What is the significance of "singing benna in sunday school" in Kincaid's "Girl"?

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teachertaylor's profile pic

teachertaylor | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Kincaid uses several references to set up standards of behavior in the story "Girl."  In the story, the mother tells her daughter that she must not sing benna in Sunday school.  Benna is a type of West Indian music that draws close comparison to calypso music.  The energetic tones of this type of music are in sharp comparison to the reserved nature of church and religion, and therefore, the mother tells her daughter that shse must leave this type of music for another time and place.  The mention of this music is significant because it is an example that allows the reader to get a sense of the cultural context in which the story in situated.

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andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The story relates a string of instructions a mother is giving to a girl, probably coming of age, on how to maintain herself, a household, food and other important chores. Two of the instructions are repeated throughout: the fact that the character being addressed, "Girl," should not behave like a loose woman with poor moral values and the fact that she should not sing benna on a Sunday and never in Sunday school.

Benna is a form of West Indian calypso music in which the lyrics contain gossip and present lurid, highly suggestive and libelous details about the subjects being sung about. It is, therefore, important to realize that singing songs which are blatantly rude would be offensive if sung on a holy day or in such a holy place. It would be a sin since the church's sanctity would be tarnished. Singing benna would be sacrilegious and an offense to God.

Furthermore, if "Girl" (representative of all young women), should indulge her desire and unfortunately sing benna on a Sunday or in Sunday school, others will have a very low opinion of her. She will be seen as immoral and would have only herself to blame for such judgment. It is essential for the mother, who is the one giving the instructions, that her daughter present an image of good wholesomeness, of someone imbued with moral standards. The image that she projects would be a reflection of the values maintained in their household.

Girl obviously feels pressurized to behave as expected and repeatedly gives the assurance that she never does what she is constantly being warned about, i.e. singing benna on a Sunday or in Sunday school. It is ironic, however, that, at the end of the story, the mother is still not entirely satisfied that her listener has been entirely attentive and cooperative or even completely honest. When the girl asks about the possibility of the baker not allowing her to touch the bread to test its freshness, she asks:

You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?

The implication is, obviously, that even after all the advice she has given her, her listener would still be seen as having no morals and would be harshly judged for it when she got older.