“Palmares” Is An Example of What Grows When Black Women Choose Silence

Literature
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Alice Walker opens her epistolary novel The Color Purple with a silencing threat. “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy,” fourteen-year-old Celie’s sexually abusive stepfather warns her. From her childhood through her adulthood, Celie writes letters to God, and later, to her sister Nettie. In them, she tells the truth about all she’s endured, and in the process, she saves her own life. Celie’s stepfather and her cruel husband, Mister, rob her of her childhood and any justice she might have gotten for the crimes they committed against her. But they could not take her voice, not completely.

Maya Angelou wrote about silencing her own voice, in her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At eight years old, she stopped speaking because she thought her words had killed a man, her mother’s boyfriend who had raped her. She spoke, testifying at the trial where the man was convicted and sentenced, but then released from jail. Four days later, he was found murdered, likely by Angelou’s uncles. For nearly five years after, she only spoke to her brother Bailey.

At eight years old, she stopped speaking because she thought her words had killed a man, her mother’s boyfriend who had raped her.

In “Peach Cobbler,” from my short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, a girl understands without being told that she must keep silent about her mother’s decade-long affair with the pastor of their church  — even and especially after she is volunteered to tutor the pastor’s son, at his house, under the watchful eye of his mother, the pastor’s wife and First Lady.

In worlds real and imagined, what grows inside Black girls’ and Black women’s silences?

Palmares book cover

In a brilliant essay for The New York Times Magazine, Dr. Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, had questions for Gayl Jones, the writer who publicly went silent 23 years ago and whose latest novel, Palmares, was published last month. Perry, the author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry and six other books, asked:

What does it feel like, 46 years after the first, to have a new novel coming out? Why did you step out of view? Did it make you a more honest writer? Did it serve your soul? I would not get answers. I would not be able to charm her into laughter. I know she is brilliant, obscure, irascible. I imagine her smile is still wry. But does she still wear her head wrapped in 2021? Is she still adept at putting a nosy questioner in her place?

I can’t know any of this because in 1998 she disappeared from public life. Since then she has refused all interviews and photographs.

Toni Morrison, Jones’ editor from 1975-1982, said of her debut, Corregidora, “No novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this.” In the book, the lives of four generations of Black Brazilian-American women are overshadowed by the incestuous rapist enslaver whose surname they carry. The eldest of the four, Great Gram Corregidora, insists that they all must “bear witness” and “make generations,” or bear offspring, who will memorize and then recite the old enslaver’s atrocities at Armageddon.

The novel’s main character is the youngest Corregidora woman, Ursa—a blues singer. Some scholarship about the book highlights the blues as a conduit for Ursa’s empowerment and the “valorization of voice,” while other scholars emphasize the role of literary silence. Writing in the National Women’s Studies Association journal in 2001, Jennifer Cognard-Black “looks to the mute, missed, and stifled in Corregidora that form a rhetoric of silence.”

Silence figures prominently in Jones’ Palmares, too. The title refers to an actual place, a community of freeborn and escaped, formerly enslaved Africans in 17th-century colonial Brazil. In the book’s first chapter titled, “Mexia,” we meet a beautiful “half-Black and half-Indian” woman who never spoke to anyone, not even Father Tollinare, the Franciscan priest whose concubine Mexia is rumored to be. He calls Mexia, “Silent Spirit.” In this chapter, we also meet our spirited, literate narrator, an enslaved girl named Almeydita, who defends Mexia’s silence in the very first paragraph:

I had never heard her speak even to the Father. Perhaps if what people said was true, she spoke when they were alone together, at those intimate times, but what if not then? What if she did not speak even at those moments? What of it?

Here, Jones could be defending her own silence, responding to critics from the 1970s, who, as Perry observes, considered Jones to be difficult and alienating, simply because she was shy and soft-spoken. She dared to eschew the spotlight, even at the expense of promoting her work. Perry further notes that a graphic, sensationalized media account of Jones’ husband’s suicide in 1998 was the ultimate violation of her carefully guarded privacy. With that final straw, she withdrew from public life.

In Palmares, as in Corregidora, “silent,” “silence,” and “said nothing” are ubiquitous throughout the text. These silences are attributed to Almeydita (who, as an adult, is called Almeyda) and to other Black and Indigenous women characters. Questions, requests, and demands routinely go unanswered, confounding and sometimes angering the people around them.

They know better than to explain themselves, their powers and their origins, their beliefs and reasons, their magic.

These women’s silences should not be interpreted as a lack of understanding or awareness, but rather as an abundance of both, most especially the knowledge of what to keep close to the vest, and the implications for failing to do so. They know better than to explain themselves, their powers and their origins, their beliefs and reasons, their magic. These women are silent not because they don’t know anything. They are silent because they know better.

The day after her essay about Jones appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Imani Perry tweeted:

There are some folks who responded negatively when I said “you don’t tell all the secrets when you’re trying to get free.” Gayl Jones deepened my commitment to that formulation. Strategies in private are sometimes the most important. Don’t go telling all your business…

Right up there with the reminder that every shut eye ain’t sleep, “Don’t go telling all your business” is wisdom handed down from our grandmothers and grandfathers. At the same time, as Black women, we rightly encourage our daughters and each other to speak up and speak out. We heed Zora Neale Hurston’s words: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

We follow Audre Lorde’s example. She said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Because the stakes of silence and self-determination are high. But it is also true that whether we are silent or silenced, all manner of metamorphoses can happen inside a Black woman’s closed mouth.

