Ansa, Tina McElroy 1949–
Tina McElroy Ansa 1949-
Tina Ansa's novels, including Baby of the Family (1989), Ugly Ways (1993), The Hand I Fan with (1996), and You Know Better (2002), are characterized by a uniquely Southern flavor and all deal in some way with the family as a microcosm of the larger community of which it is an integral part. A Georgia native, Ansa places much of her fiction within the fictional town of Mulberry, Georgia, using this locale as a means of exploring the characteristics of the African American community. Her works are set as early as the 1950s but venture later into the twentieth century as well, allowing Ansa the opportunity to explore social developments in a community through the decades. Her work often focuses on themes of family and sisterhood; African folklore and the tangential themes of spirituality and supernaturalism; racism; and sexual and romantic love.
Ansa was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1949 to businessman Walter J. McElroy and teacher's assistant Nellie Lee McElroy. Ansa was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree from Spelman college in 1971. She has worked as a copy editor, editor, feature writer, and news reporter for two Southern publications, the Atlanta Constitution and the Charlotte Observer. In 1978 she married Jonee Ansa. In addition to her work as a mass media instructor at Clark College in Atlanta and as a writing workshop supervisor at Spelman College in Brunswick, Georgia, in 2004 Ansa also founded the Sea Island Writers Retreats.
Ansa's first novel, Baby of the Family, was published in 1989 and concerns an African American girl, Lena McPherson, who comes of age in small-town Georgia in the 1950s. Born with a caul (the membrane that encloses the fetus) still attached to her face, Lena is believed to possess special powers such as the ability to talk to ghosts. The child's mother rejects the notion that her daughter possesses any supernatural powers, however, and this results in a lonely and confused childhood for Lena. Ansa's second novel, Ugly Ways (1993), focuses on the three daughters of Mudear Lovejoy, who has recently died. The girls grow up bearing witness to Mudear's response to her husband's tyranny. The woman refuses to cook or clean, only leaves the house at night, and orders her daughters about. The novel recounts the effects of this dysfunctional family life on the three daughters. In The Hand I Fan with, Ansa picks up the story of Lena from Baby of the Family. Now in her forties, Lena has become a valued member of her small community. Wealthy and alone, Lena relies on her friend, Sister, for companionship. Just before Sister departs on a year-long sabbatical, she and Lena employ a supernatural ritual to draw the perfect man to Lena. He happens to be a ghost who has been granted temporary physical form and with whom Lena has a romantic relationship during the year that Sister is gone. Like its predecessors, You Know Better, the story of three generations of African American women, includes supernatural elements and focuses on the strength and importance of family connections. Ansa's next novel, Taking after Mudear, is the sequel to Ugly Ways. It follows the lives of the three Lovejoy sisters and their mother, Mudear, who comes back after death.
The initial reviews Ansa received for her first novel, Baby of the Family, were largely favorable. Caren J. Town praises Baby of the Family for its ability to call attention to African American culture and community as well as to issues particular to the lives of women. At the same time, Town observes, the novel transcends race and gender by conveying a story of personal development in which the main character is able to be influenced by the strong personalities around her without losing her own unique sense of self. Conceding that Ansa's debut novel has certain narrative challenges, Christopher N. Okonkwo contends that through the main character, Lena, the novel offers a political examination of cultural and racial belonging. The critic notes that Ansa draws on slave narratives as well as on the work of African American writers W. E. B. DuBois and Arna Bontemps. Okonkwo also briefly discusses the sequel to Baby of the Family, The Hand I Fan with, observing the way in which Ansa continues to use the metaphor of the caul Lena was born with as a marker by which Lena's spiritual calling is identified. In You Know Better, Ansa uses multiple voices to analyze the mother-daughter relationship which is also a focus of Ugly Ways. In You Know Better, Okonkwo maintains, Ansa portrays the balance possible between the spiritual and material worlds. Like Okonkwo, Nagueyalti Warren explores the ways in which Ansa's writing is inspired by the work of another African American writer, Zora Neale Hurston. Warren compares Ansa's The Hand I Fan with to Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, discusses the genesis of the Lena character in Baby of the Family, and comments on Ansa's introduction of the spiritual aspects of the caul motif. Despite the thematic importance of community in both Ansa's and Hurston's novels, Warren argues, the heroines' journeys away from home toward spiritual and personal growth are of primary significance. The caul motif, extended from Baby of the Family through The Hand I Fan with, emphasizes the fact that African American women all bear the caul of their "blackness" through which they must learn to see, and with which they learn to live, Warren states; ideally, they, like Lena, learn to embrace this veil as a source of power.
Not soon Forgotten: Cotton Planters and Plantations of the Golden Isles of Georgia, 1784-1812 (nonfiction) c. 1987
Baby of the Family (novel) 1989
Ugly Ways (novel) 1993
The Hand I Fan with (novel) 1996
You Know Better (novel) 2002
Taking after Mudear (novel) forthcoming, 2007
Nagueyalti Warren (essay date March 2003)
SOURCE: Warren, Nagueyalti. "Echoing Zora: Ansa's Other Hand in The Hand I Fan with." CLA Journal 46, no. 3 (March 2003): 362-82.
[In the following essay, Warren compares the thematic elements—including community, the heroine's journey, romantic and sexual love, and supernaturalism—in Ansa's The Hand I Fan with with those in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and contending that the journey toward a deeper, more fuller understand of the self is at the heart of both novels.]
For a book with "no theme, no message, no thought" (Wright 1937), Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God still is affecting contemporary black women writers. Michael Awkward has identified Hurston's lasting influence on such writers as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, and Jamaica Kincade (4). Her presence is clear also in the work of Tina McElroy Ansa. In her third novel, titled after a black folk saying, Ansa revises and extends what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls Hurston's "paradigmatic signifying text" (290). The phrase "hand I fan with" signifies the black woman as an object, much like Hurston's mule, to be useful and used. Ansa claims to have heard the expression in Louisiana and in other deep-South states.1 Ironically, the saying is commonly used only by women. In her "A Letter to My Readers" at the end of the novel, Ansa further situates her novel firmly in the Hurston tradition by quoting Hurston in an epigraph: "Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone" (466). In so doing, Ansa participates in the process that Elizabeth Meese defines as textuality: "the process of producing a text through the transformation of other texts" (61). Hurston's double-voiced and signified text clearly becomes the narrative antecedent for Ansa's textualization of Janie's story and echoes throughout Ansa's narrative. Ansa extends the narrative of female identity and self-actualization to examine how independence and freedom can be unfulfilling.
The opening chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God effectively revises the Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Gates writes, "Afro-American literary history is characterized by such tertiary formal revisions … often taken from different generations or periods within the tradition. Hurston's opening revises Douglass's apostrophe to the ships in Chesapeake Bay" (290). Similarly, Ansa revises Hurston's revision of the ships at bay, telescopes the horizon, and creates a flood. Ansa's creation of "Cleer Flo" for example, from the Ocawatchee River and the Big Flood of 1994 is a trope of sexual passion and erotic desire in which Cleer Flo is the state of the river's water, now clean, pure and flowing as opposed to its former state of muddy stagnation. Cleer Flo also symbolizes Lena McPherson's state of mind and the clarity of her desire. Additionally, according to the omniscient narrator, the waters of the Ocawatchee are "miraculous waters, healing waters" (Ansa 4), indicating Lena's cacöethes for sexual healing. Unlike the water at bay, therefore, this water is free flowing and mirrors Lena's independence. Thus Lena, the novel's central character, like Hurston's Janie, refuses to turn her eyes away from love in resignation and have her dreams of romance mocked to death by time.
Introduced in Ansa's first novel, Baby of the Family, Lena is born with a caul, a portion of the amnion that covers the head of the fetus at birth. According to old wives' tales, this membrane, sometimes called a veil, usually not intact on most infants, provides psychic powers and renders the child who has it extraordinarily gifted. In fact, the caul endows Lena with the feminine divine, but because the veil separates her from others, she is afraid and unappreciative of her gift. To complicate the situation further, Nellie, Lena's mother, dismisses the sacred ritual of making caul tea and then burying the afterbirth. She views the tradition as superstitious and, over the objections of the attending nurse and her mother-in-law, burns the caul and afterbirth with the trash. Spirits then torment Lena, and psychic visions that she cannot understand haunt her throughout her life. The ritual, had it been performed, would have protected her. The results of Nellie's unwillingness to follow tradition are devastating for Lena, and eventually Nellie admits that she was wrong in not doing so.
The veil is a fascinating folk metaphor suggestive of W. E. B. DuBois's veil in Darkwater that enables him to see the "souls of white folk." Ansa's veil metaphorically creates a third eye, one that sees beyond the separation between the living and the dead; those born with a veil can see through to the other side. The symbol is a potent indication of liberation. Ansa uses Nellie's criticism of the folk practices as a reflection of Hurston's critics, who thought that her use of dialect and references to black folk culture was politically and artistically retrograde.
Like Hurston, Ansa uses community as the epergne of the novel. Community is crucial to the development of characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Ansa creates a similar fictional community to which she returns, as Hurston does to her Eatonville. As with Ansa's previous novels, this one is set in Mulberry, Georgia, a place that does not exist literally; however, Mulberry appears in Hurston's Mules and Men as a small town in Polk County, Florida, east of Tampa. In Ansa's work, although community centers the novel, the central character's independence becomes its focus. Hazel Carby argues that the centrality of community is problematized by Hurston's creation of a financially independent protagonist, a fact that, Carby claims, "permeates [the novel] with a bourgeois discourse that differentiates her [Janie] from the folk community" (86). Ansa's clear response to this bourgeois discourse is Lena, an eleemosynary, independently wealthy protagonist and a stabilizing force of her community. However, Lena engages the community in ways unavailable to Janie, who is married and therefore prohibited by all except her last husband from functioning as a community leader. Contrarily, as a single woman, Lena functions with a free hand, as it were.
Both Hurston and Ansa create all-black communities in which class consciousness is less important and less apparent than community pride and social involvement. Southern black communities before integration characteristically were economically and educationally diverse. Bourgeois in these communities had less to do with ownership of material goods and more to do with attitude and behavior. In other words, to use the black vernacular, some well-off people could be "down wit' it," and some economically disadvantaged could be attitudinally bourgeois. Nevertheless, Carby's identification of the reinforced division between Janie and her community undoubtedly refers to the classic dilemma of the black intellectual. Hurston questions the nature of the relationship of the intellectual to the folk, and Ansa answers her question with Lena's noblesse oblige. Both authors recognize the absolute need for their women characters to be economically independent if they are to attain a modicum of freedom. Both also know that wealth does not necessarily need to include all of the trappings of the bourgeois class. Hurston therefore has Janie discard her silks and satins for proletarian overalls, and, similarly, Ansa rids Lena of her designer suits and high-heel shoes for oversized shirts, boots, and blue jeans.
Although community is an important construct in both novels, Hurston and Ansa move their heroes beyond the boundaries of home to embark on the mythic journey of growth and exploration. Analyzing the journey motif in the works of black women writers, Deborah McDowell points to the difference in focus when black male writers engage the motif. Men tend to take their characters underground on a social and political journey. Wright's The Man Who Lived Underground, Ellison's Invisible Man, Baraka's System of Dante's Hell, and Charles Johnson's Middle Passage all serve as examples. For the distaff half of black writers, the journey is personal and psychological. Furthermore, as gendered other, the female journey, although personal and psychological, is fraught with social customs and power politics. Thus, the feminine gaze, complicated by the personal and psychological, also is social and political. Perhaps all journeys are trips without distance. The journey that Ansa's hero makes is one such journey but one that leads her back to knowing herself in much the same way that T. S. Eliot describes: "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time" ("Little Gidding" 1754).
The hero's journey for Lena begins when she leaves home to attend college at Xavier University in New Orleans. In college, unlike her years as a student in the Catholic secondary schools of Mulberry, she finds a true friend. Her difficulty stems from the fact that she is different. In fact, from the time she enters school, her anomalous behavior frightens others away. Solitude appears to be part of the hero's journey. Hurston's Janie also suffers an enforced solitude by virtue of her status as Jody Stark's wife, with Phoeby being her only friend. One friend, however, is enough to continue the tradition of female friendship that characterizes African American women's novels.
When Lena goes away to college, she hopes that she can leave her phantasmic experiences behind, but to her disappointment the spirits, in relentless pursuit, follow her across state lines, where Marian, a native of New Orleans, becomes her friend even when the other students make fun of her. Insisting that Lena call her Sister, Marian becomes her guide and confidante, quickly discerning Lena's problem regarding the ouphe spirits. Sister becomes for Lena what the voodoo doctor is for Hurston during her time in New Orleans. Sister leads Lena down Canal Street, Dumaine Street, and Rampart to see Madame Delphie. In doing so, Ansa invokes Hurston's experience as well as a classical allusion to the Oracle of Delphi. The ensuing ritualized scene in which Lena and Madame Delphie confer is reminiscent of Hurston's initiation by Papa Guede in Tell My Horse. The injunction to believe in the power of the white candles, as well as the need for sleep, resonates with the rituals that Hurston details in Mules and Men as well. Unlike Hurston, fear prevents Lena's completion of the ceremony prescribed by Madame Delphie. Consequently, she fails to acknowledge her own psychic powers, denies the reality of her otherworldly experiences, and attempts to live an ordinary life.
