The archetypal mother: the Black Madonna in Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees.
In 1996 Kidd wrote her spiritual autobiography, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, in which she recounts her own attempt to find a feminine face of God. This search sent her to visit monasteries, to read religious texts extensively, and to denounce the patriarchy of the Southern Baptist Church. An unlikely feminist, she speaks at length about a woman's plight in both conventional society and orthodox religion. As she puts it:
When she finally lets herself feel the limits and injustices of female life and admits how her own faith tradition has contributed to that. when she at last stumbles in the dark hole made by the absence of a Divine Feminine presence ... this woman will become pregnant with herself, with the symbolic female-child who will. if given a chance, grow up to reinvent the woman's life. (Dance 12, emphasis Kidd's)
Just as Toni Morrison did in The Bluest Eye, Kidd discusses the psychological damage of women's exclusion, exclusion from representation in society's power positions and in her viewpoint, exclusion from nearly all church images and stories. As she explains, "We find genuine female authority within when we become the 'author' of our own identity. By taking the journey to the feminine soul, we 'authorize' ourselves" (Dance 212). As she recounts in her own autobiography and again in the spiritual and psychological voyage of her heroine Lily, this writing a woman's self into being is often arduous. Though she does not offer Lily a safe or sweet early life, she does jolt her protagonist into a new way of thinking and a new way of interpreting old stories.
Throughout The Secret Life of Bees, Lily is forced to examine institutional ideas of justice, and these revised thoughts inspire new ways of being, both for Lily and for Rosaleen. First, Lily discovers that the institution of local justice, the sheriff's office, only metes out fairness to white people. When Rosaleen goes to register to vote, she finds her path impeded by white men who want to denounce Civil Rights' progress. Empowered by the Civil Rights Act of 1963, she dumps her snuff can spit onto their shoes. When she is arrested after being beaten by these men, the sheriff opens her cell to these same men so they can continue the abuse. Though Lily had suffered through her own persecution at the hands of T. Ray, whose favorite form of punishment consisted in making his daughter kneel bare-kneed for hours on Martha White grits, Lily realizes that Rosaleen's injustice can produce life-threatening consequences. Fleeing from her hometown police after breaking Rosaleen out of her hospital jail, Lily concocts new stories for the many people who question a black woman and a teenaged white girl's being together on the road
In these new identities, Rosaleen and Lily try on different personalities as they become part of life in the beekeepers' pink house. This search for a new identity assumes archetypal dimensions. As Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman points out, "If we leave our father's house, we have to make ourselves self-reliant. Otherwise, we just fall into another father's house" (qtd in Dance 118). Rosaleen and Lily find their road to self-awareness paved by the calendar sisters, May, June and August. These names span a time frame of both sowing and reaping, spring to late summer. Appropriately enough, the harvest name, August befriends Lily, but not in the ways of the father. She does not deliver edicts and punishment like an Old Testament God or a T. Ray; instead, she lets Lily find her own way in her own time to the facts of her mother's death. As Nancy Chodorow points out in The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, "The basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world; the basic masculine sense is separate" (169). If we could borrow from the psychological to parallel the spiritual, Kidd describes the difference this way:
Patriarchy had majored in divine transcendence, which means separateness from the material universe--being above all, beyond or apart from it. Divine Immanence, on the other hand, is divinity here. near and now, inherent in the material stuff of life. (Dance 160)
Divine Immanence for her represents the matriarchal view of spirituality, the interconnectedness of life, nature, and spirit.
