“Some sin is black, an’ some ain’ so black, but dis sin you had is pure scarlet.”

I saw many old friends today at a memorial service for a man I worked with for five years—it was good to see them, in spite of the somber circumstances, and it was especially nice to hear from a friend and retired colleague that he’s been reading my blog (thanks, Brian!).  So I thought I ought to thank you all for reading what I write here (when I write it): I still don’t quite know what this is or what it means to me, but to share a journey with friends is a very good thing, and your occasional comments of appreciation and encouragement are really lovely to receive.  Now, on with Scarlet Sister Mary.

As can be guessed, I think, the quotation at the head of today’s post explains part of our title.  The central character of this story appears to be a girl named Mary, working as a sharecropper fieldhand on an old plantation in the post-bellum South.  She’s a member of the church (“sister Mary”, then) and an orphan, who’s been raised by a kind old woman named Maum Hannah—it’s Maum Hannah’s voice speaking in that quotation.  What’s sister Mary’s scarlet sin?  Do you even have to ask?

Sister Mary’s fifteen now, almost sixteen, and has fallen in love with a young man named July.  July is a brash, high-spirited, extroverted young man, whose twin, June, is a quiet, focused, loyal young man who is also in love with Mary, of course.  The story rushes quite rapidly through Mary disappointing poor June and being courted by lively July, so that we reach her wedding day.  And as she’s getting ready for her wedding, Maum Hannah notices that sister Mary’s belly is swollen…that she and July have been “a-havin sin”, as she puts it.  I haven’t hit the social consequences of this yet—I’m really hoping I’m not reading some retread of the story of Hester Prynne, but it sort of looks that way, doesn’t it?

I don’t know that Mary’s the most interesting character yet.  I think probably I’m most intrigued by Maum Hannah and her son, the crippled Budda Ben, who’s served as a father/uncle/brother figure to Mary during her years of growing up.  Ben was injured as an infant when his mother fell on top of him while sneaking away from her husband to visit her lover (Ben’s biological father)…so Maum Hannah knows a thing or two about “scarlet sins”, it seems.  The resulting relationship between these two characters seems really deep and promising—here’s just one moment that makes me think so:

“Crippled Budda Ben was bound to die ahead of his mother who prayed to God every day of her life to let her outlive him, so that when he died she could see that his box was made right.  Budda’s poor legs must not be cramped when they were laid in the ground for their last long rest.  She knew how to pray and she would outlive Budda Ben as sure as the world.”

Now, there’s a mother-son relationship I think is really worth exploring!  Next to that, “scarlet” sister Mary’s struggle with the puritanical values of her church as opposed to the hedonistic values of her soon-to-be-husband strikes me as a little too paint-by-numbers.  We’ll see if Julia Peterkin’s idea of an interesting story intersects with mine—I hope so, at least.

I continue to be bothered by this book’s racial attitudes, but I’m worried I’m not being fair: walk through this with me and tell me what you think.  The dialect these people speak is really the most appalling Amos’n’Andy stuff.  To illustrate, here’s the scene in which June learns that Mary’s in love with July:

“You is gwine to marry July? . . . July ever was a lucky boy.  E ever was.  I never had a luck in my life.”

“Ain’ you glad I’m gwine to be you sister, June?” she asked him.

“Not so glad, Si May-e.”

I haven’t even gotten to Maum Hannah’s standard outbursts (“Lawd, gal, I’m dat sorry, I could pure cry like a baby.  I could, fo’true.”)  So, I look at this and feel like I’m being asked to think of these character as “jes’ folks”, people without real depth or dignity, people who can barely string thoughts together.  I think this is heightened because of the narrator’s voice—for an example of that, here’s a snippet from the description of the old plantation where this book takes place.

“Earthquakes tumble down chimneys, storms break trees and houses, floods wash the earth so bare that its very bones are exposed, droughts burn up crops and weeds with impartial cruelty, but the old plantation is swift to hide every scar made by all this wickedness. . . . Life fills and enfolds everything here, never overlooking in the press of work to be done the smallest or most insignificant creature, and silently, with weariless patience and diligence, strange miracles are wrought as youth rises out of decay and death becomes only another beginning.”

I’m not saying that’s William F. Buckley talking, but I think it’s awfully well articulated, in general.  The contrast between the highly educated voice of the narrator (which remains always very distant from the characters, rarely narrating their thoughts/perceptions) and the voices of the people we encounter is stark.  So, am I wrong to react negatively to this?  Maybe my distaste at the dialect is a kind of condescension as a reader, a way of imposing my racial or class prejudices on a legitimate discourse?  Or is it the writer who’s condescending, setting up the tensions in this piece to be an impassioned and emotional minstrel show?  I can’t decide…and I’d very much like to hear your opinions, based on the evidence provided.

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4 comments on ““Some sin is black, an’ some ain’ so black, but dis sin you had is pure scarlet.”

  1. Daniel Castro says:

    It seems to me like the way the author has the black people talking is not all that bad; it is not any worse than I have read in Faulkner, for example. I guess I would say that the place where you decide if the author is being condecending or not is when you look at the meaning of what the characters are saying. If they actually say things worthwhile, or they have brilliant snippets of truth, then I would say it is okay. If all they say is “gee wilikers” (you know what I mean, haha), then it kind of seems disrespectful, to me.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the perspective, Daniel—I guess I’ll have to get deeper in before I can tell. So far, it feels to me like the dialect does hamper their expressivity, and limit their ability to say something more than “gee willikers” (nice phrase, btw), but I’m working with a limited sample.

  2. graham says:

    It sounds racist to me. Maybe standard, boilerplate “of the time” racist, but I guess I’d hope for more from the “best novel to come out that year” (according to pulitzer.)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Graham, though I’ve gotten a bit more adjusted to it (and think the effect is lessened over time), after getting 1/3 of the way into this book, it still makes me uneasy. I agree that I’d at least hope for more out of the late 1920s–a white America that (at least in Northern urban centers) was embracing the power and beauty of jazz can’t keep limiting African-Americans to caricatures, can they?

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