Tellingly, some of the most loquacious characters in Palmares are white women. In a long, fragmented, experimental passage within the larger story, the first-person narrator is a white Portuguese woman, Madame Froger. She is consumed by bitterness and jealousy after walking in on her husband having sex with an enslaved Black woman. Froger is so resentful her extended internal monologue returns to this Black woman over and over again — frequently in the middle of sentences that are about something else entirely. Froger refers to the enslaved woman as her husband’s “lover” and doesn’t acknowledge that the sex between them was nonconsensual. She tells her husband repeatedly to “Go to the devil” and prattles on and on about various perceived social and cultural slights for more than 30 pages in a stream of consciousness. She is further annoyed by the frivolousness of Mrs. Florence Pepperrell, a chatty white woman writer visiting Brazil from London. And if that isn’t the teapot with a tempest in it calling the fine china white, I don’t know what is. (I’m reminded here of Black poet, abolitionist, and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s 1866 speech at the National Women’s Rights Convention in which she said, “I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”)

Fortunately, white women are not centered in Palmares. Rather, they are on the margins of a series of short, related tales embedded in a sprawling central story that follows Almeyda through childhood to Palmares and beyond. With the ever-present brutality of slavery as foundational, the worlds Jones creates feature dense landscapes and mystifying dreamscapes. These worlds exist between reality and madness, spirit and flesh, and are, to borrow one character’s phrase, “a fantasy of history and imagination.”

With the ever-present brutality of slavery as foundational, the worlds Jones creates feature dense landscapes and mystifying dreamscapes.

The best stories, like Palmares, always make me fall in love with their writers. They make me deeply curious about the minds that could conjure such beauty or horror or knowing. Decades ago, before I was comfortable calling myself a writer, I would track down email addresses and send messages to Black writers, praising their work (genuinely) and asking for professional advice. I cringe at this memory now, at how vague I was in my queries for guidance, and at the intrusion. I cringe, even as I do my best to be responsive and helpful now that I’m on the receiving end of such messages from emerging writers, even as the desire to write Gayl Jones a love letter burns strong.

Palmares, this epic novel Jones has given us, is plenty. It is overflowing, and it will have to be enough. I respect Jones’ silence, and I appreciate her for inspiring me to sit with my own.

As a teenager, I was a chatterbox, part of my performance of Black womanhood as I understood it: a confidence and an unshakeable self-love, neither of which I actually possessed; and strongly worded (if not well-informed) opinions on current events and social issues. My deep insecurities and even deeper sadness lived in quiet places, so I avoided silence. I even joked that I was prejudiced against shy people. The truth was, they made me uncomfortable. I resented them for making me fill a void with noise to drown out my fear of what they thought of me and the truth of how I felt about myself. Didn’t they know I had a part to play? I had already begun to believe the hype of the Strong Black Woman archetype, and it would be decades before I, wrung out to an emotional husk, let that shit go. But for a long time, too long, I faked the funk, I talked the part.

After a lifetime of being a talker who mostly kept silent about things I shouldn’t have, like my pain and grief, I’m overdue.

And now, after nearly 300 virtual and in-person book tour events and interviews since late summer 2020, in support of my short story collection, I’m overdue for some restorative quiet. After a lifetime of being a talker who mostly kept silent about things I shouldn’t have, like my pain and grief, I’m overdue. Big awards are celebrated out loud, but it was second nature for me to hold the pains of the last 18-plus months mostly in silence. But slowly, I coaxed myself to speak the truth, that I wasn’t okay when I wasn’t okay. This, I learned, is how healing begins.

Last month, on the day after my 50th birthday, I began what would be a 10-day hiatus from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. After more than a dozen active years on social media sharing both my personal and professional lives, the silence was glorious. In it, I grappled with my fears and loneliness, fueled in part by the pandemic. I slept better. I leaned into my friendships more. New story ideas blossomed.

But I’m no Gayl Jones. I don’t have the juice to release a book and not actively promote it. So now I’m back on Twitter and Instagram, but only for a few hours each Sunday to share my upcoming events, celebrate the successes of my friends, and give thanks. I say far less these days, and it feels right, and good and healthy.

Ann Petry’s life and words are instructive and aspirational here too. Petry’s 1946 debut novel, The Street, was the first by a Black American woman to sell more than a million copies. After becoming a literary star, Petry retreated from public life, in response to McCarthyism, in part, but also because she found celebrity to be a threat to her as an artist. “Continuous public exposure, though it may make you a ‘personality,’ can diminish you as a person,” she told an interviewer in 1996. “To be a willing accomplice to the invasion of your own privacy puts a low price on its worth. The creative processes are, or should be, essentially secret, and although naked flesh is now an open commodity, the naked spirit should have sanctuary.”

I hope silence is a sanctuary for Gayl Jones, and for all of us who need it to be. The stories I write are usually forged in silence. I go through many drafts before anyone else hears my characters speak or wanders around in the worlds they inhabit. I’m eager for my naked spirit to take hold, grab the reins, and lead us through.

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