As an African American woman/writer/teacher/scholar, I am interested in the ways in which Afican American women writers portray their cultures/histories. Many of these authors' "fictional characters engage in perplexing struggles to maintain their human dignity and emotional sensitivity in an impersonal, alien, and frequently threatening world" (Tate xvi). Such is the case with Gloria Naylor's characters in The Women of Brewster Place where all of her women are struggling to survive as African Americans in a white-dominated society and as women in a male-dominated society.
These women characters play a variety of roles: partner, wife, lover, friend, or even child in their male-female relation ships. These roles in themselves do not cause problems within the relationship unless there is a conflict between the way women act and the way they perceive reality. What happens to these women when they reject restrictive roles and take on new roles is illustrated in Gloria Naylor's "Lucielia Louise Turner," one of the short stories in The Women of Brewster Place. In this story, the title character Lucielia is a single mother who uses Mattie's strength and power to help her determine herself as a woman. Mattie is Lucielia's "motherline." Susan Willis, in Specifying, defines "motherline" as a woman who passes on survival knowledge to another generation (3). Such a woman can be a mother, sister, aunt, cousin, or another woman in the community, country, or world. This survival knowledge enables the next generation of women to learn from the successes and failures of the previous generation.
Mattie, the realist, seldom "ever spoke more than two sentences to anybody about anything. She didn't have to. She chose her words with the grinding precision of a diamond cutter's drill" (Naylor 91). A wise parent, Mattie speaks with precision. On the other hand, Lucielia, her surrogate daughter, has trouble finding the "exact" words to say what she means: Her words "kept circling in such a confusing pattern before her that she couldn't seem to grab even one to answer him with" (91). Childlike in her syntax, Lucielia does not know quite how to speak or how to organize her words. Primarily, Lucielia uses words to build the storybook life of her dreams. Nevertheless, her words, when the two women are discussing Eugene, have the strength of spun sugar. Like a teenager in love, Lucielia romantically describes him as a father and partner: "Oh, Mattie, you don't understand. He's really straightened up this time. He's got a new job on the docks that pays real good, and he was just so depressed before with the new baby and no work. You'll see. He's even gone out now to buy paint and stuff to fix up the apartment. And, and Serena needs a daddy" (91-92).
But Mattie instantly melts Lucielia's sugar-coated words: "You ain't gotta convince me, Ciel" (92). The reality of Mattie's statement is not lost on Lucielia; despite her wish to restrict Eugene to her romantic vision, she hears the truth behind Mattie's statement and knows she "wasn't talking to Mattie, she was talking to herself" (92).
Lucielia works hard to make real her fantasy life in which mother, father, and child live happily ever after. She is proud that her child knows her father's name. She says, "my da da is Gene" (96). However, Mattie again shatters the protective covering around Lucielia's dream world: "'Better teach her your name,' Mattie said, while playing with the baby's hand. 'She'll be using it more"' (92). Mattie, unlike Lucielia who is filled with unbridled optimism and self-delusion, is direct and grounded in reality. She speaks with the knowledge of a woman who has seen many single women who are heads of their households. By cutting to the reality of whose name the child will need to know, Mattie bursts the bubble of Lucielia's dream world. Fantasy has no chance of survival in Brewster Place. Only overt and covert knowledge, passed from one generation of African American women to the next directly aids the survival of African American women.
That Lucielia cannot argue with Mattie's cutting remark is revealed by her response: "Ciel's mouth flew open to ask her what she meant by that, but she checked herself" (92). She knows that Mattie speaks precisely and forthrightly: "It was use less to argue with Mattie. You could take her words however you wanted. The burden of truth lay with you, not with her" (92). Interpreting Mattie's comments involves what she doesn't say as well as what she does say. In The Said and the Unsaid, Stephen Tyler states:
Every act of saying is a momentary intersection of the 'said' and the 'unsaid.' Because it is surrounded by an aureola of the unsaid, an utterance speaks more than it says, mediates between past and future, transcends the speaker's conscious thought, passes beyond his [/her] manipulative control, and creates in the mind of the hearer worlds unanticipated. From within the infinity of the 'unsaid,' the speaker and the hearer, by a joint act of will, bring into being what was 'said' (qtd. in Tannen 24).
Interpreting the blank spaces between Maggie's words, Lucielia starts to argue with Maggie, but then stops because she senses that Maggie is right.
