Thursday, October 18, 2007

Discussion: The Secret Life of Bees

By Sue Monk Kidd. Penguin, 2003.
Indulge me here. I don’t usually blog about books until I’ve finished them, but I want to know your opinion while I’m still in the middle of this one. People have been telling me for years that I would love this book and it was on my "to read" list. I thought they were recommending it because it was about adoption or orphans or something. No one told me it is about black/white relationships and racism.

The Story is set in South Carolina in 1964. Lily is a 14 year old girl with an abusive father and a mother who died in a gun accident when she was four. Lily has a nanny, Rosaleen, a black women who stands in as her surrogate mother. When Rosaleen is attacked by racist men in town while trying to register to vote after the Civil Rights Act she spits her chew on their feet and she is arrested and thrown in jail. After being beaten and sent to the hospital Lily sneaks her out and the two run away. They head for another small town that Lily has found written on the back of a picture of the Black Madonna that was in with her mother’s things. She thinks there must be a connection between her mother and the town, which she is determined to discover.

Once they arrive in Tiburon they are taken into the home of the "calendar sisters", beekeepers named May, June and August. The sisters and their friends and associates are all black. Lily is the only white person in the story that shows and respect or affection for them. The story is told from her point of view, and although she looks to them as mother figures it is clearly a very stereotypical white point of view.

In reading reviews online to find some perspective I came across some very interesting comments on Amazon. Most of the discussion and reviews are blindly positive, but here a few folks spoke up with the same feelings I am having.

Part of my comments at the end of that thread: "The black women are nanny figures, not mother figures. They are just as powerless and victimized as the child Lily in the face of racism. I am wondering what the story would be like if the Calendar sisters and Rosaleen were white women? The whole book falls flat unless they are in the rigidly preconceived warm, nurturing, forgiving, folksy-wise-woman, but ultimately powerless black servant role, doesn't it?"

I am wondering if there is something that is comforting to us white women to see black woman as nurturing, forgiving, and warm mother-figures while at the same time acknowledging that they are living victimized and powerless lives with no recourse when their own children and men are threatened. (Where are Zach's parents?)

Lily, at 14, is victimized by her (white) father. It is she, however, and not her adult "nanny" that takes decisive action, rescues them and leads herself and Roseleen to freedom. Why is that the child's role?

I am wondering if Sue Monk Kidd was aware of the white point of view in Lily's voice, or if she, like many of us whites, is unaware that whiteness is a point of view. Was she conscious of the one-dimensional role these black women are playing? Is that part of the message?

Or is she really just writing a "powerful story of coming-of-age, of the ability of love to transform our lives, and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine. Addressing the wounds of loss, betrayal, and the scarcity of love, Kidd demonstrates the power of women coming together to heal those wounds, to mother each other and themselves, and to create a sanctuary of true family and home." (from Penguin)

I would suggest that the Black Madonna and the black women worshiping her are not representative of the feminine divine. They are wooden, powerless, and oppressed. They subside into silence in the face of violence, injustice and despair. If it is a sanctuary they are building, is it there to serve Lily?

What do you think?


Dawn said...

First I have to say it's been awhile since I read the book. But I didn't like it. One of the reasons I remember not liking it is that I get really tired of the all-knowing, all-wise, all-forgiving ethnic woman because of what you said but also because I feel like it's fetishizing. Kinda like in the 90s when everyone was fetishizing Native American history and spirituality. That's how that book read to me.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Dawn I was hoping you would comment! I wondered if you had read it and what you thought. I have to say I have been really disappointed in the book and in all the hype spun around it. It's kind of like eating candy corn.... sweet going down but then you feel sick.

AMY T said...


agreed. agreed. agreed. I didn't even finish reading it and never got the hype. dish me up some Toni Morrison, or chirstopher paul curtis, any day of the week. what i hated most was that the "whiteness" of the voice was (as usual) naturalized.

Dawn said...

I hate to admit, too, how relieved I was to finally meet someone who didn't like the book either!

Saints and Spinners said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saints and Spinners said...

I was interested in the parts with the Black Madonna, but I found myself wanting so much more out of the book based on what people had said when they recommended it to me. I couldn't really put my finger on what bothered me until you wrote about black women as nannies instead of as mothers. A lot of the black women in my life have had nurturing sides to them, but they've also been fierce and defiant when crossed, not victims at all.