Based on Bebe Moore Campbell’s novel, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine

Angela Mae Kupenda*

Abstract:  This essay is an experiment, seeking to facilitate honest and less defensive discussion about race and gender. Generally, discussions of race, gender and the law are difficult, but perhaps, the discourse can be facilitated through the lens of literature. My theory is that women are unable to claim a position of power because of divisive racial conflicts. I approach these conflicts by examining the conflict between two literary characters (a black woman and a white woman) in Bebe Moore Campbell’s novel, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine. Directly examining the characters illuminates the racial divide between black and white women existing in our real lives and systems. This experiment is essential because as long as women, potential sister/friends, remain alienated from one another—which is also an alienation from self—they will never fully actualize their power and reorder oppressive societal and legal orders.


Often, women sing the blues.1 Sometimes we get so involved in each trying to sing our woeful tune with more volume and passion [*PG68]than the other, that we forget about the commonality of our blues and the commonality of the source of our blues.2 Rather than fuss and disagree about whose blues is the worst, we should realize that although our blues ain’t exactly the same, we are all hiding our faces and crying.

[*PG69] As a starting point for this essay, my first impulse was to share excerpts from my story, honestly, forthrightly, and completely. I’ve spent a lot of time singing the blues about the conditions that I face as a black woman and about the severed sisterhood I experience with many of my white sister/friends. I do have stories to tell, but I’ve let my first impulse pass. This is not the time for me to tell my fact-specific story. I fear that if I told it right now, I would not tell it as honestly as I should. Honesty is critical in alleviating the blues and in helping to dry my tears and those of others.

So, I’m going to use another lens to indirectly, and less confrontationally, tell the same story. That lens is literature.3 Literature can be even more “honest” than life,4 as this essay will illustrate. Race and gender are very sensitive topics. Sometimes our own defensiveness prevents any discussion from being fruitful or productive in improving the relationships between blacks and whites generally, and black women and white women specifically. My theory is that literature can be used to bridge this divide. Perhaps by directly discussing the fictional, but realistic, predicaments of literary characters, we can have an indirect, but honest and less defensive, conversation about our own real-life situations. In these times, it’s going to be ever more important for people to acknowledge not only their own individual biases and prejudices, but also the way in which societal forces, mores, and norms constrict and limit individuals from reaching out and connecting with others in ways that could be freeing for us all.

This essay is an important experiment. This is an experiment in using literature to facilitate mending a critical but presently shattered connection where real-life, fact-based discussions have failed. Using Bebe Moore Campbell’s novel, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine,5 I will explore the conflicts and severed sisterhoods of black and white [*PG70]women,6 and use the examination of the literary characters’ conflicts to facilitate illumination of our real-life divides.

In Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, one horrible incident, stemming from supremacist and patriarchal societal forces, results in intense, potentially life altering, pain or “blues” in the lives of several different women, black and white. In this essay, I will analogize the pains of these women to the pains of black and white women, collectively and individually. Although the blues of the female characters from the book ain’t always exactly the same, their blues stem from the same horrible source and cause all the women involved great pain. Only after the women take substantial steps to uncover their faces and emotionally uncover the source of their pain, do their blues lessen in intensity and the door begins to slowly open for their connections to one another to become partially restored. The same applies for black and white women today, as you will see in this essay.

In Part I, I join other scholars in advocating an expanded notion of law and literature and a special role for literature in the truth telling essential for resolving the ongoing racial divide. This will be followed in Part II with the core story of the literary characters. There, I will tell a portion of the story of the characters who are relevant in this essay. That section is composed almost completely of narrative detail; in order for the reader to better understand the relevance of the story, the reader must first hear part of the story in an uninterrupted fashion. I want the reader to become immersed in the fictional, but realistic, life situations of the characters.

Then in Part III, I will supplement the core story with other details. I will continue to tell the story of the characters, but with interspersed analysis and narrative to offer more direct illumination of the relationship of the characters’ predicaments to those of black and white women generally. In doing so, I will explore the intersectionality conflicts in white women’s experiences. The intersectionality of race and gender is often utilized to explore the conditions of black women and other women of color in America.7 Black women experience [*PG71]negative societal reactions both as Black Americans and as women. Black women and other women of color are multi-dimensional,8 however, and are not so easily described by this intersecting identity. We have some race issues in common with men of color, some gender issues in common with white females, and some separate issues and identities.9 Although intersectionality and multi-dimensionality theo[*PG72]ries help to explain the predicament that women of color face, intersectionality theories are rarely used to confront the blues sung by white women.10

White women too are at an intersection. They find themselves in the position of both the oppressor and of the oppressed.11 At one juncture, they benefit by participating in the system manufactured by a racist society.12 At the other, they suffer as a result of gender oppression [*PG73]from a patriarchal and supremacist society.13 Parts III and IV continue the story in Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine with analysis and narrative interspersed, exploring the white, female main character’s dilemma, particularly, and the white/black female conflict, more broadly.

