Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The offense that was slavery is the central theme of Family. Cooper uses one group of people to symbolize the whole family of African Americans who suffered as slaves. The trials and tribulations of Clora’s children as they live as human chattel serve as stark comparisons to the fulfillment and prosperity they achieve when free. Only Always remains a slave in the South. Her ruthless acquisition of land and money reflects her belief that the earth over which she has toiled all her life belongs rightfully to her. Her freedom is more dear; paradoxically, it is rooted in the very soil to which she is chained.

Emancipation, however, does not bring justice but a more pernicious racism, every bit as offensive as slavery. Cooper turns Always’s own son, reared as a white man, into a harbinger of the violence and hatred to come. It is he who invites the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize Always and her family, even to the point where her husband, Tim, is killed in defense of his wife and land.

Clora, who effortlessly weaves through time, is a sort of black Eve, the mother of a tribe that becomes too numerous, polyglot, and scattered for her to follow. Her family is, after all, the human family. Cooper consciously attempts to raise the hope that from the rotten, inhumane system of slavery can come fraternity, peace, and harmony.

Central to the meaning of the story is the relationship between women. Alice Walker has remarked on Cooper’s abiding interest, in her short stories, in how women relate to one another. In Family, even though she is distrustful of Always, Poon realizes that the younger, stronger woman will better both of their lives, and she acquiesces in teaching Always to read, even though it means sure punishment if they are caught. They share understanding not only as slaves but also as women....

(The entire section is 756 words.)