Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Vida, Jane, and Betsey are complicated characters who through their stories capture significant parts of black women’s history in America. Vida complains about many aspects of her life with Jane, Greer, and her grandchildren. Many of Vida’s values are old-fashioned, but they are values that should be treasured for their historical significance. Vida spends a great amount of time in reverie, sitting on the porch, in her room, or in the garden. Like Betsey, she is affected by the changes that are occurring in America. She does not know quite what to make of desegregation, for she grew up in a world where the social demarcation between African Americans and whites was always clear. In her world, some black people valued themselves only in comparison to white people—the more white, the better. Regardless of Vida’s occasional escapes into self-hatred, Shange always insists that Vida does what most black people have always done—they look out for other African Americans. Though the advice and complaining that Vida offers might be outdated, her love for her family is not. Indeed, Vida has experienced many dramatic changes in her life—growing up under the Jim Crow society of North Carolina, having many children and rearing them successfully, enduring the death of her beloved Frank, having to move into her daughter’s home and not be the mistress of her own house, having to deal with the fact that her daughter Jane married “down,” and having to deal with desegregation. Vida is never defeated, shouts her opinions, and, as her name suggests, sees the implications of a changing America on black people: cultural confusion.

Jane absorbs many of Vida’s values, but she is willing to take some risks that her mother was unwilling to take. As an independent woman, she chooses to marry a dark-skinned man, which goes against the teachings of her mother and that part of her family background; however, she takes no risk when it comes to the possibility of abandoning her class. She marries a dark man, but she marries a physician. She leads much of her life as if she were a white middle-class woman. When her husband’s deep devotion to black people requires her to accept her race openly, some of her mother’s teachings of self-hatred surface. Jane has been taught by Vida to reject authentic black culture, especially that which emanates from the black masses. She does not always like the soul music that Greer plays, the...

(The entire section is 992 words.)