Blues Tradition and Culture in Ellen Douglas's Can't Quit You, Baby
Rea, Robert, The Mississippi Quarterly
ELLEN DOUGLAS'S NOVEL CAN'T QUIT YOU, BABY IS THE STORY OF TWO Southern women, Cornelia, a middle-class white woman, and Tweet, an African-American domestic worker in Cornelia's home. The novel develops around the histories of these two women and the relationship between them while boiling syrup, peeling figs, and polishing silver in the white woman's kitchen. Linda Tare notes that Cornelia's kitchen functions as "a room that simultaneously suggests their [Cornelia's and Tweet's] creativity, their mutual oppression, and their relationship as servant and mistress" (52). The two women's creativity can be seen in their preparation of food (both have an affinity for fig preserves); both women are mutually oppressed in the sense that their gender traditionally confines them to the domestic sphere. The first two of Tate's parameters suggest a common bond between the two women based on gender, bur the unavoidable power relations that exist in Cornelia's kitchen consistently preclude the full realization of any kind of feminine bond.
Douglas's intrusive narrator occasionally reflects and comments on the unsettling nature of this relationship: "But--servant? Mistress? They would be uneasy with these words.... So let's settle for housekeeper and employer. Yes, that's better. And try for now to be absentminded about face and class, place and time, even about poverty and wealth, security and deprivation" (5). The narrator's tone is ironic in this passage, for these issues of race, class, time, and place are fundamental to Douglas's portrayal of their relationship. Race separates Cornelia and Tweet socially, class separates them economically, and the Civil Rights era South was an environment wherein these divisive tines were particularly heightened. Furthermore, an "absentminded" approach to these issues is exactly how Cornelia lives out her relationship with Tweet. Early in the novel, Cornelia, whose hearing aid allows her to tune out conversation, refuses to listen to disturbing portions of Tweet's monologue, portions which often involve race and sexuality. In other words, Cornelia embraces Tweet's friendship only if racial concerns remain unarticulated (or in this case muted). But as the novel progresses and Cornelia confronts the fracture of her idealized notions of family, she undergoes a moral regeneration in her relationship with Tweet as she realizes the importance of Tweet's role in her life beyond that of domestic service. Sonya Lancaster asserts that "The cross-racial relationships between black and white women ... teach us the importance of hearing voices of black women as a way of subverting white authority in kitchens" (129). Bur how does this occur? How does Tweet teach Cornelia the importance of listening and communicate the politics of race to a privileged white woman? And finally, how does Tweet subvert white authority in Cornelia's kitchen?
Most of the criticism attempts to unpack the dynamics of this problematic relationship. Lancaster looks at the kitchen as a contested space in the novel, and Tate outlines the process by which Tweet and Cornelia form a "deep bond that connects them" despite "the eternal barrier that divides them" (59). Charles Fister discusses the role of blues music in Can't Quit You, Baby and relates Cornelia's and the narrator's experience to the experience of a blues audience, with Tweet in the role of blues mentor. He focuses primarily on Tweet's blues-inflected narrative as it affects Cornelia and the narrator. Indeed, the blues resonate throughout Tweet's narrative and Douglas incorporates the blues tradition into her characterization of Tweet as a blues heroine. The blues, Daphne Duval Harrison argues, "are a means of articulating experience and demonstrating a toughness of spirit by creating and recreating that experience" and Tweet's blues-inflected speech becomes the means by which Tweet "articulates" her "experience" to Cornelia by "creating and re-creating that experience" (65).
In his "Preface to 'Three Plays,'" August Wilson recalls the impact the blues had on him as both a poet and an African American:
Although the business of poetry is to enlarge the sayable, I cannot describe or even relate what I felt. Suffice to say it was a birth, a baptism, a resurrection, and a redemption all rolled into one. It was the beginning of my consciousness that I was a representative of a culture and the carrier of some very valuable antecedents. With my discovery of Bessie Smith and the blues I had been given a world that contained my image, a world at once rich and varied, marked and marking, brutal and beautiful, and at crucial odds with the larger world that contained it and preyed and pressed it from every conceivable angle. (564)
What is striking in August Wilson's initial reaction to hearing the blues is his discovery of blues as a sensibility: hearing the blues "was the beginning of my consciousness that I was a representative of a culture" and provided him with "a world that contained my image." How can a blues song contain the consciousness of a culture? By what process does Bessie Smith, or any blues singer for that matter, transmit cultural knowledge to an audience in the scaled-down format of a blues song, or in Tweet's case, a single lyric? James H. Cone argues that blues "are not propositional truths about the black experience. Rather they are the essential ingredients that define the essence of the black experience" (235). Thus, blues and blues lyrics contain …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Blues Tradition and Culture in Ellen Douglas's Can't Quit You, Baby. Contributors: Rea, Robert - Author. Journal title: The Mississippi Quarterly. Volume: 62. Issue: 3-4 Publication date: Summer-Fall 2009. Page number: 605+. © 1998 Mississippi State University. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.