Study Guide

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Summary

By Alice Walker

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Summary

Some famous guy told us that "brevity is the soul of wit," so we've created short summaries for each of the 14 short stories in Walker's collection.

Nineteen Fifty-Five

Walker re-imagines the story of Elvis and his acquisition of the song "Hound Dog" in this piece about fictional Gracie Mae Still and early rock star Traynor. Traynor, who is white, rides to mega stardom on the back of Gracie Mae's song but spends his life trying to understand the essence of the song and the experiences that led Gracie Mae to write it.

An uneasy friendship springs up between them, with Traynor lavishing extravagant gifts upon Gracie Mae. They write to each other and visit when they can. In the end, Traynor wants the world to admire Gracie Mae as much as he does and to give her the credit she deserves for her song. The two of them go on The Johnny Carson Show together—and it's a flop. The white audience laughs at obese Gracie Mae, and Traynor is enraged.

Traynor dies a lonely, early death, and Gracie Mae can hardly stand to look at the mobs of fans who never knew anything about "the boy" and what he'd wanted to achieve.

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

A young Black girl is raped by one of her mother's clients, a prominent white lawyer. He professes love for her and promises to pay for her to go to college if she continues on with him.

She feels pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, but growing up in poverty and without a loving family, she accepts the situation. This goes on for some time.

When her mother finds out about it, she freaks out and beats her daughter. The lawyer decides that the mother has to be got out of the way if things are to continue as he wants, so with the daughter's help, he has Mama committed to an asylum. By the time the daughter realizes how awful this is, it's too late: her mother has died of abuse and heartbreak at the asylum, and the daughter is left with nothing.

She decides to take the law into her own hands and shoots the lawyer at his house. Then, she takes his personal stash of money to make good on his promise to pay for her college. The murder is seen as a robbery, and she gets away with it; she's even asked by his widow to babysit for their children while she attends her husband's funeral.

Elethia

A young Black woman makes the discovery that an effigy of a former local slave, Uncle Albert, that stands in the window of a whites-only restaurant is, in fact, actually the stuffed body of Albert Porter. One night, she and her friends steal the body from the restaurant. They cremate it in the high school's incinerator, and each of them keeps a bit of Albert's ashes.

But it doesn't end there. As Elethia moves through the world, she notices other "Uncle Alberts," effigies in museums that were actual people. Elethia can't do anything about them because she doesn't know what they would have wanted. She had known Albert through local legend and aging eyewitnesses, whose stories about Albert make up the rest of this piece.

The Lover

A young, beautiful, and talented Black poet heads to a writers' retreat in New Hampshire to work on a new collection of poems. She's married and has a child, but she has an adventurous mind—meaning that she's on the lookout for her very first lover.

And she finds him pretty quickly, while she's enduring boring conversations with self-important writers.

The guy's name is Ellis, and he's tall and handsome. Unfortunately, he's also bigoted, sexist, and has the stink of failure all over him. But she's not gonna let that stop her because it really isn't about Ellis. It's about the idea of being in love.

Ellis finds the narrator pretty intense and wants to back off, but by that time, her mind is already on her lovely husband—and all the potential lovers she will find in the future.

Petunias

A woman's son comes back from Vietnam and tells her he knows how to make bombs. The woman had worked with the Civil Rights Movement, and in retaliation, some white people dig up her grandmother's body and leave her leg bone in the woman's petunias.

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

Walker writes a "fable" about a couple whose relationship suffers from the exploitation and manipulation of the porn industry. The husband can't seem to part with his porn collection. Even worse? He can't give up the fantasies that keep him from connecting with his wife and understanding his own emotions.

His wife schools him hard by reading essays from womanist writers. It doesn't go well at first, and the two decide to "take a break" from each other. Self-growth and awareness happens, and the two are able to reconnect. Well, kind of, at least.

Fame

Andrea Clement White is a famous writer headed to a luncheon at the college where she used to teach. She will receive her 111th major award there, accompanied by her subservient personal assistant, Mrs. Hyde. There are two problems for Andrea Clement White:

  • Her former colleagues are horrible. She succeeded in spite of them.
  •  She doesn't feel like a success.

