Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog


representations of love in “Salvage the Bones”

~spoilers for the last three chapters of the novel are in this post~

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of love and how it is represented in this novel, and as I finished the book, I felt love strongly between some of the characters. Even between Esch and her dad, in the scene when he pushes Esch from the tree and in every moment they’re together afterwards, there’s a strong feeling between them. At least in my reading, I felt this as sorrow and shame, as her father’s shame for letting things go unnoticed, for not being present enough. And later, when he tells Esch that they need to find out how long it’s been and make sure everything is okay, I felt a strong sense of love and care, of trying to atone for the past and of concern for his daughter’s well being.

I also felt an extremely powerful sense of love in the scene between Esch and Big Henry, after the hurricane. Big Henry asks who the daddy of Esch’s baby is and she says it doesn’t have one, to which he replies “This baby got plenty of daddies.” In this statement, Big Henry is acknowledging how much he and Esch’s brothers care for her. It may not always look like what we think of as obvious representations of love, with kisses and hugs and the words “I love you”, but it is there. There is a bond between all of them, made obvious by the circumstances they find themselves in, and the way they hold onto each other for foundation. Big Henry tells Esch, “Don’t forget you always got me.” He is the only one of the guys who has not forced himself on to Esch or made any sexual intentions known, but still he tells her that he will always be around for her, and that in itself is love.


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Introversion v Extroversion

For Wednesday’s in-class assignment, I wrote about the portion of pages 164 – 165 in which Ifemelu narrates how the American education system grades on participation and values talking, which only leads to “class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words.” I recently read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Cain’s book discusses how America has developed a culture that thinks extroversion equals competence. People are more likely to be placed in leadership positions if they have charisma, talk loudly and often, and are seen as good public speakers. However, this culture disregards the good characteristics that come with being introverted, and ignores the fact that talking a lot does not imply a higher IQ.

Ifemelu narrates that “Americans were taught, from elementary school, to always say something in class, no matter what.” As an introvert, I’ve always been incredibly uncomfortable with the idea that “participation” through talking, asking questions, and vocally contributing to class could be calculated into final grades. I feel that active participation can occur through note taking, listening, and mentally processing information. I’ve often found that the person who talks the most in a class is not always the most competent, or best academic performer in that subject. It is a struggle for me, when applying jobs, to feel that my non-extroverted personality could harm my chances for receiving a job, no matter what the job is. I think Ifemelu makes a really important observation on how we’ve twisted this idea that certain personality traits that have no correlation whatsoever to intelligence, work ethic, or ability to carry out a task well, are valued and praised more than others.


What’s in a Name?

I noticed in our discussion on Wednesday that everyone was struggling with how to pronounce the names in Americanah. And I get it – names are hard. I was pronouncing “Dike” in my head like “dyke” and I was pronouncing the “e” on the end of “Obinze,” and if you aren’t hearing someone say the name out loud, it can be difficult to know which syllables are stressed and which vowels have a long or short sound.

But I think it’s important to try to get names right. Many names have a certain meaning, specially chosen by parents or guardians. Some names are picked out so that a person can be automatically associated with a specific culture or ethnicity. Names allow people to have a specific identity, to have a sense of person hood.

When Obinze moves to London, he is forced to adopt the identity of a London citizen in order to find a job. Obinze takes on the name “Vincent” as must learn to respond when the name is called. Obinze is unable to claim his own identity because he is not a citizen of England, and he lives in fear of being discovered and being deported. Being able to use his true identity and name is a luxury that Obinze does not have in London.

Everyone is entitled to their own name. Sure, people might mispronounce it the first few times they say it – teachers always butchered my name the first few days of school – but the important thing to do is ask how to pronounce and then make a real effort to do so correctly. My opinion on this subject may be much stronger than most other people’s, but I truly believe it is respectful to at least try to get the names right – to not say it’s just too hard and decide to use a nickname. And yes, I know these are fictional characters who aren’t here to tell us how to say their names correctly. But they have these names for a reason and I think the effort should still be made.

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Daughters of the Dust and symbolism

I’ve always found it difficult to watch films and search for symbolism in each scene; it tires me out to think that everything – from camera angle to lighting to color to object placement – is intentional. But it’s very obvious in Daughters of the Dust that everything is intentional and the entire film is designed to provoke thought in the audience members. And that’s not to say that I understood everything because I definitely didn’t.  I think this is a film that I would have to watch multiple times to fully understand, and each time focus on one symbolic aspect, such as the Unborn Child and why she’s in specific scenes and the significance of showing her running so many times. Our discussion on Wednesday after the film was enlightening and made me think about things I could focus on if I watch the film again – the lone Native American man, the shots of bare feet running on the earth, the indigo dye.

Angeletta Gourdine’s focus on symbolism of the clothing in the film was intriguing to read. I love that clothes can carry so much significance. Viola’s “tight-fitted apparel betrays [her] restrained demeanor,” whereas the “lattice pattern on the front of [Yellow Mary’s] blouse… draws sensual attention to her bust line” and the rest of her outfit adds to her “freedom” and “forthright sexuality.”  It’s amazing how Gourdine is able to recognize so many characteristics of the women just by analyzing their costumes.