To the extent that Ansa questions so-called objective reality and juxtaposes African spirituality with European rationalism, she is working in the literary genre of magical realism. An essential ingredient for magical realism to succeed is the coexistence of polar opposites. The narrator's central role in magical realism is to accept the magic at face value rather than question the conflicting polarities, since to do so breaks the gossamer spell of irreality and renders the story as simple folklore or superstition. The narrative of Lena's life is at once reasonable and unreasonable, probable yet improbable, with the narrator weaving a web of ordinary daily activities combined with those of ritual and contact with the unseen world of spirit. For the most part, Lena is successful in keeping the supernatural at bay by remaining busy. She is a workaholic. People call her "the hand [people] fan with" because she has made herself the most essential person in her small town. Ansa seizes the paradox of life and death to create a woman of unusual power, one who communicates with the dead and enhances the lives of the living. Thus Lena represents infinite possibilities.
Lena is an intelligent and well-educated woman exceptionally shrewd in business. She inherits her father's bar and grill, which functions in the town the same way as Joe Stark's store porch does in Their Eyes Were Watching God. The Blue Bird Café and Grill generates enough income to make Lena wealthy, but in addition to her inheritance, she owns a real estate company that makes her a true capitalist. Her parents are dead, as are both of her brothers. This independence from family frees her of any obligations but increases her loneliness. She fills the void with constant activity. She employs the unemployed and empowers the powerless with genuine responsibilities. She enables people to start their own businesses and never forgets a birthday or any other special occasion. She shares her gifts, which often go beyond the scope of money. Driving through town, she gives inconspicuous blessings to everyone that she passes. She sends kind and loving thoughts freely as she conducts her daily business. Even with such a giving heart, she returns home alone each evening to her million-dollar dream house, every room of which bears the name of a dead relative or other ghost. In what can hardly be called a coincidence, the Great Jonah Room, named for her father, also echoes Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, and Ansa's Jonah McPherson is a womanizer, as was Hurston's. Lena's intelligence and business acumen have provided for her all that she could ever need. The one essential component missing from her seemingly perfect life, however, is an intimate and loving relationship with a man.
Love, romantic and sexual, is an undercurrent in both novels. Hurston introduces this theme when Janie asks Nanny about love, and Nanny replies by saying that love is "the very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love!" (22). The late Black Aesthetic critic Addison Gayle understood clearly Hurston's intent when he wrote: "The revolutionary is the one who believes in love" (26). Gayle also was correct in regarding love as "an existential act leading to growth and awareness" (25). However, Nanny wants to substitute material possessions—the house and Killicks's thirty acres of property—for love, and the townsfolk perceive Lena's wealth as "everything" that she needs to be happy. These characters seem unaware that love is necessary for human survival. Indeed, Erich Fromm warns that "[t]he failure to achieve love means insanity or destruction, self-destruction or destruction of others" (15). Without love, people are at the very least incomplete, and they years for intimate connections with others.
As a subject of novels, however, such people tend to be relegated to the category of domestic fiction, that is, fiction written primarily by women, for women and about women, deemed of little value except to women readers. However, black women's fiction broaches difficult but important issues where conversations could begin about gender relations; issues that if left unresolved may prove more destructive than racism or genocide. Take, for example, an important issue mentioned by Orlando Patterson: "Afro-Americans are the most unpartnered and isolated group of Americans. [M]ost of them will go through most of their adult lives without any deep and sustained attachment to a non-kin companion" (4). A common response to this tragic phenomenon is silence. Those who broach the taboo subject are admonished for washing dirty laundry in public. Nonetheless, as Patterson acknowledges, the conversations do not take place in private either. Furthermore, he writes: "From time to time … the issue bursts on the scene in sudden gusts of very angry talk usually stimulated by some artistic or literary event" (4). For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman, and The Color Purple certainly are examples. Ansa's works reverberate with the litany of contemporary women's complaints about the lack of available good men, but her characteristic good humor posits a provocative solution for creating the perfect relationship. She reaches into the realm of the dead and finds a perfect ghost.
Ansa uses Lena's best and only girlfriend to help solve the problem of loneliness. After marrying and giving birth to twins, Sister, who still lives in New Orleans, is tired of her best friend's aloneness. Before departing on a sabbatical to Africa, Sister visits Lena and insists that they perform a man-calling ceremony, which takes place on Lena's deck in the light of a full moon. To conjure up a man, Lena and Sister release all inhibitions with the help of marijuana, potent rum, and a little Coca-Cola. Then for the first time they recognize and honor ancient spiritualism and female power. Although Gates, quoting from folklore, says that "[s]ignification is the nigger's occupation" (285), Ansa suggests that conjuration is a woman's. Clearly it is Lena's. The natural world responds immediately to the power of the man-calling ceremony. The plants on Lena's property "exploded with color, scent and life" (104), foreshadowing the magic and the title of the next chapter. Lena has power in her words, her wishes, her thoughts, and her desires that can alter her reality. In the man-calling ceremony, the metaphysical aspects of the novel emerge fully. Lena, endowed from birth with psychic powers, represents the divine feminine, but ironically she has been unaware of her divinity and has even viewed her gift as a curse.
Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogism, in which the word is a medium of consciousness, applies to the power of speech in Ansa's novel as it does in Hurston's. Janie speaks herself into being, and Lena speaks Herman (read "her man") into existence. As black women writers, both Hurston and Ansa enter into a dialectic about identity. That is, both authors engage in speech/writing that is "a dialogue between self and society and between self and psyche" (Henderson 18). Mae Gwendolyn Henderson's groundbreaking essay, "Speaking in Tongues," provides a matrix for examining Ansa's novel and its echoes of Hurston's tropes. Henderson expands Bakhtin's system of social and linguistic stratification to include race and gender. As black women writers, each is aware of her difference from black men as women, from white women as blacks, and from white men as black women. From their unique position of not—not black men, not white women, not white men—black women are free to be brave, to "adjudicate competing claims and witness common concerns" (23), as Henderson suggests they must.
By conjuring up a man, Lena finally embraces fully her ancient powers. She and Sister enter what Hortense Spillers names the "Circle of Ritual" (153). This "Circle of Ritual" lies outside the "Circle of Ontology" but within both the "Circles of History and Myth." Thus, the rituals that Lena and Sister perform are influenced by history and myth, especially that of Catholicism, and ritual then has the power to affect ontology and alter the nature of reality. The women speak and their words are made flesh.
In spite of the completion of the man-calling ritual, Lena is unprepared for what happens next. During a sexual scene in which Lena is unwittingly preparing to receive her lover, swimming nude in her Olympic-size, heated pool, she feels the presence of her man before he actually materializes. On the drive in to work he teasingly has blown his breath on the back of her neck, but at home, he joins her in the swimming pool. When Herman breaks through the ether and finally appears to Lena in the flesh, he appears to resurrect Janie's lover, Tea Cake. Of his face Lena says:
It was a face that she had seen in the arrangement of leaves on a tree in the woods, a shape that was there in the sunlight, then gone in the shade. It was a face that she had seen in the clouds. It was a face that showed innate gentleness. It was a face, she realized suddenly, that she had seen in her dreams."
The tree, the leaves, and the dream "trope-a-dope"—to borrow Kimberly Benson's term for black rhetorical tropes and to echo the pear-tree scene in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Lena picks up the threads of Janie's dream, and Janie describes Tea Cake by saying, "He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spice hung about him. He was a glance from God" (126). In comparison, Herman is like "bittersweet-chocolate" (Ansa 154) about thirty-five years old and reminds Lena of an "old-timey" black man like a farmer—repetitions of Tea Cake's work on Florida farms.
Numerous parallels link Herman with his literary predecessor, Tea Cake. By his own account, Herman has been dead for almost one hundred years. Given the esti- mated time frame of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tea Cake would be around one hundred years old. Herman's explanation of how he dies alludes to both Tea Cake's madness and the trope of the yellow mule. Herman tells Lena that his death is his fault, as he explains that "his mind was somewhere else" (Ansa 161) when he made the mistake of coming up on a mule too quickly from behind. The mule kicked him in the head. Herman says, "I was dead ‘fo’ I hit the ground" (Ansa 161). In light of Nanny's infamous lines in Their Eyes Were Watching God describing black women as mules of the world, Ansa creates a double entendre, a parody of black womanhood and a recreation of Tea Cake's death. The kick of gunfire that kills Tea Cake becomes, in Ansa's reweaving, the kick of the mule. Tea Cake is out of his head because he has rabies, and Herman admits that he does not know where his mind is when he is killed.
Herman's geography also coordinates with Tea Cake's. As a ghost, Herman haunts Florida, where he was born. He tells Lena that he has come to Georgia to be with her. Otherwise, he says, "I'd be off somewheres else, deep down in Flor'da or over in the panhandle where we went scoutin' for oysters and such…. I'm down in the bogs of the Okefenokee Swamps" (Ansa 162). There is little difference between the bog and Tea Cake's muck. Herman's language also mimics the dialect that Hurston uses in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
If Herman is a literary reweaving of Tea Cake, perhaps the jealous ghost Anna Belle, who hits Lena across the head, is a reincarnation of Janie. The similarity in their nomenclature is striking. Anna Belle translates from the Hebrew as "grace and beauty" and Janie as "God is gracious." If Ansa resurrects Vergible Woods (Tea Cake) in Herman, whom Lena sings about, saying, "My wood man is a good man," Janie comes to life—almost—in Anna Belle, the jealous ghost who loves Herman. Anna Belle also is from "Middle Georgy," as is Janie. Even their physical characteristics are similar. Ansa describes Anna Belle as "a small light-skinned woman with fluffy white hair and a bright red scarf tied around her head …" (449)—an older version of Janie.
Anna Belle, as Herman explains, tries to "make Lena dead," but not kill her, although she hits Lena hard enough across the head with the plank to murder her. Her effort is to bring Lena to the otherworldly life so that they can compete fairly for Herman's affections. This scene is a riff on Tea Cake's comment regarding Nunkie, the woman in Hurston's novel who tries to steal his affections. He says, "She ain't good for nothin' exceptin' tuh set up in uh corner by de kitchen stove and break wood over her head" (162). Despite her own powers of insight, Lena cannot readily see the difference between some ghost trying to kill her and a ghost "making her dead" by hitting her over the head. She is frightened, but Herman calms her fears. As a dead man, Herman is in some ways the perfect lover. He knows Lena's inner thoughts, anticipates her every wish, and fulfills her sexual fantasies. The love affair that develops between Lena and her ghost is every bit as enchanting as the love between Janie and Tea Cake, and more erotic. Ansa is unconstrained by the Victorian modesty that surely inhibited Hurston's prose. Furthermore, Hurston associates erotic love and female sexuality with violence. Both Janie's grandmother and mother are raped, and Janie herself is merely a sexual object until she meets Tea Cake, but even he physically assaults her to bolster his own ego among his male peers. Mary Helen Washington argues convincingly that black women's stories of female sexuality center on "the fundamental issue of whether or not women can exert control over their sexuality" (37). At the time of Hurston's novel, clearly it was exceptional to have Janie revel in her own sexuality as she finally does. Barbara Christian has pointed out that in past times, only men were free to celebrate erotic sexuality (40). Ansa, however, extends the sexual motif to include a woman fully in control of her body and able to exhibit uninhibited passion.
In The Hand I Fan with Ansa empowers female sexuality and celebrates erotic love, as the following quotation demonstrates:
Lena felt like the Whore of Babylon…. Lena knew it was true, she was turning into the kind of woman she had admired and feared since she was five years old. The kind of woman who felt no compunction at all in standing in some public place like The Place or the street corner outside or the Piggly Wiggly supermarket—or in a churchyard cemetery, she imagined, even though Lena had never seen it happen there—and hitting the front of her vagina bap, bap, bap with the flat of her palm to make a point. "Girl, let me tell you one thing, this is mine" bap, bap, bap "and I'm the one that decide who it go out with."
The hand now becomes a sexual allusion for self-satisfaction. Ansa's new woman is one whose freedom extends to the pleasure and control of her own sexual organs and one who signifies on male posturing and crotch grabbing. Perhaps the most ironic twist in Ansa's rewriting is the fact that a dead man brings Lena to life. The male ego must recede, but not disappear completely, so that female sexuality may flourish.
