My Friend Sam

Jane Miller

  • The rock cried out by Ellen Douglas
    Virago, 303 pp, £5.99, June 1990, ISBN 1 85381 140 8
  • Can’t quit you, baby by Ellen Douglas
    Virago, 256 pp, £12.95, June 1990, ISBN 1 85381 149 1

The landscape of Ellen Douglas’s Mississippi is designed to keep us out, to resist recognition; and the lines of its knobs and bluffs and ridges may be deciphered only by those who have been born and bred amongst them. For the rest of us they are edged but also obscured by lovingly named plants, by smilax, trillium, scuppernog vines and plum thickets. And the birds in their midst, the towhees, the goatsuckers, the magnolia warblers and juncos, do not sing to us out of some shared childhood, but out of memories we are adjured to hear as entirely different from our own. They will be mythic and mysterious memories, but they will also – so consciously Southern is this (and so much other) writing from the American South – be delivered with due attention paid to the clichés to be navigated therein. Leafless briars viciously obstruct the solitary wanderer in this landscape, and so does the barbed wire surrounding the government defence station, whose recent installation has added itself to a history of depredations of the land. It is as if it is only possible to enter these places and their past with a local guide and through literature.

Such is the terrain of Ellen Douglas’s fifth book, The rock cried out, first published in America in 1979 and now issued here with her most recent novel, Can’t quit you, baby. So that it comes as a surprise to realise in the earlier novel that the vast sky above this inaccessible South is shared, at least with Americans from the North, and that its constellations are named as they are elsewhere, although the novel’s narrator cannot resist wondering whether Andromeda might not have been black, even an Ethiopian.

Alan McClaurin looks back at himself as a young man in flight, first, from the Vietnam War and the draft, and then later, in 1971, when, ‘dreaming of solitude and inviting my soul’, he returns to the country where he grew up. Not the least of Douglas’s successes is the way she casts at least provisional doubt on both the soul and the judgment of her voluble and somewhat self-intoxicated narrator, as he assembles the remains of his disintegrating family for us. He has been in the North and knows his Thoreau, so he starts by dismantling one ruined house in order to fortify and then inhabit another. And from this fastness he reconnoitres the places and characters of his childhood in order, amongst other things, to clear up some of the ambiguities surrounding an event in which they have each played a part.

The novel is constructed from the stories, told to Alan and retold, of the violent happenings of 1964, the burning of black houses and churches, and an act of murderous sabotage which caused the death of Alan’s young cousin and of the wife of the man he introduces as ‘my friend Sam Daniels’. Sam is black, and his family have had their roots in this landscape too. He is the lover of Alan’s sturdy Aunt Leila and intimately entangled in other ways with this family which owns the land on which his own family have ridden and worked for generations. As the storytellers grow increasingly clamorous and buttonholing, they seem simultaneously to inch towards and back off from some common questions. What is it for Alan to claim Sam as his friend? Is any reconciliation possible between black people and white? Are white people’s assertions that there is such a possibility self-evidently annulled?

If Ellen Douglas is likely to be read as of roughly the generation of Flannery O’Connor and as a Mississippian who might be compared with the rather older Eudora Welty, her writing expresses a proper wariness of that tradition’s tripwires as well as a preoccupation with its most haunting themes. For there is always the temptation for white people, white writers, to portray black people as neighbours who are straightforwardly implicated, as white people are, in the complex realities of the South’s past and present. There is the hope that black people’s intimate experience of the culture of defeat, guilt, evasiveness, will prompt their forgiveness and sympathy. Douglas confronts this alluring and soothing dream, and repudiates it, for it has spawned some dangerous literary as well as political delusions. Reconciliation between slave-owners and slaves, and between landowners and what, by a sleight of hand, becomes an impoverished ‘peasantry’, licenses the belief that Southern novels are best read as a natural extension of 19th-century realistic fiction from Russia or France. The effect of this is to rinse of its horrors the particular history of slavery in the South by assimilating it to the remnants of European feudalism.

Certainly, the descendants of slaves have been affected by the fate of split and devastated white families, their ruined homes and wasted land, by the economic instability of poor whites, and by the spirituality, genuine as well as meretricious, embodied in the fundamentalist forms of Christianity celebrated in Southern churches. There must be ways in which writers like Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker are bound to acknowledge their indebtedness to white Southern writing, as to its European sources. If The Color Purple may be read as a novel about the acquiring of literacy, becoming a reader and a writer, and the meaning of this for members of materially oppressed groups of people – in this case, poor young black women – it is also wittily responsive to the quite different worlds accounted for in epistolary novels like Evelina or even Guy Mannering.

