Reconciliation. What does that word mean? Ostensibly, the word makes us think immediately of something good. It usually means that folks who have dramatic differences have come together in some sense of understanding and willingness to see each other’s points of view. It means that a stalemate has ended, disparate voices are heard, and the future seems less tangled than it did before the newly forged agreement. It could mean that a husband who was vehemently opposed to his wife’s choice of a university for their high-school youngster now sees the value of the choice she has put forth. It may mean that a group of students occupying a university president’s office now see that the path they thought would change the university’s pattern of financial investment really won’t do so, and they now have to listen to the older and wiser president. Reconciliation suggests that persons at odds are now mutually willing to move forward and that neither feels as if she or he has lost substantially in the process.
This enlightened understanding of the word changes drastically however when we use the word “racial” to describe reconciliation. The stakes become higher, the level of antagonism rises. History weighs down heavily upon us, for here in the United States, we cannot contemplate “racial” without its accompanying connotations of “black” and “white,” and those categories are so emotionally charged that it sometimes seems as if we must wade through quicksand to achieve any result at all. Racial reconciliation presupposes a peacefulness that is hard to envision, an understanding that most people would rather elide than work through. Perhaps it means more silence than discussion, more ignoring of problems than willful determination to examine and resolve issues.
And what if we introduce the word “compromise”? What is the difference between compromise and reconciliation? If we spread compromise across black and white racial lines, what are the expectations for outcomes? The word compromise, unlike the healthier sounding “reconciliation,” rings with inequity, not leveling. While in the earlier example, the wife and the husband may be content with reconciliation, and the reconciled president and the students may retain mutual respect for each other and realize that each side has valuable points, compromise does not evoke the same connotations. United Auto Workers are forced to compromise when they accept less than they desired in a new contract; they may return to work, but a total sense of satisfaction is lacking. Clearly, compromise leaves someone unhappy; someone is going to feel that he or she lost something that should have been his or hers.
The history of attempts at reaching across black and white racial lines in African-American literary representation is a history of compromise that might sometimes—though rarely—approximate reconciliation. Interactions are so troubled and painful that they more frequently result in abortion than in healthy deliveries. From Charles W. Chesnutt in the 1890s to Sherley Anne Williams and Ernest J. Gaines in the late twentieth century, African-American writers have explored the various situations in which blacks and whites encounter each other in ways that end more often in violence than in renewed understanding. Occasionally, the violence can lead to renewed understanding, but not without substantial cost, and that cost is paid on a more regular basis by black characters than by white characters. Loss of life through lynching, burning, or shooting, loss of livelihood, and forced escapes are the usual outcomes of encounters between blacks and whites when troubled circumstances dominate their encounters. There are glimpses of hope, but those glimpses come with a steep, steep price.
Counting the Losses
Consider Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901). The novel is based on the 1898 race riots in Wilmington, North Carolina, during which an estimated two hundred black Americans lost their lives. The disturbance resulted from the efforts of white supremacists to drive blacks from public political life, and it was exacerbated by the fiery editorials a black newspaperman wrote in spite of white opposition to his comments. Chesnutt dramatizes the events by using a prominent white family, the Caterets, and a black doctor and his family, the Millers, as protagonists. The actions of a host of other characters make clear that race relations are a keg of dynamite ready to explode. That potential explosion is pushed even closer to realization when Chesnutt reveals that white Mrs. Cateret and the legally black Mrs. Miller are really sisters. The almost black sister, Janet, has hoped for years that her white sister, Olivia, will recognize her, but custom and tradition demand otherwise. Olivia is insulted by Janet’s very existence and refuses even to note her presence. Each woman has a son, and each is engaged with the usual concerns of motherhood. Their husbands occupy places in the public realm, with Major Cateret rubbing elbows with the white supremacists, even though he avows that he despises them. Dr. William Miller, who experiences racism sharply when he tries to open a hospital for blacks in the town, nonetheless tries to perform his medical duties. Many forces work to bring the two families together, including the riot that is directly instigated by Major Cateret and his cronies. The riot has several tragic consequences: Dr. Miller’s hospital is burned to the ground; the Miller son, who is merely described—namelessly—as a little boy of six or seven, is killed by a stray bullet during the riot; and the white Carteret son, Theodore Felix (nicknamed Dodie), is left choking and slowly dying. And who can perform the crucial tracheotomy that will save him? No one other than Dr. Miller, the socially despicable black doctor. Major Carteret goes to Dr. Miller’s home to request his services, only to discover the dead Miller son and to be met with a gruff refusal. Thus white Olivia, with the urgency of a mother’s love, comes to the Miller home and begs Dr. Miller to use his skill to save her son (even though he has been turned away from the Carteret home once before when a famous doctor was in town to illustrate a new procedure). He refuses by responding:
“Madam,... my heart is broken. My people lie dead upon the streets, at the hands of yours. The work of my life is in ashes,—and, yonder, stretched out in death, lies my own child! God! woman, you ask too much of human nature! Love, duty, sorrow, justice, call me here. I cannot go!” (Chesnutt 324)
Then, Miller has an inspiration. He will leave the decision up to his wife Janet. So white Olivia Carteret has to go into the room where the nameless little black boy lies dead and ask his mother, her almost black sister Janet, to allow her husband William to save the little white Dodie. The encounter is worth quoting at length.
