“I was born in a strange little country town that may be like all other country towns, but I do not know. It was the world I was born to. The world is such a place that you need special things to understand it. I do not think I am a fool, but I do not understand life. It is like I am always standing in the dark somewhere. It could be on the edge of a cliff by a deep ravine… Or on a flat piece of all the land in the world… and I would not know. I would not know whether to step stand still. Either one could be a danger… When I am alone. Some lives are like that. Depending on the kindness of everybody.”
-from “Feeling for Life “ in Some Soul to Keep by J. California Cooper
In my previous post, I wrote about the truths we learn from black women’s literary tradition and from listening to the stories of those we too often ignore. Continuing that reflection over the next few months, I’d like to share some of the lessons from J. California Cooper’s short stories. The quote above is taken from the opening paragraph of one of her works.
This story is narrated by a character named Christine. Most of Cooper’s stories are told from the first-person perspective of a black woman, usually the main character, but sometimes a neighbor or friend involved in the plot too. Cooper’s characters speak for themselves and describe their own realities. These black women storytellers need no interpreters from outside their communities to mediate their wisdom.
Christine’s story reads like a parable. Like in the New Testament’s Gospel of John, there is a lesson for readers about who is supposed to have knowledge and who actually possesses knowledge. It’s about those who can physically see what’s around them but do not understand it. Christine (Tine for short), the narrator of this story and its main character, was born blind. She is the one who knows what life is really about and how the world works. The metaphor and irony is plain—it is the blind woman who truly sees reality.
What Tine recognizes before others in her life is her dependence on the kindness of everyone. The author isn’t crafting some ableist narrative about how people with disabilities need charity. Instead, the story is about how everyone is dependent on others in their communities. Our interdependence makes us vulnerable. Kindness from strangers can help us, and cruelty from our closest relations will wound us.
Cooper’s female characters rarely have easy lives. Rape, physical assault, addiction, poverty, fraud, abandonment, and grief are common elements to the stories. Tine is raised by a poor, single mother. She is very close to her mother who shows Tine what love and kindness and sacrifice are. “I had seen nothin. My mother was my key to life she gave me a life in this world after the one she gave me when I was first born into it. Mama was proud of the good little education she had had before she fell in love and got married, and now had nothin but us and a little ole falling-down house to show for her life and love. She was always teaching me words and things. It was really all she had to give me and I needed everything.”
The mother dies when Christine is in her early teen years, leaving her in the care of a brother and sister who are unwilling or unable to be her guardians. She’s then turned over to the care of a minister’s family who is kind to her at first. But Tine’s grief and disability leave her unprotected in the minister’s home. She is raped by a man she cannot identify and although she is able to hide herself to prevent additional occurrences, she becomes pregnant from the first assault and is sent to a group home when the minister’s family finds out.
The group home, too, is a dangerous place for her. Many of the other residents and social workers belittle her and try to take advantage of her. Yet Christine also finds a loving, transformative friendship with a wheelchair-bound woman named Dancer and grows in self-determination to decide what her future will be. Despite being poor, black, and blind, she decides to bear and raise her child, seeing him as a new possibility for the family connection she lost when her mother died. When her son is born, she gives him a name that references her mother.
Tine rents a small apartment with income from disability benefits, and despite extreme poverty, is able to care for her son. She learns how to go to stores, she figures out how to cook, and she cares for the baby. She develops a very small community of friends who help her. A neighbor named Jane crochets and knits clothes for her son. Tine also learns how to read Braille and is grateful that by reading she has a gift to give to her son and Jane. As the child grows, readers hear about how difficult their life is, but how much love they had. Cooper does not romanticize poverty and Tine tells us over and over again how difficult it was.
Unsurprisingly in this parable tale, there are men who come into this woman’s life who bring either healing or harm (rarely both). But throughout it all, it’s her own willingness to discern and then commit to her own plans that save her. This is not to say she succeeds on her own. I believe that is Cooper’s lesson for us, and it’s one we need to hear in difficult times. It is Tine’s vision of what she wants that determines her path, but it is a community of interdependent love and assistance that enables her to survive. Each of us is susceptible to real harm when we are a part of communities. But if we find love, these communities can be our salvation.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
Categories: abuse, Black Feminism, Books, Christianity, Death, Family, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Fiction, Friendship, Rape, Relationality, Social Justice, survival, Womanist Theology, Women and Community, women of color