Living by the Word (7 page)

Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee.

*** A Sioux word meaning

the fat taker”—the white man.


August 30, 1984

Have finished a typed draft of the “Coming In from the Cold” essay. And the sun is peeking through the clouds after a rainy morning. The fire takes this same opportunity to blaze. Deer keep wandering across the yard. I went out and spoke to a couple of them. I can tell my voice doesn’t frighten them. They are very hungry for green things, since all is dry and dead this time of year. Perhaps I’ll pick the greens in the garden and give them those.

Joan came to fix lunch, a fairly acidic (tomatoey) soup. It was nice, though, to work, typing, while she cooked.

I’m sure I’ll want to work on the essay before delivering it at the Writers Union meeting. But I’m
that it came at all. I’ve felt so empty, so much as if I might just dive off forever into my hollyhocks. But even though it seems like a very unproductive year, this is not true. I’ve managed to rest a lot, my first priority. I did finish a draft of the screenplay [of
The Color Purple
] and now this essay, as well as the introduction to California’s book [
A Piece of Mine
]. And my own book will be out in October. Rebecca and I will be okay, I think. Our bond seems to have deepened over the year. My blessings continue. Thank you.

August 31, 1984

In fact, you continue to amaze me! Yesterday after Joan arrived I went up to the studio to get tomatoes for visiting friends—there are so many, you’ve really outdone yourself! And when I got there I went to the outhouse, where a family of wasps now live, and then I went up the hill to the meditation yurt, stopping to lie down on the way. The view is so incredibly lovely—your work again! Indeed all around me. I never cease to marvel at how you do it—to me, everything is magic, but just from my own work experience I know the manifestation of magic is work. Or vice versa. Anyhow, went inside the clean-swept yurt and meditated. Or tried. But what happened instead is that you gave me a whole, long story called “The Hair Artist.” I was astonished. And humbled and proud. I hesitate to write “proud”; I think I mean it in the sense of overjoyed, thrilled at this gift that seems to say I still know you. And you know me, in the sense of letting me feel creation along with you. So now I’m excited about the prospect of bringing it out—in fact, I was so excited, and so full of thoughts, I could hardly go to sleep. Eventually I did and I woke up this morning feeling healed; the pain in shoulder, neck, and ear, soothed. And the sun is shining and I’ve put a wash in the machine that shakes the house.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am blessed. That you are present in the cosmos and in me and that we are breathing together—conspiracy. I see now what is meant by faith and the giving up of the self to the spirit. I thank you for your gifts. All of them. I see you are trying to teach me all the time. I think of this when the lessons hurt. I love you.


[I read this essay both at the National Writers Union in New York in spring of 1984 and at the Black Women’s Forum in Los Angeles on November 17, 1984.]

This summer I was stricken with a severe case of what my friend Gloria Steinem calls “Hollyhockitis.” This means I hounded my friends and nursery companies for hollyhock plants, was eventually sent some plants by a friend who lives in Oregon, and proceeded to tend them with assiduous attention. I’ve decided that some of us, fearful that the world we know might not outlive the year, the month, the moment, turn instinctively to the planting of things we especially love. Last summer it was snapdragonitis. I feel Oriental poppyitis coming on for next summer.

As I was finishing up my daily scrutiny of each hollyhock bud, which seemed in no hurry to open, my neighbor on the next ridge, a lesbian sculptor and potter of great talent, arrived on my doorstep. She had just finished the evening milking of her goats, she said, when she received a call from a feminist bookstore in San Francisco, some hundred and forty miles away; the Channel 7 News van was apparently backed up in front of their door, and the newscaster inside had informed the bookstore owners that
The Color Purple
was up for banning—because a local mother had objected to its use in the Oakland public schools—and since they sold the book, what did they think of this?

