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

Quick answer:

The focus of Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl" is that the girl must preserve a wholesome reputation at all costs. Singing sexually suggestive benna in Sunday school would damage this reputation in the eyes of the entire community.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Benna is a style of calypso music which originated in Antigua, the birthplace of Jamaica Kincaid. Because it uses the "call and response" technique which is also popular with charismatic preachers, it is superficially similar to some of the gospel music that forms part of the service. However, the content of benna, including sexual innuendo and local gossip, would be quite inappropriate in this setting.

The speaker is concerned that the girl is taking the church services too lightly and, even worse, being observed doing so when she parodies the religious music by singing benna. This worries the speaker so much that she mentions the subject three times. First, she asks if it is true that the girl sings benna in Sunday school. Then, without giving her time to reply (since the speaker always assumes the worst), she tells the girl that she must not sing benna in Sunday school. Finally, the speaker sanctimoniously asserts that she herself does not sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school (suggesting that she does sing it at other times).

The principal focus of "Girl" is that the addressee must preserve a good reputation at all costs. Appearing good is more important than actually being good, and nothing would damage her credibility as a virtuous, God-fearing girl more quickly than an accusation of smuggling sexually suggestive lyrics into hymns. Since the church is one of the principal public spaces in the community, her behavior when she goes there must always be impeccable to ensure that she maintains the right kind of reputation. This has nothing much to do with religion and everything to do with public image.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

All throughout the short story "Girl," the voice of the mother instructs the girl to never appear slutty. Considering the language the mother uses, it's almost as if she cares more about her daughter's perceived reputation than the actual truth of the matter. Regardless, it's clear that other people's opinions are very important to the mother, who tries to set her daughter right before—in her eyes—some irreversible damage is done to her name.

The significance of singing benna—a rude and gossipy folk song—in Sunday school could be understood in many ways. For one, as other answers have already pointed out, benna is not a "proper" genre of music. It relies on talking badly about people and is not associated with good manners. Therefore, the mother could be warning the girl about that. In addition, Sunday school and church are holy places where people are usually on their best behavior. The warning could also mean not disrespecting a place of worship with crude songs.

Another way of looking at it is that bennas are also often sexual and include double entendres. This would make the girl look bad in two ways: firstly because she should appear modest and secondly because the lyrics of the song would imply that she knows what she's talking about when it comes to sex.

Lastly, benna singing is a folk custom, and going to church is Christian. The mother could be saying that the girl shouldn't bring their heritage to church, where it doesn't have a place. Whether that's out of real devoutness or fear of upsetting other church-goers is up to the reader to decide.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial