What is the significance of the Black Madonna in The Secret Life of Bees. What does she symbolize?
Sue Monk Kidd's novel, The Secret Life of Bees, tells the story of a young girl named Lily searching for answers to her violent past. With her nanny, Rosaleen, Lily follows a clue from her deceased mother to Tiburon, South Carolina, where she is taken in by the Boatwright sisters, a group of African American women who were friends with her mother.
In addition to keeping bees and jarring honey, the Boatwright sisters lead a prayer group of women. Their religious symbol is the Black Madonna, a wooden sculpture from a boat of a beautiful woman.
The story is set in the deep south during the Civil Rights Movement. This was a dangerous time to be an African American, as can be seen when Rosaleen, on her way to vote for the first time, is attacked by a group of white men. The Black Madonna is a symbol of the power and love this group of women brought to each other during such a hard time. When they are together, helping and supporting each other and celebrating each other's uniqueness, they are not second-class citizens. Rather, they are capable, intelligent, and above all, free.
The black Madonna in The Secret Life of Bees is also a symbol of the human desire to worship a deity that we can identify with. In many religions, the deity is portrayed as a male. In Christianity, the deity is portrayed as a white male. Womankind is left without a deity that can be identified with in most religions today, really, with the exception of Hinduism, which includes gods and goddesses. If a deity is said to have created us in its image, where does that leave the female? The appeal of a black female deity to a group of African-American women is, I think, central to that desire and central as a symbol of the story.
Another aspect of the black Madonna's symbolism is her representation of a deity that is a mother. In many religions, the male deity is referred to as "Our Father." A goddess, surely, is a heavenly mother in much the same way, thus representing another powerful theme in the story, of the search for a mother.