This essay is especially for white women,14 who are at a definite intersection. As described above, although white women’s “whiteness” may elevate them over non-whites in our societal or legal structure, white women’s “femaleness” may keep them singing the blues, in a subordinated position.15 Once we—as women, white women, black women, and other women of color—make peace with our blues, we will be able to move and sing more in harmony with each other and may be able, for once, to eradicate prevailing themes of domination and oppression from our individual lives and from society.

I.  Validly Using the Lens of Literature

Working with a law school administrator to select my courses for the following academic year, I described a new kind of seminar that I had envisioned. I wanted to teach a law and literature course that emphasizes literature written by or about black women and to use that literature to critique, or rather, illuminate, our social system and its laws.

By teaching such a course, I hoped to respond to several absences. One such absence is that of black women’s voices from formal academic education. Rarely during my years of education and of teaching in separate and unequal schools (post de jure, but still, segre[*PG74]gated and integration-resistant schools) and in schools containing a majority of white students, including Ivy League schools, did I hear issues addressed in the form of black women’s voices.16 I did enjoy some mention of the works of white women and occasionally those of black men.

I was also responding to the absence of an appropriate legal mechanism to address the multiplicity of the experiences of black women, as raised earlier. Primarily, however, I was responding to the absence of a mechanism with which to discuss race and gender in a creative, less confrontational, and more productive way. I thought the lens of literature could facilitate this process. By indirectly discussing literary characters, we could in fact discuss ourselves, understanding and owning our own racism and sexism, without being riddled with silencing guilt or responding with unproductive defensiveness.

My proposed law and literature class could, therefore, respond to all of these goals and create a more racially and gender-aware, understanding and enlightened class of lawyers of all races and genders. Thus, I was excited as I approached the class scheduling and administrative approval process for my proposition. However, the administrator I approached abruptly stated that he could not approve of such a course. He viewed law and literature courses as invalid unless they focus on the classics. He did not think that the works I described, even well-respected works by highly esteemed black female writers, fit within the majority’s conception of “classics.” He added that unless my course was refocused on the majority’s “classics,” teaching it would be a waste of limited academic resources.17 Fortunately, the law and literature movement is increasingly being viewed more expansively than the limited notion held by this administrator.18 Many scholars have come to recognize that literature can be used to supply the [*PG75]voices that are missing in normative legal rules.19 Of law, life, and literature, literature is the most real, honest, and inclusive:

It is real because, with brutal honesty, it deals with all of our realities. It is more honest than life, for often in our outer (and even inner) lives we are afraid to tell the plain truth. Literature is more real than the law, for often our laws ignore the realities and truths for many of us.20

“The law tells a story and fits a reality. But it tells a story only from one point of view and with inherent biases and prejudices, the inherent biases and prejudices of the law’s storytellers.”21 Works of literature focusing on voices that are overwhelmingly ignored in the law can be used both to examine the law’s ineffective biases and to help in the discussion of delicate, sensitive, anger-generating topics where defensiveness prevents an honest, fact-based discussion.22

In the next section of this essay, I will tell part of the story of two literary characters. Again, I will use pure narrative to help immerse the reader in their stories and lives. As we confront the characters’ lives directly, perhaps we can indirectly confront our own.

II.  Telling Their (Our) Story, a Fictional (Honest) Account

Before I tell the characters’ core story, I will provide the background and setting. Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine is a story of the lives of several people, as a rural Mississippi community reacts to impending [*PG76]school integration and to the killing of a fifteen-year-old colored23 male child.24

Two characters present important symbolism for the purposes of this essay: Lily, a young white woman, and Ida, her clandestine colored friend. The story begins in the early 1950s soon after the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education.25 Following is the core story:

Lily has dropped out of high school to marry Floyd.26 Floyd owns a pool hall that the colored people in the community regularly frequent.27 Lily is a young mother and a dreamer.28 Often she takes her baby to the train station to sit and dream of leaving Mississippi and going to some far away place like Memphis, Tennessee.29 It is at the often deserted train station that Lily meets and shares dreams with Ida.30

Ida is a struggling young colored woman who also has a child.31 Ida dreams of going north and of making a better, and an educated, life for herself and for her child.32 By exchanging their stories and dreams, Lily and Ida realize their similarities and spiritual kinship, although they are as different as black and white.