Nobody is just one thing

Reading Patricia Hill Collins’ piece reminds me so much of how much we, as a society, are always trying to pin people into one category, to fit them into one box. We want every teenager to either be a jock, a nerd, a prep, an artist, a drama queen, etc. We try to label every black woman as a Jezebel, a Mammy, a Matriarch, a Welfare Queen, and so on. In all types of media we peg each character and each person as one thing: the teenage boy who is on trial for rape? oh how sad, he was an athlete! The unarmed black man who was killed by police? well he was a criminal anyways. Even the characters in movies who are supposed to be dynamic are overall static characters, because at the end of the day the playboy is still a playboy and the smart girl is still a nerd.

But nobody is just one thing. There is not one single character trait that can solely define a person. We talked in class about how the characters in Silver Sparrow might fit into the controlling images put forth by Collins. Gwen, who always keeps herself put together, with a clean and accommodating home, may represent the “Black Lady.” But, as James’ secret wife, a mistress of sorts, she could also be considered a “Jezebel.” However, Gwen is so much else. She’s a mother who tries her best to be honest with her daughter. She’s a nurse, who works hard to provide for herself and Dana. She is a daughter, rejected and cast-aside by her own father, and abandoned by her mother. She has so many traits and qualities and secrets and feelings, that the only thing she truly is, is Gwen.

And this goes for all people, in all places.

Nobody is just one thing.

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Silver Sparrow tugs at my heart

*This post contains spoilers for those who have not finished Silver Sparrow*

Silver Sparrow has moved me so much and has taken me on a chaotic roller coaster of emotions. Each character has his/her own emotions, struggles, and drive, and it is impossible to feel completely negatively towards any of them, even James. Since the book starts with Dana’s point of view, allowing me to experience her emotions, I immediately wanted to take her side in the predicament, to support her in her struggle to feel accepted as James’ daughter, and to be able to live her life freely. When Dana tells the story of how her mother proposed to James, I immediately became torn between feeling sorry for Gwen, and feeling angry towards her and James for agreeing to continue a secret relationship behind his wife’s back. I believe (I think) that Gwen and James should never have started a relationship in the first place while he was married, but I couldn’t help but feel for Gwen when, upon becoming pregnant despite their precautions, she asks James to marry her. On page 52, Dana narrates, “When James said he wasn’t going to leave Laverne, Mother tried to act like he had misunderstood her, like she hadn’t been suggesting that they run away together and live life like normal people, giving me a chance at ordinary life.” Gwen acted out of her love for James and her hope that her daughter could be born into a happy, “ordinary” life. And when James says no, she offers what she believes is the next best solution: a secret marriage.

When it comes to James, I initially believed that it was wrong for him to cheat on his wife and therefore he was automatically a bad person. But in the second half of the book, when Chaurisse narrates that Laverne and James married because she became pregnant with a baby boy who then died at birth, and that they remained together afterwards regardless, I couldn’t help but feel that James was doing his best to be fair to Laverne and Chaurisse, despite his love for Laverne blossoming out of an accidental pregnancy and becoming more a relationship of comfort and familiarity than passion. James then falls in love with Gwen and upon getting her pregnant, decides to try to be present in both of his children’s lives while doing the least damage he can to their feelings. And ultimately, everyone gets hurt and the entire situations blows up in all of their faces anyways, because that kind of secret just can’t be kept forever. But does this make James a terrible, immoral person? I’m not sure. I want to say yes, because that’s an absolute answer, but I can’t help but think that it’s not that simple. Nothing about this story is absolute.

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Mr.’s Split Personality

While watching The Color Purple in class today, I was struck by how disturbing and astounding it is that Mr. can be so many different people at once. Or rather, how the same person can treat different people so differently.

In the novel, we’re first introduced to Mr. as Nettie’s “boyfriend” who looks at her in church and comes to their home every Sunday with interest in marrying her (4). Celie even tells Nettie to marry Mr., seeing it as an alternative to having to stay with Pa (5).  And when Nettie runs away from home to Mr.’s place, he puts on “his Sunday best” and compliments her on all aspects of her appearance (17). Mr. almost comes off as an acceptable suitor who politely flirts with Nettie from afar. That all changes after Nettie rejects him too many times, resulting in her being kicked to the curb and in Mr. stealing all of her letters to Celie.

When it comes to Celie, Mr. is abusive, ungrateful, and disregards her as a person entirely. Harpo asks Mr. why he beats Celie and his answer is simply “cause she my wife,” as if this is grounds for abuse (22).He has sex with her as if she isn’t even there, just using her to “do his business” (65). Mr. demands that Celie work and cook and care for the children, all while he sits on the porch and smokes.

But with Shug, Mr. becomes Albert. Albert takes Shug into his home when she’s sick, taking her insults and commands without a word in response or even lifting a finger in anger. He even shows an emotion other than anger when Celie finally gets Shug to eat, saying he’s “been scared” and “[covering] up his eyes with his hands” (52).

So with Nettie he’s a casual suitor, with Celie he’s an abusive husband, and with Shug he is totally lost and would do anything to please the woman he loves. For someone to be such a repulsive human being in one setting and yet act strongly out of love in another is so surprising and confusing. I spent the entirety of the book cursing Mr. and being completely befuddled at how Shug could ever have loved him – or love him still. But towards the end of the book, Mr. reveals more and more of his personality as Albert and shows his softer and more grateful sides. And while this in no way makes up for the abuse the he forced Celie to endure, it shows that Mr. was struggling in his own mind too, with his own pain and insecurities.