The two women stood confronting each other across the body of the dead child, mute witness of this first meeting between two children of the same father. Standing thus face to face, each under the stress of the deepest emotions, the resemblance between them was even more striking than it had seemed to Miller when he had admitted Mrs. Carteret to the house. But Death, the great leveler, striking upon the one hand and threatening upon the other, had wrought a marvelous transformation in the bearing of the two women. The sad-eyed Janet towered erect, with menacing aspect, like an avenging goddess. The other, whose pride had been her life, stood in the attitude of a trembling supplicant.
“You have come here,” cried Janet, pointing with a tragic gesture to the dead child, —you, to gloat over your husband’s work. All my life you have hated and scorned and despised me. Your presence here insults me and my dead. What are you doing here?”
“Mrs. Miller,” returned Mrs. Carteret tremulously, dazed for a moment by this outburst, and clasping her hands with an imploring gesture, “my child, my only child, is dying, and your husband alone can save his life. Ah, let me have my child,” she moaned, heartrendingly. “It is my only one—my sweet child—my ewe lamb!”
“This was my only child!” replied the other mother; “and yours is no better to die than mine!’“You are young,” said Mrs. Carteret, “and may yet have many children,—this is my only hope! If you have a human heart, tell your husband to come with me. He leaves it to you; he will do as you command.”
“Ah,” cried Janet, “I have a human heart, and therefore I will not let him go. My child is dead—O God, my child, my child!”
She threw herself down by the bedside, sobbing hysterically....
“Listen—sister,” returned Mrs. Carteret. Was there no way to move this woman? Her child lay dying, if he were not dead already. She would tell everything, and leave the rest to God. If it would save her child, she would shrink at no sacrifice. Whether the truth would still further incense Janet, or move her to mercy, she could not tell; she would leave the issue to God.
“Listen, sister!” she said. “I have a confession to make. You are my lawful sister. My father was married to your mother. You are entitled to his name, and to half his estate.”
Janet’s eyes flashed with bitter scorn.
“And you have robbed me all these years, and now tell me that as a reason why I should forgive the murder of my child?”
“No, no!” cried the other wildly, fearing the worst. “I have known of it only a few weeks—since my Aunt Polly’s death. I had not meant to rob you,—I had meant to make restitution. Sister! for our father’s sake, who did you no wrong, give me my child’s life!”
Janet’s eyes slowly filled with tears—bitter tears—burning tears.... Janet had obtained her heart’s desire, and now that it was at her lips, found it but apples of Sodom, filled with dust and ashes!
“Listen!” she cried, dashing her tears aside. “I have but one word for you,—one last word, —and then I hope never to see your face again! My mother died of want, and I was brought up by the hand of charity. Now, when I have married a man who can supply my needs, you offer me back the money which you and your friends have robbed me of! You imagined that the shame of being a negro swallowed up every other ignominy,—and in your eyes I am a negro, though I am your sister, and you are white, and people have taken me for you on the streets—and you, therefore, left me nameless all my life! Now, when an honest man has given me a name of which I can be proud, you offer me the one of which you robbed me, and of which I can make no use. For twenty-five years, I, poor, despicable fool, would have kissed your feet for a word, a nod, a smile. Now, when this tardy recognition comes, for which I have waited so long, it is tainted with fraud and crime and blood, and I must pay for it with my child’s life!... I throw you back your father’s name, your father’s wealth, your sisterly recognition. I want none of them,--they are bought too dear! ah, God, they are bought too dear! But that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who has injured her, you may have your child’s life, if my husband can save it! Will,” she said, throwing open the door into the next room, “go with her!” (325–326, 327, 328, 329)
Finally, legally black Janet gets what she wants—social, public recognition of their biological connection from her white sister Olivia. But what a soul-scarring price she pays for this recognition. Her situation is the epitome of compromise, not reconciliation, for her loss is substantial, and the inequity is monumental. However, Chesnutt writes the ending of the narrative in the vein of reconciliation, for it is a seemingly hopeful note on which the novel ends. Olivia maintains that Janet has not meant all the ugly things she had said and vows that she and Janet will meet again to work out their sisterly issues. More important to the moment, Dr. Miller accompanies Olivia Carteret into the night, even steadying her when her emotions lead her to falter on the way back to her own house. They arrive with “time enough” to save little Dodie, “but none to spare” (329). If blacks and white can agree to work together at the level of basic human need, that is, saving the life of an innocent child—even as another innocent child lies dead, then perhaps there is hope for the future. Noteworthy here is the moral high ground that the persons of African descent are expected to take in the situation. They have been dreadfully wronged, but they are called upon to transcend their losses, forgive, and move on to future possibility, whatever that future possibility might portend.
