Discrimination in American Society

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Alice Childress noted in a 1966 essay in Freedomways that America extends basic rights and opportunities to foreign visitors and to immigrants that are not offered to black Americans. She reminded her readers that visitors may "travel, without restriction, reside in hotels, eat at restaurants and enter public and private places closed to Americans who have built up the country under bondage and defended it under a limited and restricted liberty." This is the injustice that Childress illuminates in her play Wedding Band. Childress maintained in a 1993 interview with Shirley Jordan in Broken Silences: Interviews with Black and Women Writers that Americans who say they know nothing about racism are failing to look beyond the obvious. When Fanny Johnson says "Don't make it hard for me with your attitude. Whites like me. When I walk down the street, they say 'There she goes'—Fanny Johnson, representing her people in an approved manner," what is really happening is that Fanny is as trapped by the system as the poorest black single mother. Fanny is judged as a black person who is trying to better herself according to white society's criteria, but Childress is saying that Fanny should be establishing her strength as a black woman and not as a black woman trying to be white or trying to please whites. The nuances are subtle, but are crucial to understanding the relationship between Wedding Band and racism, for it is through the actions and words of the play's primary characters that the audience is forced to recognize and acknowledge the injustice of a system that denies opportunity to African Americans. This is especially evident in the actions of Nelson; he is so cowed by a racist system and so afraid of its consequences that he cannot protest when a bucket of water is dumped on him. He cannot protest when the woman he is seeing rejects him because he has no future; he can only acknowledge the truth of her opinion. Childress's play makes clear that Nelson is at greater risk from his white neighbors than he is from enemy fire during war. The tragedy of Wedding Band is that so little has changed for blacks between the time of the play's setting in 1918 and its initial production in 1966. It is this illumination of racism and its legacy that demonstrates the play's importance in the literary canon.

But Wedding Band does have an important message to be heard. And, according to Catherine Wiley in her essay in Modern American Drama: the Female Canon, the play presents a directive to white feminists that sexism cannot be separated from racism. Human rights are the greater issue of the play, not women's rights. Wiley argued for the inclusion of Childress's play in the literary canon because it functions as a "history lesson pointed at white women to remind them and us, in 1966 or now, that our vision of sisterly equality has always left some sisters out." Wiley maintained that white women need to read the texts of black women in the same way that white men have been forced to read the texts of white women: "Rather than seeing myself reflected in their work, I want to understand why my difference makes these plays a challenge to read." Childress does not separate the issue of women's rights from human rights, for her the two are inexorably bound. In Wedding Band , Julia's problems are not only the miscegenation laws; rather, her isolation from the black community, especially the community of women, lies at the heart of the play. But for...

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white women who early saw a link between women's rights and the abolishment of segregation, the focus has shifted to women's rights as a primary concern. Wiley argued that white women need authors like Childress included in the literary canon because she reminds us all that women's rights and human rights cannot be separated. When Julia's love for Herman makes her vulnerable to the advances of the white peddler, she is reduced to being just another black woman who prefers a white man. * 'This scene,'' Wiley declared, "points to the inseparability of racism and sexism, an issue that cannot be isolated from the historical relationship of the civil rights and women's liberation movements. The fallacy ofsisterhood as the word was used in the women's liberation movement of the 1960s lay in its assumption that oppression was universal." But black women face oppression on two fronts: they are discriminated against both as women and as African Americans. Wedding Band is important because it exposes both these problems and illustrates that Julia's need extends beyond her love for Herman. Consequently, the play is not only about Julia's love for a white man, it is also about her love for and her need to be loved by black women.