August and Lily become individual threads of an intricately woven spiritual and natural tapestry. Kidd captures this feeling of nature's pattern in an early scene where Lily steals into the night to unearth artifacts from her mother, included among which is "the funny wooden picture of Mary with the dark face" (23). She caresses the few belongings her mother left her and then collapses into nature. In her words,
When I looked up through the web of trees, the night fell over me, and for a moment I lost my boundaries, feeling like the sky was my own skin and the moon was my heart beating up there in the dark ... I undid the bottoms on my shirt and opened it wide, just wanting the night to settle on my skin. and flint's how I fell asleep, lying there with my mother's things, with the air making moisture on my check, and the sky puckering with light. (23)
In the original incarnation of this novel, Kidd's 1993 short story aptly titled "The Secret Life of Bees," published in The Nimrod International Journal, she provides a different motivation for Lily's night excursion. Instead of this voyage into the community of nature, Lily, this one aged thirteen instead of fourteen, sneaks from her father's house for a romantic tryst with her boyfriend, Sonny. In 1993 Kidd had embarked upon her own self-revelatory religious journey, but she had not yet abandoned the Southern Baptist Church or her role as writer for Guidepost Magazine. In other words, she was still allied with the instruments of patriarchy herself. In changing the story to Lily's search for mother in the novel, she moves her character from other-directedness to self-directedness, a hard turn left on the road to solace and spirituality, a move that parallels Kidd's own religious shift
Throughout the novel resonate the sound and activities of a natural matriarchal society, that of bees. Each section's heading features the inner workings of this communal society. We are then constantly reminded of the symbol, not only through the work of the characters, but also through our introduction to all plot action. As Hans Biedermann points out, "In the secular world the bee was a royal symbol, especially since the queen bee was long regarded as the king. It has been speculated that the French fleurde-lis [lily] goes back to a stylized image of the bee" (35). He further points to the belief in antiquity "that bees do not procreate their young but instead gather them up from the flowers they visit, making the bee a symbol for the Virgin Mary" (35). In other words, Kidd corresponds all the major symbols of the novel, the bees, the lily, and the Black Madonna, to the Virgin Mary, at least that's one version of this icon in existence for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The Black Madonna has been around in some form, as dark pregnant woman, since 18,000 B.C. (Birnbaum 8). In such a case, she creates evidence of a pre-Christian matriarchal religion. In other words, she becomes a symbol, in some theories, of a community of women or like-believers worshipping figures of a dark woman and embracing the concept of finding the godlike within themselves, for they see their inner selves mirrored in a woman's face. When August directs Lily to a queenless hive of bees, she explains, "You have to find a mother inside yourself We all do" (288) More than just emotional self-nourishing, this inner parenting assumes a spiritual comfort as well, for August tells Lily, "Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She's not the statue in the parlor. She's something reside of you" (288, emphasis Kidd's). She then tells her not to look without for God, but rather to look within.
More recently, Dan Brown's blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code, posits Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus, as do many historians, who see in the Black Madonna Mary, wife of Jesus, and not Mary, mother of Jesus. Books such as Margaret Songbird's The Woman with the Alabaster Jar and Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln's Holy Blood, Holy Grail both present convincing evidence as to the matrimonial link. These authors supply a new examination of the meaning of holy grail or sangraal, which, literally translated, means holy blood. By examining genealogies, histories, reports, and apocryphal books of the Bible, they deduce that Mary Magdalen carried the mingled blood of two noble families and the holy blood of Jesus in her womb. She then was the chalice or the Holy Grail represented in Arthurian lore. They provide compelling evidence that she had this child and then went into exile in Provence, France. I go into all this background to suggest evidence of an earlier matriarchal religion or religions, the type for which Kidd hungers in Dance of the Dissident Daughter. These early followers of Mary believed in freedom and equality, in the mind and its powers. They believed in self-empowerment and sought the God within each of them. Unwittingly, for at least in interviews Kidd discusses only the image's correlation with the Virgin Mary, she points in this novel to such a community of women and like minds bent on finding the mother, or God-force within them.
