Gloria Naylor, Bailey’s Cafe

Naylor, Gloria. Bailey’s Cafe. Vintage Books, 1992.

Summary of Work
Bailey’s Cafe is a novel about people who have had a series of life struggles and are in need of a way station to put their lives back together. The unnamed narrator of the novel, the owner of the cafe who goes by the name Bailey because people assume his name is the same as his restaurant, introduces all the characters and tells their stories (except for Mariam, who his wife Nadine introduces). Bailey is a WWII veteran who spent time in Japan and saw the aftermath of the atomic bombs. It is that aftermath that leads him to question the moral quality of America and its leadership. Before the war, he met his wife Nadine. He saw her at a baseball game (he is a huge fan of baseball, both the MLB and the Negro Leagues), and he followed her and spilled a raspberry ice on her. Nadine rarely laughs and does not smile often; she is a practical, realist woman, even telling her husband that if he died in the war, she was going to marry the butcher. She helps Bailey run the restaurant. Bailey was a cook in the navy, and although his cooking skills aren’t great, he does cook. There is one menu item each day, and then on Saturdays people can order anything they want. Occasionally, Nadine makes peach cobbler. The cafe itself is said to not be grounded in space, making its way wherever people need to walk in from.

Sadie, a homeless prostitute and alcoholic, is a regular customer. The daughter of a prostitute, she always tried to be very good, but was regularly beaten and treated poorly for making noise or even just asking what her name was. At age 13, her mother starts whoring her out, and she gets pregnant very young, and the abortion her mother has her attain destroys her ability to have children. When her mother dies, she takes a job as a cleaning lady at a whore house, and when that is closed down during the war, she marries a man 30 years her senior. He is also an alcoholic, like her mother was, and she tries to make sure the house they live in is pristine in order to please him. When he dies, his daughters won’t let her stay in the house if she won’t buy it from them, and in her desperation to make money, she turns to prostitution, is arrested, loses her home, and when she gets out, turns to prostitution and drinking for survival. At the diner, a man who sells ice for a living, known as Iceman at the cafe, takes a liking to her and wants to give her a better life. He tells her stories about how he sells ice and that it is always the person on the top floor that wants the most ice. He tells a tall story about having his ice used to put out a fire, and it makes her laugh. When Iceman asks her to marry him, she wants to, but backs out because she thinks the dream is too good to be true and that she doesn’t deserve it.

Eve runs a home that some people think is a whorehouse and others know as a way station to get well from traumatic wounds. She helps many women in a several story house, and she is always making sure that she is choosy about who she allows in. When men come to see the women, they always have to bring flowers or purchase them from Eve, who always keeps flowers in bloom no matter the season. Eve’s life story is that she was saved and raised by a preacher, but he caught her with her dress up to her thighs and a boy stomping around her while she lay on the ground, and he made her burn her clothes, throw up all the food he had given her, and leave the house. She walked all the way to New Orleans and earned a living, and then moved North, a rich woman who supposedly had never whored for her living. She bought a home and always asked women who wanted to live there if they knew the dust of the Delta, the dust that she would always carry with her from her difficult journey. As women come in looking for Eve’s place, Bailey always directs them there.

Sister Carrie, a devout, self-righteous zealot, also frequents the cafe. She uses the Bible to denounce the women of the household, and is regularly upset when Eve, who was raised by a preacher, can use the Bible to make arguments better than she can.

Ester lives in the basement of Eve’s home. She hates the light. As a child, her brother “married” her to a local white man, who kept her in a room with a nice bed and then forced her down into the cellar to perform unnatural acts in the dark with him. She was twelve when her brother sent her, and she knew that her brother was receiving monetary compensation for her being there, and so she stayed twelve years in order to pay her debt to her brother, and then left. She loves white flowers because they show in the dark and she can watch them die.

Mary, also known as Peaches, came from a privileged home where she was offered many things, but she always saw herself in the mirror and felt that she was a whore, and that’s what she chose to become. When she was mistress to a rich man with a club foot, she was still seeing other men, and when he told her that he would kill the next man she was with, she tried to stay in for two weeks, and then mutilated herself with a bottle opener from her cheek down to her chin on the right side. The authorities thought he did it, but she wouldn’t accuse him, and she wouldn’t take any offers to have a plastic surgeon fix the scar because she knew she’d just do it again.

Jessie Bell married into the very wealthy King family, even though her family came from the docks. She struggled with her husband’s father and how he tried to run everything, and when she had a child, Ely got into her life and destroyed it, alienating both her from her son and her family from her son. She descended into heroine addiction, regularly going to lesbian parties to enjoy the company of her “special friend.” One night a party gets raided and she is caught in it, and Ely uses it as a reason to have his son divorce her. After the divorce, she descends further into addiction, and makes her way to Bailey’s Cafe and Eve. Eve helps her sober up and then forces her to get addicted again and go through the process one more time. Jessie hates Eve for that. She is the only one of the women outside of Eve who will regularly come to the cafe to talk, play cards, and eat.

Gabe is a Russian Jew who owns the pawn shop connected to Bailey’s Cafe. He and Bailey do not get along, but when Mariam comes to his shop, he takes her directly to Bailey’s so that Eve can help her. Mariam comes from a small African village. Her mother had her circumcised in order to ensure her virginity before marriage, but she gets pregnant anyway, even though no man has touched her. Her village throws her out, and she makes her way out of the village looking for someone to take her in. Eve takes her in, but they are all worried about the girl and the pain it is going to cause her to have a child after the genital mutilation. None of the men will engage with her because they can’t deal with her story.

