Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Archetypal Mother: The Black Madonna in Sue Monk Kidd's the Secret Life of Bees

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Archetypal Mother: The Black Madonna in Sue Monk Kidd's the Secret Life of Bees

Article excerpt

In her 2002 novel, The Secret Life of Bees, former Guidepost magazine contributor Sue Monk Kidd departs from Baptist conservatism to produce a fourteen-year-old heroine, Lily, who finds solace and spirituality in a black woman's face Set in 1960s South Carolina, this novel captures the period's racial prejudice and white patriarchy but reproduces the time's rebellious fervor as well. As Lily faces the revelation of a sheriff who doles out injustice to her housekeeper, Rosaleen, and a Southern Baptist religion that reinforces the tyranny of her father, T. Ray, she longs for a mother. This search takes psychological and archetypal turns as Lily confronts her own implication in her mother's death. Her only link to the mother she never really knew is a picture of a Black Madonna with a South Carolina town printed beneath it. Kidd ties all the frayed strands of past to present for Lily in the home of three black beekeepers-May, June, and August--who have their own Black Madonna, whom they declare is "blessed among women" (90). Throughout the novel, Kidd scrupulously ties all her symbols, most importantly those of the lily and bees, to this black icon. Thus, Lily's search for an archetypal mother expands from a quest for psychological identity to a quest for a religion that offers some reflection of herself.

In 1996 Kidd wrote her spiritual autobiography, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, in which she recounts her own attempt to find a feminine face of God. This search sent her to visit monasteries, to read religious texts extensively, and to denounce the patriarchy of the Southern Baptist Church. An unlikely feminist, she speaks at length about a woman's plight in both conventional society and orthodox religion. As she puts it:

   When she finally lets herself feel the limits and injustices
   of female life and admits how her own faith tradition has
   contributed to that. when she at last stumbles in the dark
   hole made by the absence of a Divine Feminine presence ...
   this woman will become pregnant with herself, with the
   symbolic female-child who will. if given a chance, grow up
   to reinvent the woman's life. (Dance 12, emphasis Kidd's)

Just as Toni Morrison did in The Bluest Eye, Kidd discusses the psychological damage of women's exclusion, exclusion from representation in society's power positions and in her viewpoint, exclusion from nearly all church images and stories. As she explains, "We find genuine female authority within when we become the 'author' of our own identity. By taking the journey to the feminine soul, we 'authorize' ourselves" (Dance 212). As she recounts in her own autobiography and again in the spiritual and psychological voyage of her heroine Lily, this writing a woman's self into being is often arduous. Though she does not offer Lily a safe or sweet early life, she does jolt her protagonist into a new way of thinking and a new way of interpreting old stories.

Throughout The Secret Life of Bees, Lily is forced to examine institutional ideas of justice, and these revised thoughts inspire new ways of being, both for Lily and for Rosaleen. First, Lily discovers that the institution of local justice, the sheriff's office, only metes out fairness to white people. When Rosaleen goes to register to vote, she finds her path impeded by white men who want to denounce Civil Rights' progress. Empowered by the Civil Rights Act of 1963, she dumps her snuff can spit onto their shoes. When she is arrested after being beaten by these men, the sheriff opens her cell to these same men so they can continue the abuse. Though Lily had suffered through her own persecution at the hands of T. Ray, whose favorite form of punishment consisted in making his daughter kneel bare-kneed for hours on Martha White grits, Lily realizes that Rosaleen's injustice can produce life-threatening consequences. Fleeing from her hometown police after breaking Rosaleen out of her hospital jail, Lily concocts new stories for the many people who question a black woman and a teenaged white girl's being together on the road

In these new identities, Rosaleen and Lily try on different personalities as they become part of life in the beekeepers' pink house. …

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