To read this novel with the other possibilities of Black Madonna interpretation in mind enables us as readers to envision this little congregation in Tiburon, South Carolina, with new possibilities. These masthead gatherers may just form one of the concentric circles of matriarchal worship. They, like their historical echo loops, combine into a community of worshippers bent on discovering their own divinity and recognizing their part in the greater scheme of nature. Clearly, if we read the Black Madonna only as Virgin Mary, we find ourselves "kneeling on the grits" of Catholicism, a religion far from matriarchal. In fact, one of the arguments presented in Holy Blood, Holy Grail is that the Catholic Church tried to extinguish the symbols and texts, such as the Gnostic Gospels and the Dead Sea Scrolls that supported Mary Magdalene as the thirteenth apostle. When it found itself unable to destroy all the followers of the Magdalene through the Crusades--and yes, these texts point to a link with the cult of Mary Magdalene to those "holy" wars--the pope proposed a bait and switch tactic. The Catholic Church would itself worship Mary, just not that Mary. It would elevate Mary of Nazareth who mothered the Christ child. To the early church she seemed less threatening and easier to obscure into Jesus's background. This theory helps to explain the Catholic faith's inability to classify Mary, whom in ideology it sees as just a vessel for the Christ child.
Besides the link between this icon and at least the possibility of matriarchal religions, the Black Madonna also serves as psychological archetype of an indomitable spirit, a soul not defeated by the persecutions of slavery, for in the history of this masthead figure, escape figures prominently. "Our Lady of Chains" cannot be contained in prisons of men, for she arrives unscathed back to her original locale every time she is moved. Since Lily and Rosaleen escape their patriarchal home to find sanctuary in this matriarchal one, this icon provides a mirror of sorts to Lily, who, upon first seeing the imposing statue, reflects, "Standing there, I loved myself and I hated myself. That's what the black Mary did to me, made me feel my glory and my shame at the same time" (71). When Lily works up the courage to touch the figure's red heart, she somehow discovers her own. She then releases her hurts and wounds and realizes that they "provided me with some real nice sympathy, with the feeling I was exceptional. I was the girl abandoned by her mother. I was the girl who kneeled on grits. What a special case I was" (278). Instead of focusing on the anguish and absence, Lily learns to parent herself. As Marion Woodman puts it, the Black Madonna archetype has an earthiness about her. She represents the bounty of the harvest, nature, sexuality, and childbirth, "the whole feminine love of life." When she observes the Eucharist performed over the dark Mary-, Lily recounts, "Me, I had never seen grown-ups feed each other, and I watched with the feeling that I might burst out crying. I don't know what got to me about it, but for some reason that circle of feeding made me feel better about the world" (226).
After having grown up with T. Ray, whom Lily describes as having "gone to church for forty years and was only getting worse," Lily welcomes a religion that embraces her, that feeds her, that provides a woman's face (3). From her own experience growing up in the southern Baptist church, Kidd remarks:
In the Baptist tradition we'd prefaced most conversations about Mary by saying. She was just a woman," emphasizing her lesser place. In fact, if the Christmas story hadn't been read once a year in the Baptist churches Id attended, it would have been easy to forget Jesus had a mother at all. (Dance 40; emphasis Kidd's)
In Gnostic texts, Mary of Nazareth is herself depicted as the product of an immaculate conception. When asked why The Book of Mary was excluded from the Bible, one biblical scholar concluded the omission was more ideological than historical. As he put it, "to include this story of Mary the editors of the Bible would have been forced to present her story before her son's. They didn't want Mary to overshadow Jesus" (Banned from the Bible).
Whether we want to stretch from Mary of Nazareth's divinity to that of a woman branded whore by the Catholic Church, we see the politics of Jesus's story. As Jean-Yves Leloup notes in his translation and commentary on The Gospel of Mary, Magdalene, "Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church officially repeal Gregory's labeling of Mary as a whore" (xvi). That original equation of the Magdalene with a woman of ill repute occurred in a sermon Pope Gregory I delivered in the year 591 (xvi). If theologians have realized for hundreds of years that Pope Gregory's rendering of Mary was incorrect, why did the Catholic Church let that incrimination stand for so long? Or perhaps more to the point, why did the Catholic Church persecute early translators of the Bible? What did it deem so threatening about the masses' coming to the text themselves?