Wedding Band is also about survival, especially the survival of women. Although Herman dies at the play's conclusion, it is clear that Julia is strong enough to survive. Victims' ability to survive, according to Rosemary Curb in her article in Melus, is a result of the racism that permeates their lives. The prejudices of society surround Julia; her neighbors are intolerant of Germans, Jews, Chinese, whites, and certain blacks. In this play, Childress constructs both black and white characters who are petty and narrow-minded. But their behavior arises from their fear, and it is clear that both blacks and whites have much to fear. Herman's mother fears being exposed as German at a time when Germans are feared and ostracized; she also fears the loss of the slight social status she has acquired. Her daughter, Annabelle, fears she will lose her one chance at happiness, and so her prejudice toward Julia is more a function of her desire to escape, which she feels can only occur if Herman marries a white woman. Fanny fears losing the respect that being a property owner has bestowed upon her. And while Lula fears losing her adopted son to the violence of war and racism, Mattie fears losing the name and protection of a man. But the fear is greater for black women who have little protection from injustice, violence, or white society. Still, in spite of the poverty that threatens to envelop their lives, these women manage to earn a meager existence and they endure. The audience knows that it will be difficult, but these black women will survive. Their words and actions belie the prejudices that surround them, but as Curb remarked, ''if an all-pervasive racism has conditioned the women to be suspicious of white cordiality, it has also toughened them with the stamina necessary for survival." In asserting that Wedding Band belongs in the literary canon, Curb says of the play: "Although all of Childress's published work deserves to be read, Wedding Band is her finest and most serious piece of literature and deserves comparison with the most celebrated American tragedies. Like Childress's other plays, it features an ordinary black woman past her prime. What we have here is that Julia's soul-searching in the midst of her moral dilemmas takes place on stage; her confusion is fully dramatized. The problems which face Julia are complicated by a convergence of historical and political dilemmas with which a woman of her education and conditioning is ill prepared to cope. That she and the other flawed women in Wedding Band survive is tenuous but believable." It is this depiction of real people and real problems that makes Wedding Band an important resource for understanding twentieth-century racism.

But Wedding Band is more than a play about racism. In her Southern Quarterly essay, Gayle Austin maintained that what Childress did in all her plays was to "break down the binary opposition so prevalent in western society—black/white, male/ female, north/south, artist/critic—with their implications that one is superior to the other." (Binary oppositions are the tendency to see issues as pairs of good and bad or simply as opposites inclusive of other ideas.) Instead, by viewing characters and situations that are innately flawed, Childress's audience is forced to acknowledge that there are no clear answers, no simple right or wrong. Herman's mother is not an evil woman simply because she is willing to sacrifice her son's life if it means preserving the sanctity of her position. Rather she is revealed as weak and unhappy (note that she has lost five children to stillbirth, endured an oppressive marriage, and a childhood of poverty as a sharecropper's daughter). Although cast in the role of villain, her fear and self-loathing declare her more victim than villain. And Childress has made it clear that Herman and Julia do not fit the pattern of romantic lovers found elsewhere in literature; they are not like Romeo and Juliet. They are a middle-aged, uneducated couple who lack the strength and ability to escape the confines of the south. But as Herman's mother reminds them, there is no escape in the north. The north may be more integrated than the south, but racism, segregation, and the lack of an economic future will follow them if they try to escape. Consequently, as Austin noted, there is no clear delineation in Childress's play. The characters and the situations are more complex than the stereotypes of binary opposition would permit.

Source: Shen Metzger, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Metzger is an adjunct professor at Embry-Riddle University.

Whose Name, Whose Protection- Reading Alice Childress's Wedding Band

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In the first act of Wedding Band, a scene of reading and performance occurs that lies at the center of a feminist interpretation of the play. Mattie, a black woman who makes her living selling candy and caring for a little white girl, has received a letter from her husband in the Merchant Marine and needs a translator for it. Her new neighbor, Julia, the educated outsider trying to fit into working-class surroundings, reads the sentimental sailor's letter aloud. After her performance, in which the women listening have actively participated, Mattie tells Julia that, in addition to his love, her husband gives her what is more important, his name and protection. These two standards of conventional love are denied Julia because her lover of ten years is white; and even Mattie learns that because she never divorced her first husband, she is not now legally married and cannot receive marital war benefits. Neither woman enjoys a man's name or his protection, in part because the chivalry implied in such privilege was unattainable for blacks in the Jim Crow society of 1918 South Carolina. The women in Wedding Band learn to depend on themselves and each other rather than on absent men, a self-reliance born painfully through self-acceptance.