Ansa is careful that Herman not become Lena's "Savior, her Emmanuel, her Jehovah, and Redeemer" (310), although he is a perfect man in many ways. He even "picks up after himself" (341). What he does become is her instructor and coach—showing her how to live, love, and enjoy her own life instead of becoming a "fan" for others. Herman teaches her to stop and see the natural world, to which work and community service are blinding her. Lena's newfound freedom with Herman, her temerity to say no when she does not want to do something, and her ability to delegate time-consuming tasks to others, when in the past she had taken them all upon herself in her compulsive and unrelenting need to work, anger the community of Mulberry, just as Janie's behavior had riled the folk of Eatonville. In the beginning, the people think that Lena has a man friend, but still they are angry. Referring to the distance that Lena is putting between herself and the townsfolk, the manager of her bar and grill warns, "Lena, this town just now beginning to see that you feeding them out of a long handle-spoon! And, girl they don't like it one bit" (328). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston writes, "It was after the picnic that the town began to notice things and got mad" (130). When the people of Eatonville see Janie and Tea Cake as a couple, they also become angry, but since Herman is visible only to Lena, people in Mulberry eventually assume that she is losing her mind. Collectively they try to commit her to the insane asylum at Milledgeville. Ansa alludes to the classic signifying scene from Their Eyes Were Watching God when she has one male character (Peanut) accuse Lena of suffering from "some kinda change-a-life craziness." Lena quips, "Surely, you don't want to talk about change of life" (Ansa 392), whereby she effectively silences the old man.
The citizens of Mulberry make a terrible mistake when they anger Lena. Her anger, like her words and thoughts, are powerful magnets creating whatever she feels and visualizes in her mind's eye. The more enraged she becomes at the thought of the ungrateful town folk's plan to have her committed, the greater nature responds in turmoil—the river churns and begins to rise, storm clouds roll, and lightning fells trees. The nature scenes parallel the flood in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston's Okechobee River and Ansa's Ocawatchee River roll with the same emotions, except that Hurston attributes the power to an external God, whereas Ansa attributes the power to the God within Lena.
The town's rejection of and anger over Lena's behavior precipitates her transformation. Destruction of her super-woman image is a good transition, in Herman's way of thinking. He tells her, "You done forgot to look out fo' yo'se'f. Shoot, Lena, baby, even iron wear out!" (Ansa 402). When finally Lena is able to control her ego and move beyond caring about the community's audacity to judge her, she is able to relinquish her anger and hurt feelings. Her release materializes in words—a loud and pointed "Fuck You!" (Ansa 403), shouted to the entire town. What Ansa does with language, Hurston achieves with the metaphor of Janie's overalls. As Janie is transformed by her experiences with Tea Cake, Lena also is changed by her relationship with Herman. She comprehends the difference between giving and sacrificing herself. Herman's observation, "You can't be the hand everybody fan wid, Lena. Then you ain't nothin' fo' you'se'f" (440), takes root in her consciousness.
Sadly but naturally, when Lena learns perfectly all of the life-lessons that Herman teaches her, he departs and vanishes on the anniversary of his appearance. The storm of Lena's emotions following his departure wreak havoc on the natural world. Her thought atmosphere again produces the tempest, and until she takes her own emotions in hand, the tempest rages. Keba, the thoroughbred horse that she and Herman nurtured, gives birth to a foal, which is the catalyst for bringing Lena back to her senses. She has to aid in delivering the mare because the storm has knocked out all power and washed away the bridge leading into town. Thus Lena is completely alone as she faces the crisis with the pregnant mare. Ansa makes plain her message in the following passage: "She called on all her powers of faith and belief and love and gratitude and did the work before her. She called on all that Herman had told her and taught her and shown her since he had shown up a year before and concentrated on Keba and her predicament" (447).
The chapter titled "Storm" demonstrates a spiritual principle. Connection with the higher self and the letting go of selfishness allows the spirit to take over and provide whatever is necessary to accomplish the task. After Lena calms herself, when she asks for help, she receives it. Not only does Herman reappear to assist, but also her entire family and other spirits show up in the barn. As midwife to the horse and to herself, Lena births her own renewal. Ansa writes, "As she marveled at the birth of Keba's foal, she marveled at the wonder of her own transformation and the gift of her family of ghosts" (451). Having centered herself, Lena finally accepts Herman's transition back into the spirit world. Having surrendered, she can feel his presence. They connect on a spiritual plane, and he is always with her.
Both novels end with the women recognizing the spiritual presence of their deceased lovers. Hurston concludes with the following passage:
Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn't dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.
Ansa closes her novel in similar fashion:
A slight change in the temperature of the room told Lena [that] Herman had just entered. Then, she felt him at her ear looking over her shoulder and counting with her under his spectral breath: "Nought from nought leaves nought." Standing with her hands on her hips, Lena chuckled and, sounding like her dead grandfather about to set off on an adventure, said softly to herself and to Herman, "Well, Lord."
Lena has been counting the days since her last menstrual period, and her chuckle, together with Herman's presence, leads to an ambiguous conclusion. She could be pregnant and her DNA will not end with her after all, or the adventure that Lena refers to could be her menopause. Celebrating the change of life fits with Ansa's point of view, but she also favors surprises.
The journey motif that Deborah McDowell posits as personal and psychological in black women's literature also is spiritual. Hurston and Ansa, as well as other black women writers, seriously consider the spiritual journey and a metaphysical world. So when Alice Walker proclaims that all writers seem to tell different parts of the same story, a part of the story that many black women writers focus on is the shamanistic journey of the spirit. Janie needs healing and her soul longs for erotic love. Velma, in Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, needs spiritual revival. Celie, in The Color Purple, undertakes a spiritual and sexual quest for her own soul with Shug as her guide. Lena, too, is questing for her spiritual self with a revenant as her guide.
Metaphysics are a part of and undergird many novels by black women. One of the best examples is Toni Morrison's Beloved, where Sethe espouses belief in a timeless cyclical and spiritual world. Her statement to Denver points out that nothing ever goes away, "[e]ven if the whole farm—every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what's more, if you go there—you who never was there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you" (36). Understanding immediately, Denver says, "If it's still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies" (36), and Sethe tells her that nothing ever does. The basis of this cyclical idea of regeneration that so informs Ansa's work is Biblical, found in Ecclesiastes: "That which is already has been; that which is to be, already is" (3:15), and "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun" (1:9). Ansa incorporates these ideas in creating the love affair between Lena and Herman, and she extends her critique of the patriarchy that begins with Hurston.
Their Eyes Were Watching God looks askance at the patriarchal belief system that puts God at the top of the hierarchy as a masculine deity, places man just beneath God, and places woman beneath man. While man serves God, woman is to serve man. Joe Starks's repetition of "I god" is a constant reminder of this phallocentric system that Hurston mocks. Ansa subverts the hierarchical power by focusing on cycles—giving primacy to feminine orbs. Her cycles of seasons tell the story. Herman appears in spring, and the resurrection archetype is paramount in her naturalistic, super-naturalistic, and cosmic story.
The solution that Ansa posits for loneliness is not that women should cultivate relationships with apparitions, but that they should achieve the same kind of spiritual and sexual self-sufficiency as Lena does, for she believes that, in fact, all black women inherit the power of the veil—the power to alter the nature of their reality just by thinking it into existence. As part of the spiritual fabric that Ansa weaves, Herman persuades Lena to see her life as a sacred ritual. Ansa's spiritual ethos encourages women to embrace their lives as sacred and know that they are "capable of carving etheric space, the first stage of any manifestation" (Small 106). Consequently, The Hand I Fan with —with all of its magic, erotic love scenes, and comic episodes—is one of great affirmations stated in spiritual terms by the Reverend Alyce Soden, who writes, "I am a powerful spiritual being. I am perfect in body, mind, and spirit. Love is the cornerstone of all my happy and harmonious human relations. I am abundant, pressed down, and running over. I am a spiritual being seeking a spiritual experience. I am one with the Universe."2 Her statement is an overarching principle in Ansa's novel.
Their Eyes Were Watching God affirms the God-self in woman. The eyes of the community were watching Janie as she worked in the store, as she walked through her gate, as she worked in the muck, and as she strode back into town. In Janie is the spiritual manifestation of God, but Nanny's limited vision and failure to affirm the Godself in woman causes Janie to hate her, for instead of leading her granddaughter toward self-actualization, "Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her" (107). Nanny's labeling of the black woman as the mule of the world and her intense effort to protect Janie from life, create the hiatus between them but does not change Janie's perception. Hurston concludes that insight is the key that indeed can and does alter reality.
Ansa's novel does not present an immutable external reality because one does not exist. Her fiction moves beyond a transcription of what appears to be, to embrace infinite possibilities. Her trope of the veil calls forth the womanism of womanness3 for African Ameri- can women: that is, all black women are born with a caul called blackness that they must learn to live with and to see through. When embraced it becomes their power and their magic. The spirituality of black womanhood, symbolized in Lena, enables Ansa to present a compelling reweaving and extension of Hurston's classic text.
1. Telephone interview, May 7, 2001.
2. Alyce Soden is a minister and presumed author of the affirmation found on a bookmark in a used copy of The Hand I Fan With.
3. Womanism of womanness is a trope-reversing trope that employs Alice Walker's definition of black feminism (see In Search of Our Mother's Gardens) to reverse the negative signifiers of African American womanness. Black womanness is the womanhood "on yuh" that Nanny refers to in Their Eyes Were Watching God and that Aunt Sally explains to Vyry in Jubilee. Beyond the physical, however, and within the basic fabric of black womanness are negative figurations of the mule, the mammy, Jemima, nigger bitch, whore, jigaboo, tail, heifer, scag, castrator, bull dyke, big momma, and the classic lines from Mr. in The Color Purple: "You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman …" (176). Celie's rejoinder, "But I'm here," is a womanist riposte, making impotent these negative figures of the black female self. These figures of speech are powerless to alter the essential woman who remains unchanged and perfect in the Divine Feminine.
Ansa, Tina McElroy. The Hand I Fan With. 1996. New York: Anchor, 1998.
Awkward, Michael, ed. Introduction. New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 1-27.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Benston, Kimberly W. "I Yam What I Am: The Topos of Un(naming) in Afro-American Literature." Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Methuen, 1987. 151-71.
Carby, Hazel. "The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and Folk: Zora Neale Hurston." New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ed. Michael Awkward. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 71-93.
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980.
DuBois, W. E. B. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. 1921. New York: Kraus-Thompson, 1968.
Eliot, T. S. "Little Gidding" Four Quartets. 1942. In The Literature of England. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1968.
Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Bantam, 1956.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Gayle, Addison. "Zora Neale Hurston: The Politics of Freedom." A Rainbow Round Her Shoulder. Ed. Ruth T. Sheffey. Baltimore: Morgan State UP, 1982. 21-27.
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. "Speaking in Tongues." Changing Our Own Words. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 16-37.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.
McDowell, Deborah. "The Changing Same": Black Women's Literature, Criticism and Theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.
Meese, Elizabeth. "Orality and Textuality in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." Crossing the Double Cross: The Practice of Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elizabeth Meese. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. 41-53.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Patterson, Orlando. Rituals of Blood. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998.
Small, Jacquelyn. "Manifesting Spirit—an Ancient Science." Science of Mind April 2001: 106.
Spillers, Hortense J. "Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 151-75.
Walker, Alice. "Beyond the Peacock." In Search of Our Mothers Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt, 1983. 42-59.
Washington, Mary Helen. "The Darkened Eye Restored: Notes Toward a Literary History of Black Women." Reading Black, Reading Feminist. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 30-43.
Wright, Richard. "Between Laughter and Tears." New Masses 5 October 1937: 25-26.
Caren J. Town (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Town, Caren J. "‘Claim What Is Yours’: Tina McElroy Ansa's Spiritual Journey." In The New South-ern Girl: Female Adolescence in the Works of 12 Women Authors, pp. 103-14. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004.
[In the following essay, Town offers an analysis of Ansa's Baby of the Family, focusing on the development of Lena, the main character, and arguing that Ansa uses Lena as a means of drawing attention to African folklore and women's issues.]
"Crazy ain't all bad, child. Sometimes it's the only thing that protects you. This world you living in can be so mixed up, so backwards, that not fitting into it, being what some folks call crazy is a blessing. And you, Lena, you got the power to do something with your craziness"
[Baby of the Family, 262-63].
Tina McElroy Ansa's 1989 novel Baby of the Family explores the growth and development of Lena McPherson, an African American girl living in rural (and imaginary) Mulberry, Georgia, who has the power to see—and talk to—ghosts. Named one of the Notable Books for 1989 by The New York Times, the novel is described as "likeable from beginning to end. The story has a "nubby, homespun texture that is unpretentious and engaging" (6), and it is populated with genial living characters as well as somber visitors from the spirit world. While it is possible to see such phrases as "nubby," "homespun," and "unpretentious" as condescending, especially from the New York Times, the novel is truly "engaging," a loving and complex portrait of one girl's progress toward independence. Along the way from childhood to adulthood, Lena McPherson struggles with the mixed blessing of her supernatural gifts and finds support from her extended family, both living and dead.
