Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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What past events influence Levee's attitude about race in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom?

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Levee speaks of the gang of white men who raided his father’s farm and raped his mother when he was only eight years old. Clearly, this experience shapes his attitude toward white men, for he says this: “Levee got to be Levee! And he don’t need nobody messing with him about the white man—‘cause you don’t know nothing about me.”

Levee’s father, Memphis Lee Green, owns a big farm in Jefferson County. The painful attack that Levee talks of happens when Memphis is away in Natchez, some eighty miles from the farm, to purchase seed fertilizer to use in the planting season that is fast approaching. He leaves his little boy behind to take care of the farm. The gang of about eight white men breaks into the farm and rapes Levee’s mother. Levee is too young to understand what the men are doing to his mother, but he instinctively knows that they are up to no good: “I didn’t know what they were doing to her . . . but I figured whatever it was they may as well do to me too.” The little boy knows that he must defend his family. He gets his father’s knife and lashes out at one of the men. The man snatches the knife from Levee and strikes at his chest, leaving a gaping wound. Only then do the men stop out of fear that the stabbed boy would bleed to death. When Memphis comes back home and hears of the attack, he pretends to forgive the attackers and even sells the farm to one of them. He relocates his family to a new place and then goes back to Jefferson to seek his revenge.

The way his father handles the attack teaches Levee the importance of tact and fearlessness when dealing with white men: “My daddy wasn’t spooked up by the white man. Nosir! And that taught me how to handle them. I seen my daddy go up and grin in this cracker’s face . . . smile in his face and sell him his land. All the while he’s planning how he’s gonna get him and what he’s gonna do to him. That taught me how to handle them. So you all just back up and leave Levee alone about the white man. I can smile and say 'yessir' to whoever I please. I got time coming to me.”

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Levee's story occurs when he was a child, and he witnessed the rape of his mother by a gang of white men. Levee tried to stop them, but he was badly injured when he was cut with a knife by one of the men. His father sells their farm to one of the men who raped his wife, moves his family to another town, and then goes back for revenge. His father kills four of the men before he himself is killed.

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