The singing of the colored people, as they work in the fields, provides a comforting backdrop for Lily while she keeps house.33 Lily has a fascination with colored people and the music of their lives.34 One morning Lily awakens feeling aroused and manages to awaken Floyd and persuade him to take her to [*PG77]town with him.35 When they get to town, Floyd buys Lily the toilet water and lipstick she wants.36 Then he instructs her to stay in the truck while he takes care of some business.37

Lily disobeys Floyd and walks curiously toward the pool hall that Floyd owns; it is full of colored men.38 She happens to peek into the pool hall where a fifteen-year-old black child from the north, Armstrong, is showing off by speaking French.39 Lily and Armstrong make eye contact.40 They are both amused; then she hurries out the pool hall.41 Later, a colored man who works for Floyd in the pool hall tells Floyd that Armstrong was talking French to his wife Lily.42 Floyd doesn’t quite know how to handle the situation.43 So he curses and threatens Armstrong and tells him to get out of his pool hall.44 When Floyd returns to his truck, he slaps Lily for getting out of the truck.45

When Lily sees Ida at the train station that night, Lily is still quite upset about everything.46 Lily confides in Ida.47 When Ida learns who the colored boy is, she is especially distraught.48 The boy is a close family friend.49 Lily tells Ida not to worry, that the skirmish is over and that the boy is not in danger.50

Still, Ida runs directly to the boy’s grandmother’s house.51 She is comforted when she learns that the boy is leaving on a bus to go away to school the next morning,52 and Ida persuades herself to believe her friend Lily that Armstrong is not in danger.53

Earlier that same night, Floyd’s father and brother learn about what happened at the pool hall.54 They persuade Floyd that they must make an example of the boy, and they go with him to “handle” the situation.55 Although Floyd [*PG78]pulls the trigger, they all participate in the brutalization and the fatal shooting of the boy.56 Floyd later tells Lily that he killed the boy for her.57

The opening details of the novel are critical to set the stage for an examination of how the killing impacts a number of people’s lives, black and white, and how eventually some of them begin to make peace with their blues. Read on for more about Lily and Ida and how they can help us with our own nonfictional racial conflicts.

III.  Loving Lily?

A group of white female law professors and spouses of faculty graciously offered to read this novel with me.58 I am forever appreciative of their honest insights into the story. I’ll never forget the reactions of these intelligent and caring white women: None of them loved, or even liked, Lily. It is not an exaggeration to say that they had disdain for her. They vehemently criticized Lily for being paralyzed, weak, waiting to be rescued, and dominated by Floyd.

I asked them why they were so lacking in compassion for Lily. They responded that she should learn something from Ida and Willow, the Native American female character in the book, about personal strength. I implored them that possibly Lily was trying to do the best she could with her life circumstances. Their intense dislike for Lily was telling. I silently pondered whether their criticism had anything to do with their disdain for their own predicaments, of being caught up in a racist/sexist system but being afraid to challenge it given that they also benefit and are protected by this system. While I was trying to figure out how to express this thought in a way that would not lead to defensive silence or an unproductive counter attack, one of the senior faculty members did it for me.

She said, “It’s interesting that Angela, a black woman, has compassion for Lily, but we white women do not. We hate Lily because she reminds us of ourselves. It seems to me that we white women are really Lily herself.” She paused, took a deep breath and continued with even more conviction, “Listen to the adjectives we are using to [*PG79]describe Lily: weak, afraid of challenging the status quo, dominated, admiring but suspicious of black female strength. Those adjectives describe us.” Her comments were received with much initial disagreement and defensiveness from the others. You can reserve your personal conclusion as to Lily’s true identity for later.

Just for now, for argument’s sake, assume that Lily is symbolic of white women and Ida is symbolic of black women. The racially motivated killing of Armstrong symbolizes the race issue and the racial divide that separates black and white women.59 Lily’s and Ida’s continued story illustrates the disharmony of their lives, and even of their blues. Like the characters in this book,60 if black and white women today can make peace with their blues, then the likelihood of continued gender and racial discrimination will decline.

As you read the more analytical and detailed examination of their continuing stories and of their broken sister/friendship, at times you may find yourself confused as to whether I’m discussing Lily and Ida or discussing white and black women of today generally. This blurring, of their fictional and of our nonfictional stories, is both unavoidable and intentional. Lily’s and Ida’s fictional lives are so interwoven with the nonfictional lives of white and black women that the blurring is inevitable. Yet, blurring is also intentional, as my continuing theory is that these two literary characters provide great insight into our collective and individual lives and can provide a critical lens for honest nonfictional examination.

I will approach the fictional and nonfictional story by returning to the question raised in the discussion with the white females who read the book with me. I asked them whether they could embrace and [*PG80]love Lily; the question of whether Lily is lovable to herself and to Ida remains open. Here I will explore that question in more detail by considering the barriers to loving Lily, which are also barriers to Lily’s and Ida’s white/black woman sister/friendship.

