Faith and the "Black Thing": Political Action and Self-Questioning in Grace Paley's Short Fiction

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Grace Paley is almost as well known for her politics as for her short stories. Indeed, she has said that "the three things in my life have been writing, politics, and family" (Isaacs 123), and that each has, at times, been forced to give way to the others. Many of the critics who admire her work, for example, lament the fact that her political activity has kept her from doing more of it. She disagrees with such an assessment. For her, the two are intimately connected; she has argued that "art, literature, fiction, poetry, whatever it is, makes justice in the world" (Shapiro 45), a belief that is expressed in much of her fiction. One of the most fascinating aspects of many of Paley's stories, though, is the way in which they create a forum wherein she can question her own real-life activism. In these works she both explores and satirizes her theme of a commitment to others (Antler 16).

This self-questioning seems particularly aroused when Paley writes of African Americans. A staunch believer in civil rights, Paley states in the "Introduction" to her recent collection of short pieces, Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991), that she hopes her work will "by its happiness and sadness, demonstrate against militarists, racists, earth poisoners, women haters, [and] all those destroyers of days" (emphasis added). Indeed, the central characters in Paley's canon are, in the words of one critic, "self-defined activists faithfully engaged in fighting oppression. Such activism is inclusive; it recognizes shared suffering.... Paley's characters identify with oppressed groups" (Aarons 25-26). Nevertheless, in some of her fiction Paley seems to acknowledge that she might herself display some racist behaviors. At other times she appears to be asking herself why she, a white woman, should have the right to speak about African-american concerns in the first place. Through the fictional persona of Faith Darwin Asbury, a recurring personality in Paley's stories, she is able to examine someone very much like herself while at the same time distancing herself from that person's activities. In this manner she is able to, as Jacqueline Taylor notes, "reveal her good intentions [as well as] her limited awareness" (84). The fact that Paley is aware of her own limited awareness only intensifies her self-consciousness and self-questioning. By examining African-American issues as they arise in Paley's stories, particularly the stories that feature Faith, we can get a clear understanding of this self-questioning process, the way in which she uses her stories to comment on her political activism.

Faith appears (directly or indirectly) in five of the stories in Paley's second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and issues of race are at least briefly mentioned in all of them. On some occasions, for example, Faith's friends and acquaintances make negatively stereotyped comments about blacks. In "Distance," Mrs. Raftery, Faith's Irish neighbor, explains that "there are different kinds coming into this neighborhood, and I do not mean the colored people alone. I mean people like you and me, religious, clean, many of these have gone rotten" (67). Underlying her statement is the belief that. "colored people" are not "people like you and me, religious, [and] clean," that they are naturally "rotten." Mrs. Raftery is not a sympathetic character, and Paley certainly intends for the reader to scrutinize such comments carefully. In "Come On, Ye Sons of Art," Faith's friend kitty argues with her boyfriend, Jerry Cook, about moving out of the city. He asks her, "What have your kids got here, everywhere they go, shvartzes, spics and spades," yet he feels compelled to add, "not that I got a thing against them, but who needs the advance guard" (122). He claims to believe in equal rights, but his profession rings undeniably hollow. Kitty's response - she "put her finger over his lips. Ssh, she said. I am tolerant and loving" (122) - also seems inadequate, and Jerry undercuts it even more by reminding her how, in a previous time, she had been repulsed by Jewish immigrants. …