It is also noteworthy that Olivia Carteret refers to her dying son as a “ewe,” but it is truly the unnamed Miller son who has become the sacrificial lamb in this narrative of interracial possibility. That space of absence is filled with implied renewed commitment to humanity and transracial understanding. That possibility, as noted, hinges upon inequity and loss, a stance that Chesnutt is committed to taking to achieve his larger objectives. As early as the 1880s, Chesnutt had written in his journal that the purpose of his writings was to prepare blacks to reap the full benefits of democracy by educating whites about the effects of racism. “The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites…” (quoted in Brodhead 1993, 139). Lest we think that Chesnutt wanted to hold blacks back, keep in mind how he portrays the deaths of the two faithful servants in The Marrow of Tradition, Mammy Letlow and her grandson Jerry, who are both killed in the riot that Major Carteret has instigated. Mammy Letlow dies as she is desperately trying to reach the Carteret household to take care of her precious Miss Olivia, and Jerry is shot when he is unable to convince rioting whites that he is indeed a “good Negro.”
The times in which Chesnutt wrote and published were indeed fragile and unstable for African-American progress. New forms of slavery such as sharecropping, the convict lease system, and peonage were prominent. More lynchings of blacks took place in the 1890s than in any other decade of American history. Blacks who held political offices during Reconstruction had long been run out of their positions. The Ku Klux Klan had been founded in Tennessee in the late 1860s. The period of Chesnutt’s creativity, therefore, was, as one scholar labeled it, the “nadir” of black/white race relations in America (Wonham 1998). Black people had no militant champions; leaders such as Booker T. Washington were tiptoeing around the ugly racial circumstances that surrounded them. Nowhere were there indications that white people were enthusiastically or consistently committed to equality with blacks or even to advocating for blacks to be afforded some democratic offerings. Chesnutt’s task, therefore, of convincing his readers that blacks should indeed be incorporated into the body politic was a huge one to say the least. He worked the options as best he could, and those options frequently suggested that blacks needed to compromise much more so than whites. “Give a lot to get a little” seemed to be the racial philosophy to which Chesnutt and many of his contemporaries adhered.
The Possibility for Gain?
A few decades after the publication of The Marrow of Tradition, Richard Wright appeared on the literary scene and quickly earned a reputation as one of the African-American writers to watch. He shocked Americans with Native Son, published in 1940, his story of black-male violence against pristine white femaleness. Although Max, the Jewish attorney in that novel, tries to save black Bigger Thomas from execution for killing white Mary Dalton, there is no point at which the dominant WASP-Americans are willing to consider any perception of Bigger other than animalistic. There is no room for compromise, let alone reconciliation. During the scene in which Wright crowds Bigger’s family, Mary Dalton’s family, and the white attorneys into Bigger’s jail cell, Bigger is tremendously embarrassed when his mother drops to her knees to beg the white and blind Mrs. Dalton to intercede in an attempt to save Bigger’s life. Mrs. Dalton, previously painted as sympathetic to blacks—at least she encourages the blacks who work for her to go to school—merely asserts that the matter is out of her hands and there is nothing she can do. The visual image of the groveling black mother on her knees before the rigidly erect blind white mother suggests the distance between races and the impossibility of bridging that gap in Wright’s fictional world.