Wedding Band received mixed reviews when it opened off-Broadway in 1972. It was described both as the ''play about black life in America that isn't a 'black' play"(Martin Gottfried in Women's Wear Daily, October 10,1972) and too much "like a story wrenched from the pages of what used to be known as a magazine for women'' (Douglas Walt in New York Daily News, November 27, 1972). Interesting for their racist and sexist connotations, these comments betray the reviewers' uncritical assumptions about who constitutes a theater audience. The play doesn't look' 'black'' because its integrationist subtext surfaces only occasionally and its political urgency is dressed safely in realistic period costume. New York theater patrons of 1972 applauding the drama as entertainment alone could assure themselves that the play' s World War I setting depicted a reality long past. The first reviewer assumes that a "black" play, one that speaks primarily to a black audience, is implicitly alien and uninteresting to a white audience. Representations of so-called minority lives told from a minority point of view cannot interest the rest of us, if we are white. Likewise, the pages of a women's magazine would bore us if we were men, because they focus on the small, private issues of home and heart. And although none of the liberal reviewers profess any shock over the play's important theme of miscegenation, no New York producers would touch Wedding Band until 1972, six years after it was written and first performed, attesting to the subject's unpopularity.

My reading of the play argues that its subject is less interracial heterosexual relations than the relations between black women and between black women and white women in World War I—era South Carolina. That said, I must add that I perceive a certain danger in trying to read feminist rather than racial politics into Alice Childress's play. White feminists must take care not to offer our own invaluable ''name and protection'' to black women writers who do not need them. For a feminist criticism that is not limited to the privileged location of many of its practitioners, it is crucial that white feminists read the work of black women, especially those like Childress who have been all but ignored in academic theater. We might read in the same spirit of canon disruption inspiring the informal creation of a women's literary counter-canon, recognizing that in the same way white women writers were denied membership in the old canon on the basis of "greatness," we may be guilty of blocking black women writers for the same reason. The value of a literary text cannot be defined out of context. White readers should try to decentralize our historically majority context—to see ourselves, for once, in the margins with respect to the Afro-American women's literary tradition. I recognize with dismay the truth of Hortense J. Spillers's statement: ‘When we say 'feminist' with an adjective in front of it, we mean, of course, white women, who, as a category of social and cultural agents, fully occupy the territory of feminism." But does including Afro-American women writers in the canon ... imitate a colonizing gesture? Am I offering the protection of the canon to Alice Childress, protection on the canon's (and for now, white women's) terms? Instead of attempting to answer these questions now, I can only say that I am beginning to learn to read black women's plays in the same way many feminists ask men to read women's texts. Rather than seeing myself reflected in their work, I want to understand why my difference makes these plays a challenge to read....

Set chronologically midway between the poles of Reconstruction and civil rights, Wedding Band describes an era when lynching presented one answer to demands for equality in the south, while Harlem flowered as a mecca for black culture in the north. In the 1960s, white women and black men's sexual relations generated tension in the black community, but miscegenation as the white master's rape of his slave retains deeper historical ramifications for black women. Childress's drama, subtitled "a love/hate story in black and white," takes place on the tenth anniversary of Julia and her white lover in the small backyard tenement to which Julia has moved after being evicted from countless other houses. Determined to get along with her nosy but well-meaning neighbors, Julia seems to have won a guarded acceptance until her lover, Herman, visits her. He has brought her a gold wedding band on a chain, and they plan to buy tickets on the Clyde Line to New York, where Julia will proudly and legally bear Herman's name. But Herman succumbs to the influenza epidemic, and in the second act he lies in Julia's bed waiting for his mother and sister to take him to a white doctor. Julia's landlady has refused to help because it is illegal for Herman to be in Julia's house, and she cannot appear to sanction Julia's immoral behavior. Herman's mother sides with the landlady in preserving respectability even at the cost of her son's life, and she will not carry him to the doctor until it grows dark enough to hide him. In the last scene, Herman returns to Julia with the boat tickets, which she refuses to take because his mother has convinced her that blacks and whites can never live together. Finally she appears to relent so that Herman can die believing that Julia, even without him, will go north.

