Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Servant and the Served: Ellen Douglas's Can't Quit You, Baby

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Servant and the Served: Ellen Douglas's Can't Quit You, Baby

Article excerpt

Amiri Baraka, in The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, criticizes white musicians, production companies, and critics for taking blues, jazz, and other types of music based in African American culture and either co-opting them, commercializing them, decontextualizing them, or doing all three simultaneously. Baraka argues that the music industry regularly translates African American music into more acceptable white forms: "Traditional jazz had its Dixieland; Big-band jazz its Swing; BeBop its Cool; R&B its Rock; and Contemporary black music its Fusion, all of which, in the main, were corporate creations aimed at a white middle-class audience with mainly white performers. What this does is help keep black players and artists and the black nation itself at the bottom of society, unable even to fully benefit from the creations of their own culture" (264). Without the proper context of African American music, which he argues is based in class struggle, blues and jazz are stripped of some of their essential ingredients.(1)

His critique raises interesting questions for a novel written by Ellen Douglas, a white southerner, called Can't Quit You, Baby (1988), which pulls its title and major symbol from a Willie Dixon blues song of the same name. Certainly the novel does not adapt the rhythms of blues or jazz into its structure in any extended way, as do the writings of Baraka himself or poet/essayist Al Young, for instance. Rather, Douglas uses Dixon's song much as authors often use quotations from other works as epigraphs or include the occasional quote from a literary source as a unifying thread throughout the novel: that is, while her use of the song plays an important role in the thematics, its application is largely utilitarian.

Now the use of a blues song, even fairly briefly, in itself is not necessarily that problematic. What is more problematic, however, is Douglas's decision to use the character of an African American housekeeper to emotionally "save" the white protagonist named Cornelia. Much as the Dixon text "serves" to illuminate conflicts of the book and much as jazz is co-opted by some white artists for material gain, the housekeeper, named Tweet (or Julia, as Cornelia tellingly prefers to call her), serves Cornelia not only as her domestic servant but also as her spiritual guide. Drawing on "folk" wisdom at key points in the novel, Tweet becomes Douglas's way to use African American culture in order to suggest new ways for white women to relate to others around them. At the end of this essay, I connect Cornelia and Douglas's use of Tweet to the difficult issues that arise from whites writing about race in academia.

By exploring the relationship between a white employer and her African American housekeeper, Douglas is clearly tapping into an image with much historical and literary resonance. "In most American novels," as Elizabeth Shultz states, "the relationship between white women and women of color follows this paradigm of mistress and servant, victimizer with and victim with only an occasional reversal which converts the historical victim to victimizer, the historical victimizer to victim" (69). Douglas attempts to rework the traditional dichotomy by exploring the women's relationship in more depth, examining conflict while suggesting a bond. Tweet and Cornelia's relationship is in transition in the novel. It moves from a relationship based upon the willful ignorance of Cornelia to one in which there is a more honest attempt at actual understanding on the part of both women.

Since domestic service is one of the few long-standing occupations where both employer and employee are often women and one in which the women are often of different races, studying these kinds of relationships tells us much about the way women interact in hierarchical situations (Rollins 6). In describing a specific relationship between an actual African American housekeeper and a white female employer, Judith Rollins says, "Love, economic exploitation, respect and disrespect, mutual dependency, intense self-interest, intimacy without genuine communication, mutual protection--all of these elements were contained in this extraordinarily complex relationship" (178). …

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