Study Guide

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Injustice

By Alice Walker

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Story 2: How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy.

The place stunk, especially in the summer. And children were always screaming and men were always cussing and women were always yelling about something…It was nothing for a girl or woman to be raped. (Lawyer.5)

The poverty and violence of the narrator's early life are appalling. And it's more appalling that so many people in her life are complicit in the situation, including Bubba and his white-supremacist father. The combination of squalor, trauma, and loss make it a whole lot easier for the narrator to take the action she does in the end in order to take some control of her life.

Story 5: Petunias

My daddy's grandmamma was a slave on the Tearslee Plantation. They dug up her grave when I started agitating in the Movement. One morning I found her dust dumped over my verbena bed, a splintery leg bone had fell among my petunia. (Petunias.40)

Okay, y'all—the desecration of a grave is never acceptable. But it seems a whole other level of injustice to disturb the bones of a former slave to retaliate against a descendant fighting for her civil rights. But here's a hard truth that Walker reiterates: America isn't always a civil place for everyone.

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

"If a Black man had sex with a consenting white woman, it was rape." [Why am I always reading about, thinking about, worrying about, my man having sex with white women? she thinks, despairingly, underneath the reading.] "If he insulted a white woman by looking at her, it was attempted rape." (Coming Apart.59)

It's hard to read this book in part because it makes us face a lot of hard truths. This is one of them: that Black men face extreme danger and oppression because of white male fear of interracial sexuality. The violent history of Black men being lynched by whites takes center stage in Walker's "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells," where Walker doesn't know how to react to a white friend confiding that she'd been raped by a Black man.

Story 8: The Abortion

The white lawgivers attempted to get around assassination—which Imani considered extreme abortion—by saying the victim provoked it (there had been some difficulty saying this about Holly Monroe, but they had tried) but were antiabortionist to a man. (Abortion.55)

Imani is thinking about the death of a young girl on the day she'd graduated from high school. The response of the white community is victim-blaming at its most ludicrous. But if you pay any attention to the news today, you'll see that this response is alive and well when violence is done to the Black community.

Story 10: Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells

Until such a society is created, relationships of affection between black men and white women will always be poisoned—from within as from without—by historical fear and the threat of violence, and solidarity among black and white women is only rarely likely to exist. (Luna.73)

Walker is speaking of a society in which a white woman's word on rape is not the only evidence needed to convict a Black man. Until we get to that level of justice, she predicts, race relations can't progress. She feels it in her own life with Luna, whom she literally has no idea how to deal with after Luna confides in her about her own experience being raped by a Black man.

You made it so clear that the black men accused of rape in the past were innocent victims of white criminals that I grew up believing black men literally did not rape white women. At all. Ever. Now it would appear that some of them, the very twisted, the terribly ill, do. What would you have me write about them? (Luna.33)

Walker is having a convo in her head with activist Ida B. Wells. She feels like she has to apologize to Wells, who spent her life trying to protect Black men from being unjustly accused of and punished for raping white women. In the process, Wells tells Black women that they must always deny the guilt of Black men—whether or not they actually committed the crime. Walker has a problem with that—because she knows now that Black men can rape white women—and she has no idea how to deal with it justly.

Story 11: Laurel

Because in fact, while we kissed and said Everything Else Be Damned! the South was rising again. Was murdering people. Was imprisoning our colleagues and friends. Was keeping us from strolling off to a clean, cheap hotel. (Laurel.24)

The narrator of this story feels some serious chemistry with Laurel, a white country boy from California who has come to Atlanta to work alongside her in the Civil Rights Movement. And while the sparks fly, neither one of them wants to think about the danger of being an interracial couple just trying to enjoy a little summer fling in the South. But the South will not let them forget about it. Segregation literally keeps them from ever hooking up—to disastrous ends later on.

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

[…] I was incensed to think of the hard struggle of my students to rid themselves of stereotype, to combat prejudice, to put themselves into enslaved women's skins, and then to see their struggle mocked, and the actual enslaved condition of literally millions of our mothers trivialized—because two ignorant women insisted on their right to act out publicly a "fantasy" that still strikes terror in black women's hearts. (Letter.19)

Susan Marie writes to her colleague Lucy to explain why Lucy's insensitively chosen costume for a campus ball made Susan Marie so mad. The context is important: she'd been working hard all semester with her students to get rid of a stereotype that Lucy's costume just reinforced. Susan Marie wants to emphasize the suffering—the real human toll—of the slaves so that her colleague will think harder before romanticizing such a thing ever again.

Story 14: Source

Not everyone's life is what they make it. Some people's life is what other people make it. I would say this is true of the majority of people in the world. The women I teach didn't choose to be illiterate, didn't choose to be poor. (Source.118)

Irene is trying, without success, to make Anastasia understand that there are systemic forces in place that keep people poor and miserable. But in Anastasia's mind, Irene is missing the point: she doesn't have to be poor and miserable herself. All Irene has to do is stop trying to help poor people, and her life will be a whole lot happier. Frankly, we think Anastasia doesn't get Irene at all. She's not the type who can be happy while injustice exists for anyone.

I knew, from the backhanded way I was treated, that they were hypocrites. I mean, they knew I was black, I just didn't look black. I never got any of the attention you got, and I could have used some, because those white folks were just as strange to me as they were to you. But you thought everything was fine until the hypocrisy touched you. (Source.196)

Anastasia opens Irene's eyes for her. Back in the day, when the two were in college, Irene had thoughtlessly excluded Anastasia from her experience as a person of color because Anastasia is biracial. It's only when Irene had her own run-in with the college that she finally saw that the white establishment was only paying lip service to Black students. But Anastasia already had plenty of experience with that hypocrisy. Too bad Irene wouldn't acknowledge Anastasia's struggle at the time because of the lightness of her friend's skin.

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