A.  Can We Love Lily if She Deafens Herself to Hearing the Pain of Her Sister and Prefers Enduring Ignorance over Enjoying Knowledge?

After Armstrong’s murder, Lily and Ida both still craved one another’s friendship, but a wall was between them. As each would try to rest, she would be haunted by thoughts of the other. As Ida slept, “Images she couldn’t chase away swam into her mind . . . . Then she was standing in a grand train station, and Lily was way at one end and Ida was at the other. They were shouting at each other, but both of them had their hands over their ears.”61

Perhaps, it is too painful to hear. For Lily to hear Ida is for Lily to hear the cries of black female slaves raped by Lily’s loving ancestors, to hear that the racist/sexist stereotypes perpetuated by Lily’s ancestors were carefully crafted to condone the calculated violent attacks launched against Ida’s ancestors.62

To hear Ida, perhaps, means that Lily will no longer hear, as clearly, the voices of her husband and the white supremacist system. Then she will have to listen to the voice within herself and that requires strength. Female strength both repels and fascinates Lily. In the early days of their friendship, Lily envied Ida’s strength, but Lily would halt such thoughts when it occurred to her that she was actually envying a colored woman.63 Lily’s inability to transcend her own racist tendencies keeps her from knowing Ida’s pain and story, for the two are connected. Knowing these could help Lily to claim her own pain and story and to confront the energy-draining sexism that she faces both inside and outside of her home.

B.  Can We Love Lily if She Cannot Accept Ida’s Black Female Experience?

Lily and Ida cannot be in complete harmony or alleviate their friendship blues until Lily is able to confront Ida both as a woman, like herself, and as a black woman oppressed by a sexist and racist system. When confronted by a fuller knowledge of Ida, Lily extinguishes [*PG81]her desire to know Ida with her cold and defensive refusal to acknowledge Ida’s unique female experience.

Although Lily at times admires Ida as a person, she is angered when Ida demonstrates to her that, just like white people, colored people have dreams.64 Even prior to the major rift in their friendship, the friendship had always been strained. Lily always felt like she needed “to shout to [Ida], ‘I ain’t done nothing to you.’”65 And individually, arguably, Lily had not. Collectively, though, she had. Lily’s history and privileges66 are part of the history of a privilege-based society that ignores Ida’s story, both individually and collectively. And, ignoring Ida’s story is tantamount to ignoring, and refusing to accept, her reality and humanity.67

Like Lily, white women’s defensive posture over the conditions of blacks can become a barrier to maintaining friendships with black women. Of course, friendships or sisterhoods between black and white women will necessarily experience conflict on the path to understanding. Consider this personal confession from a black female psychologist:

[T]welve years ago, when I first met one of my now-close Jewish girlfriends . . . one of the first things she said was, “To me you’re not black, you are brilliant.”

This did not sit well with me at all. Sis, I admit I snapped at her. “Oh, no you don’t! Don’t you dare try this divide-and-conquer psychology with me! I love my race, and I’m very proud to be a black woman.” She sincerely apologized, and I told her I accepted her apology, but “if we’re going to be true friends, don’t ever make a statement like that to me again.”68

[*PG82]Sometimes, white women don’t quite understand the import of some comments. Unacknowledged race-based attitudes keep us from developing true closeness and trust with others. To help eliminate the attitude, white sisters must remove the blinders from their eyes69 and be open to seeing not only sexism but also racism and the other “ism’s” that women of color confront.70

Lily must face and accept that even the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld different treatment of white and black womanhood. The Court has had different motivations, apparently, for our varying oppressions. In the 1872 Supreme Court opinion Bradwell v. Illinois, the Court held that a state could constitutionally deny a white woman the right to practice law.71 In his concurring opinion, Justice Bradley justified this result based on the natural character of (white) women:

On the contrary, the civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life . . . . The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.72

[*PG83]A careful reading of the above excerpt identifies that the Justice could only have been referring to white women, not black women. Black women were already working outside their homes. Just a few years before this opinion, black women were definitely not treated with delicacy. Just like black men, black women worked on the slave plantations in the fields and bore the lash of the master’s whip. Moreover, they were not protected but were treated as unpaid prostitutes by white men and as breeders, for the master’s unacknowledged children were sold as animals. Even after slavery, there is evidence of a systematic supremacist plan to “‘raise’ White women while denigrating Black women.”73

While white women were encouraged to stay home as part of the Creator’s plan, black women were denied the right to stay home if they chose to. Consider the following historical account:

In Jackson, Mississippi, a Black woman, one Mrs. Green, quit her position as cook for a White family when her husband, a carpenter, began making enough money to support them both. The day she quit her job, she stepped out on her porch to see a patrol wagon pull up to the front of her house. Two policemen got out and informed her that if she did not return to work, she would be arrested for vagrancy . . . . Sometimes the actions were more severe . . . . In Vicksburg, Mississippi, Ella Brooks and Ethel Barrett were tarred and feathered when they quit their jobs.74

[*PG84]Lily’s failure to confront the uniqueness of Ida’s female experience, as compared to her own white female experience, imposes, therefore, a barrier to their friendship and possibly an insurmountable barrier to Lily’s own ability to confront and love herself. Like Lily, women will forever sing the blues as long as women cannot accept the fact that the law and its social order oppress groups of women differently and do not work collectively to eliminate not only the oppression of the “average” woman but also the oppressions of all.

