Good Girls Never Wear Red: Codes of Conduct; Race, Ethics and the Color of Our Character

Article excerpt

Good Girls Never Wear Red: Codes of Conduct; Race, Ethics and the Color. of our Character

Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics and the Color of our Character

by Karla F.C. Holloway

Rutgers University Press, 1995

210 pp., $24.95 hardcover

From the title of her new work, "Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics and the Color of our Character," to her examination of the destructive impact of color(ed) politics upon the lives of African-American children, Karla Holloway ingeniously invokes and then inverts Dr. King's famous speech moment -- that Moses-like panorama of an American Canaan Land as seen from a spiritual mountaintop. It is appropriate to note that our Black American Hero has since been re-costumed as commercial pop-icon; his passionate expression of hope has since been reduced to a quotable quote or a tasty, 15-second media sound-bite to satisfy the snack appetite of commercial liberalism. And so far, The Dream remains America's most talked about and yet unrealized ideal.

If we remember his four opening words ("Five score years ago..."), the invocation of King's speech moment throws us further back into American freedom history, calling forth the ready memory of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Emancipation Proclamation from a similarly precipitous mountaintop.

However, King prefaced his great vision for America in words that somehow never seem to fit into 15-second sound-bites, by saying: "We must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free...is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination...is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land." We will, perhaps involuntarily, note that King consistently used the "universal" masculine pronoun form, and the "Negro" to whom King refers is always "he." But what about the Black woman? Does (s)he dream? Do the heroic speeches of the racial warriors "intertext" with the voices of women? These intertextual mirrorings of our racial past are available in the wording of Holloway's book title.

It is no wonder that Holloway, author of three works of literary criticism (most recently "Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature," Rutgers UP) has climbed down from her scholarly box seat and entered the ring from all four corners at once. Employing the structures and analyses of ethical systems, ethnicity politics, linguistic/cultural analysis and literary/feminist criticism, Holloway alternates personal storytelling, straight talk and academic theorizing to reach all audiences as she deconstructs popular social discourses, moral and ethical confusion and clarifies their relationship to, and effect upon, the lives of African-American women and, ultimately, their children.

Holloway puns and plays with her own words demonstrating the elasticity and elusiveness of language. In her introduction, "Eth(n)icity: A Tracery of Cultural Work," she states: "This book explores ethical conduct that either implicitly or explicitly traces the architecture of ethnic identity." Ethics are shaped by cultural narratives, and ethical conduct "traces the architecture of ethnic identity." In other words, contrary to King's wish, character assessments are often still color-coded, and our "ethics" must respond to this reality.

In pursuit of this analysis, Holloway examines the lives and narratives of Black women in particular, and her own life, to determine what eth(n)ical codes have been advanced, and how they have served, or have failed to support our real needs.

Holloway begins her study as herself, witness to a mother's use of a very powerful admonition to control her son's behavior in a public place -- the line at the bank full of mostly white patrons. She whispers urgently, "Act your age and not your color." With this insulting dictate, so familiar to most African Americans, Holloway easily reminds us of the traditional language that retains and maintains the association between color and character. …