Before Wright published Native Son, however, he published “Fire and Cloud,” one of the short stories in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). Set in a small southern town, the story centers upon Reverend Taylor, the leader of a small and, at times, cantankerous black flock; a white mayor, a chief of police, and other local white citizens who dictate Reverend Taylor’s actions; a couple of Communists (one black and one white) who are encouraging Reverend Taylor to lead a march against current discriminatory practices in the distribution of government food aid; and Reverend Taylor’s militant son and his equally militant friends. The action coalesces on the night that all of these parties come to the parsonage to try to influence Reverend Taylor. The Reverend and his wife play a shuffling game in an effort to keep the mayor and his party and the Communists from encountering each other. Meanwhile, the intractable Deacon Smith, who wants Reverend Taylor out of the church, has called a meeting that very evening to try to achieve that result. Verbal and emotional turmoil reign before a group of whites kidnaps Reverend Taylor, takes him out into the woods, and beats him severely with a bullwhip. Instead of turning him against the idea of marching, the beating stiffens Reverend Taylor’s resolve. Attended by his son and wife once he wends his way home from the beating, Reverend Taylor works between reassuring his faltering wife and controlling his angry son. He also learns that several members of his congregation, along with the Communists, have been beaten as well. Reverend Taylor concludes that the only way he and his parishioners will be heard is for him to lead the march the next day.
It is easy to picture the scene: frightened white townspeople occupying one space, frightened policemen in another, and the combined march of the poor—black and white—led by Reverend Taylor, in yet another. Faced with this mass of humanity, the mayor decides to negotiate. He sends someone to ask Reverend Taylor to come meet with him. Reverend Taylor refuses, indicating that the mayor must come to him, which the mayor does. He then requests that Reverend Taylor inform the people that food will be forthcoming if the people will return to their homes. “Yuh tell em, yo Honah!” (179), Reverend Taylor insists, and the story ends with the mayor mounting a podium and Reverend Taylor’s asserting: “Freedom belongs t the strong!” (180).
In any place but the Depression-era South, this story might seem plausible. Unfortunately, Wright must superimpose a vision of impoverished whites and blacks coming together for a common purpose, one as basic as acquiring food. As we know from the history of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, even the poorest of poor whites supported the black/white racial divide. They were not willing to recognize a common condition with blacks against landed white oppressors; instead, they held to their prejudices against blacks. Fictionally, however, Wright can achieve what history did not. Although the story focuses more on Reverend Taylor and the blacks, whites join the march as it nears town. Both groups are hungry, and both conclude that working together will achieve a faster and more satisfying result than working alone. Reverend Taylor learns that there is power in “the people,” strength in numbers and resolve. And in this case, it works. The mayor quickly realizes that compromise is the only way he can prevent these hungry people—black and white—from tearing this town apart.
But how has that effect been achieved? Throughout his life, Reverend Taylor has been a yes-man, a bowing and scraping Uncle Tom who has not dared to buck the will of the mayor and his colleagues. He has sacrificed dignity for a measure of peaceful coexistence. What he has learned, however, is that self-deprecation, indeed even self-erasure, has not satisfied the larger white will. That will requires no less than complete submission on the part of blacks, the renunciation of claims to any rights. Reverend Taylor has played that game and lost. Now, he and others have had white displeasure written upon their very bodies. In addition to loss of dignity, they have suffered extreme physical violation. If the local whites have managed to control their minds and their bodies, what else remains? It is only through extreme mental degradation together with physical violation—the white men make Reverend Taylor recite the Lord’s Prayer while they are whipping him—that Reverend Taylor finally reaches the rock bottom from which he can fall no further. Having reached that state, he experiences a different kind of baptism, a baptism by fire, a fire that burns away his fear of whites, his fear of death, his fear of disapproval from those among whom he works.
At a glance, the ending of the story suggests that the compromise the mayor is willing to effect will have long term, and hopefully positive, consequences. But will it? The mayor, for all his power, has been forced to negotiate from a position of weakness. The size of the crowd frightens him into approaching Reverend Taylor, which means that his demeanor is a far cry from what it was when he visited the parsonage and directed Reverend Taylor to control black people in the town. After he makes his speech, will the mayor feel resentful for having been forced to do so? What of the whites who have bullwhipped Reverend Taylor and so many other citizens in that one violent evening? Will they just fall into place and support the mayor’s plan to give equal food to everybody, black and white, or will they take even more retaliatory measures? It is not surprising that Wright ends the story where he does, with the declaration that freedom belongs to the strong, for, if we write beyond the ending, too many questions arise for easy contemplation of a world in which black folks and white folks can “just get along.” Wright can only affirm the note of possibility, for neither history nor fiction will suffice to suggest true reconciliation between blacks and whites of this era.