Although subconsciously recognizing the truth behind Mattie's words, Lucielia cannot consciously accept the reality of the role she is playing in her relationship with Eugene. At one time Lucielia accuses Mattie of hating Eugene (as if Mattie's hate would be the only explanation for her speaking truthfully about her feelings toward him). Mattie responds to this accusation with love, not hate: "' Naw, honey, ' and she had cupped both hands on Ciel's face. 'Maybe I just love you too much"' (95). Here, and throughout the story, Mattie's words force Lucielia to look below surface meanings. In Talking Voices, Deborah Tannen explains that in a dialogue the speaker aids the listener in actively creating shared knowledge "by requiring the listener...to fill in unstated meaning, indirectness contributes to a sense of involvement through mutual participation in sensemaking" (23). Every time Lucielia has to fill in the "unstated meaning" of Mattie's words, she is helping herself make sense of her world.
Descriptions of Lucielia's actions and feelings further illustrate how she plays the role of a child seeking acceptance in her relationship with Eugene. As if she were a child receiving a gift, Lucielia accepts a "pink Easter bunny" as an apology from Eugene, without demanding an explanation for his actions (91). She blames herself for becoming pregnant and has an abortion because Eugene feels that another child will make him "never have nothin" (95). Not angry with Eugene for leaving her, even after the abortion, Lucielia feels as if she were "buried in the [suit] case under the ... pile of clothes" (99) Eugene packs for his exit to Maine. By not talking to Mattie about her relationship with Eugene, Lucielia forfeits opportunities to come to an under standing of the "unstated meaning" of her actions and feelings.
The physical descriptions and the portrayal of the women's actions substantiate the motherline relationship between Lucielia and Mattie. Whenever Naylor depicts the two women together, the image is that of mother and daughter. An older, mature woman, Mattie stands beside Lucielia, who is described as having a "girl's spine," a "girl's mouth," and "young breasts." The extent of Mattie's maternal love and protectiveness for the younger woman is clearly seen when Mattie, realizing that Lucielia is about to let go of life after her daughter's death, takes charge: "Like a black Brahman cow, desperate to protect her young, she surged into the room, pushing the neighbor woman and the others out of her way."
By rocking Lucielia in her arms, Mattie takes Lucielia "back into the womb" (1()3) to create a new birth for her. To accomplish this, she universalizes the deaths of children, the grief of mothers by taking Lucielia on an historical tour of mothers and daughters, from ancient Greece to modern times, who have been killed and torn apart by ignorance and hate:
Mattie rocked her out of that bed, out of that room, into a blue vastness just underneath the sun and above time. She rocked her over Aegean seas so clear they shone like crystal, so clear the fresh blood of sacrificed babies torn from their mother's arms and given to Neptune could be seen like pink froth on the water. She rocked her on and on, past Dachau, where soul-gutted Jewish mothers swept their children's entrails off laboratory floors. They flew past the spilled brains of Senegalese infants whose mothers had dashed them on the wooden sides of slave ships. And she rocked on. (1(03)
Mattie's rocking heals as it educates. It takes Lucielia to the source of her pain: "they found it -- a slight sliver of a splinter, embedded just below the surface of the skin" (104). Together they can do what one of them could not do alone, remove the pain: "the splinter gave way, but its roots were deep, gigantic, ragged, and they tore up flesh with bits of fat and muscle tissue clinging to them. They left a huge hole which was already starting to pus over, but Mattie was satisfied. It would heal" (104). As a representative of African American women and all women's culture/history, Mattie allows Lucielia to examine her life "in relation to the historical forces that have shaped the migrations of her race [and gender] the struggles of her community, and the relationships that have developed within her family" (Willis 3).
After this transformative rocking, Mattie bathes Lucielia and puts her to bed. These final maternal actions baptize Lucielia and give her a clear view of her static role in her fantasy life. Released from her restrictive role as a child, Lucielia is named "woman" (104) by the narrator of the story.
In "Lucielia Louise Turner," a woman's life is almost destroyed because she believes that she cannot survive the burden of truth. However, through a motherline, from the wisdom passed on by a life-experienced woman, she learns that truth is worth far more than self-delusion. At the end of the story, Mattie is what she always wa -- an African American woman whose words and actions are grounded in reality. And Lucielia has moved from being a "girl" living in a fantasy world to a world wise, African American woman living in the real world.
Naylor, Gloria. "Lucielia Louise Turner." The Women of Brewster Place. New York: Penguin, 1983. 89-105.
Tannen, Deborah. Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1999.
Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.
DEMETRICE A. WORLEY is Assistant Professor and Director of Writing at Bradley University. She teaches African American literature, creative writing, and technical writing.
Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is granted to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Worley, Demetrice. (1992). The burden of truth: The voices of Lucielia and Mattie in Gloria Naylor's "Lucielia Louise Turner." WILLA, Volume I, 31-32.