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The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

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What are some quotes on racism in The Secret Life of Bees?

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There are many quotes about racism in The Secret Life of Bees, like when Lily says, “I decided everybody being colorless together was a better plan.” Rosaleen also notes the complexities of systemic racism when she says “you gonna have to drag people kicking and screaming” to actually enforce the Civil Rights Act.

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There are many quotes in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees that discuss racism. The book provides an in-depth look at the racially divided South and how racism impacts people’s lives and perspectives on the world. The narrator and main character, Lily Melissa Owens, is a fourteen-year-old who is taken in by a family of Black women. Throughout the book, Lily learns a lot about race relations. She thinks it is wrong how white people treat people of color and says:

I decided everybody being colorless together was a better plan.

While this is a nice sentiment, Lily also learns that it is idealistic, and racism has deep roots in US society. For example, consider the scene in which she talks to Rosaleen about the Civil Rights Act:

"Lily, child, there ain’t gonna be any place that will take a colored woman. I don’t care if she’s the Virgin Mary, nobody’s letting her stay if she’s colored."

"Well, what was the point of the Civil Rights Act?" I said, coming to a full stop in the middle of the road. "Doesn’t that mean people have to let you stay in their motels and eat in their restaurants if you want to?"

"That’s what it means, but you gonna have to drag people kicking and screaming to do it.’"

Here, Rosaleen explains that just because laws about racial discrimination are changing does not mean racism is going away. People who look down on other people because of the color of their skin are not going to just abruptly change their perspective one day. Racism is too deeply ingrained in the fabric of US society for one piece of legislation to check that every place and every person is not being racist.

Lily also takes note of the lack of difference between people with different color skin. For instance, consider how she observes:

There was no difference between my piss and June’s. That’s what I thought when I looked at the dark circle on the ground. Piss was piss.

Here, Sue Monk Kidd is using the simplistic view of a child to emphasize how at their core all people are the same.

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Here is a good quote that establishes how much racism is a part of Lily’s life.

“…It washed over me for the first time in my life how much importance the world had ascribed to skin pigment, how lately it seemed that skin pigment was the sun and everything else in the universe was the orbiting planets. Ever since school let out this summer, it had been nothing but skin pigment every livelong day. I was sick of it” (pg 154-55)

 

Lily has racism ingrained in her from her family and what society has taught her.

“T. Ray did not think colored women were smart. Since I want to tell the whole truth, which means the worst parts, I thought they could be smart, but not as smart as me, me being white. Lying on the cot in the honey house, though, all I could think was August is so intelligent, so cultured, and I was surprised by this. That’s what let me know I had some prejudice buried inside me” (pg 78).

Even though Lily is trying not to be, she has some racism inside her.

 

When Lily first meets Zach, she is shocked that he is attractive, because in her mind, black people were not supposed to be attractive. She says,

“If he was shocked over me being white, I was shocked over him being handsome. At my school they made fun of colored people’s lips and noses. I myself had laughed at these jokes, hoping to fit in. Now I wished I could pen a letter to my school to be read at opening assembly that would tell them how wrong we’d all been” (pg 116).

 

Eventually, Lily has experienced so much racism that she begins to ponder if the world would be better without defining races.

“They (the Daughters of Mary) didn’t even think of me being different. Up until then I’d thought that white people and colored people getting along was the big aim, but after that I decided everybody being colorless together was a better plan. I thought of that policeman, Eddie Hazelwurst, saying I lowered myself to be in this house of colored women, and for the very life of me I couldn’t understand how it got to be this way, how colored women had become the lowest ones on the totem pole. You only had to look at them to see how special they were, like hidden royalty among us” (pg 209).

 

Zach says it all when he says “We can’t think of changing our skin… Change the world – that’s how we gotta think” (pg 216)

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In the The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, provide specific examples from the book (provide the quote and the scene) that reflect racism, and explain them.   

Racism in the deep South is a major theme throughout The Secret Life of Bees, so there are many notable scenes that reflect racism. One of the most notable scenes comes towards the end of the book on page 209 when Lily is pondering why races have to exist at all:

"Up until then I’d thought that white people and colored people getting along was the big aim, but after that I decided everybody being colorless together was a better plan."

In this quote, Lily is lamenting the division that makes people like local police officer Eddie Hazelwurst think that people of different races don't belong together. She has seen so much racism that she begins to question whether differences like race are worth all the trouble they cause.