A Failure to Communicate
Wright is the primary contributor to what scholars of African-American literature refer to as the protest tradition, that subgenre in African-American literature designed to bring about political change in the conditions of African Americans by encouraging predominantly white readers to reassess their conceptions of blacks. The major black-female voice in this tradition is that of Ann Petry, whose novel The Street (1946) depicts the exploitative conditions under which a single black mother is forced to live in New York City. After she published The Street, Petry collected her short stories into a volume that she published in 1971 as Miss Muriel and Other Stories, though many of the stories were written and published in magazines in the 1940s. Petry’s “The Necessary Knocking on the Door” is a keenly disturbing story involving a black woman and a white woman. In only nine pages, Petry succeeds in bringing into sharp focus the impact of racial prejudice upon the human psyche.
Alice Knight, a black woman in attendance at the “Annual August Conference on Christianity in the Modern World” (245), is awakened in the middle of the night by strange sounds. Clearly, the sounds are of someone in distress: “there was a sound—a low, agonized moan. It was followed by heavy, strangled breathing—breathing that gasped and halted and seemed to come almost to a stop before it started again. Then the moan—low, long, drawn out” (244). Alice gets up to investigate and discovers that the sounds are coming from the room directly across the hall, which is occupied—according to the conference nameplate on the door—by one Mrs. Gib Taylor, a white woman from Mississippi. That’s the problem. Although their attendance at a Christian conference would suggest that these women are open-minded, or at least sufficiently guided by the principles of Christianity to be tolerant of each other, unfortunately that is not the case. At the first breakfast of the conference the day before, Mrs. Taylor is forced to take the only empty seat at the large table, which is next to Alice. When Alice tries to make small talk, Mrs. Taylor huffs, then rises, rattling the table and silverware as she declares: “‘I’ve never eaten with a nigger, and I’m too old to begin now’” (247). So much for Christian principles.
When Alice discovers that the room belongs to Mrs. Taylor, the hand she has raised to knock falters. She knows that the woman is in distress, but she cannot bring herself to knock and possibly be insulted again. Conscience almost gets the best of her, and she raises her hand to knock again, but she withdraws it a second time. Then she considers knocking on someone else’s door and asking them to check on Mrs. Taylor. But she pauses when she considers that they will want to know why she has not proceeded to inquire after Mrs. Taylor. Time passes as she stands rationalizing her inability to help a fellow human being. Mrs. Taylor will accuse her of breaking in if she knocks, Alice thinks, or attempting to steal, or Alice will be insulted again. Finally, history, custom, pride, and the recent insulting incident lead Alice to return to her bed without knocking. Though she labels her action “a very great crime” (250), indeed one that is greater than Mrs. Taylor’s insult to Alice, she nonetheless gives in to that “crime.” After a troubled sleep, Alice awakens the next morning to commotion outside her door. A maid has the news and the last words in the story: “‘Oh!’ the maid said. ‘That nice Mis’ Taylor died in the night. Doctor say if anybody’d known about her havin’ a heart attack they coulda saved her’” (245). Perhaps it is fitting that we don’t get Alice’s reaction, for guilt would arguably cause her to follow Mrs. Taylor in death.
The story is haunting for several reasons. How many readers, especially black readers, would not have encountered some form of racial prejudice in the 1940s? And if they had, could they not in 1947 have understood Alice’s actions? Prejudice is the poison introduced into the Christian conference, and its consequences are the poison that immobilizes Alice. A so-called retreat, meaningfully called “Rest House,” has not provided rest or retreat. The ugly world has intruded into the pristine mountains, and both Alice and Mrs. Taylor are its victims. Sharing a meal is such a simple gesture of goodwill, but we know that shared meals were the setting of much civil rights activity. Caring for other human beings should be instinctive, as is the case when we see someone drowning and try to rescue them, or when we see a child about to be hit by a car and push her out of the way. Basic human interactions in this story get stifled by stereotypes and prejudices, and we are not quite sure where to lay the blame.
Does Mrs. Taylor deserve to die for her prejudices? Is it not incumbent upon Alice to save a human life in spite of who the person is who needs saving? If we echo Chesnutt’s call for African Americans to assume a higher moral ground, should Alice not knock on the door in spite of how she may have been or may be treated? Where does responsibility lie in and for this situation? Could Alice not retreat into the very Christianity that has brought her to Rest House and use Jesus’ directive to love those who despitefully use you to help Mrs. Taylor? How do we get out of this dilemma? Clearly, the question intrigued Petry, for she does not allow Alice an exit. Though Alice may recognize that she has committed “a very great crime,” she is not let off with only that recognition. Petry allows her to hear about what has happened to Mrs. Taylor as a result of her inaction. Petry refuses, however, to document her reaction to that knowledge. And perhaps this is where we as readers enter the story. What would we have done? How much do we understand Alice’s position as opposed to Mrs. Taylor’s? How much do we sympathize with Mrs. Taylor, even as the story is related from Alice’s limited perspective?
