers a foil for Paula's and Miss Kezee's growing willingness to share, as auditors and speakers, each other's stories. Al's solo chapters thus metaphorize those descriptions, usually bisections, of an African American writing tradition along a "political" line that often serves to delineate gender and/or sexual orientation. For example, the devaluation of many black women's novels - along with some black men's, especially James Baldwin's - as apolitical, as outside the protest tradition (and therefore outside an authentic African American literary tradition), is itself an old story. (Irving Howe's "Black Boys and Native Sons" and Richard Wright's infamous 1937 review of Their Eyes Were Watching God provide two of the clearest examples of this phenomenon.) David Haynes redraws the story lines (e.g., male-political versus female-personal) in Somebody Else's Mama, and thus redraws the literary line-age he has inherited. Miss Kezee's and Paula's willingness to be each other's "own" matches, to a degree, an idealized black feminist literary tradition wherein "intimacy" between women characters "is a "tool, allowing women writers [here, a male writer] to represent women more fully" (Washington, "'Darkened Eye' "35). But the intimacy between Miss Kezee and Paula is neither "natural" nor easily won: They must continually negotiate their differences.
The novel does eventually work out a compatible relationship between the elder/the vernacular/the "folk" (Miss Kezee) and youth/standard English/the "college-refined" (Paula). The women's shared chapters thus metaphorize a blended literary "kinship" among black women. In other words, Haynes establishes an even more thoroughly co-mingled narrative voice for Paula and Miss Kezee than does Alice Walker in her starker juxtaposition of Celie's folk voice and Nettie's more conventionally literary voice in The Color Purple. Moreover, unlike Walker's characters, Paula and Miss Kezee are not literally kin: They are not sisters; they are not mother and daughter. Miss Kezee is, in fact, somebody else's mama. Their narrative bond is, then, neither essential ("blood"-based) nor conflict-free, yet it still represents their ultimate choice (as does the storytelling between Janie Crawford and Pheoby Watson). The stories Paula and Miss Kezee choose to tell each other end up being, in Mary Helen Washington's words, "vital to their growth and well-being" ("'Darkened Eye'" 35).
Disturbed by the tensions in her marriage and by lingering guilt over her mother's death, Paula begins to confide in Miss Kezee. Paula tells Miss Kezee about the emotional distance between herself and her mother, explaining," 'I used to try and get her to tell me about herself and about her family'" (213). But Paula never learned about her mother's" 'history'" (213); she was left with" 'exactly two stories'" about her (215), because her mother"'didn't let anybody get too personal with her'" (217). But Miss Kezee herself is at first a silent and reluctant audience to these stories. As she puts it, "For a while she [Paula] was just talking to the wall, too, cause I wasn't saying nothing to her." But Miss Kezee soon realizes:
What she needs to do is talk. I don't nearly know what it's about, but I know enough. I lived in this town.... I know that sometimes a man don't listen or won't listen or don't understand. Even a good man like Charlie. It's hard to find someone who will. I know sometimes you just got to talk.
So I lay here and listen to her. It's comfortable. (238)
That the women represent each other's best, most comfortable and comforting, audience becomes increasingly clear throughout the novel.
The story's emotional climax occurs with Miss Kezee's conscious and active selection of Paula as "hers," as her own audience, despite their conflicts around class and age, and despite their lack of literal kinship. After listening to Paula, Miss Kezee begins to tell about her relationship with her own mother, one marked (like that between Paula and Miss Kezee) by increased sharing of story. Miss Kezee explains to Paula that during her childhood, "'... Mama never told me much.... [she] stayed too busy to bother with a lot of questions... [but b]y the time I was a young woman, we got more personal'" (233-34). Immediately after this revelation, Miss Kezee continues to think about her past, her husband, and her St. Paul home, and decides that she herself will get "more personal" with Paula:
She is not a bad girl. She is triflin, like all them her age is. But she is not a bad one. She may be simple and have soddity ways, but her heart is as big as the moon. She tries to cover it, but I can see through her. She bruises easy as a peach. I'm gonna treat her good, Charlie. Treat her better. I swear by you I will. She done right by me. Despite it all, she done right. That means something. I am an old woman now. I will tell her to hold on, and she will because she is my girl. She is my girl. (239-40).
