African-American Women Writers
Walker has often commented that when she was studying English in college in the early 1960s, nearly all of the writing discussed in her classes was written by white men. Later, when classes in black literature were formed, nearly all of the writers studied were black men. No works by African- American women were being taught, and few were even in print. As a reader and a writer, Walker hungered for models that would be more appropriate to her own life. In an essay titled ‘‘Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,’’ she recounts a story about another African-American writer: ‘‘It has often been said that someone asked Toni Morrison why she writes the kind of books she writes, and that she replied: Because they are the kind of books I want to read.’’ Taking Morrison’s comment one step further, Walker explains, ‘‘I write all the things I should have been able to read.’’
Readers since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Walker was writing the stories in In Love and Trouble, have not had such difficulty finding a variety of models. The period saw a tremendous flowering of writing by African-American women that was recognized for its literary quality and that sold well. In addition to Walker’s early volumes of poetry and fiction, there appeared Nikki Giovanni’s poetry collection, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968); Maya Angelou’s first volume of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970); Audre Lorde’s black feminist lesbian poetry collection, The First Cities (1970); Toni Morrison’s novels, The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973); and Gayl Jones’s novel, Corregidora (1975). These women wrote about women’s experiences from a woman’s point of view. Although they found some resistance to their writing, especially from African-American male critics, they also found a large and eager audience.
Roselily’s husband is a Black Muslim, an adherent to the religion called the Nation of Islam. The religion was founded in the 1930s in Detroit, Michigan, by Wallace D. Fard, who proclaimed himself ‘‘the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.’’ At first, one of the goals of the religion was to work toward a separate African-American nation, which would come to fruition after the white race and Christianity were destroyed. Later, emphasis shifted to working toward social justice in a multicultural world. Black Muslims took their teachings both from the Islamic Holy Book, the Qur’an, and from the Christian Bible, to create a religion that only loosely resembled either mainstream religious tradition. Religious practice is founded on obedience and discipline. Black Muslims follow strict dietary rules based on Islamic belief, and maintain clearly de- fined and separate roles for men and women.
In 1934, Fard was replaced by Elijah Muhammad, who was proclaimed a ‘‘Prophet.’’ Muhammad led the Black Muslims until 1975, gradually building the movement into a large and well-organized body of black separatists, clustered mainly in large Northern cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Nation of Islam was generally opposed to the nonviolent strategies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., believing that a more aggressive and confrontational approach would be more successful in gaining equal rights for African Americans. But the Nation of Islam was not merely angry and aggressive. When the boxer Muhammad Ali, a Black Muslim, was drafted in 1967 to fight in Vietnam, he refused to go because of his religious beliefs and was forced to give up his title as World Heavyweight Champion.
Point of View ‘‘Roselily’’ is told...
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in the present tense by a limited third-person narrator. The narrator is not Roselily, but reports only what she thinks and sees. Everything is seen through her eyes, and interpreted through the filters of her own experiences. Because Roselily is not paying close attention to her own wedding but daydreaming, the images and thoughts presented by the narrator are meandering, someR times sharply in focus and at other times only vague impressions. It is possible that the husband truly loves Roselily and feels tenderness for her and her children. Perhaps he is nervous about the marriage himself. But there is no attempt to reveal his thoughts, except as Roselily tries to read them through his clothing and his manner. Telling the story from this point of view puts the focus squarely on Roselily and on her feelings during the few minutes of the ceremony. Walker is not interested in giving the plot details of a wedding and what happens after it, but in giving a voice to one woman at one moment in her life.
Setting The setting of a story includes the time and place in which it occurs, and also the spiritual and even economic background of the characters. ‘‘Roselily’’ takes place in the rural town of Panther Burn, Mississippi. The time is probably during the 1960s, since the child that Roselily gave to his civilrights- worker father is no older than two. The residents of Panther Burn are poor and black. Roselily’s father has earned a meager living trapping animals and selling their skins to Sears, and Roselily herself has worked picking cotton, and now supports three children by operating a sewing machine in a clothing factory. All of the cars driving by on the highway have white drivers.