Their response was to put the newscaster on hold, call my neighbor, and ask her to tramp up the hill and down the ravine, through the trees and underbrush and sticker-briar, and across the creek to ask me what they should say. The women who own the store had sold hundreds, if not thousands, of copies of
The Color Purple,
yet they had no opinion on whether or not it should be suppressed.

What could I say about the powerlessness of such sisterhood?

I invited my neighbor to share the remains of a bottle of champagne a thoughtful house guest had left in the fridge, and we spent a pleasant half hour talking about snapdragons, hollyhocks, porcelain sculpture, and goats.

Every few days for the next couple of weeks I went down to the village and picked up a paper to see how the banning was coming along. I learned that a certain Mrs. Green had objected to having her daughter, Donna, read
The Color Purple.
In her opinion the book was too sexually explicit, presented a stereotyped view of blacks, and degraded black people by its “exposure” of their folk language.

Mrs. Green had not actually read the book, according to the papers; she’d “flipped” through it, scanned at least five pages, photocopied those five, and passed them out to the members of the Oakland school board. One of its members, who also had not read the book, a black woman (Mrs. Green hails as white), readily agreed that the book should be banned from the school. She termed it “garbage.”


For weeks the battle raged, on a number of fronts. One friend was in her car trying to listen to music when she found herself in the middle of a radio-listener poll to determine whether
The Color Purple
should be banned. The poll was conducted, she said, at eleven o’clock in the morning, when most colored folk are at work. This alone outraged her. She says she nearly ran down several leisurely moving San Francisco tourists while trying to find a telephone, and when she did, she called everyone she knew. They in turn called the radio station. How this particular poll turned out, I do not know; I heard about it considerably after the fact; however, I did notice that the impact of the controversy on book sales was immediate. For months
The Color Purple
had been the number-one trade-paperback best seller in the Bay Area, according to the local paper, the San
Francisco Chronicle
; then at one point it had slipped down as far as number three. The dispute over the possible banning brought it right back up again, with newly interested high-school students, especially in Oakland, buying heavily.

Reporters were unable to reach me. If they did get someone at my house, they were told I had severe hollyhockitis and it was contagious. I felt I had written the book as a gift to the people. All of them. If they wanted it, let them fight to keep it, as I had had to fight to deliver it. I was tired and deserved my rest. I consulted the ancestors on my position, and they agreed with me (in language that would have upset Mrs. Green).

Eventually a committee was formed to study the merits of

The Color Purple,
to determine whether it was degrading to black people, repugnant to whites, and generally bad for growing minds. Meanwhile, the students, teachers, and principal of the school from which the effort to ban the book arose sent me a telegram inviting me to speak at their upcoming commencement, an invitation that moved me but which my by-now-
(the buds were opening!) hollyhockitis made easy to decline. The committee, composed of all colors and both (or more) sexes, representative of the people as only a Bay Area, California, committee can be, exonerated the book, while at the same time treating Mrs. Green and her objections with patience, understanding, tact, and even gentleness—for which I was glad.

For I feel I know what Mrs. Green was objecting to. When I learned she’d copied and distributed to the school board five pages from the book, I knew which five pages they were. They are the first five pages of the book. The same five pages
mother objected to, because she found the language so offensive. They are the pages that describe brutal sexual violence done to a nearly illiterate black womanchild, who then proceeds to write down what has happened to her in her own language, from her own point of view. She does not find rape thrilling; she thinks the rapist looks like a frog with a snake between his legs. How could this not be upsetting? shocking? How could anyone want to hear this? She spoke of “pussy,” “titties,” the man’s “thang.” I remember actually trying to censor this passage in Celie’s voice as I wrote it. Even I found it almost impossible to let her say what had happened to her as
perceived it, without euphemizing it a little. And why? Because once you strip away the lie that rape is pleasant, that rapists have anything at all attractive about them, that children are not permanently damaged by sexual pain, that violence done to them is washed away by fear, silence, and time, you are left with the positive horror of the lives of thousands of children (and who knows how many adults)—lives we are beginning to hear about now even in
People, Newsweek,
—who have been sexually abused and who have never been permitted their own language to tell about it.

