Wisdom Fiction (Part 1) by Elise M. Edwards


Elise Edwards“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.

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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

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11 replies

  1. Hmm, is “Christine” a female Christ figure, and if so, what would the Christology be?

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    • Yes, I read her as a Christ figure. That would be consistent with some of the Christian themes in other works. The Christology would in many ways be consistent with traditional (dominant) models: she saves through sacrifice and love and “redemptive” suffering due to violence. The Christ’s cultural identity (Jesus’ Jewishness, Tine’s blackness) are integral to the struggle of their people and the need for salvation. Where the Christology differs, though, is that she saves herself, too. And like I said above, the suffering and the way out of it are through the interdependence of community. Also, the violence inflicted upon her and her particular struggles are gendered–her rape, her trails through motherhood.

      These are my initial thoughts. It’s a great question that bears more consideration. Thank you, Carol, for asking. As always, you are a wise woman provoking me to deeper thought…

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      • Your words provoke me to reflect that I have read that for Black women Jesus is not so much a savior as a friend and brother–knowing that he has suffered everything they have gives them the strength to “make a way out of no way.” In some way I feel this way about the Goddess who feels my feelings and the feelings of the world with infinite compassion, but I personally never related to Jesus in that way, even as a Christian. Interesting how we have different responses to stories.

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  2. Staying true to one’s own vision while accepting the interdependence of life is the thing…it’s that discernment process that gets really tricky sometimes…determining the people who are there to help and those who are there to rip you off. Sometimes it’s the most charming figures who are the latter.

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    • That is a recurrent theme in J. California Cooper’s work. The reader can see the manipulative intent behind the charming veneer. But the victims of these manipulators do not see the truth because of their pain or foolishness. Sadly, though, predators know who to target, and often go after those who are most vulnerable. Those of us who are committed to justice and love need to keep an eye out to protect the vulnerable.

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  3. Christine’s life sounds pretty much like the lives of people I hear and read about on the news every day, unfortunate people –especially women–who experience all those awful events in awful neighborhoods. The stories are probably very interesting, if maybe also depressing. But parables are usually intended to teach tough lessons, yes?

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    • These stories–the fictitious ones and the ones in real life–ARE sad. Cooper’s work often makes me cry, but there are moments of really joy and beauty, too. In Cooper’s moral universe, the good usually triumph and the evil are punished and occasionally reformed. There is one story, though, that was so disturbing that I didn’t read any of her work for over a decade.

      I’m glad I picked the books up again, though. Fiction (and narrative more broadly) has a way of raising questions and providing answers that can pierce our hearts and minds deeply.

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  4. All of this is packed into one short story?!

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  5. You couldn’t have more setbacks and sadness than Tine is faced with. But this line made me smile, where you say: “Yet Christine also finds a loving, transformative friendship…and grows in self-determination to decide what her future will be.” True friendship surely has a very special power to heal, and inspire. Blessed be.

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  6. The friendships in this story are so beautiful. There is romantic love, too, but it’s Tine’s nonsexual relationships with her female friends that carries her through her most difficult times. She reciprocates that same kind of love to her friends and it has transformative power in their lives. May we all be so blessed ot find that.

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