She spends the luncheon reflecting—with a bitter sense of humor—on her life and the hypocrisy of the people in the room. She can only endure the whole charade in the end because a young Black girl sings an old slave song for them.

The Abortion

Imani finds out that she's pregnant again, and she's not happy about it. She already has a young child, and her health isn't the greatest. Her husband, Clarence, is a nice guy who just wants to support her decision—and this irritates Imani.

Imani has had an abortion before, when the procedure was still illegal. This time, she's able to go to a legit clinic in New York City to have it done. But it's still not a great experience, and Imani's attitude toward her husband and marriage changes dramatically.

Within a couple of years, the two are making a stop in Splitsville. Walker hints that it's the abortion that was the breaking point, even though neither of them is willing to admit that.

Porn

A beautiful Black woman gets a second chance at love (or lust) when she meets the seemingly perfect guy. Their sex life is great—until he shows her his porn collection. She can't get over the sleazy images and impossible plotlines, especially when one of the women involved looks like her friend Fannie.

Her man is willing to give up the porn collection when he realizes it's not doing anything good for her, but the damage is done. She can't forget that he's turned on by creepy and demeaning porn and might have expectations she just can't live up to. Game over.

Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells

Our narrator here seems to be Walker herself, telling the story of a friend and fellow civil rights worker, Luna. They meet while working in Atlanta to register voters. It's not until much later, when they're living together in New York, that Luna opens up about being raped by a fellow civil rights worker that summer.

The complication? Luna is white, and her rapist is Black. Luna never screamed during the rape and never told anyone. Walker finds herself in an awkward position: does she side with Luna as a woman and condemn the rape? Or does she keep silent, like Luna, to protect Black men from an unjust political system?

Walker debates this issue as she remembers the work of Ida B. Wells, a Black activist who advocated total silence in matters of rape where Black men are concerned. She felt that enough innocent Black men had been killed on the accusation of raping white women. Walker tries to work through these conflicting issues as she moves through the story and discusses her situation with fellow artists.

Laurel

A beautiful civil rights worker meets and falls in lust with a country boy called Laurel who has come to work in Georgia during one summer in the mid-1960s. It's an interracial attraction that's very dangerous for the place and time, and they can never find a space to be together, if you get our drift. When the two part, their lust is still unrequited. Did we mention that Laurel is already married?

Laurel gets into a car accident and suffers brain damage. When he wakes up from his coma, he writes urgent letters to the narrator, who is by now married and has a baby. She's consumed with guilt, but she decides to ignore him—until Laurel comes to visit. Her husband runs interference, but she can't help but wonder if her cold shoulder eventually caused Laurel to become bitter and miserable.

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

A Black female professor writes a letter to a white colleague she'd snubbed at a ball to explain her actions. This colleague, Lucy, had dressed up as Scarlett O'Hara for the occasion. The problem? Lucy was supposed to have dressed up as her favorite feminist—and she chose a fictional white slave owner, a character from a book that reinforces the stereotype of the "happy slave."

The professor relates her experiences of that semester as a way of explaining why this is unacceptable, linking the enslavement of women to the harmful master-slave role-playing that she sees in the culture of sadomasochism.

A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring

Sarah Davis is considered an "exotic" beauty at her all-white Northern college, Cresselton. It annoys her to be surrounded by white women who admire her but know nothing about who she is or where she comes from.

One day, Sarah gets a telegram from home saying that her father is dead. She has to make the trip down to Georgia to attend his funeral—and to confront all the unpleasant things from her past that hold her back.

Source

Walker follows the friendship between two college friends, Anastasia and Irene, over a few years. Anastasia is biracial and has trouble pinning down her identity and finding a place to fit in. Even Irene—who is Black—doesn't consider Anastasia "Black enough" to understand her.

Irene travels to San Francisco to hang out with Anastasia after she loses funding for her adult literacy program in the South. But she finds that Anastasia is now a hippie under the control of a drugged-out sexual predator-slash-guru called "Source." Things do not go well for the two friends. Years later, the two women meet again in Alaska and try to get perspective on themselves and their relationship.

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