Study Guide

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Identity

By Alice Walker

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Story 1: Nineteen Fifty-Five

Well, Lord have mercy, I said, listening to him. If I'da closed my eyes, it could have been me. He had followed every turning of my voice, side streets, avenues, red lights, train crossings and all. It gave me a chill. (Nineteen Fifty-Five.30)

Traynor may not understand exactly the emotions or experiences that Gracie Mae put into her famous song, but he's done a good job imitating her delivery of it. The two could not be more different: Gracie Mae is a large, older Black woman, while Traynor is a young white man. But in the sharing of a song, the two become closely identified with each other.

Story 4: The Lover

She had never had a lover; he would be her first. Afterwards, she would be truly a woman of her time. (Lover.15)

The narrator of "The Lover" is a vibrant, beautiful young Black artist. But those descriptors for her aren't sufficient: she wants to be a part of the times, liberated in her sexuality. There's nothing particularly wrong with her marriage or her life, and she's not fighting back against any specific oppression. She just wants her life to be an adventure, with lots of possibilities unfolding before her.

Story 6: Coming Apart: By Way of Introduction to Lorde, Teish and Gardner

The wife has never considered herself a feminist—though she is, of course, a "womanist." (Coming Apart.44)

Walker is careful to make a distinction between feminism and womanism in this story—as she is in real life. "Womanism" is a term that Walker coined in her book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. There's a feminist aspect to womanism, but it's not the whole story. You can check out this page for a good description of womanism.

Anyway, it makes sense that the wife in Walker's "fable" is confused when her husband accuses her of joining the ranks of white feminists for a good ol' bra-burning session. That is just not her thing.

She cannot say to him: But they are not me, those women. She cannot say she is jealous of pictures on a page. That she feels invisible. Rejected. Overlooked. She says instead, to herself: He is right. I will grow up. Adjust. Swim with the tide. (Coming Apart.12)

The wife in Walker's "fable" about porn is having a hard time figuring out how to tell her husband what bothers her so much about his magazines. She knows that they make her feel awful, but when she thinks of the reasons why, they sound so…childish. It's ultimately an identity issue: she isn't sure of her role as wife, and she doesn't know how much she can or should push back on her husband's use of porn.

Story 8: The Abortion

[…] and to her, every black girl of a certain vulnerable age was Holly Monroe. And an even deeper truth was that Holly Monroe was herself. Herself shot down, aborted on the eve of becoming herself. (Abortion.68)

Imani finds that her connection to Holly Monroe has deepened after her second abortion, which takes place immediately before the annual memorial ceremony for the murdered girl. She's truly internalizing the loss of Holly's potential, seeing parallels in her own life. In part, Imani finds herself living a life that is fraudulent: she's not thriving as a married person, as a mother. Stuffing herself into a conventional role has caused her heavy grief and given her a sense that she's lost herself.

Story 10: Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells

For me there was the welfare department every day, attempting to get the necessary food and shelter to people who would always live amid the dirty streets I knew I must soon leave. I was, after all, a Sarah Lawrence girl "with talent." It would be absurd to rot away in a building that had no front door. (Luna.45)

Walker is pretty open about her positive attitude toward her potential and future. It's hard to know if her older self is revealing, tongue in cheek, her youthful arrogance about herself—or if she means what she's saying about her young self without irony. But it's clear that Walker's identification of herself as talented gave her a sense of immunity from the ugliness of life all around her.

Story 12: A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?

Whoever saw that television program can now look at me standing on the corner waiting for a bus and not see me at all, but see instead a slave, a creature who would wear a chain and lock around my neck for a white person—in 1980!—and accept it. Enjoy it. (Letter.22)

The narrator's student has a strong reaction to a TV program that highlighted a lesbian couple in a sadomasochistic relationship. Their role-playing preference? Master and slave. For the narrator, it's especially unfortunate that the couple is interracial. Her student makes the point that as long as this stereotype exists, it harms women—and Black women in particular—in the wider community. Why? Because it dehumanizes them.

Story 13: A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring

She found black men impossible to draw or paint; she could not bear to trace defeat onto blank pages. (Trip.1.14)

This is more about Sarah Davis than it is about the Black men she can't bear to paint. She comes to understand later that there is no objective truth in this belief. In fact, it's all in her perspective. It's the quiet dignity and strength of her grandfather standing by her father's grave that schools her on this subject and gives her the confidence to face the outside world—and her future.

Was he, in act, still his father's son? Or was he freed by his father's desertion to be nobody's son, to be his own father? Could he disavow his father and live? And if so, live as what? As whom? And for what purpose? (Trip.1.34)

Sarah Davis is asking all the questions now that her father is dead. The big one: how can she have a complete identity without access to her roots, to her past? The answer: she can't. It's a good thing she has a brother who can be her "door," keeping her grounded in her family while giving her wings to find her own life.

Story 14: Source

"You already had your freedom," said Irene. "The freedom to go either way."

"To be thrown either way, you mean," said Anastasia. "Even you got in on the throwing." (Source.190)

Anastasia lays it out for Irene, who hasn't been as good a friend to Anastasia as she thought. In this exchange, Irene tells her that she (Anastasia) couldn't enjoy the victories of the Civil Rights Movement because she already had her freedom. Irene is speaking of Anastasia's biracial identity and her light skin color, which allowed her to choose how she wanted to present herself. But Anastasia corrects Irene's perception: the only freedom in her experience was to be judged by both sides. It's a bad day for Irene, who had thought of herself as a tolerant person.

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