The secondary characters, however, more than the two lovers, underscore the drama's didactic politics. They are types, but not stereotypes, and their separate dilemmas and personalities describe the injustices blacks have endured in the south. The landlady, Fanny, the neighbors Mattie and Lula, Lula's adopted son, Nelson, and the abusive white traveling salesman give the stage community a historical idiosyncrasy missing from Julia and Herman's relationship. Fanny has proudly joined the middle-class by acquiring property and exploiting her tenants (in 1918 a relatively new possibility for black women) in the name of racial uplift. As homeworkers, Mattie and Lula exist bound to a variety of semi-skilled, low-paying jobs to feed their children. Nelson, as a soldier in the newly desegregated United States army, assumes that when the war is over he will be given the rights of a full citizen, even in South Carolina. He is a forerunner of the militant youth who would later provide the impatient voice to the nascent civil rights movement of the late 1940s, and whose dreams of integration would be realized only partially in the 1960s.

These characters who inhabit Miss Fanny's backward tenement underscore the vexed issue of difference as explored by the feminist scholars cited above. Julia's problem throughout the play is less her white lover than her reluctance to see herself as a member of the black community. Although a mostly white theater audience would see her as a different sort of heroine because of race, her black neighbors perceive her as different from them for issues more complex than skin color. She assumes that her racial transgression with Herman will make her unwelcome among the women she wishes to confide in, but her aloofness from their day-to-day interests also serves as a protective shield. In this, Julia is similar to Lutie Johnson in Ann Petry's The Street, written in 1946. Both characters are ostensibly defined by their unequal relations with men, but their potential for salvation lies in the larger community that depends on the stability of its women. Lutie Johnson is so determined to move off "the street'' in Harlem she thinks is pulling her down that she refuses to join the community Harlem offers her, a community that in some ways defies the white society keeping it poor. Neither poor nor uneducated, Julia finds herself defying the black community by asserting her right to love a white man, but his self-assertion is, in a larger sense, a more dangerous defiance of the white community. She wants her love story to be one of individual commitment and sacrifice, but it is that only in part. Julia's refinement in manners, education, and financial independence, which are middle-class, traditionally white attributes, make her and Herman available to each other. But theirs is, as the subtitle insists, a ''love/ hate" story, in which interracial love cannot be divorced from centuries of racial hate....

The urgency of integration as a method of combating such engrained hatred marks Julia's turning point in the play. After Herman and his family are gone, she must face her own difficult reintegration into the community of Fanny's backyard. As the women prepare to escort Nelson to his proud participation in the soldiers' parade, the air of festivity inspires Lula and Julia to perform an impromptu strut dance to the music of Jenkin's Colored Orphan Band. They discover a small common space in the mutual performance of a "Carolina folk dance passed on from some dimly-remembered African beginning.'' Later, to send Nelson on his way, Lula begs Julia to give him a farewell speech telling him ''how life's gon' be better when he gets back ... Make up what should be true,'' whether Julia believes in her performance or not. Julia makes a speech proclaiming the abolition of the "no-colored" signs after the war and the new lives of respect awaiting Nelson and October after their return home. Although the stage directions do not specify this, according to reviews of the play, she addresses these words directly to the audience. Edith Oliver, writing for the New Yorker, called the speech "dreadful ... like something out of a bad Russian movie," in part because by addressing the audience Julia moves the issue of racism north of the Mason-Dixon line. Breaking the fourth wall or realism brings the drama out of its historical context of 1918 into the present and makes Julia's words about integration harder for a northern audience to ignore.

At the end of the play, Julia gives her wedding band and boat tickets to Mattie and her daughter, finally admitting that "You and Teeta are my people... my family.'' But the gesture is compromised by its implication that the only choice for Afro-Americans is to leave their homes in the South. It was still illegal for blacks and whites to marry in South Carolina in 1966, but, despite the laws, by that time blacks had already begun to reclaim their homes. As Alice Walker argues in her essay "Choosing to Stay at Home," one thing Martin Luther King gave his people was the possibility of returning to the South they or their parents or grandparents had left. The civil rights movement recreated the South as a site of militant resistance, resistance enacted equally by black women and men. Set in South Carolina and staged in Michigan and New York, Wedding Band provides a site of resistance like the political movement from which it grew. Julia's decision to stay at home, to keep her own name, makes the spectator witness to her newfound ability to celebrate, as she says, her "own black self."