As is frequently the case with coming-of-age novels, the story seems to be largely autobiographical, although Ansa has told interviewer Barbara Smith Henderson that she and Lena "share some common history and characteristics, but I am me, and she is Lena" (63-64). Still, clear parallels do exist. Based on Ansa's own community in a suburb of Macon, Mulberry is, according to Joyce Cherry, "a cozy community typical of many African American enclaves in the South" (1). While one might question the "cozy" nature of the fictional (as well as the actual) "enclave," Mulberry does resemble the primarily African American community in which Ansa was raised. Nellie and Jonah McPherson, Lena's parents, are loosely based on Ansa's (the mothers share the same first name and the fathers the same occupation), and Lena McPherson's life has been drawn from young Tina McElroy's experiences—and her stories. Baby of the family herself and born with a caul, Tina quickly discovered "Storytelling was something you got attention for…. I knew that if I could tell an interesting story, I could hold court" (Ansa in Carroll 18). With Baby of the Family, she has succeeded in telling an interesting story that resonates with all readers who have struggled through adolescence.
Other than just being able to "hold court," Ansa had two goals for the novel: to celebrate the power of African folk lore and call attention to women's issues. She tells interviewer Carroll that she wants to "snatch back our culture; to snatch back the part of our culture that really comes from Africanisms that tell us to respect and make reference to our ancestors, to make a connection between those who are living and those who have passed on" (22). The ghosts in Baby of the Family thus serve to make a connection between the past and the present; they "snatch back" a culture Ansa feels is slipping away from contemporary African Americans. Lena serves as the link between those two worlds, sometimes at her peril, and she also makes the novel, as Ansa puts it "woman-focused." The things that really interest her, she says, are "gossip, stories, the kitchen, gardening, sitting around the hearth, and most of all, getting inside of things; what does family mean, what does community mean, what does freedom mean to a black woman?" (Ansa in Carroll 25). By concentrating on Lena, her mother, her grandmother, and various other female role models in Lena's life, Ansa manages to focus the reader's attention on both black life and women's lives.
Although Baby of the Family fulfills both of Ansa's goals—to "snatch back" aspects of African culture and keep the book "woman-focused," it still reaches across race and gender lines and tells a story of development that resembles, with its determined main character's ability to incorporate the personalities surrounding her without losing her sense of self, the stories of Gibbons, Allison and the other novels discussed in this book. Perhaps more self-consciously woman centered than Tyler, Mason, or Humphreys's heroines, and certainly more racially aware than any of the other characters except perhaps Gibbons' Ellen or Taylor's Cassie, Lena has the introspection of Sam or Lucille combined with the stubbornness of Bone or Evie.
Ansa's attention to African American literary and cultural heritage and community, however, sets her novel apart from all the others in this study, although it links her to 20th century African American women writers, several of whom she considers her most profound literary influences.1 She especially admires Toni Morrison for her "craftswomanship" and ability to make the supernatural not "so much natural as it is real" (24); Gloria Naylor, who, in Mama Day "created the most gorgeous Sea Island, so real, and so right" (24); and Zora Neale Hurston, who "captured everyday, common, working-class people … and then gave them such a wonderful, strong inner life" (Ansa in Carroll 25). Ansa continues this proud literary tradition with Baby of the Family, which celebrates a working-class family, brings Mul- berry to life, and fills its readers with a strong sense of the supernatural. She extends the tradition, however, by concentrating on the life of a girl who is younger than Naylor's heroine, less troubled than Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, and less philosophical than Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In many ways, Lena is more normal, more familiar, than her fictional predecessors, in spite of her special gifts.2 Ansa provides readers with a picture of development that most of them would recognize, at least in part.
The novel takes Lena from birth to sixteen, and unlike the other girls in this study, her challenges are often as metaphysical as they are emotional. Born with a caul (the membrane enclosing the fetus) still surrounding her body, she has the power to see ghosts. Her mother, in a desire to be modern and hence not superstitious, refuses to engage in the proper rituals (such as having the infant drink a tea made from the dried and then boiled caul) when instructed in them by midwife Nurse Bloom. By not correctly caring for the caul, Nellie handicaps Lena for life, as drinking the caul tea would have protected Lena from fear of and danger from the ghosts she will see. By failing to do this, Nellie creates a childhood for Lena punctuated by misery and terror, and, more importantly, she cuts her daughter off from her birthright. As Nurse Bloom tells Nellie in the hospital, "you're overlooking the real thing that this child's caul is a sign of. It's a sure sign that this child is special. That caul is a gift from God, that's what it is. This little girl has been chosen by God as a special person on this earth. She can't hardly help but do something great in this life because God has touched her in the womb" (16-17). From the moment of her birth, Lena is "special"—marked by God to be visionary and by her mother to be tormented by those visions. Lena has the power to see things others can't (or won't) see, but her special tasks in growing up amount to learning how not to be frightened of what she sees and how to use the ghostly information to her psychological advantage.3
As well as being accompanied by ghosts throughout the novel, Lena is surrounded by biological and extended family members who offer advice, interfere in her business, and generally annoy and protect her. From her parents to the hangers-on at their bar and restaurant, Lena has people watching out for her and making her feel part of the community. As the reviewer for the New York Times puts it, Lena's family "envelops her," and this sense of envelopment—and entitlement—is something Ansa cultivates (6). For example, in an essay on first novels for the Library Journal, Ansa talks about the importance of her home town, Macon, which is in the geographic center of Georgia. Macon's location made her feel "surrounded, protected, centered," and it explains why she remains connected and "enveloped" by the South. In Baby of the Family, she says, "the South and home are strong elements in most characters. In my novel, the images of home are not always comforting and safe, but ever-present, surrounding the characters like the state" (52).
Interestingly, Ansa also uses the word "enveloped" to describe her experience of her home town; for Ansa, clearly, one is surrounded and protected by one's environment, not restricted or smothered. Indeed, this feeling of belonging is typical for almost all the girls in this study; their town or region defines and supports them. (The only exception might be Mason's Sam, who has an ambivalent relationship with Hopewell.) What is equally interesting is that Ansa claims a particularly Southern heritage for her characters, linking her to the regional orientation of most of the writers in this study. Her characters feel themselves to be Southerners as well as African Americans, just as Ansa claims Macon as the center of her universe. As Ansa told an interviewer, being African American, Southern, and female "should all be given equal billing. If you took away any one of them I would be a different person on this earth. I am a story teller because I come from the South" (Henderson 62).
Although Lena fits smoothly into her world for the most part, her supernatural abilities work to try to alienate her from it. The first incident concerns a picture of Lena's infant aunt in her grandmother's bedroom. When the baby comes to life for three-year-old Lena and tries to draw her into her world, Lena screams, bringing her family into the room and causing the little girl in the picture to release her. However, when Lena attempts to tell her family about the picture, she goes into convulsions, and refuses to sleep in her grandmother's room. This leaves her grandmother "stung to the quick," and she "reluctantly took the treasured picture down and stored it in the attic" (41). Although her fear diminishes after a few weeks, Lena "always remembered the sickness, the vomiting, the fits that had struck her when she told her family about the ghost," and she comes to realize the large gap her visions have created between herself and her family (41). Although she is quite young, Lena learns to keep her ghostly world separate from her ordinary one, and the result is that even her grandmother's bed—and by extension her family home—is no longer safe.
Another example of her separation from the world view of her family consists of Lena's early discovery that she is "real." Looking into the mirror, she sees that she is "this living, breathing, exciting person" (55), and this revelation, familiar yet somehow strange for having been spoken, has a disturbing effect on her more "normal" brothers, making them worry about whether or not they, too, were real (57). Lena's "crazy" ideas have a dual effect: they help define how she differs from those around her, and they pass on a little bit of her strangeness to others. Her family never quite completes the empathetic connection nor shares Lena's unique perspective on the world, however. After another incident where Lena has made her family uncomfortable with her supernatural gifts, she resigns herself to their nervousness. It doesn't even hurt her feelings; she just assumes "that their reactions were part of the way life was, like her seeing ghosts and knowing not to tell anyone about it" (61). What is "part of the way life was" for Lena is that her family will never understand nor be comfortable with her gifts; she has no choice but to accept this estrangement.
Still, this is not so different from any novel of development with either male or female protagonists; the main character, in order to engage the interest of the readers, needs somehow to be set apart from the characters who surround her. By concentrating so explicitly on the metaphysical aspects of identity, passages like these also help Ansa foreground ontological questions in a novel written in the third person. Obviously, every Bildungsroman must at some point take up issues of identity formation, and a novel not employing a self-reflective first-person voice has to find other ways to highlight this issue. Baby of the Family does it by contrasting Lena's heightened sensitivity to the unseen world with the more ordinary insights and experiences of her family.
Aside from her ghostly visitors, Lena at this point hasn't ventured outside her immediate family. She remains mostly inside her house, which is "a community unto itself with a mind of its own," watched by her brothers, who are beaten if they fail to protect her from harm, and protected by the stern guidance and often peevish love of her mother and grandmother (63). Fortunately, however, a new girl moves in across the street to draw her out of the protective cocoon of her family home. She first notices Sarah as "a little girl with dark glassy eyes" standing under a tree "with a piece of fruit resembling a big red jeweled brooch in her hand" (71). With her pomegranate and her mysterious appearance, the little girl reminds Lena of the ghosts she has seen, and she worries "that with no one here to protect her, this other child could very easily rise from the dusty ground where she stood and soar into the treetops." Even though she is only "going on six," Lena knows that ghosts "could appear at any time they wanted to appear" (71).
Sarah, whose hair "formed a roll like a diadem around her face," has torn, dirty clothes and ashy skin, and her disarray is irresistible to the pressed and polished Lena. She asks the girl if she is real, and Sarah says, "What you mean, am I real? I'm as real as you is. Here, feel my hand. What's that feel like to you?," and she offers her some of the pomegranate, although unlike Pluto, she warns Lena not to eat the seeds (72). Sarah may be "real," but she is also not quite of Lena's world, offering Lena a glimpse of a forbidden and hence tantalizing underworld in Mulberry.
Lena finds her friend Sarah "magic" (76), and Sarah, whose clothes come from the charity box and who doesn't know what breakfast is, thinks Lena's house is "like something in her dreams," or something that "didn't seem real" (85). Although she has no problem with Lena's questions about identity, she finds a comfortable, orderly home nearly impossible to imagine. After their first encounter, the girls are inseparable, and their favorite game is "Let's Pretend." Their friendship comes to an abrupt halt, however, when Lena and Sarah pretend to be married. Sarah, whose less organized household has allowed her a glimpse of adult sexuality, is more experienced in these matters and leads Lena in a game of simulated sex. Lena's first sexual experience is brought to an abrupt halt by Sarah's mother, who resents Lena with her "little red dresses and [her] hair ribbons and [her] big house" (97). She tells Lena that she is "just another dirty little girl, trying to do nasty when you think ain't nobody looking" (97). Judging rightly that Lena's family would think the game was entirely Sarah's doing, she doesn't tell Lena's parents, and then Sarah and her family move from the house next door. Lena is devastated by Sarah's leaving and mystified about why she never sees Sarah in Mulberry.
Sarah, who appeared to Lena first as a ghost with a magical piece of fruit, disappears as completely and mysteriously from her life as if she had really been a spiritual and not an earthly being. Sarah is Lena's first experience with friendship, sexuality, and a world very different from her orderly and secure one. It is also her first experience with the arbitrary cruelty of adults, and a necessary part of her development, convincing her that the natural world can be as dangerous and as strange as the supernatural one.
Lena's next step outside the world of her immediate family is to The Place, the liquor store/café her father owns and her mother manages. Interacting with her parents at work and with the people who frequent The Place complicates Lena's vision of herself, by allowing her to see her parents in a new light and to see herself reflected in the eyes of others. "There was hardly anywhere on earth that Lena enjoyed more than The Place," the narrator says, "[a]nd The Place seemed to love Lena as much as she loved it" (121). Lena is enveloped by The Place, and the neighborhood around The Place is equally hospitable. Everyone from "whores" to "hardworking women from the box factory" treat Lena "like a precious commodity" (123). Being treated "like a precious commodity" gives Lena the confidence, eventually, to face her fears, both mundane and metaphysical. Commenting on the parallels in her own life, Ansa says that her parents gave her "a real strong sense that people were people no matter what, that there were no classes of people, especially since we made our living on people drinking our liquor" (Ansa in Carroll 24-25). In addition to making her feel connected to a larger world of adults who adore her, Lena, like Ansa, is able to respect the fundamental similarities in all people. This sense of a common humanity will give Lena a sympathy for the weaker and more vulnerable around her and enrich her sense of self. It will also serve as a counter to the mysterious vindictiveness of adults like Sarah's mother.4
Along with interacting with people at The Place, Lena arrives at a more complex sense of identity from watching her mother, whose confident persona behind the bar or office desk bears little resemblance to the mother "who had given Lena life and went around the house with a whine or a roar in her voice all the time" (117). Lena's mother at work is radically different from the mother she knows at home, and this picture of a competent contented working woman provides the model for working life that Lena will follow as an adult. Nellie McPherson at work is selling, filling, writing, and tearing, while at home she merely complains or criticizes. From watching her mother, Lena learns the therapeutic value of work—and the often debilitating responsibilities home life places on women. Like the other young women in this book, Lena has a complicated relationship with her mother; while she admires and emulates her, she also at times fears and despises her.
