Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
In an age of racism and sexism, a writer cannot remain uncommitted, unless he or she is satisfied with the status quo. During the recent past, the emergence of a plethora of literature about sociopolitical conditions in the United States and elsewhere has provided a certain degree of euphoria for the many who could not translate fervent ambitions into reality. Alice Walker’s book of stories, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, is a hybridization of fiction and nonfiction to whet the appetites of those who need such emotional upliftment.
Prior to writing the book under review, Walker had published the novel, Meridian (1976), and two other fine books of poems (In Love and Trouble, 1973, and Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems, 1973), among a few others. In You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, on the other hand, she sacrifices coherence and sense of purpose for her racist-feminist megalomania. Apart from a few interesting stories, interspersed with chapters on pornography, the book is a collection of spit-fire materials in which Walker lashes out against American racism and male chauvinism, particularly white-male domination. For analytical convenience, the selections could be rearranged and divided into three groups: political essays, love stories, and general short stories.
The first of the “general stories” is “Nineteen Fifty-Five.” In this story, a middle-aged white director signs a contract with a black singer to record her song. He also buys up the rest of the copies of the record from the stores, to enable his very young, inexperienced, white male singer to record it. The song becomes a hit and its new singer, Traynor, is transformed into a fabulously rich, world-acclaimed “Emperor of Rock and Roll.” Despite his smashing success, however, Traynor feels guilty about using Gracie Mae Still’s song, which, ironically, he does not understand. In appreciation for the song and, perhaps, to tone down his remorse, he showers money and very expensive gifts, including a farm, a Cadillac, and a replica of his luxurious mansion, on his benefactress. Finally, Traynor dies tragically, leaving his millions of fans crying on the rampage.
The story is built on the life of Elvis Presley. Gracie Mae Still is reminiscent of Big Mama Thornton, and the song, of Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” The story is one of the many powerful arrows Walker draws upon from her political armory. The theme is the commerical exploitation of black artists by their white counterparts. Also, the story exemplifies the general theme of the book: the power of women. Gracie Mae Still’s energies, transmitted through her song, transform a whole generation of people; she outlives four husbands and bears no grudge against Traynor.
The main character in “How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? . . . ,” on the other hand, is understandably remorseless. A fourteen-year-old school girl is raped by her mother’s employer, Bubba, a lawyer who is the son of a rich, racist, ingratiating bigot. The rape develops into consensual sexual intimacy, and the lawyer plies the girl with gifts and money. Bubba makes the girl sign papers for her (sane) mother, who becomes hysterical about the goings-on, to be committed to an asylum. An attempt to release the woman from the asylum is stifled by Bubba’s father, and, later, the poor woman dies. In revenge, the girl kills Bubba in his own office and takes away his money.
“How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State?” is a story of evil and deceit, an example of misused power, particularly adult abuse of childhood innocence. Despite her having acquiesced to Bubba’s wily acts, the girl is still the stronger character in the story. Her reawakening to the lawyer’s machinations symbolizes a renaissance of the oppressed—all the people who are raped by swift, uncontrollable currents in the stream of life. Her strength is further shown in the clever way in which she kills Bubba and takes his money, and in her fortitude in babysitting Bubba’s children to enable his wife to attend his funeral. The story symbolizes the triumph of blacks over whites, of women over men, of childhood innocence over adult machinations. It also contrasts life in the stinking ghetto to that in the affluent environs.
Another successful revenge story is “Elethia,” an account of how a black school girl, Elethia, steals the effigy of “Uncle Albert” from the restaurant where she works, with the help of her friends. The group burns the effigy and keeps the ashes in a jar to commemorate the event. The difference between the two is that, whereas the anonymous girl’s success is a pyrrhic victory (because of her mother’s insanity and her eventual death), Elethia’s is a carefully planned and well-executed plot.
In real life, “Uncle Albert” was Albert Porter, the son of a slave couple whose wealthy, domineering, and greedy owners kept them ignorant of the Emancipation Proclamation for ten years, in order to exploit them. Again, in real life, Albert worked in this “Whites-Only” restaurant as a foolish, gullible, over-zealous, and unquestionably happy waiter. The story is full of symbolic irony. Albert epitomizes a high degree of enslavement. Besides being an over-dutiful worker, he enjoyed seeing blacks prevented from eating at that restaurant. His boot-licking gullibility makes him a prototype Uncle...
(The entire section is 2260 words.)
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