In The Secret Life of Bees, T. Ray, whom Kidd equates with the patriarchal church, prohibits Lily's reading. Lily says, "he would half kill me," if someone even reported her reading to her father (15). She ponders further, "What kind of person is against reading?" (15; emphasis Kidd's). Reading is self-empowerment, and reading produces questions and new interpretations. Just as the early Catholic Church had forbidden a parishioner's reading of scripture because this enlightened person might seek counsel directly with God, neither does T. Ray want Lily to question his authority. He sees society not as concentric circles but rather as a vertical line, a power structure competitive, not cooperative, in nature. For him and for the institutions supporting this hierarchical power structure, women and blacks have no place in the line-up.
In the 1960s South this patriarchal structure, reinforced by conventional religion, was also racist in nature. At the time Rosaleen is beaten by white men who find her uppidity, she holds church fans she had taken from the church where she and Lily had rested, a church that would not have allowed her as a black woman to worship. To examine Christianity's role in the abuse of blacks would take another paper, but I do want to quote Frederick Douglass on this topic. A freed slave and abolitionist, Douglass knew first-hand the atrocities committed by slave owners, but he is clear to point out that the worst abuse occurred at the hands of the religious, for these men rationalized their harshness with text from the Bible. As he puts it,
The religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,--a justifier of the most appalling barbarity.--a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,--and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholder find the strongest protection. (731)
Blacks then in America have had a complex relationship with the church whose ideology and texts on the one hand served to oppress them and on the other provided some comfort and solace, but only in a rewriting from white ideology.
An example of this rewriting is Rosaleen's personal religion typified by her altar, a "special shelf with a stub of candle, creek rocks, a reddish feather, and a piece of John the Conqueror root, and right in the center a picture of a woman, propped up without a frame" (29). Lily describes this shelf as a "religion she'd [Rosaleen] made up for herself, a mixture of nature and ancestor worship" (29). Note, however, that the center of the altar, a place generally reserved for pictures of Jesus, is a picture instead of Rosaleen's mother. In other words, her religion is woman-centered In Dance of the Dissident Daughter Kidd cites Dr. Beatrice Bruteau who likens the absolute reality, the I Am, with God and sees natural patterns within the many divine relationships exemplified in dance:
When we see the dance, the dancer takes on expression, shape, immediacy, presence, and meaning for us. We can observe the relationship of the dance to the dancer, and we understand that the choreography is infinite. We cannot look at just one movement or one dance and say, that is file dance. (137)
Or, if we borrow from William Butler Yeats, himself a mystic of sorts, we pose the question: "Who can tell the dancer from the dance?" (64). If all living things possess their own divinity, then we need not look up to find God, we need only to recognize that presence and revel in the dance of nature.
One facet of this acceptance of inward divinity instead involves coping with imperfection. After all, it's easy to perfect a deity that is light years away but quite a different matter to find God and perfection in the mirror. When Lily finally asks August about her mother, August gingerly tells her Deborah's story. This story, this making Deborah a real person, is Lily's first step in recognizing her part in her mother's death. She has then to see her mother as a person in order to feel her loss. Lily finds out that her mother left her father and her because she suffered from depression. August provides a coda to her revelation when she says, "Every person on the face of the earth makes mistakes, Lily Every last one. We're all so human ... There is nothing perfect ... There is only life" (256). Angered by her mother's abandonment, Lily smashes jars of honey and cuts herself in the process. She is now ready to find out the last part of Deborah's story, a story in which she as a small child played a principal role.
