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That a man’s destiny should be determined on the basis of the color of his skin is a pretty sorry indictment of the human race, but that has been a fact of life throughout much of recorded history. As Alice Walker’s narrator states in describing the kind but destitute old man who lived down the street during her childhood, and whose death resulted in the reminiscing that constitutes her story’s style, that old man was the physical and emotional embodiment of the effects of racism on the human psyche. As the narrator describes Mr. Sweet, was once a young man with ambitions:
“Mr. Sweet had been ambitious as a boy, wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or sailor, only to find that black men fare better if they are not. Since he could become none of these things he turned to fishing as his only earnest career and playing the guitar as his only claim to doing anything extraordinarily well.”
The United States, especially the American South, where Walker’s stories mainly take place, was a country in which the institution and practice of racism kept the nation’s black population severely constrained in its ability to fulfill its ambitions – the same ambitions to which whites routinely aspired and which they often attained absent the roadblocks that racism presented to blacks. Left unable to pursue his professional ambitions or childhood dreams, Mr. Sweet has done what many of his fellow African Americans did: sunk into depression that was only partially eased through the over-consumption of alcohol (and, later, drugs), and suffered the debilitating effects of the myriad real diseases such an existence usually portends. In To Hell with Dying, Mr. Sweet personifies the good that was wasted through lack of opportunity. Memories of Mr. Sweet, however, are represented by visions of the home he occupied and its environs, including the flowers the narrator’s family, frequent visitors, had planted during her youth:
“The house was more dilapidated than when I was last there, barely a shack, but it was overgrown with yellow roses, which my family had planted many years ago.”
That the narrator, looking back from the vantage of adulthood, should reminisce about Mr. Sweet and what he meant to her and her family, and should focus on the physical elements of that world, represented by the old guitar and the yellow roses that persevered outside his home, is a natural inclination for those remembering the positive images of a lost era. The story’s final passage emphasizes the enduring images that remain in the narrator’s conscience:
“The old guitar! I plucked the strings, hummed” Sweet Georgia Brown.” The magic of Mr. Sweet lingered still in the cold steel box. Through the window I could catch the fragrant delicate scent of tender yellow roses. The man on the high old fashioned bed with the quilt coverlet and the flowing white bear had been my first love.”
Returning home from college upon receiving word that Mr. Sweet is dying – this time irreversibly – the narrator is handed the old man’s treasured guitar and, strumming its strings, is transported back in time, the fragrance from the roses guiding her emotional journey when this beloved old man left him imprint indelibly on her mind. Smell, as is well documented, trigger emotions and memories associated with earlier times, for better or worse. The significance of the yellow roses in Walker’s story is just that: the trigger they provide to a childhood now gone.
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