On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, Kaye Gibbons’s novel of a Southern woman’s inner dialogue, stretches from 1842 to 1890. Her narrator, Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, creates the South in sometimes painfully personal terms. As the book opens, Samuel, Emma’s father reels about the plantation kitchen. He has murdered a slave, and in spite of his belligerent protestation that he “did not mean to kill the nigger,” the violence has clearly debilitated him. His direction, at that moment, comes from Clarice, a black servant who superintends but does not help him clean up as he rants. Her strength and clear- mindedness never desert Emma or the household.
After Samuel washes, Clarice, the “only woman he would allow a riposte, to tell him how to manage an affair,” orders him to “go upstairs and dress and not wake the twins.” Then, with Emma in her wake, she strides onto the hog-killing floor of the barn and orders the stunned field hands to cover the corpse and perform the ritual toe-touching so that the ghost will not return to haunt them. Clarice’s stature as a free black wins instant obedience from the circle around the slain slave and keeps order on the Tate plantation without negating any of the inherent inequities that allowed the attack. Her paradoxical involvement in the repressive life under which she suffers, her unlikely equality with Samuel Tate, Emma’s reliance on her, and her complicity in the ongoing cruelty of the plantation system are a microcosm of the cross-purposes and malignity that tied the Old South together. She illustrates the untenable position of influential blacks, who made survival more certain for less powerful slaves by intervening in a system they despised. Clarice is both a mammy figure and a courageous black woman. She embodies the negative and positive facets of real existence in the South.
Gibbons’s opening bares the complexities and paradoxes that reverberated in plantation and slave life in the American South. Animal savagery masquerades in Samuel’s person, and Clarice feels bound to protect her master even though she despises him. Their tie was forged years before the story commences. As part of the early mayhem, Emma reports that she has overheard Clarice “confide to someone once” that she had known “Mr. Tate when he was what he was before he became what he is. . . . I know a fat budget of stories.” Readers and Emma must wait for fuller disclosure of his childhood trauma. As narrator, Emma emerges as a “quick-marrow,” an outsider girl who questions everything. She craves learning and takes her world in whole. She has concerns beyond her years. After the murder, she worries about the Tates’s culpability and about vengeance being visited on the family by slaves “because that is what things did. They came back.” Emma’s beautiful, good- hearted mother, Alice, misses the melée of murder and settlement at Seven Oaks; she has fled her matrimonial and domestic situation to spend time with the Carter family at Shirley Plantation. This is not lost on Emma. Even at twelve, she sees her mother as “a woman of nightly-broken spirit” with a tenuous hold on life.
Gibbons focuses on Emma’s difference from Southerners who considered blacks to be inhuman ciphers. She knows the group in the barn are slaves from New Guinea because, she announces, “Negroes [do] not all look alike to me.” She knows blacks by “the quality of their faces, the way they [hold] themselves, their voices, the same way I [know] anyone on the James [River].” The murder also reveals Clarice’s and Emma’s intuitive tie and collaboration in household crises. Clarice summarily orders Emma back to the house from the barn. Showing the slaves her power restores them a mite of self-respect. Emma meekly bows, understanding that her obeisance would show that “at least one Tate had respect for a Negro.”
Gibbons does not dilute the paradox and conflicts besetting family and slaves at Seven Oaks. The tangle of brutality initiated by Samuel creates alliances and power struggles. Marriage and family life are a shambles of cruelty and resignation. In one example of horrific moral posturing, Samuel triumphantly drags his family off to a public hanging. He disowns and effectively kills his eldest son, Whately, who is left to succumb to venereal disease and poverty in an abandoned shack. Tate manipulates two sons into entrepreneuring in Europe during the Civil War, and he blocks his youngest daughter Maureen’s chances for marriage. Neighbors despise his insulting manner and rough breeding but tolerate him for Alice’s sake and economic stability. Ultimately, everyone conspires against him.
Emma and Clarice live out their lives in what Emma relates as a...
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