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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.
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.
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