Having mixed feelings about her mother is useful, however—the negative emotions provide the emotional distance necessary for psychological growth, and the positive ones nurture Lena's confidence.5 Much more contented at work than she is at home and failing her daughter at a crucial moment after her birth, Nellie gives Lena a complex legacy. Like Bone struggling with her weak and negligent mother, Jenny with her abusive one, and Bone, Ellen, Sam, and Lucille with their dead or absent ones, Lena must cope with a mother that is most herself when she is not mothering. Just as she takes over The Place in The Hand I Fan with in honor of her father, Lena chooses not to have children herself in part because of her memory of her mother's ambivalent mothering.6
Also like the young women in previously discussed novels, Lena finds female role models other than her mother, although Lena seems more to add maternal figures to her mother's foundation, while several of the girls—Bone, Ellen, and Sam, in particular—seem bent on replacing their mothers with various surrogates. For Lena, too, the maternal figures don't have to be found in the world of the living. One of the women Lena discovers is Rachel, the ghost of an African American slave, whom she meets on a family vacation to the Atlantic coast. Lena's grandmother has complained about the vacation, saying that black people are out of place on the beach. Rachel assures her that, contrary to her grandmother's opinions, "Black folk belong here. You belong here. Don't believe black folks don't belong on the beach. Don't never believe black folks don't belong nowhere. Don't be afraid, Lena. Claim what is yours. I died to be here on this beach, Lena. Don't never forgit that. You belong anywhere on this earth you want to" (168). The gift Rachel gives Lena is a sense of belonging, both to the coast and to the country. She also teaches Lena about her history, the history of African Americans who died in order to claim what they believed was theirs.
This pride in her troubled racial heritage also sets Lena off from most of the other girls in this study, who may wonder how they fit into the adult world, but fail to consider how they fit into a world divided by race. However, Lena's racial awareness connects her, at least indirectly, to Bone and Ellen, who feel excluded from the financial and emotional security of middle-class life by their marginal social status. On the other hand, most of Lena's experiences do resemble the other girls' development; she has to struggle, as they do, to identify who she is—and where she belongs. Her meeting Rachel just extends her sense of entitlement outside of Mulberry.
Ansa herself strongly identifies with the Sea Islands and has made her home on Georgia's St. Simons Island. Until coming there, she says, "home to me was a dry, dusty town in the middle of the state…. In my ten years here, everything on St. Simons Island has told me the same thing: This place is yours" ("Sea Island Daughter" 49). So, for Ansa as for Lena, the ocean and the Georgia Sea Islands have become an extension of her home in the middle of the state. Interestingly, a New York Times reviewer who disliked the supernatural scenes in the novel called the one with Rachel "especially disappointing." Rachel's message, the reviewer said, "is profoundly moving, but off-key" (6). Perhaps the reviewer has underestimated the power and freedom (and pathos) of the Atlantic coast for landlocked descendants of African slaves. The water that carried them to slavery in central Georgia now provides Lena—and Ansa—with a way to incorporate that troubled history.
After Rachel, Lena's next role model is Mamie, the new girl at the beauty parlor, who is an attractive, strong, and sympathetic figure. About 20 years old, Mamie is "tall and sturdy looking, not heavy but robust," and she seems able to "take care of herself." Mamie "wears her size proudly like a suit of armor," looking to Lena "like a warrior, with her broad hands and strong-looking arms and legs" (179). Lena is drawn to Mamie's "warrior" strength, and from Mamie (who has a knack for asking the right questions) Lena learns how to find out things about people. Because of her exposure to Mamie, Lena comes to accept her own ample body and her physical strength, and she discovers the importance of listening and the power of knowledge. Mamie, with her attention to storytelling, is clearly the heart of the novel. In fact, Ansa has said that Baby of the Family "started as a short story about a little black girl in a small southern town who goes up the dusty street to get her hair done at the beauty shop" (Ansa in Carroll 19). Learning how to listen both to others and herself will also be at the center of Lena's growth. Eventually Mamie leaves, but when she does, Lena takes a piece of her, "the questioning part. Around her own house she gingerly began investigations about events, family, neighbors, situations that interested her" (188). Mamie, Rachel, and her mother help Lena to grow into herself; from them she has learned about the importance of place, the need for purpose, and the value of listening to other people.
Lena is less easy with her peers, especially the girls in her class, who were "beginning to get giggly and flirty with the same boys they had ignored the year before" (211). Unlike her classmates, Lena is unable to be "truly swept up in passing love notes and writing boys' names on notebooks" (211). This puts Lena in the same camp as Lucille Odom, who feels profoundly alienated from her silly classmates, and Sam Malone, who finds her best friend's early pregnancy and desire to get married puzzling and vaguely frightening. Lena's discomfort continues throughout her adolescence, and she irrevocably alienates herself from her female classmates when she inadvertently tells on one of classmates' mothers. (A ghostly voice takes over and speaks the truth to school authorities.) The incident makes Lena afraid—perhaps with some justification—that because of her gift that she will never fit in. This event, combined with a particularly scary sleepwalking episode, precipitates the crisis of the novel—Lena's dark night of the soul. During this troubling time, Lena tries to reassure herself by remembering what Rachel told her about belonging, with little effect, and she comes to the conclusion that she "can't trust anything" (238).
In order to get past this difficult spot in her life, Lena realizes that she has to reconnect with her mother and her grandmother. By looking in the mirror once again, she discovers that her body resembles her mother's, with the same "big low butt [and] long waist," as well as similar "slender legs and fragile-looking ankles," and "beautiful breasts" (239). If she resembles her mother on the outside, it is very possible she has inherited her mother's confidence and skill, too. Her developing body, with breasts that don't weigh her down and figure that is a "perfect counterpoint," may be signs of a psychological balance and potential lightness of spirit within.
Lena's grandmother also has some very matter-of-fact advice for her, although it is from the grave. When Lena sorrowfully asks to go back with her grandmother's ghost, she refuses. "Hell, no, baby, you just starting out," she says. "You got a whole lot to do before you over on this side. That's what you was made for. That's why you had that veil over your face when you was born. That was a sign of the things you can do, things you can be" (263). Lena says she just wants to be normal, and her grandmother just laughs and tells her, "Normal? Baby, you ain' never gon' be normal" (262). Then, she reminds Lena what the other women in the story have been telling her all along, from Nurse Bloom to Rachel: "Baby, you can't run away from what you are. You was born a special child. Now you got to claim what is yours" (264). Lena has to accept who she is; for better or worse, the visions and voices are going to be as much a part of her adolescence as emotions and acne. Like Bone, she has to accept what she is—and isn't—and move on with her life.
Her grandmother can only help her so far, though. When Lena asks her what's going to become of her, her grandmother says: "Shit, baby, I'm just dead. I ain't no fortune teller. But you, you can do more than me and four other like me put together if you let yourself" (261). In Baby of the Family, the dead can offer advice (and swear, apparently), but they can't predict the future. Lena's future is in her own hands.
In spite of Lena's rocky road, behind and ahead, the final image of the novel is one of security combined with apprehension, the perfect twin emotions of adolescence. Not surprisingly, Lena is having trouble sleeping after her talk with her grandmother, especially since she has returned to her grandmother's room, where she saw her first ghost in the picture. For the final time in the novel, she looks in the mirror, so long that "her pupils began to dilate." Then she shuts off the light, goes back to bed, and pulls "the quilt her grandmother had made for her up around her waist and sat up in bed the rest of the night" (265). Covered in her grandmother's quilt but still afraid of ghosts, staring at her familiar face and figure but looking too closely for comfort, cozy but unable to sleep, Lena is on her way toward adulthood. Fortunately she is as armed with her grandmother's insights as she is warmed by her quilt, as sure of her mother's love as she is worried about turning into her, and as afraid of ghosts as she is resigned to them. No wonder she "sat up in the bed the rest of the night." Like Lucille on her way to college, Sam on her enigmatic journey to the Vietnam Memorial, and Bone looking out over the river with her aunt, Lena is moving toward her future with some trepidation but with the support of her family and its complicated legacy.
1. Several critics have noticed Ansa's connection to the tradition of African American women's fiction. In Inventing Southern Fiction, Michael C. Kreyling says that African American women writers "have unearthed the buried languages of African American folk traditions and community" (109). See also Cherry 2.
2. Although it is part of a proud literary tradition, Baby of the Family has not been without controversy, in particular from black writers who find its emphasis on material success and self examination troubling. Thulani Davis, in her essay "Don't Worry, Be Buppie: Black Novelists Head for the Mainstream," says that writers like Ansa and Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) focus on "the lonely, self-involved journey of the middle-class African American who has access to some little piece of the Dream and is as deeply ensconced in American mass culture as in our boisterous yet closely held black world" (26). Calling their work "[m]ore Bup Art than Black Art," Davis says writers like Ansa have more in common with mainstream white writers, who concentrate on the ordinary person, than they do with the heroic, international, and political work of writers like Toni Morrison. These harsh—and perhaps unfair—criticisms have stunned Ansa. Possibly in response to attacks like this one, Ansa has in recent years insisted on the international nature of her work (Campbell-Spears 1).
3. Speaking about the significance of Lena's caul in an interview accompanying her novel The Hand I Fan With, Ansa says she thinks that "all of our citizens, but particularly black folks, have to claim what's ours. We've got to acknowledge who we are as a people, what and where we came from, what we believe in, what got us to where we are today. We've got to stop jettisoning things that are important…. And to just throw these things over our shoulders, to discard them like so much trash, as Lena's mother did with her child's caul, is suicidal" (472). It becomes Lena's special challenge in the novel to claim what is hers, to extricate herself from her mother's "suicidal" gesture of discarding her caul and its powers and history.
4. Not surprisingly, Lena, who reappears in Ansa's 1996 novel The Hand I Fan With, takes over running The Place after her parents' death, and in that novel assumes emotional and financial responsibility for half of Mulberry. Lena says in Baby that she will "always wear high-heeled mules and good-looking dresses like her mother did and not worry one bit about the smell of cigarette smoke and grease from the grill," and The Hand I Fan With finds her at 45 doing those very things (121).
5. As Nagueylati Warren puts it, Ansa "oppose[s] the prevailing images of motherhood, choosing instead to depict resistant mothers in [her] fiction" (182). Ansa, she says, "employs irony, satire, and paradox to unravel the stereotyped notions of motherhood," especially in her second Mulberry novel Ugly Ways, where the difficult mother Mudear Lovejoy is reviled and finally understood by her three daughters (193). In Baby of the Family, Nellie McPherson is just the first of Ansa's problematic mother figures.
6. Clearly the role of mothers, both biological and surrogate, in girls' psychological development continues to interest Ansa. She told interviewer Sharon Smith Henderson in 1999 that she is at work on a new novel called You Know Better (published in 2002) that features a nineteen-year-old main character from Mulberry who has "no sense of herself" (67). All LaShandra Pine wants to do is get to Atlanta and be in a music video. Ansa says that the story is a "cautionary tale" for women—with and without children—who have "passed on nothing" to the girls who have come after them, who have "sat back and let it happen." She sees it as her duty "to rescue the LaShandras and all the rest of our children" (68). LaShandra is a contemporary Lena, one who has no sense of family or self respect, who literally and symbolically has left Mulberry; she could in fact be Lena's daughter.
Ansa, Tina McElroy. Baby of the Family. New York: Harcourt, 1989.
———. The Hand I Fan With. New York: Random House, 1996.
———. "An Interview with Tina McElroy Ansa." The Hand I Fan With. Paperback reprint edition. New York: Anchor, 1998: 469-75.
———. "Sea Island Daughter." Essence 26 (1995): 49.
———. Ugly Ways. New York: Harcourt, 1993.
———. You Know Better. New York: Morrow, 2002.
Campbell-Spears, Tiffany. "Interview with Tina McElroy Ansa," 2 July, 2001. http://www.geocities.com/~cullars/jan-mar01/ansa.htm.
Carroll, Rebecca. "Tina McElroy Ansa." I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black Women Writers. New York: Carol Southern Books, 1994. 18-33.
Cherry, Joyce. "Tina McElroy Ansa." Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 1-5.
Davis, Thulani. "Don't Worry, Be Buppie: Black Novelists Head for the Mainstream." Village Voice Literary Supplement 85 (May 1990): 26-29.
Henderson, Sharon Smith. "An Interview with Tina McElroy Ansa." Kalliope 21 (1999): 61-68.
Kreyling, Michael C. Inventing Southern Fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Warren, Nagueylati. "Resistant Mothers in Alice Walker's Meridian and Tina McElroy Ansa's Ugly Ways." Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing. Ed. Nagueylati Warren and Sally Wolff. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. 182-202.
Christopher N. Okonkwo (essay date December 2005)
SOURCE: Okonkwo, Christopher N. "Of Caul and Response: Baby of the Family, Ansa's Neglected Metafiction of the Veil of Blackness." CLA Journal 49, no. 2 (December 2005): 144-67.