People who are born in this small town tend to stay, there being no reason and no opportunity to get out. Roselily has lived there all her life, along with all the girls she knew in school. Her mother and grandparents are buried there. They are all Christian, but retain some echoes of traditional beliefs in ghosts and curses as well. Roselily is clearly intelligent, but she is not well educated. Her language and that of her people is not ‘‘good enough’’ for her Harvard lover, and her tastes do not run to Bach and chess. More significantly, she knows nothing about the world of the North. She supposes that New England is far different from Mississippi, but does not really know. All she knows for sure about Illinois is that Abraham Lincoln lived there. The idea that she will be going to a completely new setting is what thrills and frightens her.
Narrative The term narrative is generally taken to mean a telling of an event or a series of events. These events might be actions, or conversation, or other elements of plot that are related to each other by a web of cause and effect. Often, the details are arranged in chronological order, but the order may be varied for particular effects. ‘‘Roselily’’ is not a narrative in the conventional sense. There is no direct action and no talk, except for the ritual speech of the minister. The time passed during the ‘‘present’’ of the story may be as little as five minutes, or perhaps as many as fifteen. Presumably, the wedding party and guests are speaking and moving about, but the only actions that pass before the reader’s mind are those that Roselily remembers from the distant past or imagines about her future. In this non-narrative construction, ‘‘Roselily’’ is more like a poem than like a conventional short story.
Stream of Consciousness The term for the non-narrative structure of the story is stream of consciousness. The term applies to writing that seeks to capture the way the human mind really works: not logically and sequentially, in full sentences and developed paragraphs, but in a rush of interwoven thoughts, impressions, and memories. By reading the entire story, one can piece together a sequential narrative of Roselily’s life, but the details are not presented chronologically. Roselily’s movements from idea to idea are triggered by the minister’s words, by outside noises, by physical sensations, and by memories connecting to other memories. Historical Context
One of the key techniques used to demonstrate Roselily's lack of connection with the surrounding world is the rhythmic movement of the story between Roselily's internal monologue and the preacher's wedding intonations. Even while the preacher is busy "joining" Roselily and her husband in marriage, Roselily's own thoughts indicate that she equates her marriage not with union but with separation and escape. Physically, Roselily's marriage indicates first and foremost a physical separation from Mississippi as she will move to Chicago. On another, deeper level, the marriage symbolizes a separation from a painful past of disloyal men and illegitimate children. In another way, Roselily's husband's religion will separate her from him, both in church and by the separate roles that Islam assigns to males and females. Roselily even fears that her children may lose their roots. Moreover, while marriage allows Roselily to escape from her past, it does not provide her with new roots and new connections.
1. How, if at all, are Roselily's fears about marriage similar to those experienced by other women? Are her fears purely a function of being poor and African American?
2. In what ways can it be argued that Roselily's feelings and status are unique to her circumstances? In what ways can it be argued that her feelings and status are universal to women's conditions?
3. What place does memory hold for Roselily? How does Roselily's memory contribute to her sense of connection to the world?
4. How are men portrayed in Roselily's world? In what ways is her portrait accurate and in what ways can it be argued that her portrait is inaccurate?
5. What place does religion hold in Roselily's life? What about its place in the life of her husband and the preacher who marries them?
1970: Alice Walker first hears of the writer Zora Neale Hurston, a long-forgotten African-American writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She comes to admire Hurston’s gift for giving voice to poor black women, and determines to read all her work. Today: Because of Walker’s efforts, Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway, and others, all of Hurston’s work is in print, and widely anthologized and taught.
1973: The United States Supreme Court declares that forbidding abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy is unconstitutional. Prior to this, abortions are illegal and often unsafe ‘‘backalley’’ operations. Walker herself has undergone such an operation, but for most women the procedure is unavailable.
Today: Abortions are safe and widely available for American women who wish or need to limit the size of their families. Contraception is also inexpensive and easy to obtain.
1967: Walker’s husband, the attorney Melvyn Leventhal, is one of many educated whites from the North who have come to Mississippi to work in the Civil Rights Movement. Walker publishes an essay entitled ‘‘The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?’’
Today: Laws protecting the power of wealthy whites have been erased, but institutional racism is still widespread. While many individual African Americans have made economic strides, there are still large pockets of poverty in black inner cities. No movement on the scale of the Civil Rights Movement has arisen to confront remaining issues of race and class.
1967: When Walker and her white husband move to Jackson, Mississippi, it is illegal for an interracial couple to share a home, even if they are married.