Despite her helplessness regarding her mother, Annabelle, the literal' 'white sister'' in the play, is a character who, like Julia and Nelson, embodies hope for the future in the South. Like the audience, she witnesses Julia's articulation of her newly-won independence. Julia's curtain speech with Herman dying in her arms escapes sentimentality only through the staging of Annabelle's mute participation in it. Julia and Herman remain inside Julia's house, after she simply but irrevocably bars Annabelle, Herman's mother, and Fanny from entering. Everyone leaves the stage except for Annabelle, who moves toward the house, listening to Julia's words to her brother. Without entering the house, to which the black woman has denied her access, she hears the other woman's words and so manages to share silently the loss of Herman without translating it into white terms. As Julia comforts Herman by describing their pretend journey north on the Clyde Line Boat together, she says, "We're takin' off, ridin' the waves so smooth and easy ... There now ... on our way...." Julia and Herman are not on their way, but perhaps Julia and Annabelle will someday be on their way to mutual respect. I can only read these words as a directive to the audience of college students at the University of Michigan in 1966, impassioned with the growing fervor of the anti-war and women's liberation movements and prepared in their innocence to change the world. They cannot do it, Wedding Band gently but firmly insists, as gently and firmly as Julia closes her door on the other women, without a renewed commitment to civil rights for all people in the United States, in the South as well as in the North. Sisterhood, especially from the point of view of white women learning to understand black women, begins with listening, not to what one wants to hear but to what is being said.

Source: Catherine Wiley, ''Whose Name, Whose Protection- Reading Alice Childress's Wedding Band" in Modem American Drama- The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Associated University Presses, 1990, pp 184-85, 187-89,194-96

Review of The Wedding Band in The Nation

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Alice Childress' Wedding Band has an authenticity which, whatever its faults, makes it compelling both as script and performance. The locale is some place near Charleston, S.C., during the last days of World War I. The play tells of a frustrated love; one that has endured for ten years between a black woman, Julia Augustine, and Herman, a white man who is a baker of humble means. They have not been able to marry because such mixed unions were illegal at the time. They both hope to escape the trap of their existence by going North, but poverty prevents them.

The play's basic theme emerges from the portrayal not only of the bigoted opposition of Herman's family, with its vile Klan spirit, but just as saliently in the suspicion and fear with which the blacks confront the two lovers. Herman, on the verge of death during the influenza epidemic which raged at the time, proves his deep attachment to Julia by buying her a ticket to New York even as he lies helpless, still in the grip of his wretched family. She on the other hand, though convinced of his love and freedom from racial bias, despairs of overcoming the barriers between them.

There is an honest pathos in the telling of this simple story, and some humorous and touching thumbnail sketches reveal knowledge and understanding of the people dealt with. The fact that black and white interrelationships have somewhat changed since 1918 does not make the play less relevant to the present. Constitutional amendments and laws do not immediately alter people's emotions; the divisions and tensions which Wedding Band dramatizes still exist to a far more painful extent than most of us are willing to admit.

Evidence of this was furnished at the last preview of the play. A black man attempted to heckle the performance. What apparently provoked the outburst was his refusal to accept the sentimentality he found in the treatment of a close tie between a black and a white. He would not countenance it: he felt it an indignity, indeed an insult to the black race.

James Broderick as Herman conveys the character's inner rectitude and hurt with utmost simplicity and truthfulness. He really listens to his acting partners, something which cannot be said of many actors of greater acclaim. Ruby Dee too is affecting in her commitment to the man who has shown her deep regard and tenderness as well as in her tormented revulsion from him as part of the community which has victimized her people. Everyone in the cast is right. Special commendation should be accorded to Jean Davis as Herman's mother—a stupefied racist who would be totally abhorrent were it not for the reality of pain with which the actress endows the character. Polly Holliday, as Herman's maiden sister, shows considerable delicacy in communicating the wound of doubt within the girl's narrowness. Apart from the various players' individual abilities, commendation for the general excellence of the acting must go to the Charleston-born author in conjunction with Joseph Papp.

Source: Harold Clurman, in a review of The Wedding Band in the Nation, November 13,1972, pp. 475-76. Clurman is highly regarded as a director, author, and longtime drama critic for the Nation. He was an important contributor to the development of the modern American theater as a cofounder of the Innovative Group Theater, which served as an arena for the works of new playwrights and as an experimental workshop for actors. Along with Lee Strasberg, he is credited with bringing the technique known as "method acting" to the fore in American film and theatre.


Critical Overview