by Jamaica Kincaid
Mom seems to be setting Girl up for some serious teenage rebellion. But what's really going on beneath that bossy exterior?
A Proper Lady
Mom is the perfect lady. We mean, she knows how to do all the perfect lady things! She can cook, she can clean, she can sew, she knows where to plant the okra, and she can throw all kinds of good parties. What else do you want?
Not only is she the perfect lady, but Mom wants Girl to become the perfect lady, too. That's why all of her sentences are commands, like these: "Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry" (1-2). Or instructions, like these: "this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard" (22-24).
At first Mom also seems like a mean lady, when she accuses her daughter of becoming a slut. But as the poem continues, we get the sense that she's not out to make her daughter feel bad (and she probably doesn't actually believe that she really is a slut). She's actually trying to help Girl navigate the difficult world that she has been born into.
More than Meets the Eye
Now, you probably wouldn't expect a proper lady to know anything about abortion or spitting or bullying guys now would you? Wrong. Even though she sounds at first like she is reading straight out of the secret handbook of the patriarchy, Mom is really a guerrilla warrior in disguise.
Mom knows that Girl is growing up in a patriarchal society, so she needs to teach her the things to get along in it, like all that cooking and cleaning stuff. But she also teaches her how to get around that stuff if she needs to. In a patriarchal society it's normal for men to bully women, but Mom teaches Girl, "this is how to bully a man" (45). It would also probably be normal for an unmarried woman to be shunned and called a slut if she became pregnant, but Mom teaches Girl, "this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child" (42).
Now, don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that Mom is a revolutionary. We can’t really tell if she agrees or disagrees with all the patriarchal junk, but it sure doesn’t seem like she is trying to rock the boat. She’s not getting out there with a picket sign anytime soon. At the same time, she knows how hard it is out there, and she seems to know that it’s not fair to be a female in her society. So, she’s trying to protect Girl as much as she can.
Not only is Mom a guerrilla, but she's also a double agent. Girl is growing up on an island with multiple cultures intermixing. We can’t really know for sure that they are in Antigua, but we’re pretty sure. That’s where Kincaid (who is probably Girl) grew up and the yummy dishes Mom talks about are also most definitely West Indian food.
So, Mom teaches Girl about tea and ironing khakis—the fabric that clothed the British colonizers—but she also teaches her about Obeah, a type of religious practice common in the West Indies. That's why the Girl learns, "don't pick people's flowers—you might catch something" and "don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all" (36-37).
These sorts of things are just as important for Girl to know as how to sweep a house, and Mom knows it. Hmm, she doesn't seem like such a horrible mom, now does she?
Kincaid has admitted that her work is autobiographical, so it makes sense to think that the mom in “Girl” is not too much unlike Kincaid’s mom. Her mom became a single mother with Kincaid at a young age. Kincaid’s biological dad didn’t help the family at all and wasn’t involved in her life. Then Kincaid’s mom had three more children while still impoverished. That’s not exactly the rosiest of all situations.
When we look at it that way, the whole “slut you are so bent on becoming” thing and the odd relationship advice make a little more sense (10, 17). Maybe Mom is just trying to stop Girl from having the same life that she did. Mom wants Girl not to be a young, poor, single mother—but at the same time, she seems a little hopeless that Girl will ever break out of the cycle.
Besides, Mom’s hopelessness might not be totally irrational. Did you notice that the slut phrase happens three times, and the last time is different from the rest? The first two times, Mom says, “the slut you are so bent on becoming" (10, 17). But the last time she says, “the slut I have warned you against becoming,” and she implies that the men will “recognize” Girl’s sluttish-ness (33). To us, this sounds like someone saying, “I warned you that this would happen." We don’t know what happened in between the lines here, but it seems like maybe Mom already thinks that Girl's a slut.
One more thing: in West Indian culture, the oldest daughter (that’s Kincaid) has a lot of expectations on her shoulders. She’s basically supposed to become a mini-mom once she reaches the right age (which is a lot younger than you might think). Since Kincaid only had younger brothers and no younger sisters, and since boys would not be expected to do any domestic work, Kincaid would have been all on her own with that long list o’ chores. That’s probably why the burden of expectations from Mom seems like a huge boulder just about to crush Girl under its weight.
Good Mom or Bad Mommy?
So what are we supposed to think about this lady? Mom seems cruel in the way she accuses Girl of being a slut and all the responsibility that she pours on top of her. (Seriously, would it kill her to say, "I love you?") On the other hand, she does seem to be trying to help Girl by giving her the skills she needs to survive.
Kincaid’s life doesn’t help us too much because her relationship with her mother is just as complicated. She totally wanted out of Antigua and the restrictions that she felt there, but she also writes about her mom in other works as being a person that she looks up to and respects. Kincaid has even said that she writes for her mother.
If this were Facebook, Girl and Mom would totally be in an “it’s complicated” relationship. Even though it’s tempting to say that Mom is good or bad, we just can’t see it that way.Mom's Timeline