Today: The population of Mississippi is approximately two-thirds white and one-third black. Segregation laws do not exist, and the races have closer, yet still uneasy, relationships.
Alice Walker has been influenced by many writers, including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One can also hear echoes of Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote richly of the lives of rural black southern people. One recurring theme in both Hurston and Walker's work is black female oppression at the hands of men. In "Roselily," the reader senses that Roselily has nowhere to go; yet she runs from one persecution to the next without finding a way to improve her lot. In Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie, while beautiful and relatively privileged compared to her counterparts, suffers in the same manner. After marrying her first husband at an early age and being forced to work like a mule in her husband's fields, Janie runs away with a smooth talking man who promises great things. Janie's second husband, like Roselily's first, places Janie on a pedestal and does not require much from her in the way of work. Nevertheless, Janie still feels like the old mule that her husband beats mercilessly, for she too has become a possession, a thing to be placed on a pedestal so that other townspeople cannot speak to her. Clearly, Janie's troubled path from one unfulfilling relationship to the next is similar to Roselily's dilemma.
The Color Purple was made into a movie in 1985, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover. Based on Walker's 1982 novel, the movie told the story of Celie who, after years of abuse and oppression at the hands of men, finally finds solace in the company of women. While criticized for its harsh portrayal of men, the movie also won critical acclaim and was nominated for several Academy Awards.
Sources Bouise, Oscar A., Review of In Love and Trouble, in Bestsellers, Vol. 33, No. 14, October 15, 1973, p. 335.
Christian, Barbara, ‘‘The Contrary Women of Alice Walker,’’ in The Black Scholar, Vol. 12, No. 2, March–April 1981, p. 23.
Freeman, Alma S., ‘‘Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker: A Spiritual Kinship,’’ in Sage, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 37–40.
Hall, Mary Washington, ‘‘An Essay on Alice Walker,’’ in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, p. 42.
Nyabongo, V. S., Review of In Love and Trouble, in Books Abroad, Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, p. 787.
Petry, Alice Hall, ‘‘Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction,’’ in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 194, 205.
Pratt, Louis H. and Darnell D. Pratt, Alice Malsenior Walker: An Annotated Bibliography: 1968–1986, Meckler, 1988, pp. 51–58.
Smith, Barbara, ‘‘The Souls of Black Women,’’ in Ms., Vol. 2, February, 1974, pp. 42–43.
Walker, Alice, ‘‘From an Interview’’ [with John O’Brien], In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, pp. 249, 251, 263–64, 265.
———, ‘‘Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,’’ in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, pp. 7, 13.
Winchell, Donna Haisty, Alice Walker, Twayne, 1992, p. 31. Wright, Mercedes A., ‘‘Black Woman’s Lament,’’ in The Crisis, Vol. 81, No. 1, January, 1974, p. 31.
Further Reading Petry, Alice Hall, ‘‘Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction,’’ in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 193–210. This is the first serious critical appraisal of Walker’s short stories. Petry is harshly critical of You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, because it does not live up to the power and insight of In Love and Trouble.
Pratt, Louis H. and Darnell D. Pratt, Alice Malsenior Walker: An Annotated Bibliography: 1968–1986, Meckler, 1988. For the years mentioned in the title, this is a thorough annotated bibliography of works by Walker, and of critical articles, biographical articles, reviews and essays about Walker and her work. As the authors explain, the helpful annotations are descriptive, rather than evaluative.
Walker, Alice, Banned, Aunt Lute Books, 1996. This is an analysis of some of the controversies surrounding Walker’s fiction. The book also reprints the short stories ‘‘Roselily’’ and ‘‘Am I Blue?’’ and the first chapter of The Color Purple, all of which have been criticized or restricted.
Washington, Mary Helen, ‘‘An Essay on Alice Walker,’’ in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 37–49. This essay examines Walker’s ‘‘preoccupation’’ with writing about black women. After a brief history of the situations of black women in the United States since the eighteenth century, Washington demonstrates how Walker’s fiction and poetry trace a history of psychological development from slavery to enlightenment.
Winchell, Donna Haisty, Alice Walker, Twayne, 1992. This overview examines Walker’s life, and analyzes all of her published work through The Temple of My Familiar. Winchell examines survival and the search for wholeness as Walker’s central theme, and demonstrates the theme’s handling in ‘‘Roselily.’’