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62), a society with "shallow-rooted" norms (p. 177), a "meager and difficult place" as opposed to the expansive way Ruth wishes to grow as a woman. (p. 178) Helen's storm inside, this mother's crisis of identity, has parallels not with Baldwin's women, but with characters such as the Reverend Henry, whose anger at White society can only be expressed in a eulogy over his beloved son's casket. Extremity in both the apparently placid Henry and Helen brings forth rage and despair, but while at least Henry's male rage is life-affirming, urging his community to go on in the face of the death of a young person, Helen's actions are regressive, infantile, returning to her father, and do not occur as an act of social protest.
The gendered constructions of mourning and identity formulation for Helen's daughters Ruth and Lucille also indicate the limited repertoire the Housekeeping society provides for women to express themselves and create a positive sense of identity in Robinson's world. This frustration of female expression is particular to the gender-designated female sphere. For instance, the girl's grandmother spends her days in her bedroom, on her armchair like a female Victorian invalid, unmoving and looking out into the orchard, and being cared for by her friends. She repeats cliches to the bereaved girls. "So long as you look after your health," their grandmother tells Ruth and Lucille, "and own the roof above your head, you're as safe as anyone can be, God willing," even though her own life history seems to belie this, as her husband and daughter both committed suicide in the same fashion. (p. 27).
But grief, rather than retirement on the part of women, creates positive rage in the heart of Black men in Baldwin. "Learn to walk like men," preaches Percy Rodriguez after hearing the Reverend Henry speak about his dead son, to his fellow Black men in the congregation. Resistance and manhood are conjoined in Baldwin's text -- White society takes male virility away, thus Black men must take it back, as they take back their lives, or else die suffering in the process. This is demonstrated in the fact that Richard, for all of his rage is the only Black character who has lived up North and always has a much more positive version and vision of male identity than Black men who have only lived in the South, although Black Southern women do not always see themselves as so downtrodden in their own self-perception, even if society may strive to harm them physically and spiritually.
Maleness and racial empowerment in Baldwin are won, female struggles such as Juanita's involvement with the White Parnell as well as with Richard are symbolic of the community's division and corruption between different ideals of racial construction, of White Southern feminization of the Black male that drives Black women to seek the arms of White men, or of Black men who truly embrace their racial identity. Juanita's own search for selfhood is not given full credence -- it is not allied with the empowerment of the movement as is Black male empowerment, and the take-back of Black rights and virility attempted over the course of the play.
However, no sources of movement-creating rage are open to women in Robinson's Housekeeping. After the death of Helen and the inability of their grandmother to cope with her grief, Ruth and Lucille are taken under the wing of Sylvie, their eccentric aunt. Sylvie seems to defy such feminine constructions as she lives the life of a hard-edged and outsider-like transient. However, Sylvie's refusal to conform to a life of feminine norms is clearly difficult for her as well as for the girls as they grow up under her care. Her refusal to obey conventional feminine norms comes at a great personal cost to her, just as refusing to obey Southern norms of Black malehood proves hard for Richard.
Richard is killed, and Sylvie thinks of suicide like Helen and her father. She dreams of throwing her body on the railroad tracks and ding under a train's wheels. (p.81) This sort of death-driven behavior forces the two girls, as her actions becomes increasingly strange, to make a choice between two incomplete feminine norms of either marriage or wandering. Lucille determines that she will lead a conventional life, and eventually separates herself from her peculiar aunt, a choice that she begins when she insists on dressing like everyone else in her class, the first day she goes to school. Ruth 'checks out' of society and joins the bitter life of Sylvie, forever wandering.
Although Ruth's choice may be more exciting, it is a hard choice, just as Richard's choice to resist is hard and harsh. "The appearance of relative solidity in my grandmothers house was deceptive," Ruth concludes, reflecting upon the death of her mother and grandfather, musing, "it is better to have nothing, for at last even our bones will fall. It is better to have nothing" (pp. 158-59) But to have nothing is not a happy choice, nor it is a complete and fulfilling choice, demonstrating that female constructions of either normal or outsider identity, as embodied in the lives of the two girls, are incomplete.
In their grandmother's house, after their mother's death, the girls see what they are expected to become, as they age, "the gentle and formal society of friends and mourners that had established itself in her house to look after things. Her [the grandmothers'] friends were very old, and fond of white cake and pinochle. In twos and threes they would volunteer to look after us, while the others played cards at the breakfast table. We would be walked around by nervous, peremptory old men who would show us Spanish coins, and watches, and miniature jackknives with numerous blades designed to be serviceable in any extremity, in order to keep us near them and out of the path of possible traffic." This scene of religiously inspired docility has parallels in Baldwin's play which similarly critiques the initial Black church compliance with a racist society, however, death breaks the chains of oppression, while here Helen's death falls upon silent ears.
Most chillingly, the girls note the presence of "a tiny old lady named Ettie, whose flesh was the color of toadstools and whose memory was so eroded as to make her incapable of bidding, and who sat smiling by herself in the porch, took me by the hand once and told me that in San Francisco, before the fire, she had lived near a cathedral, and in the house opposite lived a Catholic lady who kept a huge parrot on her balcony. When the bells rang the lady would come out with a shawl over her head and she would pray, and the parrot would pray with her, the woman's voice and the parrot's voice, on and on, between clamor and clangor. After a while the woman fell ill, or at least stopped coming out on her balcony, but the parrot was still there, and it whistled and prayed and flirted its tail whenever the bell rang. The fire took the church and its bells and no doubt the parrot, too, and quite possibly the Catholic lady. Ettie waved it all away with her hand and pretended to sleep." This existence, where female articulation comes not from a woman's lips, but from a chattering parrot, in a world that stifles and is filled with cards and white cake and softness, is incomprehensible to Ruth, and only of limited comfort to Lucille, even though she eventually embraces this ideal, as she has little else to find her sense of 'self' within, other than the negative example of Sylvie.
Of course, Baldwin's play is littered with negative examples for both women and men to follow, Black and White, and it is even possible to view Juanita as a sort of prototypical tomboy or Ruth-like character. However, the rites of mourning are not soft and smothering of Black voices, but provide a conduit of power and self-expression after the death of a community member, provided, of course, they take the form of the rhetoric of Black maleness.
Thus, the nature of the opening scenes of homecoming to two different communities, to two different sources of negative identity construction have a happy, if bitter ending in Baldwin and an almost entirely negative ending in Robinson, even though Robinson's text may contain more pleasing images to the reader than Baldwin's harsh, stark dramatic vision. True, Richard Henry begins the play "Blues for Mister Charlie" as an angry young black man, a former addict, who is murdered in his small town, and dies just as Helen dies by her own hand. But Henry's death provides a source of communication and commiseration in the small-town Mississippi community. Helen's death only sows the seeds of more division and rage that cannot be expressed, only covered up, in the hearts of her daughters and fellow women.
Baldwin ends his play with an open…[continue]
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