[In the following essay, Okonkwo studies the ways in which Ansa's Baby of the Family draws on the traditions of earlier works by African Americans, including slave narratives, and maintains that although Ansa, through Lena, validates African American folk spirituality, she additionally employs the character for a more political examination of the African American sense of belonging.]
[T]he Negro is sort of a seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world…. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness….
—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
She [Lena] doesn't know if the voices that come out of her mouth are hers or what. She doesn't know if she is crazy or not. She could be just psychotic. She could be schizophrenic. We hear about multiple personalities, and I hope I did leave all those possibilities open….
—Tina McElroy Ansa, interview with Shirley M. Jordan
Speaking with Rebecca Carroll in 1994, Tina McElroy Ansa described her work as "sort of a casserole or a torte," an opulent dish whose deceptive top layer conceals "all kinds of different and delicious levels underneath" (Carroll 26). In her four novels to date, You Know Better (2002), The Hand I Fan with (1996), Ugly Ways (1993), and her debut Baby of the Family (1989), Ansa has served her readers rich literary delicacies. She offers them her Mulberry universe, an imagined Southern black community in which time and space are parts of a sacred cosmos and where Cartesian rationalism, as well as the invented binaries between the natural and the celestial, the material and the spiritual, are contested, violated, and destabilized. With that as one of her oeuvre's signature themes, Ansa joins the ranks of black Atlantic writers whose works collectively harness and espouse, among other things, black people's alternative hermeneutics.
Given its standing with such an esteemed company,1 its publication date, accolades, screen adaptation, and especially its stature as one of the few African American novels to focus on the "caul" concept proper, we would expect Baby to have attracted a respectable critical following, as have its siblings Ugly Ways and The Hand. Not quite; in fact it seems a student researching criticism on the novel may have to make do with its author's explanatory interview commentaries, or with simplistic online sketches, some comparativist2 insights in a few journal articles and book chapters, and/or dated reviews, one of which, most remarkably Thulani Davis's Village Voice piece "Don't Worry, Be Buppie," ridicules the novel. Davis belittles Ansa's accomplishments: she judges the book harshly, claims it is thematically unrealized, technically inferior, and racially as well as politically disingenuous, especially because it disengages with interracial strife and the protest tradition. Davis concludes that the novel is "Buppiedom at its worst," that it is, in short, "hardly a picture of black life" (26)—implying here the existence of a knowable Ur text of blackness and the black experience.
One must admit that as a first novel with autobiographical3 undertones, Baby has its share of narrative and emotive challenges. However, I do not subscribe particularly to Davis's mockery and rushed dismissal of the work but suggest instead that on closer critical sampling the novel's text is like a casserole. For behind its mask of uncomplicated people, plotting, and prose lies an endeavor of considerable thematic merit and racial significance. It is a project that holds its own and belongs within, though it has yet to be investigated in-depth along the lines of the black fiction's call-and-response mode, its direct or implied interplay with its literary ancestor(s) and/or contemporaries. Specifically, I want to discuss Baby as a work that echoes and extends its precursors, W. E. B Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Arna Bontemps's God Sends Sunday (1931), and the slave narrative. I aim to contend that while Ansa uses Lena's life as a site to endorse folk spiritual consciousness, she enlists it more politically to proffer the case that although it projects its black recipient Lena as a positive rarity, the gift of (racial) caul can and does sometimes set in motion a crisis of subjectivity and belonging. This is because the African-American child born with a veil (of blackness) in America is immediately thrust onto cosmic, personal, racial, cultural, and philosophic crossroads. Conjunctively, Ansa indicates that the veiled impasse of true self-understanding is exacerbated when the required "protection" that should moor the black American subject mentally and culturally has been impeded by rationalism, actuated in the text through a mother who in addition to her role as Lena's parent also espouses the "progressive" sentiments of modernism. With that concern, and in Ansa's resonance of Du Bois's racialization of "veiling" as a major contributor to the African American dilemma of being—an idea Bontemps picks up—I suggest that the novel through the Nurse Bloom-Nellie disputation addresses inextricably the issues of (racial) power positioning. It alludes to an undue, power-driven, and "outside" meddling in black humanity and subjectivity, illuminating, as it were, the impresses of that interference on black life.
In her works, Ansa associates the caul with tension, culture, gender, and race. In addition to serving as a sartorial idea that later in Baby allows Ansa to "write back" to the politics of "whiteness," the veil codifies black racial, cosmological, and gendered "difference." It represents an inheritance that is and should be empowering but which generates mental strife upon an impeding encounter with white/Western modernist thought. Ansa dramatizes that encounter in Nellie's "logical" rejection of caul ritual prescribed by the midwife, herbalist, and "literary granny" Nurse Bloom (see Lee 9). In other words, outside their respective literal functions as midwife and mother, Bloom, on one side, and Nellie, on another, also illustrate, respectively, those warring "black" and "white American" worlds and ideals that the African American person often has to negotiate just to live a meaningful life in America.
Ansa has yet to talk about Baby in the context of either Du Bois or Bontemps. She has implied to Shirley Jordan, however, that she wrote Baby partly to address not just what she sees as the pathologization of black children and black family life in some African American texts but also what she contends is Morrison's (mis) handling of the supernatural in Beloved. As provocative as it is, that latter observation is beyond the limited scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that consistent with Baby 's signifyin(g) motive to which Ansa alludes, one cannot mistake the parallels between the paradoxes of black life in America as articulated in Du Bois's overlapping, spiritual metaphors of "the veil" and "double consciousness" and in Ansa's insinuations about the effects of the caul, i.e., the natal veil, on the crisis of being and self-knowledge that Lena suffers.
In highlighting the interfaces, I aim broadly to demonstrate that resituated historically Baby is a work that deserves the serious critical consideration denied it. I wish also to situate the novel within the black fiction's investments in tropological repetition and extension, a praxis that according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and others, is central to African American canon formation. Through Baby Ansa participates in the discourse of black subjectival dualism. This is a conversation anticipated in earliest African American letters, made more coherent, clear, and critical with Du Bois's publication of Soul, and it assumes greater urgency since de jure desegregation and black people's increasing movement into the American middle class in the twentieth century.
When at the onset of the twentieth century Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, it was hailed as a landmark event. According to Du Bois's biographer David Levering Lewis, the book single-handedly rearranged the coordinates of the nation's three-hundred-year race relations and politics and also black people's views of themselves relative to occidental hegemony (278). Paul Gilroy observes that Souls "occupies a special place in modern black political thought both inside and outside the United States" (130). In the collection's second essay "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," previously published as "Strivings of the Negro People" in the Atlantic Monthly (August 1897), Du Bois introduces the metaphor of "the veil," which is both the book's dominant theme and Du Bois's trope for black life (Rampersad 70) and the idea of "double consciousness."
Du Bois contends that black people occupy a precarious position in the world order. He says they are "sort of a seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with secondsight" in a systemically racist American society that distorts and denies instead of enabling them to gain their genuine self-awareness. "It is a peculiar sensation," Du Bois reflects, "this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." Du Bois adds that "[t]he history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious [wo]manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self" (2). Meditating on the impacts of the misdirections occasioned by this schism, Du Bois a little later states that "this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds" of black Americans, "[…] has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves" (3). Du Bois in the rest of this chapter and throughout the book engages with other dimensions of the black experience before and at the turn of the century. For the purposes of my discussion, I would like to stay on the cited passages.
In their discussion of Souls, scholars have cited possible Christian/biblical influences on Du Bois's employment of the veil (Savory 335) and the impact of European Romanticism, American Transcendentalism, Psychology's concept of split personality, and African metaphysics on his articulation of the ideas of "double consciousness" and black distinctiveness (Bruce 302-04; see also Gilroy 125-26). Affirming the presence of all those allusions in the formulations, Cynthia D. Shrager points out, however, as does Dickson Bruce, that Du Bois "racializ[es] the figure of double consciousness," drawing from "African- and American-based religious beliefs regarding the duality of the soul" (570). As Shrager states, "Du Bois's poetic characterization of the ‘Negro’ as a ‘seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world’ combines a German-influenced theory of racial gifts with African American folk beliefs that ‘being born the seventh son of a seventh son or being with a caul were signs of special supernatural or conjure powers’" (567-68). The question of which was more authoritative, the African religious elements or Germany's racial purist sentiments, is only speculative. Most of all, it pales in consequence to the facticity of the metaphors's paradigmatic lineage with the idea of "the caul."4
Therefore, considering the nominal and semantic sameness of "the veil" and "caul," their equivalent grounding in African spirituality, one could convincingly postulate that Du Bois was their inferring the ethnographic natal "caul." He could easily have rephrased his famous sentence as "the Negro is sort of a seventh son, born with a caul." But then, unlike "born with a veil," "caul" as substitute would neither sound as pungent nor collate capably Du Bois's intent at multi-referentiality. The point here is important because it helps establish further that Du Bois, Bontemps, and Ansa are addressing the same aspects of the black condition in America. Furthermore, the phenomenological connections and political continuities become clearer in light of what Du Bois felt are the ramifications of the caulimplicated double consciousness for blacks.
Bruce writes that Du Bois used double consciousness to underline the actual effects on black life and psyche of white stereotyping, the color bar, and African American tenuous citizenship of the American nation. However, the notion
referred most importantly to an internal conflict [of identity and belonging] in the African American individual between what was "African" and what was "American." It was in terms of this third sense that the figurative background to "double-consciousness" gave the term its most obvious support, because for Du Bois the essence of a distinctive African consciousness was its spirituality, a spirituality based in Africa but revealed among African Americans in their folklore, their history of patient suffering, and their faith. In this sense, double consciousness related particularly to Du Bois's efforts to privilege the spiritual in relation to the materialistic, commercial world of white America
The material world to which Du Bois refers is also the world of science, with its emphasis on logic and hard proof, its late nineteenth-century quarrels with mysticism and "superstition," and its propagation of racist and controversial notions of human hierarchy and of African biological inferiority and cultural primitivism. As Schrager writes, Du Bois found in double consciousness, then, an adequate language with which to enunciate "his profound discomfort with [those] contradictions and tensions of the methodologies of positivist science, particularly in relation to the discourse of race" (555). This was an age when the idea of cultural [and epistemological] relativism—a fact Ansa pursues in her novel—had yet to gain extensive traction in intellectual discourse (Bruce 305).
It was this unpopularity of the notion of cultural relativism or parity that lent Du Bois's elucidation of the notions of the veil and black people's double consciousness its strongest potency. As Dickson Bruce discloses, "Because the idea of double consciousness explicitly emphasized the integrity of distinctive states in the individual who is its subject, it helped Du Bois to get around the dilemma that his idea of distinctiveness so long had posed. [It] allowed for a sense of distinctiveness that really did entail equality, a sense of distinctiveness that did not imply inferiority" (305, my italics). In short, it rejects and delegitimizes the script of white/ Western racial and cultural superiority, affirms comparativity, insisting therefore that modalities of knowing and doing—"science" and "intuition," "religion/Christianity" and "superstition," the "old" and the "modern," "black" and "white," for instance—alternate intrinsically and are mutually constitutive.
Du Bois understood fully the literal and symbolic possibilities and limitations posed by the veil and double consciousness. Because the gift of natal/racial caul expresses the mutual integrity and pressures of hyphenated existences, Du Bois, "not entirely certain about the possibility of such a synthesis" (Bruce 306), however, felt that one way for African Americans to manage the impasse, to maintain their sanity in a hostile environment, is to affirm and unify both [and all] parts of themselves, with an eye toward an improved and more genuine personhood. Twenty-eight years after Du Bois releases Souls, Arna Bontemps recalls the veil motif in God Sends Sunday, another literary predecessor that Ansa consciously or unconsciously steadies and restructures.
Bontemps structures God, his first published novel of the Harlem Renaissance's "expiring moment" (Perry 103), as a coming-of-age narrative. God is a story tinged with a sense of the irony of fate which Bontemps grafts with tamed humor onto the contradictions or, rather, the (mis)fortunes of the hero Little Augie. Lil Augie is a black Louisiana boy born with a caul (3). This birth circumstance not only "[s]ets him apart from his mates" (4) but also, in conjunction with the statement that he was born "a thin, undersized boy smaller for his years than any other child on the place" (3), positions him as a "curiosity," the Other, and hence a social underdog. The "Little" or "Lil" in his name suggests that point. But we must note that though this circumstance marks him as different and affects him physically and emotionally, he is not inferior to his peers but rather is gifted with, among other things, such intelligence that enables him to train race horses. However, Augie is a liminal character at the crossroads of caul prophecy and his temporal destiny, between repute and disrepute, power and defeat, a figure fated to perpetual itinerancy between and across locations. It seems there is no place in America that he can safely call "home." In fact, as though to authenticate this destiny which Augie believes himself (10), at the end of the story we find him still on a journey, searching for his place, manhood, strengths, desires, and purpose in life, searching, it appears, for his true self/identity. By the time Augie sets his eyes on professional expatriation overseas, on his next stop Tia Juana, Mexico (194-95), he has moved from Louisiana to St. Louis and to Mudtown, California, where his sister Leah now lives with her children.
