Study Guide

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Story 12: A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?

By Alice Walker

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

  • This story is in epistolary form—which is the fancy literary term to describe something that is written as a letter.
  • The narrator addresses "Lucy" and wants to school her about why she snubbed Miss Lucy at the Women for Elected Officials Ball.
  • It turns out that Lucy was très tacky. She was supposed to dress as her favorite feminist—and she picked Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind.
  • The problem isn't Miss Scarlett, exactly—it's Prissy, the slave who becomes Scarlett's personal servant.
  • But the narrator has another issue: the ball was on her last teaching day, and things hadn't gone well. Her students were discussing God as inner voice.
  • The narrator had come to the conclusion that God is part of human nature—something that each person reaches for inside him- or herself in moments of distress. She'd come to this conclusion after reading the stories of Black women who had been enslaved and abused but had survived.
  • The students were given an assignment: to read the stories of these Black women and write a narrative of their own from the POV of the women.
  • It could have been a total disaster of a class, but it wasn't. The students got the narrator's view of God immediately, and everything was awesome.
  • The problem? It was really, really hard for the students to write the narratives. The Black women didn't want to imagine themselves enslaved, so they wrote as masters or mistresses of slaves. The white women, on the other hand, didn't want to presume to understand what it was like to be slaves, but there was no way they wanted to pretend to be slave owners.
  • Still, the overall goal was achieved. Our narrator wanted her students to understand that Black women NEVER wanted to be enslaved and NEVER thought it was okay to be a slave.
  • And then…a TV show destroyed everything the narrator had been trying to teach her students. It was about sadomasochism, and it featured a lesbian interracial couple—posing as mistress and slave.
  • The Black woman had been bound with a chain around her neck and was quiet and smiling the whole time, reinforcing the stereotype that slave women were content.
  • This made the narrator and her whole class sick, except for one white girl in the class who was into sadomasochism and didn't see the problem.
  • So, our narrator lays it out for us: it's problematic because women (Black and white) are still enslaved today. The S&M community acts like it's a thing of the past, and there's no harm done.
  • The narrator tells Lucy that this is part of the reason why she gave her the cold shoulder at the ball. When she saw her dressed like that, she felt insulted. Who dresses as a slave owner for a feminist ball?
  • Back to that last class: a Black student told the white S&M supporter that she felt her privacy had been invaded. She felt as though people wouldn't see her—they would see the happy slave.
  • The narrator ends by telling Lucy she isn't going to chuck her off her friend list. Instead, she's going to make her see that she needs to change her perception of what a heroine is.
  • But the damage has been done. There are many Black and white women who will never be BFFs because of that TV special that wouldn't let stereotypes die.
  • The narrator feels positive that she and her students (and Lucy) will resist these "master-slave" stereotypes to the end.
  • The narrator's final olive branch to Lucy is along these lines: maybe they can get together and plan the next ball as a resistance to such nonsense.

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