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Book Review: A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight (The Real Help Reading Project)

September 10, 2011 16 comments

Girl with head leaning on hand.Summary:
Moinette is born south of New Orleans to a slave mother as a mulatresse–she is half white and half black.  Since her mother’s slave labor consists largely of laundry and also due to her looks, Moinette spends her life serving predominantly within the white homes instead of the fields, which is a dangerous location.  She also spends her life striving to be free and to save her family.

Discussion:
This is the first book for the The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy (intro post).  I do apologize for the late time in the day that my hosting post is arriving.  It was raining this week, so I was afraid to bring my kindle with me most places.  Anyway.  On to discussing Moinette’s life as The Real Help.

The two things that stuck out the most to me were how desperate Moinette was to love no one but her mother (not even her son at first) and also the mental impact being treated as less than human had on her.  Moinette repeatedly degrades herself in her mind because of how others treat her.  This is what I want to discuss first.

There’s the fact that Moinette is half-white and half-black.  She is evidence of the fact that the white males find the black slaves desirable, and that is offensive to everyone involved.  For this reason, Moinette faces racism from both black and white people.  Early on she is informed that she is different, but not in a human way.

He said he was a horse, at least pure in blood and a useful animal.  He said I was a mule, half-breed, and even a mule worked hard.  He said I was nothing more than a foolish peacock.  (page 5)

Moinette’s identity is always in peril throughout her whole life, because no one wants to admit that sex between the races really happens, even though Moinette’s own existence is evidence of that fact.  Additionally, she constantly struggles to feel that she is worth more than an animal.  She sees that elderly slaves are literally valued as less than a dish.  Imagine what that would do to the self-esteem?  We talk a lot in classes in the US about how bad it would be to be owned by someone, but we never talk about the reality of being treated as an animal, as an object.  It feels abstract to say, “Oh, imagine what it would feel to be owned by someone.”  It is far less abstract to see the mental and emotional strife Moinette goes through in attempting to hold on to her sense of humanity.

Moinette also constantly struggles with the concept of love and who to love and when to love.  Something that stuck out to me was how at first she did not love her son.  She did not even want her son.  This is understandable given that he was the result of rape.  Later, though, much of her life focus comes to be on freeing him and saving him.  She loves him, yes, but personally I can’t help but notice that her focus on him only comes when she discovers that her mother is missing/gone.  It is almost as if she transfers her love for her mother to Jean-Paul and then to the little girls she buys in order to free them at 21.  Moinette’s experience with this demonstrates how slavery and inequality is so dehumanizing because it rips apart one of the key aspects that makes for humanity–the ability to make families, whether by blood or by choice.  Moinette knows the danger of loving someone.  She quite simply states:

I knew my heart was only meat for another animal.  (page 107)

Moinette spends the first half of her life striving to be back with her mother where she feels safe and loved.  She spends the second half of her life striving to save younger slaves and give them a place where they feel save and loved.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (link) safety is almost at the very bottom.  Only the very luckiest slaves even had the first level of physiological needs met.  Most never truly felt safe as there was no security of family, which is key to psychiatric stability and sense of self.  Even if we ignore the tragedy of Moinette being born a slave, her life is still tragic because she was never given the chance to self-actualize and become the truly amazing person that is clearly inside her throughout the novel because she must spend all her time struggling for the basic needs.

Obviously we also should discuss Moinette’s relationships with white women as we are reading this project to answer to The Help.  Moinette has an interesting relationship with white women.  She does not love the ones she serves, but she also does not hate them.  Moinette is clearly confused as to how to react to these women.  The first white woman she served was Cephaline, who was nearly her age and died young.  After she dies, Moinette says:

I missed her voice.  Her words like embroidery in the air.  She didn’t love me.  But I had heard her voice all my life.  (page 98)

How odd to spend so much of your time near someone, in often intimate situations, to know them truly thoroughly, but to feel no sense of love or camaraderie.  Moinette can see some similarities between herself and the white women she serves.  Their bodies are somewhat different, yet they both have two breasts and a vagina.  Although Moinette recognizes that white women have a bit more freedom, she still sees them as essentially used and hunted by men.

The Men hunted money and sex.  The women were hunted and captured, even the white women.  (page 230)

Truly with the marriage contracts of the time, a married white woman was not exactly free.  Moinette recognizes this, and I believe it adds to her despair.  What chance is there for women of any color in this society?