C.  Can We Love Lily if She Wants to Benefit, and Thinks She Benefits, from Her Husband’s Racial Hatred?

A major source of Lily’s and Ida’s blues stems from Lily’s mixed love/hate relationship with her man, or in other words with a white male privileged system, and from her unwillingness to challenge that system, even when it does not inure to her benefit. Although Lily is upset that she unintentionally misled Ida,75 she refocuses her emotional energy on enjoying the pride her husband projects after the killing and the pride that she feels because she thinks she has a white man who will protect her at all cost. “I got a man who’ll kill for me,” she says.76

Just as for Lily, the white patriarchal system kills for white women but also inflicts injury upon them.77 While white women may be persuaded that the white male system is protecting them, black women know that their interests might be sacrificed for the good of white women in common with white men. Black women may be as afraid of white women as white women are of their own power. Clearly, Lily is frightened of her own power. Even just thinking about how she could manage her household better than her husband has, whose rash actions leave them penniless,78 is too frightening for her.79 She is also frightened of Ida’s power and persuades herself that Ida is powerful because black women are not really women.80

[*PG85] There is no wonder that there is conflict between some white women and some black women.81 Black and white women have many unresolved issues surrounding the issue of race, generally, and race and sexuality, specifically. Buried inside of some white women may be hatred toward black women because of their white men. During slavery while some white men regarded blacks as animals, they forced black women to have sexual relations with them.82 So white women were probably puzzled then, and still now, about this dual relationship white men had with black women. Generally, black women and white women appear to be unable to discuss this openly—how white women must have felt knowing their white men were desiring black women on the one hand and calling them animals and n___s on the other. Instead of resenting their white male mates, white women took their anger out on their black female slaves.83 They were unable, it seems, to face that their holy mates for life were willing to sell their own flesh and blood as if their offspring were livestock. So instead of facing this cruelty and naming it for what it was, many white women silently participated in the rape and attacks on black womanhood and actively joined in the systematic destruction of black womanhood and the sell[*PG86]ing of children with the faces and blood of their husbands and sons, and consequently their own blood.84 White women, whose slave-holding sons had children with black slaves, then stood by while their granddaughters were treated as animals, abused, and sold as slaves. Even if they did not consciously make the connection, perhaps it was at least subconsciously made.

When I shared some of these thoughts with several young white women, they could not understand how white women hurt or still could be hurting from these slavery-time events. They could understand a white woman experiencing guilt and conflict over the demoralization and sexual exploitation of black women and men, but they could not see any hurt that white women themselves inured. I explained to them that just like Lily, white women blind themselves to their own pain to continue to enjoy a racially privileged society. “Surely,” I asked them, “didn’t the adulterous disrespect heaped upon white women during slavery pain them, embarrass them, or dehumanize them?” Cruelty was heaped upon the heads and hearts of white women then and now, through the legal and societal systems’ continued devaluation of white womanhood. Admitting to the tragic historical and continuing pain, however, means that, like Lily, white women would have to admit that racist and sexist norms are inherently injurious to white women. Like the historical and perhaps continuing anger of some white women, some black women are likely angry at white women for being unable to, or for not trying to, control their white men.85

[*PG87]D.  Can We Love Lily if She Cannot Fully Be Trusted and Will Not Express Remorse, Inwardly or Outwardly, for This Failure?

Knowing that white women cannot fully protect themselves from their white men, black women may be unable to fully trust their white sisters. Trust is an essential foundation for friendship. Moreover, black women may be angry that they are unable to trust white women as sisters. Many of these sisters were so untrustworthy during slavery and after.86

Ida wants to be able to trust Lily. She wants to be able to regard Lily as her friend, but “she wasn’t sure she could call a white woman that.”87 And, her “‘Mama [had] told [her] never to trust cra_____.’”88 Ida once mistakenly trusted Lily, and did not tell Armstrong’s grandmother about the pool-hall incident.89 This misplaced trust seemingly results in Armstrong’s death. More accurately, Armstrong’s death was hastened because Lily miscalculated the fear some white men have of losing control and the hate-filled actions that may be taken in response to that fear.90 Ida trusted Lily’s biased perceptions rather than her own. As a result, Ida fails to warn Armstrong’s grandmother and lives to regret it when the boy is killed.91

