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Baby of the Family Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baby of the Family traces Lena McPherson’s development from birth to young womanhood as she copes with the supernatural experiences that are the result of her having been born with a caul (a fetal membrane) covering her head. In the African American folk tradition, the caul is associated with special powers of vision such as foresight and the ability to see spirits, and Lena’s powers are seen as a “gift.” Lena experiences some aspects of her special status as a burden rather than a gift, however, and throughout the novel she struggles to balance her position as the coddled youngest child and only daughter of a well-to-do African American family with her gift’s darker aspects, which allow her contact with the spirit world that she doesn’t always understand. Lena’s struggle is made more difficult by the fact that her mother, by embracing the “modern” and rejecting the folkways of the rural community, has deprived Lena of useful folk knowledge and protection.

Though Lena feels a distinct sense of alienation because of her extraordinary sensitivities, she nonetheless remains closely connected to the community from which she springs, and she has several significant friendships that help move her toward full self-awareness and self-acceptance. First among these significant friendships is her relationship with a neighborhood girl, Sarah. Sarah serves largely as a traditional literary foil; she is the opposite of Lena in almost every way. Though Sarah is poor, neglected, and prematurely burdened with care and responsibility, the two girls share a sense of adventure and a love of imaginative activity. Through her observations of and interactions with Sarah, Lena becomes more aware of her own economic privilege.

Lena also learns more about herself when she encounters the ghost Rachel during a family vacation at the beach. Lena’s encounter with Rachel gives her access to the subjective aspects of slavery that are not presented in the historical accounts that she has received in school. Through hearing Rachel’s analysis of how slavery cut people off from their creative capacity and therefore their humanity, Lena becomes aware of herself as a historical subject. She is presented with a historical context by which she can understand her own claims to freedom.

Lena’s journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance is not completed in these early childhood encounters. Her teenage years will present more tumultuous events for her to navigate: She is ostracized by her classmates after she gets one of them into trouble by revealing her as the source of a rumor about the nuns’ sexual activities; she proves susceptible to sleepwalking; and she must work through the death of her grandmother. All these events represent obstacles that Lena must overcome, and the first two traumatize her because they are associated with the inexplicable. When Lena tells the girls’ secret to the Sister, she speaks words that she does not intend to say in a voice that is not her own.

Lena is particularly frightened by her sleepwalking episodes, because they are actions of which she is unconscious. Sleepwalking therefore contributes to Lena’s confusion about her own ability to distinguish the real and unreal, leading her to doubt her sanity. Her grandmother’s death also contributes, initially, to her sense of self-doubt, because she feels that she should have been able to foresee it and prevent it. Ultimately, though, an encounter with the ghost of her grandmother helps reframe Lena’s abilities in more positive terms. Though Lena’s doubts are not fully dispelled, the novel ends positively in that Lena has been instructed to contact Nurse Bloom for information about her endowments. The novel’s final image is of Lena squarely assessing herself in a mirror.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Billingslea-Brown, Alma Jean. “Folk...

(The entire section is 908 words.)