Julia (Mood) Peterkin

Start Free Trial

Kit Van Cleave

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1503

One of the early writers on American blacks was Julia Peterkin…. Peterkin's literary oblivion after mid-century has been found a puzzle by the few readers who have attempted to understand it….

Long before her death in 1961, Peterkin's works (Green Thursday, Black April, Scarlet Sister Mary, Bright Skin) had been largely ignored….

Julia Peterkin's serious face can be found peering out of the pages of The New York Times or Saturday Review during the 1920's. A reading of her books further defines her obvious sincerity in presenting a close description of the lifestyle of "gullah" blacks on a South Carolina plantation. Regardless of her intent to gain sympathy for her black characters, however, this white southern woman could not identify her sufficiently with her resources to write a completely realistic portrait of their lives.

While some critics of Peterkin's own time understood that she was trying to be objective without directly referring to racism, these white critics could only discuss her writing in their own frame of reference. One anonymous New York Times critic gave Peterkin credit for writing unaffectedly about blacks "without conscious or unconscious belittling mockery in view of superior white achievement" [see excerpt above]. But he also delighted that in Green Thursday she had seasoned her story with "anti-kink lotion, ornate costumes, superstition, emotion, poverty, ignorance." (p. 235)

No one who has read Peterkin's works could establish that she was a racial bigot. But there is no doubt that her white perspective created a "hidden racism," and distorted her readers' perspective of the actual suffering of South Carolina blacks. Her omissions of basic and daily realities in the lives of her prototypes eliminated from all her major works the racial tension that is an inherent characteristic of southern history and literature.

First of all, Peterkin, in each of her four books, almost totally omits the white frame around her black characters. There are two white men and a sheriff in Green Thursday, and a white shopkeeper/postman in Black April; these four comprise the total white personnel in the books. While Charles McD. Puckette attempts to explain this as a "singularly happy stroke" because it emphasizes further "the story of the Negroes' lives in relation to each other" [see excerpt above], elimination of whites from any important position in the lives of American blacks in the 1920s is at best unrealistic. At worst, it perpetuates many of the stereotypes in southern literature, and substantiates folkloric myths about black people in America.

Nancy M. Tischler [in her Black Masks, Negro Characters in Modern Southern Fiction] outlines these stereotypes as (1) faithful and faithless retainers, (2) the black Ulysses, (3) black sirens, (4) maladjusted mulattos, (5) the black Christ, (6) the black proletarian, and (7) the new southern black…. All of these character-types are included in Peterkin's books. Moreover, she has given her people all the archetypical talents and vices of the mythicized black: musical talent, love of dancing, bright clothing, sexual prowess and promiscuity, male irresponsibility with regard to the nuclear family unit, bloodlust, stupidity, long-suffering, and a host of other such familiar syndromes.

While the reader is saved from descriptions of pickaninnies eating watermelons, Peterkin has included enough blackeyed peas, cornbread, collard greens, hog parts, and hominy grits to satisfy the most fanatic soul-food devotee.

Basically, Peterkin's value lies in her ability to set down the lifestyle of black Americans to whom she was in some way close. (Green Thursday is dedicated to the memory of "Maum" Lavinia Berry.) At least she was interested enough to try writing about blacks. Her worthwhile material...

(This entire section contains 1503 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also 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

about voodoo, camp and church meetings, and black social life could not have been imagined and indicates close and caring research.

Still, there is no statement, implicit or explicit, in her novels about ways to improve South Carolina blacks' difficult lives. By avoiding any mention of white people and their lifestyle, Peterkin could conveniently sidestep the racial violence, job discrimination, despair and oppression which certainly touched southern blacks in those days. (pp. 235-36)

Certainly no character in any of Peterkin's books is interested in the slightest in doing anything about civil rights, voting power, better education, or protest against white racism; she has not included these conflicts in her work. Her characters are apparently content to have a number of illegitimate children, "pleasure" themselves, work from the light of the early star until night tilling the soil and picking cotton, losing their relatives due to inferior or no medical care, and losing an arm or leg because of too much curiosity about farm machinery.