Throughout this whole novel of religious quest and struggle toward self-actualization and awareness, Kidd provides mirrors. Seeing what Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins call Skekhinah or "the feminine face of God" in the Black Madonna, Lily finds her spiritual center, the same feeling she had gotten from her bare-breasted night vigil. Through August, Lily sees a face her mother saw and faces a truth about her mother, the final portion of which T. Ray must deliver. When August presents Lily with more artifacts from her mother, she prefaces the unveiling by saying, "If you look in here, you're gonna see your mother's face looking back at you" (273; emphasis Kidd's). Unfortunately for Lily, T. Ray also sees Deborah's face when he looks at Lily. He wants to force her return. As the emblem for conventional religion and society's patriarchal struggle, he bullies, proving that he too is damaged by this power principle. For a few minutes, T. Ray sees before him the young wife who left him, here in the haven she had chosen, instead of his teenaged daughter. After slapping her across the face, he stands over Lily and screams, "Deborah ... You're not leaving me again" (294). Lying next to the Black Madonna that also had been knocked to the floor, Lily smells honey, the preservation rubbed into the icon's face and figure, and the same honey she herself had hurled into the wall venting her own anger at her mother's leaving her. In that moment Lily understands T. Ray. As she picks up Mary and rights her, T. Ray struggles to deal with his own actions. He illustrates the problem Kidd points out in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter when she writes, "Cut off from nature, we get sick inside" (220). Patriarchy then inflicts psychological damage to the men who seem outwardly to profit from it.
If T. Ray typifies patriarchal punishment to maintain its vertical hierarchy, then August represents the subversion of that order and a return to nature, human nature most notably. Though she could have shamed him as she stands witness to his wrath against Lily, August considers his feelings. As Lily remembers from earlier conversations with August, "If you need something from somebody, always give that person a way to band it to you" (298). August wants Lily; she wants to nourish instead of starve her soul. T. Ray's one act of generosity, which he offers with a "Good riddance," is his letting Lily remain within this matriarchy, this earlier home of her mother. Before he leaves, however, Lily discovers that she herself had shot her mother. Though an accident, her death resulted from Lilly's pulling the trigger. As Kidd has noted, "The truth may set you free, but first if will shatter the safe, sweet way you live" (Dance 15). On a firmer footing now, Lily absorbs the truth. She has grown into a person who can face the past and look to the future.
Lily then is allowed to flower in the seasonal house of May, June, and August. Nourished in the fertile soil of a Black Madonna and an accepting, cooperative life and household, Lily becomes an integral part of the commune, the hive. She learns to mother herself and to discover the harmony of this life Of her like-titled short story, Kidd has written, "One of the first short stories I published told the story of a southern girl named Lily who struggles to find the strength of her feminine wings in a world that routinely clips them" (206). In this novel, however, Kidd allows her heroine flight, transcendence, and belonging.
Anderson, Sherry Ruth. and Patricia Hopkins. The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women. New York: Bantam. 1991.
Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Holy Blood, Holy Grail. New York: Dell. 1982.
Banned from the Bible. Videocassette. A & E Television Networks, 2001. 100 min.
Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings behind Them. Trans. James Hulbert. New York: Meridian, 1994.
Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola. Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion and Politics in Italy: Lincoln. NE: to Excel. 1993. 2000.
Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psyhoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. 7th ed. Ed Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. New York: Norton 1999. 2: 696-753.
Gardner, Laurence. Bloodline of the Holy Grail: The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed New York: Barnes. 2003.
Leloup, Jean-Yves. The Gospel of Mary Magdaalene. Trans. Joseph Rowe. Rochester: Inner Translations. 2002.
Monk Kidd, Sue. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
--. "The Secret Life of Bees." Nimrod International Journal 37 (1993): 21-30.
--. The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Penguin. 2002.
Songbird, Margaret. The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail. Sante Fe: Bear, 1993.
Woodman, Marion. Dreams: Language of the Soul. Sounds True Recordings. 1990.
Yeats, William Butler. "Among School Children." The Collected Poems. New York: Macmillan. 1977. 212-4.
CATHERINE B. EMANUEL
TENNESSEE WESLEYAN COLLEGE
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|Author:||Emanuel, Catherine B.|
|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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