It was perhaps disingenuous of Petry to make her prejudiced white woman not only a southerner, but a Mississippian, thus evoking the most rabid connotations of racial intolerance and injustice. Such characterization inadvertently suggests that racial disharmony is more prevalent in the South, that, indeed, if Mrs. Taylor were northern born, she might have held other views. Petry, who was born and raised in Connecticut, may well have been guilty of such stereotypical generalizing. Nonetheless, the maid who has the last word refers to Mrs. Taylor as “that nice Mis’ Taylor.” Clearly marked with an approximation of black vernacular speech, the maid has obviously seen a different side of Mrs. Taylor. After all, Mrs. Taylor has been coming to the conference for many years and may even have encountered this maid previously. The point is that the maid, as a servant—and thus “in her place”—has not presumed upon the social graces that Mrs. Taylor finds so objectionable with Alice sitting at the breakfast table. The maid, as her designation suggests, is responsible for care-giving at the hotel. She has had no difficulty with Mrs. Taylor, because she is content in her assigned role and with her place in the social hierarchy. Mrs. Taylor’s Mississippi background signals that she is accustomed to the presence of blacks; she simply refuses to eat with them.
This failure to communicate, which results in the loss of a life, remains problematic for me. I understand Alice’s position, but I want her to be better than her characterization allows. I want her faith to overcome her own prejudice as well as her fear of the prejudice of another. The fact of the story, however, is that Alice cannot compromise, cannot position herself on the potential losing end of an encounter with Mrs. Taylor long enough possibly to save the woman’s life. Alice’s refusal to compromise, to risk the lesser end of a bargain, makes reconciliation impossible. Her adherence to the rules and practices of this world has undermined her professed faith and belief in God. Thus the dual tragedy of the story, for prejudice has essentially taken two lives; no matter where Alice goes or what she does, she will never be able to forget or overcome what has happened at Rest House. Both of these characters, Petry suggests, have failed. Will her contemporary readers have learned from them and plotted different paths?
Mutual Respect and Understanding?
If the literary late nineteenth century has blacks suffering extreme losses in their encounters with whites and the 1940s picture blacks as too historically defined to act, where is there hope for racial reconciliation in the literature? A few later twentieth century possibilities come to mind. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee, the first of the neo-slave/freedom narratives, was published in 1966. It is set in the years surrounding the beginning and the ending of the Civil War. The protagonist, Vyry Brown, who is the unacknowledged daughter of her master, finds it in her heart to forgive all the transgressions against her and even remains on the plantation caring for her white sister after other members of her family are killed or die. Vyry is a model of long suffering, constantly forgiving of all who trespass against her, and ultimately reconciled to the life she and her family carve out in a prejudiced community following the Civil War. She earns value because she is a midwife; because whites need her, they resolve to protect her and her family against whites who do not value her presence. The novel ends on a note that is very hopeful about the possibility of reconciliation and positive racial interactions. Noticeably, though, the novel is set during the era of slavery and its immediate aftermath, so it does not exactly presage good race relations in the late twentieth century.
The same is true of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, published in 1987. Also set in the era of slavery, the novel paints an encouraging picture of interracial interaction in the relationship between Amy Denver, an indentured white girl who runs away from her master, and Sethe Suggs, a pregnant black woman who is trying to escape from slavery. Together, the two young women join forces to bring a baby into the world, which mirrors, in some ways, Vyry Brown’s midwifery skills. It is significant as well that Sethe and Amy find mutual understanding and a mutual desire to help each other in a space that is apart from civilization—in the woods somewhere between here and there. Since they are both runaways, no one is forcing patterns of behavior upon them; no one is looking over their shoulders to see if they adhere to socially prescribed rules of cross-racial interaction. They can create their own rules and follow them as they wish. Untested by the fire of society, therefore, their reconciliation remains temporary, and it is certainly not a model that anyone can observe and emulate.
A third neo-slave/freedom narrative also follows this pattern. Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose, published in 1986, features a black woman and a white woman who join forces against slaveholders. The black woman has been part of a group that escapes a coffle. Pregnant, but sentenced to be hanged after her baby is born, Dessa Rose is rescued from a sheriff’s cellar by her fellow escapees and finds her way to northern Alabama and the plantation of a white woman, Ruth Sutton, who has earned a reputation for being friendly to runaways. Skeptical of the white woman’s motives, Dessa is shamed when the woman has to nurse Dessa’s newborn son because Dessa cannot produce milk. After a series of increasing tensions, Ruth, Dessa, and the other escapees try to travel west together into free territories. An incident that occurs on a plantation where the group stops for a night moves Dessa toward a more positive assessment of Ruth. The plantation owner, whose wife and family are away, attempts to rape Ruth after he has over-imbibed in dinner drinks. Ruth calls out for assistance from Dessa, and the two of them succeed in beating the man up and getting him out of the room they share. Awareness that Ruth, a white woman, can be raped just as a black woman can aligns Dessa with Ruth in recognition of their common humanity and common gender. Their additional adventures on the road lead to Ruth’s wanting to “friend” with Dessa and indeed to travel west with the group of blacks. While that does not happen, what is important here is Dessa’s acceptance of Ruth as a person, not as a part of the white blur that is responsible for slavery. The two set aside their differences—and there are many—and become reconciled to the fact that individual, shared experiences can transform prejudice into understanding, distance into closeness, stereotypes into humanity.
In looking for a post-1950 publication that portrays a cross-racial encounter, one that ends in a fairly healthy way, the goal is to find something that is set in the twentieth century, not just published in the twentieth century. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) provides one option. Here, a black family in Chicago refuses to trade dignity for cash when a representative of the all-white neighborhood into which they plan to move tries to buy their house to keep them out. Their encounter with the white man is brief, but it is significant in its declaration of human dignity and the desire to live as good neighbors in spite of prejudice. The ending is essentially a stalemate, but it is informed by the Christian principles that guide Mama Lena Younger’s life, to take people for who they are and try to live without harming others. In a sense, A Raisin in the Sun is “Christianity’s last stand in African-American literature” (see Harris 1996, 20), because, after 1959, literary characters are less informed by altruistic Christian principles. They seek alternative faiths, as Ntozake Shange’s characters do in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (1976), or they forge completely new spiritualities, as characters do in novels such as Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench (2010).
Also worth considering is Ann Allen Shockley’s Loving Her, published in 1974. Set in the South, it is the story of an abusive relationship in which a black woman is the victim. A talented pianist, black Renee finds a job at a local nightclub that is frequented by a wealthy white woman named Terry. Immediately attracted to Renee, Terry makes it clear that she wants Renee and is accustomed to getting what she wants. Summoning the courage to leave her husband, Jerome Lee, Renee takes her young daughter and moves in with Terry. That might seem like a healthy arrangement, except for the fact that Renee becomes “wife” to Terry in the same way she was to Jerome Lee. Indeed, Renee appears to enter a new form of servitude with Terry; a comparison to neo-slave/freedom narratives is not inappropriate here. In such a reading, Renee compromises her independence to cultivate the relationship with Terry. Terry decides where they will live and determines that Renee should return to school. Terry buys Renee a grand piano and a ring that she uses to assert that Renee is now “hers.” Compromise is essential to this racial harmony, and all the compromise seems to be on Renee’s part. Renee thinks she is happy, so who are we as readers to superimpose a different reality upon her?
Finally, Ernest J. Gaines’s short story, “The Sky is Gray,” is one of the more optimistic treatments of the possibility for racial reconciliation. The story appears in Bloodline, a collection that Gaines published in 1968; the story itself is set earlier, but at least not in the nineteenth century. On a cold, wintry day, a black mother on a Louisiana plantation must take her son to a dentist in nearby Bayonne. Dirt poor and proud, they wait all morning without seeing the dentist and must roam the cold, windy streets at lunchtime until the office reopens. With limited resources and an acute sense of fairness that will not allow her to take advantage of merchants by squatting overly long in their warm stores, the mother, Octavia, traipses her son James up and down the cold, blustery streets. Unbeknownst to them, an elderly white woman, Helena, who owns one of the stores they keep passing, has been observing their traipsing and surmises their situation. She stops them and invites them in to eat. Then the gaming begins. Out of pride, Octavia refuses the proffered food. Then Helena insists that it isn’t free, that James must work for it. Meanwhile, in the background, Helena’s husband Alnest, who is confined to bed, keeps asking, “‘Are they eating?’” (115). Octavia finally relents, and, in “payment,” Helena directs James to carry an empty garbage can from the back of the store to the front. Grateful for the meal, Octavia spends her last unallotted quarter on salt meat, but refuses to take more than two-bits worth when Helena offers it to her. Helena recuts the meat, Octavia pays, and she and James resume their trek to the dentist’s office.
Proud Octavia refuses to take “handouts,” and equally proud Helena is determined to help this clearly needy mother and son. Between the two of them, the women agree to play a game that yields a good meal—“rice, gravy, meat,” “lettuce and tomato in a saucer,” “a glass of milk and a piece of cake” (115)—for this obviously hungry mother and son who must spend their meager resources on the dentist and the bus fare home. Gaines creates a situation in which he recognizes the mutual need of the two women to retain their senses of pride and dignity. There is a surface text, therefore, and there is a metatext. In their hearts of hearts, both women must know that they are playing a game, but they nonetheless adhere to their unspoken rules: “You will give this to me and not embarrass me. You will pay for this and not be insulted by receiving more than you pay for. I will feed you even though you might perceive me as an enemy.” While there is no overt surface recognition of the significance of this exchange, each woman knows that something special has happened, and each agrees to leave it unspoken. Octavia merely thanks the woman for her kindness, calls her son, and leaves. The thanks are not effusive or repeated; they come as a mere statement: “‘Your kindness will never be forgotten’” (117), Octavia says to Helena. Even this statement, in its passive construction, almost takes Octavia out of the equation. It is much too formal for the circumstances, but appropriate to the game and the pride that both women have exhibited throughout. From their perspectives, neither has compromised. Both are reconciled to their respective roles in this drama. Both feel as if they have given something. Neither feels as if she has had something taken away from her. It is a peculiarly appropriate tone on which to end the narrative.
In its isolated occurrence, there is a peaceful coexistence between these two women. The price of that peace, however, has been in the un-voicing of hostilities, in the un-voicing of the reality of the lives of the protagonists. Octavia and James are black and poor, and Helena and Alnest are perhaps Cajun and limited to making their livings by serving the blacks who come “back of town” where their store is located. In this quiet little out-of-the-way setting, a cross-racial interaction can occur, and peace can reign. It is noteworthy again that the two participants are female. There seems to be an unstated tenet that the model for true reconciliation across black and white racial lines lies in the women of both groups—at least that is what most of these contemporary examples of African-American literature suggest. Even as this project ends, the overall fate of racial reconciliation in African-American literature is uncertain. Where are the works that, without hiding back of town, or in the woods, or on isolated plantations, posit healthy relationships between black and white Americans? Perhaps they have yet to be encountered, or perhaps they have yet to be written. Either way, the potential for racial reconciliation in African-American literature seems to be a work in progress, one whose final outcome has yet to be imagined.
In all the instances discussed here except two, it is black and white women who are put in the position of exploring the possibilities—or lack thereof—for racial reconciliation. The exceptions are Richard Wright’s “Fire and Cloud” and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, where Reverend Taylor and Walter Lee Younger play large parts in the confrontations between blacks and whites. Otherwise, women dominate, whether the author of the text under consideration is male or female. So what does this mean? Is this a mere coincidence, or are these writers suggesting that a feminine sensibility is more susceptible to reconciliation and compromise? Is this a reprise of the Cult of True Womanhood, in which women are expected to be the civilizing forces in their families? Is this a bow to readers, who may be more willing to be sympathetic toward female characters who struggle? Or is it simply easier to cast women in these roles because conflicts between black males and white males lead to violence that ends in death more often than not? The black man and white man in Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, for example, kill each other in a stabbing/shooting encounter during the riot. Relationships between black men and white men, these writers seem to suggest, are too politically, physically, and violently charged to work out the nuances of reconciliation. If the women can reach some kind of compromise, perhaps they can take the lead in influencing the men in their lives. Perhaps. While there is no ready answer for this pattern, it nonetheless still fits with the notion that racial reconciliation for literary blacks and whites on America soil is a wish yet to be realized, a dream yet to be fulfilled.
Trudier Harris is Professor of English at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa and J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English Emerita at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Brodhead, Richard H., ed. The Journals of Charles Chesnutt. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1993.
Chesnutt, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition. 1901; reprint. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.
Gaines, Ernest J. “The Sky is Gray.” In Bloodline, New York: Dial, 1968: 83–117.
Harris, Trudier, ed. New Essays on Go Tell it On the Mountain. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Petry, Ann. “The Necessary Knocking on the Door.” In Miss Muriel and Other Stories, Boston: Beacon Press, 1971: 243–51.
Shockley, Ann Allen. Loving Her. 1974; reprint. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.
Walker, Margaret. Jubilee. 1966; reprint. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin/Mariner, 1999.
Williams, Sherley Anne. Dessa Rose. New York: William Morrow, 1986.
Wonham, Henry B. “Plenty of Room for Us All? Participation and Prejudice in Charles Chesnutt’s Dialect Tales.” Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 26 (1998): 131–46.
Wright, Richard, Uncle Tom’s Children. 1938; reprint. New York: Harper and Row/Perennial, 1965.