Celie’s stepfather, the rapist, warns her not to tell anybody but God about having been raped. But Celie’s community had already made sure she would not feel free even to use the words she knew. In her backward, turn-of-the-century community, the words “penis” and “vagina” did not exist. Indeed, so off limits was any thought of the penis that the closest anyone got to it in language was to call it “the man’s thing.” As for “vagina”—well, this is how my grandmother taught her girls to bathe:

“Wash down as far as possible, then wash up as far as possible, then wash possible.”

 Of course if I had written of Celie’s rape from the point of view of the rapist or that of the voyeur, very few people—other than feminists—would have been offended. We have been brainwashed to identify with the person who receives pleasure, no matter how perverted; we are used to seeing rape from the rapist’s point of view. I could have written that Celie enjoyed her abuse and done it in such pretty, distancing language that many readers would have accepted it as normal. But to do this would have been to betray Celie; not only her experience of rape, but the integrity of her life, her life itself. For it is language more than anything else that reveals and validates one’s existence, and if the language we actually speak is denied us, then it is inevitable that the form we are permitted to assume historically will be one of caricature, reflecting someone else’s literary or social fantasy.

This is one reason I use the word “mammy” in the book, as a word used by turn-of-the-century black people, instead of “mother,” though already in a somewhat pejorative way. It is my hunch that “mammy”—which in the United States conjures up only an immensely fat and black wide-eyed slave of thin Vivien Leigh- or Bette Davis-like white people—is in fact an African word.* For certain it was a word used by early-twentieth-century African-Americans, until it was expropriated and popularized by whites and used to designate a kind of contented, white-folks-comforting black woman of enormous girth, of whom black people felt ashamed. I feel immensely grateful that what little understanding I have of the probable transformation of this word comes from having had a grandfather who, while I was growing up, still used it. This is what he called his mother and this is what he called his children’s mother—and as a child, watching the “mammies” in films like
Gone With the Wind,
I wondered why. I knew his mother had been largely Cherokee Indian and was remembered mainly for her meanness and long hair. His wife, my mother’s mother, was an obviously oppressed, long-suffering black, black woman, who gave birth to twelve children and who, from pictures and memories that I have of her, apparently never smiled.

There is no reason to try to bring “mammy” back. Its intention in racist books and films was to undermine the integrity of the mother of the black race, and in the minds of many, many people this was accomplished. From this attack on the black mother figure many of us are still suffering. This is the meaning of the feeling of embarrassment and discomfort we feel even today in the presence of old white Southern-based “classic” racist films. This is the reason many black people cannot even say the word aloud without cringing. It will be a great and amusing day in our nation’s future when a film—perhaps many films—will be made about the old plantation South and the story will unfold from a real “mammy’s” point of view. Then we will see why the real woman was locked inside the stereotype. It will be like watching a prison break.

For instance, in Norman Yetman’s
Life Under the Peculiar Institution**
he quotes Fannie Moore, an ex-slave from North Carolina, who recalled her mother quilting: “My mammy she work in the field all day and piece and quilt all night. Then she has to spin enough thread to make four cuts for the white folks every night. Why sometime I never go to bed. Have to hold the light for her to see by. She have to piece quilts for the white folks too.”

There they are, “mammy” and daughter, both dead tired, working together through the night. “Why sometime I never go to bed,” the daughter says. “Have to hold the light for her to see by.”

And that, today, is also what preserving the elders’ language is (and it is truly astonishing how much of their language is present tense, which seems almost a message to us to remember that the lives they lived are always current, not simply historical), for it can be a light, held close to them and their times, that illuminates them clearly. A light that helps us really begin to see them, and to comprehend the violence their images and beings have sustained. As in, for example, Al Jolson’s famous anti-mammy, anti-black mother, song.

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