Bontemps intimates that Augie's double bind, his rise to social notoriety and his fall from grace as an accomplished jockey, are accelerated largely by his station as a black child born with a veil. Thus, Margaret Perry is right that "[f]rom the beginning there is an indication that the use of black superstition and motif will play a small but important role in the story's development" (103). Augie's life is affected by his acceptance of folk readings of both "him" as a person and the caul's supposed mystical and empirical significance in his life (Abney 139). Doubly conscious, then, Augie is situated tensely as subject/object on both sides of the veil's ideological divide. On the one hand is his (African/ African American) spiritual self. We are told that he subscribes to "conjure and ‘signs’," believes in and is part of the metaphysical (93) and that, empowered by the caul, he could see spirits and "could put curses on people and […] remove them, and above all, he was lucky—unfailingly lucky" (10-11). On the other hand, however, is the very fact of his real life, his daily existence in a contrastively material, commercial and "competitive" world largely engineered by white America. In between these sociocultural separations lies Augie's crisis of subjectivity, the source of the blues he sings. In other words, he is a black, African-descended man who is also an "American."
The narrator's matter-of-fact affirmation that Augie is and would be "unfailingly lucky" is quite ironic and cautionary. The narrator knows full well that as a black person, a black man with three if not more intertwined strikes against him in North America—one, his legacy as descendant of a dead slave mother, a child born on the Red River plantation during the Nadir; two, his diminutive physical size and all it says; and three, his natural veil (insert: skin pigmentation)—Augie's metaphysically driven "blessing" would be complicated when it confronts the uncertainties of existence in post-bellum America. It should be noted that Augie starts out his American life from a position of competitive disadvantage and is thus compelled to play catch-up to compensate.
With "little" expected of him, Little Augie feels a need to assert his manhood and prove his smarts in combative social arenas. His resort to the unstable career of horse breeding and training, the city life of boastful gambling, his attraction to light-skinned Florence and his rivalry with her white lover Mr. Woody, his killing of Biglow Brown. and his last knife fight with Lissus presaged by bird omen—all, no matter how "irrational" and fatalistic, become for him alternative sites of (masculine) self-assertion, actualization, empowerment, security, and identity (re)construction. When Augie returns to his sister Leah's house, he is "withered with age," according to Charles L. James (319). Bontemps uses Augie's return and his undue aging to emphasize how mentally and emotionally exhausting, how physically debilitating, in short, how immensely complicating of one's life is the double bind for many a black person. Augie's narratively unresolved struggle actuates Du Bois's lamentation as to how this sense of interior strife emblematizes African American history. In a seeming response to Du Bois, Bontemps confesses through Augie's predicament that trying to realize from both sides of the veil that "self-conscious manhood" and agency of which Du Bois speaks (2) could be as mentally and spiritually draining as it is time-consuming and inevitable. This truly is an inescapable balancing act evident in contemporary black life, one which African American novelists, in this case Tina McElroy Ansa, have duplicated and revised.
A black bildungsroman, Baby covers approximately sixteen years of Lena's life, from 1949 to about 1965. The third child (after Edward and Raymond) born in Dr. Williams's St. Luke's Hospital in Mulberry to Nellie and Jonah McPherson, Lena is considered to be a rare and blessed child, favored with supernatural powers. But Ansa portrays Lena as a black child experiencing a crisis of subjectivity and identity. Lena's confusion is attributable to not just her unique birth but how that birth is interpreted by the exegetes of intuition and rea- son, by conflicting traditional and modernist knowledge modes, practices and positionings each of which, construing her body as space of ideological and power contestations, lays a claim on her being.
Ansa signifies on Bontemps's and Du Bois's literary developments of veil themes in a number of ways. First, she shares and resonates their interest in the folk. Contrastive to both writers, however, she (re)situates the belief ethnographically. More importantly, Ansa engenders the idea, (re)figuring the veiled black subject as an African American female born into working-class privilege, suggesting therefore the complicity of not double but undetachable quartet consciousnesses in the ordeal of Lena's subject formation. In addition, while Lena, unlike Augie, is not symbolically physically stunted, she too has another physical although gendered marker: her "long, thick wiry hair" which Nellie considers burdensome (132-33). And because of her legendary birth she also stands out with family members and other Mulberrians, but especially with the town's female collective, among whom is its living-dead, Rachel. In God Sends Sunday, Lil Augie sees apparitions, but with his caul power he neither "raises" the black dead nor invokes and benefits from the presence, memories and directives of an ancestral black female slave, as does Lena. Exploiting Lena's gift of foresight and insight into the temporal and the transcendental, Ansa is able to recover, sub-text, and archive Rachel's slave narrative.
It can be argued that because the novel aims ultimately to celebrate maligned African American/Southern folk epistemology (Town 99), the entirety of Baby 's narration is directed toward authenticating the caul predictions, most of which, significantly, precede Nellie's decision at the hospital to discard the natal veil (34) and her executing that decision at home. But we should not underplay the wider implications of one person's/ group's attempt to (re)map, another's existence, identity, destiny, and possibilities. Nellie's action speaks to that cultural and power encounter that precipitates and escalates that experiential dilemma that I call Lena's crisis of self-knowing. The danger here is Nellie's disparagement of Bloom's knowledge system. Equally as sinister is her actuated obstruction of the means (the dried caul and its tea, as metaphor) by which Lena, the African American person, could gain genuine, self-protective knowledge about her "different" subjectivity (262). It is one thing to disagree with difference and brand it hocus pocus, "foolishness," "shit," and the like, as Nellie does. It is another, however, to make oneself a divinity. This issue of a hegemonic Nellie playing God with a black child's life, deciding and interfering, is exactly what Du Bois decries in his statement of how the white-dominated American world attempts to distort and deny African Americans their "true self-consciousness" (2).
I am suggesting that as we read the story literally, we should also confront the evidence that what Ansa dramatizes simply as a caul-centered wrangle between two Southern black females, a midwife and a protective new mother, is collapsible and color-coded. Their struggle casts a beam into white-black racial, cultural, and philosophic separations in the United States. Reinforcing Jonathan Culler's postulation that texts are coworkers "in the various discourses of knowledge that are found in a culture" (12), Ashraf H. A. Rushdy reminds us that even contemporary literary works sometimes position themselves, are configured by their authors, and also should be understood, as "belated participants in an earlier cultural conversation" (17). I am arguing, therefore, not only that Baby is also introspectively commenting on a certain historical and racial moment and experience but that what we have at play in the Nellie-Bloom ideological disputations, more precisely, are issues of the color-line and the dire repercussions of racial power and control in mid-twentieth-century United States. Coming from a character aligned also with mainstream sensibilities and modernism's spirit of rationalism and progress, Nellie's response to the caul is nothing but power positioning. It is a weighty performance whose consequences register in Lena's (mis)conceptions of self and her inability to harmonize what are represented as her ontological paradoxes.
Ansa does not see any marked paradoxes between the strange and the familiar, nor between the known and the impenetrable. For her, there is and should be phenomenal equilibrium in nature for the world to function well. However, it would be counterintuitive to assume that that desired racial equilibrium would be attained easily given the significance of the novel's setting and major incident: Lena's birth, occurring in "1949," in the middle of America's racial segregation, a pre-1960s Black Power and Black Nationalism era, when Southern white supremacy—using rule by law, force, idea, and lore—dispossessed blacks behind the veil and continued to interfere with their humanity and destiny. Under such circumstances, the desired racial equilibrium would be difficult to attain because concession by the dominant group (Nellie) to parity (with Bloom) would require that we dismantle and realign the constructed order of things. In performing also modernism's progress-driven distancing of the past, its stress on Enlightenment, reason, newness, and liberatory scientific truth, Nellie's blatant refusal to respect the intrinsic integrity of Nurse Bloom's knowledge is vividly a power statement. It re-enacts subtly Southern white rejection of the idea of unqualified black-white racial, cultural and ideological equality. Inherently hierarchical and segregating, Nellie's action implies falsely that the white/Western and the black/African/American worlds do not have much in common. But we know that the multiple and intertwined cultural locations implied by the caul typify the American identity. Nellie's action is in contrast to Bloom, whose integrative and prudent use of the blow dryer to dehydrate a wet caul indicates her disposition toward mutually productive syncretism (Lee 122).
It is in the wake of the above event that doubles as a cultural, racial, philosophic, and power struggle between the (allegoric) figures of Bloom and Nellie that the black child Lena literally begins her Mulberry/ American life, interestingly from a position of disadvantage, just like Lil Augie. That the folk understandings about the caul are actualized in Lena's life can be seen as Ansa's way of validating folk religious cosmology despite Nellie's incredulity and her interfering assault on Bloom's knowledge base. Ansa imbues the narrative with moments of those confirmatory experiences. Unquestionably the most compelling of them all, with respect to the novel's exploration of the (paradoxical) nature of the gifts conferred on the black subject by the (racial) caul, is Lena's clairvoyance, her second-sightedness. Lena's "attraction" of and subsequent meeting with the ghost of the former slave Rachel during the McPhersons's family excursion to the Georgia beach serve to bolster Ansa's case for Nurse Bloom's spiritualist readings of the caul. But the event does much more than confirm that the caul works as stipulated and that Lena, a powerful black child, has access into the (super)natural.
A part of Lena's growth process, the family's trip to the beach creates a sort of carnivalesque event that allows Ansa to finesse spectral visitation as well as an "unpublished" slave narrative as springboards to accomplish what Kathleen Brogan sees as authorial "conjuring of ghosts to perform cultural work" (17). It allows Ansa to address further the politics of race, racism, gender, and power, particularly black women's history of oppression and resistance. In making the biblically named Rachel appear to Lena as a full-bodied human being, a speaking, self-reflexive subject, Ansa humanizes both Rachel and the other African slaves abstracted in Lena's (print)ed history books. A compact and complete (Neo) slave narrative spoken/written by herself, Rachel's spiritual autobiography transfers back to her the right to self-authorship. Most importantly, however, Rachel's self-directed and subversive death by drowning inscribes into both her narrative and Ansa's the theme of (gendered) and racial protest. It performs in the story the political tasks of cultural mourning, racial historiography, and intergenerational concordance that Brogan finds exemplified in works by August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Paule Marshall. Like Lizzie in Phyllis Alesia Perry's Stigmata, Lena serves as an amanuensis of sorts for her forebears. Reaching back to a precursor text, the slave's autobiography, Ansa draws on the experience, wisdom and te(x)stimony of an ancestor to ground her explorations of Lena's continuing and tutelary growth, especially the complications of black subject and identity formation in the volatile 1950s and 1960s.
Let me quickly add that in accusing Baby of being a kind of irresponsible child that abandons the spirit of its forebears—the 1960s' protest tradition—in that Ansa mutes overt white presence and racial strife, Thulani Davis overlooks the implications of the seditious behavior of Lena's schoolmates toward the veil-wearing, Northern white nuns at Blessed Martin de Porres. We are told that the nuns are wearing "rusty black and sparkling white veils" (214, my italics). In this sartorial dialectic, "whiteness" shines and "blackness" is tarnished. But the irony is that the very fact of being veiled—which Du Bois, Bontemps, and Ansa associate with the black condition in America—colors or marks the white sisters as "black." As has been part of black America's experience, this new racial station now "exposes" and subjects "whiteness" to scrutiny and innuendos. There are suggestions that the nuns are "just hiding [something] behind those veils"; that perhaps "they have horns," or are "really bank robbers and thieves running from the law." The children suspect that "they [are] men," and one is said to "look like the visage of death" (214-16). Sparkling "whiteness," with its numerous positivist connotations, is being signified on and reread from the perspective of "tarnished" and underdog blackness.
Judging, then, by the various ways that the caul literally capacitates Lena—socially heightening her rare subjectivity, wisdom, intelligence, and sensitivity, and also bequeathing to her the extrasensory ability to experience and to mediate the (para)normal—Ansa leaves no doubt that the gift of (racial/natal) caul is a complex blessing. She worries, however, that these endowments are incapable of fully undoing the damage already inflicted on Lena's psyche by Nellie's meddling in her life at birth. Nor is that injury correctable by either Western medical science, which misdiagnoses Lena's sleepwalking as "Puberty [and] adolescence" hysterics, or Christianity (231-38). In Souls, Du Bois laments how the exigencies of African America's plural nativity and allegiances have had the unfortunate effect of drawing some blacks to false oracles and messiahs (3). In apparent consensus with that observation, Ansa suggests that the caul tea that Nellie discards, not the church's holy water that Lena reaches to, is the more appropriate intervention. A "holy" water in its own right, though Nellie cannot see that, the caul tea is the needed response because it is ritualized, patient-, time-, and culturally specific. Moreover, it is vaccinal. In burning the caul and discarding the tea out of spite for Nurse Bloom and her world/ view, Nellie obstructs "two rituals [that Lena was] lucky to even be connected with" (262). Identical to the condition of a baby denied necessary immunization shots at birth, an action of grave consequence in the baby's life, Nellie practically surrenders Lena's existence to the elements without an internal (cultural, spiritual, and psychological) antibody. She leaves Lena vulnerable, uneducated on and unshielded by "community lore" (Lee 123), by that true self-consciousness that Du Bois talks about in Souls and that Bontemps fictionalizes in God through Lil Augie.