Because of Peterkin's deletion of the reality of black-white interaction, she becomes a purveyor of a myth that supports one held today by many white Southerners, of a "basic savagery" of black people that Hamilton Basso summed up in Cinnamon Seed: "Niggers do just three things—fight, fornicate, and fry fish." (p. 236)

Peterkin's characters are past the years of slavery. Other than the fact that the blacks still live on her fictional Blue Brook Plantation (and a few older characters remember their parents in Africa), no specific mention of slavery is made. The agonies endured by slaves, and the white slavemaster attitudes still around today, are conveniently not brought out.

The past, for Peterkin's blacks, lies in Africa, not America; they have no connection with the "cavalier tradition" W. J. Cash outlines as traditional for Southerners in The Mind of the South. Their religion is an emotional, superstitious Protestantism with an underlying synthesis of black-magic and voo-doo-charm culture.

The family unit in these four novels is constantly broken up as the men and women both seek new sexual partners, with only a cursory glance at the marriage contract. While black men are shown as generally self-reliant and hard workers, they suffer by comparison with the white male individualism and chivalric code portrayed in southern literature of the 1920s.

And Peterkin herself, in some difficulty with her peers for dealing sympathetically with blacks in her books, avoided the topic of interracial sexual attraction, perhaps the biggest source of tension between black and white Southerners. The closest to such a reference comes in Bright Skin, when the mulatto Cricket and her inamorato Man Jay return wealthy from Harlem to Blue Brook. (pp. 236-37)

Here is a prime example of Julia Peterkin's hidden racism. Instead of discussing the situation openly, rather than dealing with the reality of biracial sex attraction, she solved the problem by a twist of fiction. The idea that an illiterate country black man could have all the white women he wanted in a Harlem night club would have been an issue too scorchingly hot to handle, whether or not it was true; Peterkin simply had her character prefer black women….

Peterkin also does not deal in the slightest with any lingering shadows from the Civil War, and no comment is made about the emancipation of blacks….

No criminal elements are seen in any of the Peterkin works, despite the statistical evidence that during the time of her peak blacks made up 31.3 per cent of the prison population in the South…. The gap between reality and fiction is readily apparent, and the validity of her Pulitzer Prize more doubtful.

A final reason for Peterkin's decline from the status of a nationally-popular novelist is the loose construction of her plots. (p. 237)

Peterkin came closest to black writers of the period in grasping the element of chance accident and imminent death that pervaded the lives of those who lived close to the primitive in an agrarian society. She does have some inspired moments in her descriptions of the helplessness felt by a simple people whose voodoo conjure did not often work to heal or to cure serious illness….

Peterkin can also wax lush on occasion about the identity of the black man in relation to his simple farming existence; the life of Killdee in Green Thursday is a constant effort to keep the crops alive. Peterkin does a fine job in describing Killdee's life….

[In such descriptions] Peterkin could get close to the black experience, but she was always outside it….

Peterkin's avoidance of reality in many themes affecting black Americans of her day … helped her to gain a popularity among whites who knew nothing about black people, and probably among black people who had nothing else to read largely sympathetic to black life….

With the growing awareness of conditions of life among U.S. black people, the publishing of American black writers, and a more objective reading of all American works by the public and prize committees, Julia Peterkin's kind of subtle, sensitive, status-quo-keeping literature has not held up. While many of her early readers thought she had captured the style of American blacks in their own communities and homes, more likely she had seen the most common mechanism of moving away from white oppressors: a codified, simplistic, impervious mask of passive acquiescence and "happiness" blacks have put on for years when confronted by whites. (p. 238)

Kit Van Cleave, "Julia Peterkin: Lost, and Good Riddance," in The Crisis, Vol. 83, No. 7, August-September, 1976, pp. 235-38.


Thomas H. Landess


Thomas H. Landess