Miss Kezee's declaration constitutes the book's clearest and most moving moment of "consolidation"; it represents an authentic, because voluntary, connection based upon shared, though not identical, life-stories.
The only other such "consolidation" in the book takes place between Paula and a male friend from her elementary and high school years. Steve, who eventually comes out to her as gay, had been Paula's willing companion for all the "stultifying" upper-class teen social functions her mother insisted she attend. At one such party, Paula "realized how different she and Steven were from this crowd. They actually liked each other. They talked to one another, enjoyed one another's company" (119). Here again, an authentic "consolidation" is declared in the absence of familial ties, and across lines of gender and sexual orientation. In fact, studies of gay and lesbian kinship have already identified and described such voluntary, non-nuclear "family ties" (Weston 3). As cultural anthropologist Kath Weston puts it, by "defining these chosen families in opposition to the biological ties believed to constitute a straight family, lesbians and gay men" can "renegotiate the meaning and practice of kinship" (35). Similarly, in Somebody Else's Mama, many of the characters' strongest interpersonal ties (such as those between Al and Walter, and between Paula and Steve) "do not fit into any tidy division of kinship" according to "relations of blood and marriage" (Weston 3).(9)
At the novel's conclusion, Paula implicitly makes the book's final and most dramatic declaration of "consolidation" outside the nuclear family. Al's mayoral bid has ended in a tie vote - suggestively, Paula "never did cast her vote" because at the time of the election she was busy "searching for" a wandering Miss Kezee (204) - and a ceremonial coin-toss will decide the election's outcome. Having already symbolically cast her lot (vote) with Miss Kezee, Paula impulsively decides to drive her mother-in-law back to her beloved St. Paul home rather than attend the ceremony: "She'd miss the coin-toss. And so what?" (340). As they drive, Miss Kezee opens up the final story that she has, up until this moment, refused to share: the story of the great love between her and Charlie Kezee. Earlier, Paula had observed: "'You never talk about Charlie,'" and Miss Kezee had replied, "'We all got our private things'" (261). Indeed, Miss Kezee had pledged that secrecy to Charlie, although he never requested it:
"I know one thing," the woman says.
"They can have the rest of it, but this part of my life is gonna be mine. I'm keeping it. Here." She touched her head. "And here," and her heart.
"Won't tell nobody, huh?"
"No. Nobody. Never." (261)
But Miss Kezee eventually shares with Paula even this particular story. On the final page of the book, Miss Kezee "began telling," thereby crossing the line of "privacy" in order to establish intimacy with another woman. In turn, Paula "listened and laughed and let the hot asphalt roll beneath them" (340).
Somebody Else's Mama does seem to argue, then, that black women must keep talking, preferentially, to each other across lines of age, class, color, education, and other categories. But that David Haynes, a male African American novelist, can imagine and render such conversation, while foregrounding its necessity and power, suggests that other conversations across other lines can now be held. The novel implicitly extends a model of consolidation for its readers. It imagines - though significantly it cannot always render - such a consolidation across a wide range of identities and territories female and male; young, middle-aged, and old; gay and straight; dark and light; "college refined" and "country-talking"; small-town, suburban, and big-city; working-, middle-, and upper-class; black and white. Race, in particular, represents a line the novel neither erases nor fully bridges. The story ends without a clear decision by River Ridge regarding "consolidation" with a nearby white town.
The novel validates the town's ambivalence about this particular form of consolidation by filtering it through the novel's most appealing voice. At Al's campaign party, Miss Kezee doubts that consolidation will ever take place. She notes, with some disgust, that she" 'can't remember nothing ever changing around this damn town,'" even though she " 'lived here a lot of years' "(82). But she also muses," 'Not a lot of black towns around anywhere. . . . Not in this part of the world. Shame to give up something like that'" (84). She then observes, "'White folks don't want no black folks with em. That's a historical fact. I lived long enough to know.'" When a white selectman from the other town disagrees, he argues for consolidation based on class solidarity: "'It's mostly just poor people around here, all of us struggling to. . . .'" But he is interrupted by a River Ridge resident who strongly opposes consolidation, saying," 'You just don't throw away'" the" 'unique place we have here.'" When Al argues that consolidation may be the only way for River Ridge to survive, Miss Kezee declares, "'Sometimes . . . the best thing to do is not one blessed thing at all'" (85). The book thus imagines, but does not enact, certain forms of consolidation (according to class, for example) across racial and gender lines. To translate this into literary critical terms: Haynes's book represents the successful crossing of gender (but not racial) lines within conventional literary genealogies - he selects Hurston as a predecessor - and the successful crossing of color, blood, age, and class (but not gender and racial) lines within a fictional text - Paula and Miss Kezee select each other,l[degree sign] Paula's final decision to attend to Miss Kezee (rather than attend the coin-toss) thus corresponds to a reasonable reluctance to abandon gender-based literary criticism, tradition, and discourse. The novel is suggesting, then, that black women rightly privilege the conversation, especially literary conversation, that takes place among them.
But Somebody Else's Mama is also arguing, paradoxically, that ideally there will be no sustained gendered or familial models for literary texts, traditions, criticism, or critics. Haynes degenders and defamiliarizes current constructions of literary community and lineage by offering a model of "consolidation" rather than a model of "affiliation." In other words, he is casting off the semantic baggage of paternity and hierarchy that accompanies many received models of literary tradition, such as Harold Bloom's. Haynes is not anxious about his (female) influences. Indeed, Somebody Else's Mama imagines itself in conversation with Their Eyes Were Watching God. In literary historical terms, Haynes chooses a "foremother" (someone Ellison might term a literary ancestor) formerly possessed, almost exclusively, by Alice Walker. The result, a revised model of literary lineage, in turn offers a new context in which to tell literary critical and literary historical narratives. Somebody Else's Mama represents new models of intra-textual ("creative") and extra-textual ("critical") consolidation that may eventually offer an escape from the endless recycling of family plots.
1. Certainly many other essays of black feminist literary criticism from the late '70s and '80s also served to construct and consolidate a tradition of critics and texts. Furthermore, not all offer as "idealized" a portrait of that tradition as does Washington's "'The Darkened Eye.'" To give just a few examples, Barbara Smith's "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" (1977), Deborah E. McDowell's "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism" (1980), and Hazel Carby's" 'Woman's Era': Rethinking Black Feminist Theory" (1987) all explore the productive intellectual tensions which have accompanied the feminist study of black women's literature.
2. Several of these essays, including "Saving the Life That is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life," "Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and Partisan View," and "Looking for Zora" were reprinted in her 1983 collection In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.
3. For further elaboration during the 1980s and '90s of a Hurston-Walker literary matrilineage, see Hite, Awkward (6-8, 135-64), Davis, and Fannin.
4. For other essays from the 1980s and '90s that apply, revise, or refute Bloom's anxiety of influence, see Beck, Lack, Hemling, Sparks, Robinson, Froula, Doane and Hodges, Kolodny, Delany, and Federmayer.
5. See Deborah McDowell's essay "Reading Family Matters" for an invaluable analysis of the family dynamics underlying contemporary debates over black women writers' representations of black men.
6. David Haynes himself grew up in a mixed white and black (though largely residentially segregated), "quasi-suburban," working-class community in northern Missouri (see Haynes's "Breckenridge Hills" 89, 92).
7. Haynes notes that many of the small "jurisdictions" of his own home county in Missouri have been "swallowed up by more affluent or successful neighbors" ("Breckenridge Hills" 89).
8. Paula could be said, then, to possess the literary-representational perspective that Deborah McDowell, Hazel Carby, Michele Wallace, and Ann duCille have critiqued. That is, Paula identifies a collective folk with the literary image of "old man river," whereas, for Miss Kezee and for the novel itself, the river connotes the contingency of individual experience and narrative.
9. In fact, the most intimate biological relationship in the novel, that between the (very different) twins Tim and Tommy, is marked by conflict throughout.
10. Paula and Steve's voluntary connection might represent the successful crossing of lines of gender and sexual orientation as well. But their childhood connection is apparently neither crucial nor sustained for the adult Paula: "Steve and his lover visited River Ridge now and then" (113).
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Daylanne K. English received her Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Virginia in 1996 and, since then, has taught at Brown and at Brandeis Universities. She is currently revising a book manuscript titled Eugenics, Modernism, and the Harlem Renaissance and is working on a second book project titled The Rise of the African American Novel. Professor English wishes to thank Deborah E. McDowell and Mason Stokes for their invaluable guidance and advice regarding this essay; she also wishes to thank the editors and readers at African American Review for their insights and suggestions.
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|Author:||English, Daylanme K.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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