Thus, if Lena's trauma persists, impervious, as it seems, to "God," Western science, the Mulberry women's network, the McPhersons's parental love and class privileges, Blessed Martin de Porres tutelage, and Nellie's assurances, it is precisely because they are singly and together mismatched against the weightier consequence of Nellie's critical, two-way power acts. Nellie's power drive through Lena's future and identity is so egregious it requires spiritual intercession. That Ansa would raise the dead twice or call doubly upon ancestral counter-intercedence—first with Rachel and now Miss Lizzie (259-64)—suggests how enormous she considers the infraction. In ways recalling Lil Augie's exhausted return to his sister Leah's house in Mudtown, an event by which Bontemps stresses the sometimes incapacitating nature of the caul-driven crisis on black racial and gendered subjectivity, Lena at the end of the novel is virtually spent, emotionally. Although Miss Lizzie's return serves technically to close some narrative gaps in revealing where and how Nellie desecrated the caul ritual, its chief significance is to offer Lena the hard truth about her mother's culpability, the nature as well as the longevity of the trespass, and some closure (262-65). But even as the dead woman's spiritual visitation provides Lena some solace, Ansa implies that Miss Lizzie herself also failed Lena, in that as an elder who should have known better, Miss Lizzie ought to have been more alert, discerning, and questioning of the possible causes of Lena's situation.
One may rightly ask: where is Jonah, Lena's father, in all of this? The narrator suggests that Jonah is unaware of what transpired at the hospital or that at home Nellie pulls rank on Nurse Bloom. Through Miss Lizzie's own failure to intercede, Ansa raises issues of accountability. Ansa suggests that those like Miss Lizzie, entrusted with the honor of guarding the posts of racial health, should stay vigilant; else there would be more Lenas and her cousin Pecola Breedlove in Morrison's Bluest Eye.
As we eye the novel's closing moments, Ansa hints that while it can and does provide momentary comfort to the scarred black child suffering the blues of "conflicting perspectives on life" (Bruce 306), love alone, bred for Lena in the text through Miss Lizzie's postmortem wisdom and Nellie's verbalized, sometimes irritated, conservative compassion, is neither enough nor a panacea. Nonetheless, Ansa agrees philosophically with, but appends to, Du Bois's and Bontemps' subscriptions to the healing powers of individual agency, perseverance, and motion. Du Bois had argued that only an exercise of inner strength, a certain mental toughness, would prevent black people "from being torn asunder" by the stresses of racism and split nativity. Du Bois could not completely accomplish, neither rhetorically nor personally, that synergy of multiple subject positions. However, he left part of the solution to "an act of will" (Bruce 307). Bontemps at the end of God refuses to leave Lil Augie's fate to faith, to "God" alone, or to temporal and spatial stasis. Bontemps denies Augie unprofitable fixity but instead sets him flowing, moving, questing, in classic blues mode, even if that new journey to Tia Juana takes him re-baptismally across another "River Jordan," because true living is about motion.
Ansa's position interplays with Bontemps's and Du Bois's but with some signifyin(g) difference. In addition to "sharing" knowledge with and ceding power and agency to Lena, Ansa through Miss Lizzie recommends instead—but in extension of both Du Bois's and Bontemps's blues toughness and motion—that Lena devise opportunity with her caul power. Lena should achieve with it what black people have had to master for survival in America: improvised new roads out of life's dead-ends, forged quilts out of sartorial scraps: Jazz! Miss Lizzie advises conceptual deconstruction and redefinition. She reminds Lena that because "this world [we] living in can be so mixed up, so assbackwards, […] not fitting into it, being what some folks call crazy, is a blessing." She wants Lena to realize the positive value of difference; to stitch together a presumed negative, useless "craziness" into a self-protecting amulet, into a healing power with potential to "bring a little succor to some tortured soul" (262-63). As Ansa suggests in The Hand I Fan With, the "gifted" Lena's broader life calling is not that of a talented tenth (Du Bois/Souls), nor is it that of an Augie frustrated into expatriation (Bontemps/God). Rather, her cauling/calling is to serve ultimately as an altruistic community healer and stronghold. Jazzy, she would be for her community the quilt that bridges into pattern, coherency, and vibrancy the tapestry of seemingly discordant sounds, personalities, realities and yearnings that is Mulberry.
Furthermore, in line with the novel's signifying on Du Bois and Bontemps on gender lines, Ansa emphasizes black women's peculiar history and subjectivity in America. She intimates how their past and present experiences have conditioned the unorthodox ways they occasionally respond to the world. For Miss Lizzie, there is hardly a single black woman in America who escapes the aftermath of that racial and gendered history. Ansa coalesces Lena's situation and that of her foremothers and current generation of black women. In essence, Lena's caul-engendered crisis of subjectivity encapsulates the story of her fellow black women; she becomes their text. Because literally the character Nellie is a black woman, she too is "crazy," complicated by default. This, then, is the novel's closing argument: if being "crazy" is black women's "normative" plight in America, Lena, who in the narrative externalizes that quandary, is ironically and literally the most normal, real, stable, regular, and human of the text's gendered community. And if to be born or to live in pluralistic United States is to be inevitably cauled, to occupy multiple and shifting positions and hence experience decentering, then Lena, too, sings America, as Langston Hughes would say. She is the quintessential American, the most African, American in Baby, the literary casserole that she gives life.
In Baby 's sequel The Hand, Ansa follows Lena into mid-life. Ansa shows how Lena's calling as a blessed pillar of her community, a woman of the people, so to speak, orchestrates internal strife. Lena must find a way to conciliate her mooring of Mulberry and her yearning for some personal life which Herman, an interventionist ancestral spirit she conjures up, knows well and better and also helps her satisfy. You Know Better, Ansa's present multivocal novel of the mother-daughter relationship she perfects in Ugly Ways, returns us once more to the caul theme with another character, LaShawndra Pines (51). The young/present generation of the novel's three Pines women, LaShawndra is in part a product of our age's social and moral perversions, its cult of the flesh and sexual titillation. She is a teenager who, when we encounter her, is literally on the road, on "the highway" (199), waiting to commence on what the novel, consistent with its unifying quest motif, builds as a journey of spiritual conversion, though LaShawndra does not know it (199, 319). Among her other predicaments, LaShawndra experiences also a crisis of subjectivity and belonging. She is depicted as an ungovernable child, but one "on the edge of town" (14), straddling two worlds that Ansa imbues respectively with spiritual and material essences: her hometown Mulberry (or the "south"/her "past," which she in search of progress, is trying to escape) and her anticipated "northern" destination, Atlanta.
Ansa arbitrates LaShawndra's impasse in favor of "Mulberry," thanks mainly to the timely intervention of a vigilant ancestor. In so doing, Ansa harmonizes the spiritual and material terrains. She implies, in what I construe as her allusion to black people's northbound migration of the early and mid-twentieth century, that a one-directional quest for "the north" and all it symbolizes may not ultimately offer African Americans the genuine political freedom, spiritual solace, and self-knowledge that they seek there. (Recall Lena's grandfather Walter requiring his wife Miss Lizzie to ensure that upon his death his ashes would be scattered on southbound railroad tracks: "‘Southbound,’ he said. ‘Make sure it's southbound, Lizzie. Please, ma'am, don't send my ashes north’" ).
Most importantly, however, in treating as quite contemporary not just the caul theme but the crisis it induces, Ansa underscores the persistence and present mutations of that dilemma, its effects on black children and family life in America, and the black community in general as it tries to cross the blue, red, and white "river Jordan" and reach the promised land. Baby in its own way draws our attention to an African/African American sacred cosmos. It addresses—literally, politically, and metaphorically—what it means to be born with the veil of blackness in America. In its metafictionality and attention to the intricate subjectivity of the African American self, it joins its predecessors—the slave narrative, Souls, and God—in exploring an issue that defines our humanity: difference.
1. I have in mind here writers such as Charles Chesnutt, W. E. B Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, Amos Tutuola, Ernest J. Gaines, John Edgar Wideman, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, August Wilson, Ishmael Reed, Octavia Butler, Ben Okri, Tananarive Due, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, Julie Dash, Maryse Condé, Edwidge Danticat, Don Belton, and Phyllis Alesia Perry, to name a few.
2. See, for instance, Caren J. Town's "‘A Whole World of Possibilities Spinning Around Her’: Female Adolescence in the Contemporary Southern Fiction of Josephine Humphreys, Jill McCorkle, and Tina Ansa," in Southern Review 42 (Winter 2004). Town examines Baby as a coming-of-age narrative, one among other works that depict Southern girlhood as ultimately positive. She concedes, however, that for Lena growth and optimism are made more arduous because of the added burden of race and racism. While Town does a good job explaining the story and commenting also on Thulani Davis's review of the novel, in her stress on Ansa's concern with gender politics she overlooks the broader racial ramifications of the caul, the Nellie-Bloom conflict, the imports of Rachel's account as slave narrative, and other critical aspects of the novel. Of significance also is Nagueyalti Warren's essay, "Echoing Zora: Ansa's Other Hand in The Hand I Fan With" (CLA Journal 46.3 (March 2003): 362-82. Although "Echoing Zora" sketches Baby's plot, Warren's intertextual reading of The Hand illuminates further Ansa's artistic, formal, thematic, and gendered dialogue with her literary forebears.
3. See Ansa's interviews with Rebecca Carroll, Shirley M. Jordan, and Sharon Smith Henderson, "An Interview with Tina McElroy Ansa," Kallioppe 21 (1991): 61-68.
4. For more on "caul" see, for instance, Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past 264; William Bascom, "Gulla Folk Beliefs Concerning Childbirth," in Mary A Twining and Keith E. Baird, eds., Sea Island Roots 27-36; Elsie Crews Parsons, Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina 198; Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926); and Steiner 226.
Abney, Lisa. "Cakewalks, Cauls, and Conjure: Folks Practices in Arna Bontemps's God Sends Sunday and ‘A Summer Tragedy.’" Ed. Disheroon-Green, Suzanne and Lisa Abney. Songs of the Reconstructing South: Building Literary Louisiana, 1865-1945. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2002.
Alvarez, Joseph A. "The Lonesome Boy Theme as Emblem for Arna Bontemps's Children's Literature." African American Review 31. 1 (Spring 1998): 23-31.
Ansa, Tina McElroy. You Know Better. New York: William Marrow, 2002.
———. The Hand I Fan With. New York: Anchor, 1998.
———. Ugly Ways. San Diego: Harcourt, 1993.
———. Baby of the Family. San Diego: Harcourt, 1989.
Bontemps, Arna. God Sends Sunday. (1931). New York: Harcourt, 1972.
Brogan, Kathleen. Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Fiction. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1998.
Bruce, Dickson. "W. E. B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness." American Literature 64. 2 (June 1992): 299-309.
Carroll, Rebecca. I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black Women Writers. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1994.
Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Davis, Thulani. "Don't Worry, Be Buppie: Black Novelists Head for the Mainstream." Voice Literary Supplement 85 (May 1990): 26-29.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. (1903). New York: Dover, 1994.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
James, Charles. "God Sends Sunday." In The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 318-19.
Lee, Valerie. Granny Midwives and Black Women Writers: Double-Dutched Readings. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919. New York: Holt, 1993.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, 1970.
Perry, Margaret. Silence to the Drums: A Survey of the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1976.
Perry, Phyllis Alesia. Stigmata. New York: Hyperion, 1998.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. New York: Schocken, 1990
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Savory, Jerold J. "The Rending of the Veil in W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk." CLA Journal 15. 3 (March 1972): 334-37.
Schrager, Cynthia D. "Both Sides of the Veil: Race, Science, and Mysticism in W. E. B Du Bois." American Quarterly 48. 4 (1996): 551-86.
Town, Caren J. "‘A Whole World of Possibilities Spinning Around Her’: Female Adolescence in the Contemporary Southern Fiction of Josephine Humphreys, Jill McCorkle, and Tina Ansa." Southern Review 42 (Winter 2004): 89-108.
Ansa, Tina McElroy, and Shirley M. Jordan. "Interview with Tina McElroy Ansa." In Broken Silences: Interviews with Black and White Women Writers, edited by Shirley M. Jordan, pp. 1-27. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
In this interview, Ansa discusses the writing of her first novel (Baby of the Family) and its critical reception; African American culture; and racism.
Warren, Nagueyalti. "Resistant Mothers in Alice Walker's Meridian and Tina McElroy Ansa's Ugly Ways." In Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing, edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff, pp. 182-203. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
Compares the depictions of motherhood in works by Alice Walker and Tina Ansa, demonstrating the ways in which both authors challenge prevailing white and African American stereotypes of the figure of the African American mother.
Additional coverage of Ansa's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Writers, Ed. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 142; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 143; Contemporary Southern Writers; and Literature Resource Center.