The fact that Lily did not purposefully lie to Ida is significant. Lily, too, was shocked that her husband would actually murder the [*PG88]child.92 If Lily could only apologize to Ida, perhaps some semblance of the friendship could be recovered. Interestingly, when Lily began to feel remorse, she displaced that emotion with anger at Ida for personalizing the child.93 Lily compensates by persuading herself to believe the lie that the boy was a danger to her.94 This is instructive of the intersectionality of white female experience as oppressed and as oppressor. If a black female complains to a white female regarding white male racist behavior, especially when the white male and white female have a friendship or relationship, it may be difficult for the white female to sympathize with the black female at all. Rather, the white female, like Lily, may feel anger at the black female for even raising the race question.

Indeed, Lily did not intentionally lie to Ida. But Ida’s trust was misplaced, given that Lily had no real understanding, and was afraid to have such an understanding, of the depth of white male power and of what some would do to further the perception of that power. In reality, Lily knew that the killing was not for her protection. She knew, rather, that it involved issues of white male power and possession, as illustrated by this passage:

Floyd took several deep drags off the cigarette, then flicked the ashes into a glass ashtray that said “Mississippi State Fair” on the bottom. When he spoke [to the sheriff], his voice was quiet and subdued, as if his last outburst had tranquilized him. “My wife is carrying my name. What kind of man would I be if I just let any ignorant n_____ that wants to talk to her just any ole kind of way? A man’s got a right to protect his property, his children, and his wife. Ain’t that right? Ain’t that what America is all about?”

. . . .

Sometimes [Lily] didn’t understand men, not even her own husband. She thought about what Floyd had said--that a man had a right to protect his property, his kids, and his wife--and the order of the words struck her. She thought that the way he said it made it seem that she and Floydjunior belonged to him same as if he’d bought and paid for them. I won’t think about that, she told herself.95

[*PG89]Lily cannot be fully trusted, given that she won’t even allow herself to fully understand her own predicament. She refuses to think on a deeper level, even when prompted. “I won’t think about that, [Lily] told herself.”96

To think about that means acknowledging that perhaps her predicament is little better than that faced by Ida, as a descendant of former white male property holdings. Similarly, white females must accept that any racist notions of ownership of people and white male interests of ownership and domination will not always inure to their benefit. Unlike Lily’s resolution to the problem, white women must think about that, for along with racism comes sexism that keeps white females subordinate.97

Lily thinks that she can consciously separate herself from the killing. “Sitting on the porch, Lily could no longer recall the sound of the boy’s voice as he spoke the foreign words. When she closed her eyes, she couldn’t see his face. It wouldn’t be so difficult not ever thinking about that boy again [she thought].”98 Even if Lily is successful in not thinking about the boy or his race of people, she still loses her sister/friendship with Ida and, consequently loses a part of herself.

Ida, on the other hand, must think about it, for her fate is interwoven with the fate of the young colored boy. Armstrong’s killing causes Ida great sorrow, and she suffers from intense nightmares that [*PG90]her own son will be so brutalized.99 While some white women may, like Lily, think they can forget the race issues or the horrors of slavery, black women, again, do not have that false luxury. Historical racial oppression has lingering effects on the psyches of black women, according to black psychologists; “The slave master’s lash has left its mark . . . . By wrenching husbands from wives and severing the connection between parents and their children, slavery fostered the rootlessness that still plagues us.”100 While many white females seem to be able to separate themselves from race issues, black females always confront both the race and the gender question. At times they cannot figure out the issue over which they are being punished, as both are intertwined.

Ida has a difficult time forgiving herself for ever trusting a white woman; had she not trusted a white woman, she could have saved a child from a brutally racist death.101 She wants to feel great anger at Lily, but she can’t. Perhaps she can’t because although she can’t trust Lily, she understands Lily and Lily’s predicament, perhaps even better than Lily understands herself.

E.  Can We Love Lily Even if We Know She Will Cause Great Pain to Some Who Try to Touch Her Heart?

Likely Ida wishes that she had never met Lily or let herself become close to her. She feels great sadness at losing her growing friendship, such as it was, with Lily.102 Black females who enter growing friendships with their white female counterparts take a risk—a risk that at times the white woman will not understand, or will not want to understand, the racial dynamics. Yet, alienation from one another re[*PG91]sults in sadness, inefficiency, and a loss of self, to a degree. Our inability to engage in honest discussion of these issues only compounds the problems, as it did for Lily and Ida.

