Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Possessing the Secret of Joy joins Walker’s previous fiction in attempting to make the world better for black people. In Walker’s fiction, black communities, cultural attitudes, and values must be revised before such communities adequately serve all of their members, particularly black women. Walker’s first cycle of fiction, which includes The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), presents the dilemmas of several black women who silently obey cultural traditions that are not always in their best interests. In these two works, African American women do all they can for the group. The group often is not appreciative of the women’s efforts and requires black women to act according to outdated cultural scripts that impede the women’s choices for growth and development as individuals.
Meridian (1976) and You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981) represent an intermediate stage in Walker’s fiction. Black women discover alternative ways of serving their communities and serving themselves. This discovery often means that black women reject some of the sexist assumptions that are part of some black communities.
Possessing the Secret of Joy belongs most clearly to a third cycle of fiction, which includes The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar. Black women are presented as taking charge of their lives, no matter what state they may be in. From the physically and psychologically abused Celie of The Color Purple to Tashi, these women are determined to make changes in their lives and in their communities. They are bent on revising their communities so that what happened to them will not happen to others. They create new options for both men and women and healthy environments for black children.
This novel, along with Walker’s other fiction, is a major part of the growing tradition of black women’s literature that creates new visions for readers and new possibilities for black communities. Works by Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Terry McMillan, and others have created a new literary landscape, complete with new characters, new issues, new language, and new themes that mark a major new achievement in African American literature.