Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
The characters (with the exception of Frank) take pride in their ethnicity and the obstacles they have overcome to seize opportunities in the West. They believe that their black heritage is a fundamental part of their individual and collective identities and should affect everything they do. Sophie criticizes Frank’s poems because anyone reading them ‘‘couldn’t even tell a Negro wrote them,’’ adding, ‘‘We have to see everything differently because we’re Negroes.’’
Having land of their own is important to them because it offers freedom to the characters individually and provides a foundation for emerging allblack communities in which members can share common experiences, foster their unique culture, and support one another’s efforts at establishing new lives. At the same time, characters such as Fannie and Miss Leah recognize the importance of remembering the past. Fannie strives to preserve the past by recording Miss Leah’s stories. Miss Leah prefers to pass on the past by way of the oral tradition. At the end of the play, she is seen telling her stories to Minnie’s baby. She believes strongly that African Americans must recall the past accurately, as she explains in the first scene: ‘‘Colored folks can’t forget the plantation any more than they can forget their own names. If we forget that, we ain’t got no history past last week.’’ This is why she begins to tell the baby about all the strong black women who went before her. She wants the baby girl to grow up knowing how hard her ancestors worked on her behalf.
Frank provides an important contrast to the theme of ethnic pride. Although his mother was African American, he distances himself from that part of his heritage. He strongly prefers to live in London, where his black ancestry matters much less to the English than it does to Americans. He does not miss seeing or speaking with blacks and is more comfortable with his white friends. His denial of his black heritage goes very deep, and he is emotionally disconnected with the experiences of his mother and her contemporaries. He makes inappropriate jokes, such as when Sophie tells him there are not many mulattos in Nicodemus, and he responds, ‘‘I can understand why. This is a lot closer to the field than most of us ever want to get! (Laughs.)’’ While Sophie is committed to keeping Nicodemus out of the hands of white speculators, Frank seeks to make a profit by selling his wife’s portion of the homestead to those same speculators. Cleage uses Frank as a contrast to add emphasis to the ethnic pride felt by the other characters, whose pride is as hardearned as it is deep.
At the heart of the play is the theme of freedom, specifically newly won freedom. Most of the characters in the play were born into slavery and remember that way of life. Although the idea of heading west on the promise of land was scary, they understood that doing so was their best chance to enjoy a better life and establish new homes and communities for future generations. The sisters connect their freedom with the distant past of their ancestors in the ritual they performed when they left the South, a ritual they continue to perform in the West. They hold hands and say:
Because we are free Negro women, born of free Negro women, back as far as time began, we choose this day to leave a place where our lives, our honor, and our very souls are not our own. We choose this day to declare our lives to be our own and no one else’s. And we promise to always remember the day we left Memphis and went west together to be free women as a sacred bond between us with all our trust.
Miss Leah is fiercely protective of the opportunity to own and keep land. She feels that despite the insurmountable gap in power between the races in the South, the rules are more equitable in the West. In the first scene, Sophie tells Miss Leah that some of the black settlements have made rules against selling their land to white speculators. Miss Leah responds, ‘‘Ain’t nobody gonna give you the right to tell them when and how to sell their land. No point in ownin’ it if you can’t do what you want to with it.’’ Freedom is even more valuable to her than a strong sense of community.
Sophie and Miss Leah are committed to securing freedom not just for themselves but for future generations. Sophie makes plans for the future of Nicodemus because it is important to her that future black generations have a community that nurtures them. This is especially evident in her focus on getting a teacher so that the school can open. Miss Leah knows better than any other character what it is like to live without freedom, having lived the longest as a slave. She lost ten children to the slave trade, and she continues to feel the depth of her loss. In a discussion with Minnie, Miss Leah says, ‘‘None of this makes any sense without the children.’’