Lily actually has great unexpressed sympathy for Ida as a black woman. Before and immediately after her husband is acquitted by an all-male, all-white jury, Lily sees Ida in court. In the following passage, Lily resists calling out to Ida, because Lily wants to be fully accepted by and accepting of her husband:

The jury brought in a not-guilty verdict in less than thirty minutes.

Lily carried Floydjunior in her arms and tried to get to Floyd, who was surrounded by reporters and photographers . . . . Someone grabbed her arms, and she was pulled next to Floyd, who didn’t look at her, until one of the photographers said, “How about a kiss?” . . . She could feel . . . the words pelting against her mind like bullets: I got a man who’ll kill for me.

She opened her eyes and saw the back of a woman with skin the color of the inside of a peach, the two braids like heavy ropes hanging down her back . . . . Lily wanted to call out to her, but she had to swallow Ida’s name with Floyd’s spit.103

Lily must swallow the pain of her lost connection with Ida if Lily is to swallow her connection with her man. Lily knows that she cannot fully cry out for a connection with Ida and at the same time swallow whole white male oppression.

Still, Lily is afforded several opportunities to grow, several opportunities to reach out to her “friend” Ida and reclaim their connection. But each time, Lily resists. As shown in the next passage, the now financially devastated Lily fails to confront Ida when she takes her child to receive free immunizations:

Lily froze, recognizing the voice and suddenly realizing that she was surrounded by silent colored people. If she turned around she’d be face to face with Ida. She didn’t want to see the hatred in Ida’s eyes. At the same time, she wanted to embrace her friend, to reclaim her.104

[*PG92]Ida, too, missed the kinship with Lily. She wanted to hate Lily, but she could not bring herself to feel that for Lily. More than anything, she missed their friendship. Lily did not want to hurt Ida. And, Ida did not want to hurt. Yet, having any connection with Lily seems to give Ida unrelenting pain and preoccupation, as expressed in the next passage:

Though [Ida] admitted that she missed sitting on the bench and watching the trains—she hadn’t done that in a year—she couldn’t bring herself to confess that she missed Lily. Now, thinking of Lily, she started shaking with rage; the woman hadn’t even looked her in the eyes at Dr. Mitchell’s office. She’d heard talk in the Quarters that even the white people didn’t want anything to do with Lily. Served the heifer right, Ida thought. She tried to push out of her mind the times they talked and dreamed together, the night the white girl cried out the story about her uncle[‘s sexual abuse]. Such memories only made her pity Lily, and she wanted to hate her.105

F.   Can We Love Lily, and Those Like Her, if She Is Scared into Inaction, Even when Her Heart Sings a Different Song?

Lily is afraid. She is afraid to fully claim her personal power, afraid to challenge her man, afraid to commit to a friendship with Ida. Trying to hold onto a little bit of everything, Lily loses both her husband and Ida.

As Lily and her husband suffer financially following his acquittal, she has good ideas on how to save them from starvation. Yet Floyd rejects her attempts at shared responsibility, and she backs away lest she bring him to anger.106 When Lily finally accepts that Floyd did not kill for her sense of dignity, but instead to please his father and brother, she is hurt. She hides the hurt, though, lest she displease her husband, as illustrated in the next passage:

“You was supposed to be my brother. And you was supposed to be my father,” Floyd said, staring at [his father]. He snatched his hand away from Lily, who was trying to grab it. He wanted to say that they were supposed to love him. He [*PG93]could taste those words in his mouth. “All my life, nothing I’ve ever done has been good enough.” He was almost whining now, his voice high and trembly, his eyes searching his father’s expressionless face. “Now you’re blaming me. I done what you wanted me to do.”

Floyd glanced at his father’s stern, silent face. He didn’t look at his wife. He didn’t see the shock, the pain, and the budding rage that were plainly visible as she heard the words “I done what you wanted me to do.” And by the time he did look, her eyes and mouth were tranquil, her feelings hidden in a place that would take him years to find.107

Lily tries to hide both her own competence and her own rage. Her fear of losing Floyd forces her into inaction. Overall, the killing has quite a different effect on black women than it does on white women. Black people began to speak out more, even if punishment follows. “The realization that people all over the country had witnessed [in the televised trial of Floyd’s acquittal] their oppression encouraged new dreams.”108 Whites were shaken, too. Some became more sympathetic toward blacks, giving children shiny new dimes.109

Yet, overall, white women in sympathy appeared too afraid to confront the racist system and demand shared justice. After the killing and the unlawful acquittal, some white women in the community were outraged, but they outwardly hid their outrage, lest they face the displeasure of their husbands. And, they inwardly hid their rage, lest they be called to disown their privileged oppressions:

Several of the well-to-do ladies from the Confederacy allowed themselves to consider that Armstrong Todd’s death was awful and perhaps uncalled for, although they didn’t utter these sentiments aloud, and certainly not to their husbands. They were both moved by the depth of their own sensitivity and frightened by its implications.110

Who is Lily? And, can we love her? These are the yet open questions after this literary illumination. All six of the questions I have posed lead us back to these two inquiries: Can we love Lily even if she does not fully love herself and fully value her sisters and her connec[*PG94]tions to them? Even if we are unsure if we can love Lily, we can at least learn from her and Ida, as explained in the following concluding part of this essay.