Some things really are shared: landscape, language, voice, aspects of religion. But Douglas refuses to sanction the sentimentality of that rhetoric with which her young hero grows up, which has encouraged his confidence in a past when Sam’s father and his own grandfather were somehow ‘boys together’, bonded in nature. And Douglas goes further, suggesting that women have not only held back from the excesses of racist hatred and violence, but that they have seen through the conciliatory rhetoric, knowing how it has served to disguise the gross inequalities and injustices of slavery and of everything that has happened since. Women, for instance, have known that when white children are cared for by black women, who must often neglect their own children and families in order to earn a living, the affection presumed and counted on in such arrangements will be fragile at best. It is not that white women are to be exonerated, but that their exclusion from specifically male relations, whether economic or social, shifts the ground, as well as the limitations, of understanding between white women and black women.

In her most recent novel, Can’t quit you, baby, Ellen Douglas starts from women’s experience of racism. The novel opens with a golden moment as two women work together, peeling, boiling and bottling figs. The moment is disrupted by a narrator who is to subject other such moments to similarly chilly interventions and, finally, to a severe interrogation of the imaginative evasions on which so much Southern literature has relied.

There is no getting around in these stories of two lives that the black woman is the white woman’s servant. There would have been no way in that time and place – the nineteen-sixties and seventies in Mississippi – for them to get acquainted, except across the kitchen table from each other, shelling peas, peeling apples, polishing silver. True, other black and white women became friends under other circumstances, but such friendships, arising out of political crisis – revolution – were rare. In this house the white woman had to choose to sit down to set the tone of their connection.

Cornelia, the white woman, is rich and deaf. Julia, her black maid – and her nickname ‘Tweet’ disparages her utterances rather than suggesting affection – is poor and garrulous. Yet Cornelia, who ‘skimmed like a skier over the surface of her life’, is rebuked by her maid’s ‘passionate and violent life’. At first the novel’s narratives travel in one direction only, as Tweet pours her life into the deaf woman’s pink plastic hearing-aid, which may be adjusted to filter out those stories of rape and theft and cheating and adultery, and of Tweet’s hot-blooded and ingenious acts of revenge, which are unacceptably tall or ferocious. And the narrator does not leave us alone, but asks us once more to ‘try for now to be absentminded about race and class, place and time, even about poverty and wealth, security and deprivation’. This oblique advice is caught up and translated into the gathering hallucinatory sequence which follows the death of Cornelia’s husband. For just as he collapses and dies, strapped into his seat in an aeroplane and slumped against her, she, believing him to have been unfaithful to her and probably now incapably drunk, tears into him with a venom she has neither expressed nor known she felt until now. Deranged by shock and shame and pursued by fragments of Tweet’s stories, to which she has never before listened attentively, Cornelia learns very fast about the violence of loss and of unprotectedness. She wanders, unwanted, between her children, and then all over New York, where she is scorched by the ‘burning hatred’ on the face of a small black boy in Harlem. The meanings of her own appalling outburst proliferate. Death and pain may indeed be levellers, but the furies and the hatred she has tidily sidestepped refuse to be tamed. She returns home to find Tweet silenced by a stroke and damaged by burns. For months Cornelia works to restore the black woman’s speech, longing to hear the stories she once simply switched off. And then when Tweet does speak again it is to tell Cornelia that she hates her:

Every day, every hour of my entire life from the day I’m born. Hate you when you acting like you the only woman in the world ever got sorrow when her husband die. I hate you, hate you, hate you. And I steal that gold barrette to remind me of it, in case I forget. She laughs. Sometimes I forget, she says.

It is an admission which could be said to effect too easy a reconciliation. The title’s words from the Blues song remind us that this form of reconciliation belongs in other rhetorics: the kinds, for instance, which promote a view of hatred being better out than in, better spoken than silent. And that would seem to imply that a certain level of honesty between individuals is all that is needed to transform relations between white employer and black servant. Novels beg for resolutions, and the women are left singing the song together. Yet this is also a brave and intelligent novel, which avoids the seductiveness either of a generalising benevolence or of that special pleading which disqualifies outsiders from having a view of this particular past.