Another theme in the book is how dangerous working in the house is.  Working in the cane, no one notices the slave women, but working in the house, suddenly the women get noticed by the men and get used for their bodies sexually.  Even if a woman managed to escape being raped, she still felt inferior since she was living in the house and working in the house as a wife, but was not a wife.

Sophia said, “Safer in the cane.  Do your work, nobody look.  Dangerous in the house.”  (page 235)

In close quarters, such as serving in a white household, another whole level of fear and intimidation comes in to play.  Although the work is technically easier, the women actually had less control over what happened to their bodies.

Overall I think this book gives an excellent look into the sheer despair of being born a slave in the American south, particularly as a female.  Although Moinette strives constantly throughout her life, the things about herself she cannot change–that she was born a slave and biracial–truly largely determine her life path.  Although she helps improve the lives of some of those around her, she never truly finds happiness for herself, even when freed.  This is something that revisionist narratives of the time often overlook.  Simply because someone was freed did not mean that the prejudices and injustices of the society they lived within ceased to exist.  Moinette did her best within her world, but even her best and most determined acts were not enough to save her from a life of pain.

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • Compare Moinette’s relationship with Cephaline to her relationship with Pelagie.  What were the similarities and differences?
  • How do you perceive Cephaline and Pelagie?  Although they were technically free, do you think they were truly free?
  • Why do you believe Moinette had such a close bond with her mother but her son, Jean-Paul, seems to have only had a close bond with Francine?
  • How much different do you think Moinette’s life would have been if she’d been born 100% black instead of biracial?
  • Do you think Moinette’s life would have been better if she’d managed to stay in the fields instead of working within the house?
  • Why do you think the Native Americans were willing to participate in the return of fellow minorities to the ownership of white men?
  • Why do you think Moinette never pursued a real relationship with a man?
  • How do you see the slave/master relationship within the household reflected in modern households that pay for a live-in maid?
  • What do you think the title of the book means/alludes to?

National Library Week 2010!

Today is the start of National Library Week here in the US–a week to honor and recognize libraries for all of the awesomeness that they entail.  I thought I’d honor the week with a post about the important role libraries have played in my life.  I hope you all will chime in and do the same!

My parents didn’t have much money when I was little, and on top of that, my mother homeschooled my brother and I.  The bi-weekly trip to our local public library was completely an adventure.  I couldn’t believe that all these stacks and stacks of books were available for me to read!  Since we lived on a secluded road in backwoods Vermont, I didn’t get to see many other kids my age on a regular basis.  My brother was 5 years older than me, and all the other kids on the road were boys a bit older than me at least, so books became my friends.  When I was done with schoolwork, I’d run off to read.  When books were done, the scenes and characters became the back-drop for my play.  The only reason I was able to pursue reading so enthusiastically was because of the library.

When I reached high school, I was allowed to go to public school.  The library became a safe place for me to go and explore all these new ideas and worlds I was being exposed to.  Books that I took out from there and read led to me changing some very fundamental ideas I had held up until then.  I would not be the person I am today without that experience.  It was more than having access to the books.  It was knowing that I could take them out and read them without judgment from the librarians or fear that they would run and tell somebody what I was reading.

In university the library became my work study place of employment.  The library yet again was providing me access to books, both in the free form and in the money for textbooks form.  I couldn’t get over the whole working environment.  The librarians were, by and large, really cool!  They were hip and sympathetic to my sometimes overwhelming life as a first generation college student.  I was introduced to WorldCat and was amazed at my ability to hit the “Get It Now!” button and get nearly any item from other libraries in the US.  (I’m sure the inter-library loan department wasn’t quite of fond of my love of the Get It Now button as I was, haha).  The library was my go-to place to hang out with my friends, for quiet study, to work on a computer between classes (I didn’t have a laptop for most of college).  Almost all of my friends from university are sorted under a Goldfarb Library tab on Facebook.  It was yet again a safe place for me to live life and figure out what I think and who I am.  Needless to say, it’s also where I figured out that I wanted to be a librarian, and is it any wonder when I see what impact librarians have had on my life?

When I look back over my life, it’s easy to see that I wouldn’t be the person I am today at all without libraries.  I wouldn’t have been encouraged to explore, to make mistakes, to read new and sometimes crazy ideas (to make noise and surreptitiously have a slice of pizza with friends).  I can’t imagine anything else that could fill that place in my life.  For that reason, I am passionate about libraries in the 21st century.  They are relevant, because what else can provide all of that to a growing, changing, exploring person?  Libraries are a large part of what made me free to be me.