IV.  Using Lily and Ida’s Blues to Lessen the Intensity
of Our Own?

Women can learn much from Lily and Ida about admitting the difficulty of their situations and confronting oppressions. First we can learn that we must talk about these oppressions and accept misunderstanding. For example, when I presented a paper at a women’s philosophy conference and urged unity and understanding across races among women, one white woman chastised me. She suggested that, if women unite and form alliances, hadn’t I forgotten about black men and how this could leave them out. I responded that no one is left out. Working to eliminate oppression helps all of the oppressed, especially black men.111

Secondly, we can learn to confront our fears. Several of the white women who read the novel with me said that Lily is definitely in fear. They know she is in fear of losing something, but they don’t know what it is.

Perhaps she is afraid of her own power. Once when I discussed these ideas with a group of white women, they responded that, just like Lily, women today have no power. As a result, they argued, even in unity there would be no strength. They dared me to come up with just two ways in which women have power. My response was that we, as women, have economic power (we make and spend money) and that we have political voting power (we make up the majority of the population of the United States). Upon reflection, it is obvious that we also have another almost unlimited form of power. We have birthing and mothering power (we conceive, give birth to and/or adopt and raise the baby girls and boys who will one day grow up believing in equality and justice or will one day grow up and support racist and sexist, ill-conceived but rampantly multiplied notions).

Perhaps, Lily is also in fear of losing whiteness and the white brand of femaleness.112 To align herself with Ida and other black [*PG95]women makes her less white. 113 Lily begins to struggle more rigorously with this fear when she finally leaves her abusive marriage for good,114 which could represent leaving her intimate connection with an abusive supremacist system. Yet she can’t complete the turn at her intersection of the oppressed and the oppressor. The question is, must she? In my view, Lily has not consistently decided which path is more compelling, that of the oppressor or that of an oppressed seeking to eliminate oppression.

When I shared these insights with several young white women, one argued, “Surely, you can’t mean that white women must decide whether to identify as white or as female? Why can’t we acknowledge both aspects of identity simultaneously?”

Such an argument misses my point. Yes, a white woman can appropriately identify both as female and as white, but she cannot liberate herself and other white women, on the one hand, while oppressing black women on the other, without losing an important connection with womanhood and with a humanity-based justice system. Yes, she can be white and female. But, I don’t think she can be whole and simultaneously be both a white oppressor and a white woman oppressed seeking to support only a “white woman” type of womanhood and a “white race” form of humanity. Perhaps, Lily could learn an important lesson from the way in which Ida reconciles her differing parts.

When Ida claims her mixed racial heritage (which is symbolic of her connection with white men, although it is historically rooted in shame) and sees that the shame is not hers, she is able to fully utilize her power and claim the future she has dreamed for herself and for her child.115 Ida finds her true strength only after she willingly accepts all of herself, including the whiteness in her.116

Ida’s mixed racial heritage symbolically represents each of our connections with the “other” and with humanity, as neither the black nor the white race is purely black or white. We are all interconnected. Owning being connected, or part white, doesn’t mean that Ida has to [*PG96]be oppressive. To the contrary, she can seek remedies for oppressions.117 Perhaps Ida’s resolution and soothing of her blues is the answer for all the Lilys. Perhaps acknowledging and accepting interconnection is the only resolution possible. But, a complete resolution may be “a long time coming,”118 perhaps with future generations of Lilys.119 The eloquent summary from the beautiful Fannie Lou Hamer, a [*PG97]Mississippi civil rights activist, is part of my concluding words here for white women, who one day, hopefully, will be my sister/friends:

In the past, I don’t care how poor this white woman was, in the South she felt like she was more than us. In the north, I don’t care how poor or how rich this white woman has been, she still felt like she was more than us. But coming to the realization of the thing, her freedom is shackled in chains to mine, and she realizes for the first time that she is not free until I am free. The point about it, the male influence in this country--you know the white male, he didn’t go and brainwash the black man and the black woman, he brainwashed his wife, too.120

In conclusion, can you love Lily? Maybe the way to answer that question is by answering this one: Can you love yourself and can you love your sister/friends, who are in fact a part of yourself? Perhaps, the Idas of the world want to ask every Lily, as a version of the old blues song goes: “Are you are, or are you not, my friend?”121


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