Study Guide

Baby of the Family

by Tina McElroy Ansa

Baby of the Family Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baby of the Family traces Lena McPherson’s development from birth to young womanhood as she copes with the supernatural experiences that are the result of her having been born with a caul (a fetal membrane) covering her head. In the African American folk tradition, the caul is associated with special powers of vision such as foresight and the ability to see spirits, and Lena’s powers are seen as a “gift.” Lena experiences some aspects of her special status as a burden rather than a gift, however, and throughout the novel she struggles to balance her position as the coddled youngest child and only daughter of a well-to-do African American family with her gift’s darker aspects, which allow her contact with the spirit world that she doesn’t always understand. Lena’s struggle is made more difficult by the fact that her mother, by embracing the “modern” and rejecting the folkways of the rural community, has deprived Lena of useful folk knowledge and protection.

Though Lena feels a distinct sense of alienation because of her extraordinary sensitivities, she nonetheless remains closely connected to the community from which she springs, and she has several significant friendships that help move her toward full self-awareness and self-acceptance. First among these significant friendships is her relationship with a neighborhood girl, Sarah. Sarah serves largely as a traditional literary foil; she is the opposite of Lena in almost every way. Though Sarah is poor, neglected, and...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Baby of the Family Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Billingslea-Brown, Alma Jean. “Folk Magic, Women, and Identity.” In Crossing Borders Through African American Women’s Fiction and Art. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. Discusses the presentation of folk belief as a source of power for women in the visual art and literature of contemporary African American women.

Magee, Rosemary M. “From Grandmother to Mother to Me: Birth Narratives and Tradition in the Fiction of Southern Women.” In Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women’s Writing, edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. Provides a brief discussion of the transfer of memory, identity, and psychological wholeness from generation to generation in literature by contemporary southern women writers.

Okonkwo, Christopher. “Of Caul and Response: Baby of the Family, Ansa’s Neglected Metafiction of the Veil of Blackness.” CLA Journal 49, no. 2 (December, 2005): 144-167. Argues that Ansa renders Lena’s experience as a metonymy of contemporary African American racial experience and an extension of traditional literary themes by comparing her use of the caul or veil with those of W. E. B. Du Bois and Arna Bontemps.

Town, Caren. “’A Whole World of Possibilities Spinning Around Her’: Female Adolescence in the Contemporary Southern Fiction of Josephine Humphreys, Jill McCorckle, and Tina Ansa.” Southern Quarterly 42, no. 2 (Winter, 2004): 89-108. Argues that these contemporary representations of southern adolescence extend and revise the traditional rebellious southern heroine, offering more optimistic outcomes for them than earlier writers were able to offer.

Warren, Nagueyalti. “Resistant Mothers in Alice Walker’s Meridian and Tina McElroy Ansa’s Ugly Ways.” In Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women’s Writing, edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. Useful discussion of obstacles, including motherhood, to female self-realization.