Another example can be found on page 154 of the book when Lily says,

"It washed over me for the first time in my life how much importance the world had ascribed to skin pigment, how lately it seemed that skin pigment was the sun and everything else in the universe was the orbiting planets."

In this quote, she is describing how weary she has become of the world's fixation on such a superficial attribute as race. As a young person, Lily is innocent enough to view race as a skin-deep attribute, literally a matter of differences in pigmentation, while the adults and even the other children around her see it as a defining trait.

Another quote that encapsulates the author's view on racism is, "We can't think of changing our skin color. Change the world—that's how we gotta think.”

In this important quote, Lily's friend is describing the fact that race itself is not what needs to be changed, but rather the racism in the world that turns race into a justification for treating people poorly. Each of these quotes illustrates a progression in Lily's understanding of racism throughout the book.

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What is an example of racism for the book The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd ?

There are many examples of racism, which is a prominent theme of the book, racism and how it is overcome. Let's go over just a few examples in the first chapter.

As the first chapter ends, Lily and Rosaleen have gone to town, so Rosaleen can register to vote.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just been passed, and we can see evidence of racism in the fact that Rosaleen only now is going to be able to vote. Southern states prior to the signing of the act did everything possible to prevent African-Americans from voting. 

Lily is limping, as a consequence of her father's having punished her by making her kneel on uncooked grits, and so Rosaleen and Lily go into Lily's church, which is a whites only church.  Lily says,

She was not supposed to be inside here. Every time a rumor got going about a group of Negroes coming to worship with us on Sunday morning, the deacons stood locked-arms across the church steps to turn them away (30).

The minister is clearly appalled at Rosaleen's presence in the church, and when she asks for a fan, he will not let her have one.  The church scene shows us clearly the evidence of racism in their town.

Finally, Lily and Rosaleen encounter a group of white men outside of the gas station in town. One of them calls Rosaleen by a racial epithet and asks her where she is going. She informs the men that she is going to register to vote, and they mock her for this. Finally, Rosaleen can stand it no more, and she pours her snuff jug over the men's feet. They move to physically attack her, and the police are called. It is Rosaleen and Lily who are hauled off to jail, although it is clear that Lily will be released, while Rosaleen will not. 

I am not sure there is a chapter in this novel that does not have at least one example of racism, either white racism, black racism, or both.  This book is an excellent portrayal of the rampant racism of that time and place. 

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In the The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, provide specific examples from the book (provide the quote and the scene) that reflect racism, and explain them.

One example of racism in The Secret Life of Bees is the scene in which Lily hears on television that President Lyndon Johnson has signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lily doesn't know much about this act, but Rosaleen, her African-American caretaker, is "disbelieving and happy" (page 35). Lily says of the white men at her church, "I knew they would not take this news lying down, not in one million years" (page 36), and she likens the Civil Rights movement to a contest between whites and blacks.

Rosaleen is also practicing her cursive writing to register to vote at a voting rally to be held on the Fourth of July (page 44). When she and Lily enter town, three white men heckle Rosaleen, and their harassment intensifies when they hear she is going to try to vote. They comment on the color of her skin, saying, "Did you ever see one that black?" (page 51). When Rosaleen pours the spit from her snuff jug on their shoes, they show "outright fury" and pounce on her (page 52). As Rosaleen and Lily are escorted to the police station, the three men continue to harass them, but the police say that they are unable to stop the men (pages 54-55). One of the men hits Rosaleen with a flashlight (page 56), and a policeman does nothing to stop him. Brother Gerald, the minister, even decides to press charges against Rosaleen for taking fans from the church (page  68), rather than helping Rosaleen when she is in prison. Authority figures, including the reverend and the police, are racist and perpetrate unfairness on African-American people.

When Lily begins to fall in love with Zachary Taylor, August's godson who is African-American, she has to overcome her own racist feelings. She says, "At my school they made fun of colored people's lips and noses. I myself had laughed at these jokes, hoping to fit in" (page 170). She is shocked that she finds him handsome, and she marvels at his good looks and his intelligence. Later, she finds it incredible that she is attracted to Zach (page 183), which she attributes partly to the "mystery of his skin" (page 183). African-American and white people have difficulty even learning to love each other. Zach returns her love, but he reminds her that "there are people who would kill boys like me for even looking at girls like you" (page 196). The Secret Life of Bees is set in a world in which racism is still overt and deadly, though the book portrays the moment at which this world was beginning to change.

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