Study Guide

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Race

By Alice Walker

Race

Story 1: Nineteen Fifty-Five

I don't know why, but the boy seemed to need some encouraging. And I don't know, seem like one way or another you talk to rich white folks and you end up reassuring them. But what the hell, by now I feel something for the boy. (Nineteen Fifty-Five.98)

Gracie Mae has supernatural powers of observation—and she's not afraid to share them with us. She likes Traynor a whole lot, but there are moments of irony like this in their relationship, and she can't understand why she reaches out to him as much as she does. The truth is simple: despite differences in race, income, and fame, there's a mothering side to her that won't let her ignore another person in distress. Even if that distress is different from hers.

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

She said: "On top of everything else, that man's daddy goes on the t.v. every night and says folks like us ain't even human." It was his daddy who had stood in the schoolhouse door saying it would be over his dead body before any black children would come into a white school. (Lawyer.9)

The young narrator's mother tries to warn her off Bubba, telling her that she's being foolish to think that he could ever love a Black woman. But being 16, the narrator won't have any part of it. She can't look the misery of her situation in the eye—she is, after all, being assaulted by Bubba on the regular. Also, she's not mature enough to understand the social and political realities of the situation: Bubba is a white supremacist who's using her body to feed his privilege. At 16, she's just glad she has someone telling her she's pretty.

Story 3: Elethia

There had been many slaves, and though slavery no longer existed, this grandson of former slaveowners held a quaint proprietary point of view where colored people were concerned. He adored them, of course. Not in the present—it went without saying—but at that time, stopped, just on the outskirts of his memory: his grandfather's time. (Elethia.2)

Oh, man. This guy owns the restaurant where Uncle Albert is on display in the front window. It's clear that his "love" of Black people is the same as the "love" some people have for objects they collect. But it does not extend to treating Black people like people.

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

There is a way in which, in some firmly repressed corner of his mind, he considers his wife to be still black, whereas he feels himself to have moved to some other plane. (Coming Apart.44)

When a wife tries to convince her husband that he's been manipulated by pop culture and the porn industry, he has to admit some ugly truths to himself. In this case, he feels like his imitation of the white middle class entitles him to some higher status than his wife (who tries to make him see that he's been lied to—and is lying to himself).

Story 7: Fame

"Disgusting makeup," she said, running a tissue around her collar and bringing it down a very dark brown. "Can you imagine, as many shades of brown as there are, they have only one jar to cover everything? And one jar, of course, for them, but then they only need one jar." (Fame.16)

Andrea Clement White's comment about television makeup points out a larger issue: people see those of another race as homogenous—all exactly alike. Ironically, Clement White does it herself here, claiming that brown people come in many shades (and are therefore individuals) but white people do not (and are not).

Story 10: Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells

(And I began to think that perhaps—whether Luna had been raped or not—it had always been so; that her power over my life was exactly the power her word on rape had over the lives of black men, over all black men, whether they were guilty or not, and therefore over my whole people.) (Luna.41)

Walker is massively torn over her response to Luna's claim of rape. At issue: the power that white female voices have over the lives of Black men, innocent or not. This isn't just an issue for Black men; it affects the entire Black community, especially when Black women have to risk themselves to protect their men. And because of this power dynamic, a wedge is driven between Luna and Walker, whose friendship fails after the story of the rape comes out.

The black people who took us in were unfailingly hospitable and kind. I took them for granted in a way that now amazes me. I realize that at each and every house we visited I assumed hospitality, I assumed kindness. Luna was often startled by my "boldness." (Luna.8)

Walker later says that this is because she already knew Black people to be the best people in the world, so of course she assumed all kinds of good things about them. Did Luna, then, not make assumptions about hospitality and kindness because she's unsure of the goodness of Black people? Probably not, though Walker isn't clear in her explanation here.

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

I wanted them to be able to repudiate all the racist stereotypes about black women who were enslaved: that they were content, that they somehow "chose" their servitude, that they did not resist. (Letter.12)

Susan Marie tries to contextualize her anger to Lucy, a colleague who annoyed her by dressing up as slave-owning Scarlett O'Hara for a campus ball. For one thing, Lucy's timing was bad: Susan Marie and her students had just suffered a kind of setback in their progress in tearing down this stereotype—and Lucy was there in her costume to pour salt in the wound. The message Susan Marie wants to send to her is simple: slavery was not fun, and slaves did not enjoy it. It seems like a "duh!" moment, but Lucy clearly doesn't get it.

Story 13: A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring

The defeat that had frightened her in the faces of black men was the defeat of black forever defined by white. But that defeat was nowhere on her grandfather's face. (Trip.4.2)

Sarah Davis is a talented artist, but she's spent her life avoiding Black men as a subject in drawing or painting. She's been hurt by the lopsided depictions she's seen her whole life—and by her own perception of her father. But when she sees the dignity and strength in her grandfather's face, she realizes she's got it wrong. She needs to empty her mind of a biased gaze so that she can see the men in her life accurately.

Story 14: Source

Anastasia was glad that she was finally able to say these things. All her life she had felt compelled to take and take and take from black people, anything they gave. Compliments and curses with the same benign, understanding silence. After all, she was exempt from their more predictable suffering, and must not presume to assert herself. (Source.206)

Anastasia finds herself on the fringes of both white and Black society since she is biracial. Her ability to confront Irene about the isolation and confusion she felt because of Irene's treatment of her helps her feel relief. Irene becomes symbolic of the entire Black community to Anastasia, so her ability to speak to Irene is especially cathartic.

While Anastasia can, as Irene points out, skip out on the everyday hostility that she faces, Anastasia is not exempt from marginalization. Irene doesn't realize that she's been a figure of oppression, especially to a friend. Now that the tables are turned, Irene is hugely uncomfortable with her lack of tolerance.

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