Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Disrupting the Legacy of Silence: Ellen Douglas's Can't Quit You, Baby

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Disrupting the Legacy of Silence: Ellen Douglas's Can't Quit You, Baby

Article excerpt

In Broken Silences, editor Shirley Jordan notes the legacy of silence which has characterized the relationships between black and white women and proposes that the "silence that exists between black and white women concerning their common history, to include their differences and their natural bonds, to be one of the most destructive forces in our communities" (xii). It is this interracial silence that Ellen Douglas has examined repeatedly in her fiction. And again in her most recent novel Can't Quit You, Baby Douglas brings to the foreground what most of us would like to forget, ignore, or deny--the continued difficulty that black and white women have in forming friendships with each other. In her novel, Douglas examines the socially-constructed roles which create silences between Cornelia, an upper middle-class white woman, and Tweet, her black housekeeper. And in her depiction of Cornelia and Tweet's complex relationship, Douglas reveals how difficult it is for the women to break the silence between them, especially since language itself is bound up with the construction of the roles which have kept them apart and silent. Despite this difficulty, Can't Quit You, Baby disrupts these confining constructs and imagines an alternative social order in which black and white women share their stories, allowing them to form authentic friendships.

The layers of silence dividing Cornelia and Tweet are complex and deep. As Jan Shoemaker notes, Tweet, Cornelia, and even the narrator are "because of constraints and expectations in their cultures, limited in choices and ability to tell their stories by their race, their gender and their communities" (84). Cultural expectations regarding race especially create silences and dictate how Cornelia and Tweet interact with one another. These cultural expectations have their roots in slavery, an institution which pitted black women and white women against each other. While both white and black women occupied subordinate roles under the nineteenth-century patriarchal system, any recognition of this common bond between them was made difficult by the realities of slavery. As bell hooks points out, the plantation mistress and female black slave had very little in common, and "theoretically, the white woman's legal status under patriarchy, may have been that of `property,' but she was in no way subjected to the de-humanization and brutal oppression that was the lot of the slave" ("Ain't I A Woman?" 126). hooks also notes how white women's status changed as a result of slavery: "Prior to slavery, patriarchal law decreed white women were lowly inferior beings, the subordinate group in society. The subjugation of black people allowed them to vacate their despised position and assume the role of a superior" (153). Nineteenth-century southern white women were supposed to be angelic "ladies" or "belles." On the other hand, Suzanne Jones points out that the slavery society defined southern black women's roles as "promiscuous wenches, prolific breeders, hardworking mules, or nurturing mammies" (141).

Although historians such as Anne Firor Scott reveal that these opposing stereotypes were at odds with real black and white women in the Old South, the images had a powerful impact on the way southern women viewed themselves and interacted with one another. In particular, Minrose Gwin notes that white women in the Old South often internalized their role as "lady" and became "faithful standard-bearers of the patriarchy and its racial constructs" (5). And in her study of nineteenth-century autobiographies and fiction by white and black women, Gwin finds one constant: "White women ... rarely perceive or acknowledge ... the humanity of their black sisters. Most of these white women in life and literature see black women as a color, as servants, as children, as adjuncts, as sexual competition, as dark sides of their own sexual selves--as black Other" (5). Although Gwin discovers moments of true sisterhood between black and white women in her study, she concludes that "for the most part . …

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