Miss Maple is a cross dresser. His real name is Stanley Beckwourth Booker T. Washington Carver, and he was born and raised in Southern California. When he is about to go to school, his father orders him an expensive copy of the collected works of Shakespeare, and when they go to get it, the white men in town confront his father about the clothes he wears. They had already regularly slashed his tires of his nice cars, and they start to beat them and rip their clothes, forcing them to strip naked. They find women’s clothes in the store, and they walk out in those. At college, he attains a PhD in marketing, but cannot find a job anywhere. He spends some time in jail because he was a conscientious objector and refused to fight in the war. He starts dressing in women’s clothing because as he is going many places to search for jobs, the weather is unbearable and he finds women’s clothes cooler and more comfortable. He finally accepts a job as a housekeeper and bouncer for Eve, and he intends to save up enough money to be able to go back and start up his own company.

At the end of all of these stories, Mariam’s child is born. It is a baby boy, and the whole of Eve’s house and the people in the cafe sing spirituals for hours in happiness over the successful birth. Mariam follows Jewish customs, and Gabe comes in and does the Jewish communal rites for the child. Bailey is named Godfather, and together, Gabe and Bailey name the baby George, after their own fathers. The story ends there, not because there aren’t more stories to tell, but because Bailey chooses to end the tale on a happy note.

Brief Note on Themes
This book is structured as almost a set of interrelated short stories, connected by a common theme of tragedy. This ultimately creates a story that functions like a blues and jazz song, with the stories being tragic blues stories and each person getting time to riff or be the main melody to tell their story, like a jazz musician. There is a touch of magical realism in that the cafe is everywhere and nowhere, with the back of the cafe leading into infinity or into death, and the front of the cafe offering an entrance into a liminal space for healing. Eve becomes a form of griot, both pariah and savior, one who knows more than everyone else in the area and community. The women’s stories are mainly featured, offering a variety of stories about what it means to be a woman and female experience. Eve can perhaps be seen as the first woman, founding a space for other women, who are always and only seen as sex objects despite their major potential outside of their physical bodies. Having a cross dressing man also brings up discussions of gender fluidity and what it really means to be feminine or masculine.

August Wilson, Fences

Wilson, August. Fences. Plume, 1986.

Summary of Work
Troy Maxson and his friend Jim Bono are at Troy’s home after working at the Sanitation Company, and they are discussing Troy’s recent decision to apply for a job driving the garbage truck rather than staying on the back and lifting the bins. Bono thinks that he is going to get himself and other black men fired, but Troy disagrees, and says that what he’s after is to have them change the job description so everyone can drive the truck. His wife comes in and they start discussing the past and then their son, and Troy is upset that his son Cory is being recruited to play football at college. Troy remembers back when he played baseball (it’s how he met his wife Rose) and was denied the chance to play professionally due to segregation and injustice. Rose tries to tell him that times have changed, but he won’t hear it. As he rants about Selkirk and Jackie Robinson, he gets drunker and drunker, and when his wife tells him that he’ll drink himself to death, he speaks the famous line “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner” (10) as he tells about when he had pneumonia and beat death.

His older son Lyons stops by and asks for ten dollars, and Troy, after being upset at Lyons and telling him that he needs to get his life in order rather than just playing music and relying on others, he hands all the money from his paycheck to Rose, and she gives Lyons ten dollars from the money. The next morning, when Troy comes down wanting to have Cory work with him on the fence, Rose tells him that Cory is at football practice, and Troy is upset again. He’s also upset that his wife is playing the numbers. Then Gabriel, Troy’s brother who was injured in the war and is now mentally ill, walks up carrying his trumpet and basket of fruits and vegetables that he tries to sell. He thinks Troy is mad at him for moving out, but Troy insists to Gabe he isn’t upset. Rose tries to feed Gabe, and he tells Troy that he knows Saint Peter has Troy’s name in the book but not his own. When he leaves, Troy starts feeling guilty again about taking the disability money Gabriel got so they could buy the house.

When Cory gets home, Troy starts in arguing with him. Cory asks if they can get a TV, and Troy lectures Cory on how much money it takes to roof the house and to keep it up and make sure that everyone is fed and taken care of. Then, when they start talking about Cory’s football scholarship chances, Troy tells him to forget it because the white people aren’t going to let him get anywhere, so instead he should be focusing on his job at the A&P so he could actually earn a living doing something. Two weeks later, Cory is still more concerned with football than chores and work, and takes off to play. Just after, Troy comes back with Bono, ecstatic because he just got the job as a driver for the Sanitation company. Bono asks him if he even has a license, and Troy states that he doesn’t need a license.

Lyons comes back to return the ten dollars he borrowed, but Troy won’t take it, telling him to save it for the next time he needs to borrow money. So Lyons gives the money to Rose. Gabriel also comes in, having been he thinks, in his mentally ill state, chasing Hellhounds away from St. Peter’s gates. He asks for a sandwich, and when Troy starts up again about family matters, Rose shuts him down and says that Troy is to stop it about Gabe and his landlord Miss Pearl and about Cory, and he is to sign the papers allowing Cory to play when the college recruiters come, and that’s the end of it. Then they get talking about parents, and Troy tells of how he was from a family of eleven, and his mother ran off from her evil husband, who was a sharecropper. Troy was just eight and thought his mother would come back for him, but he didn’t. When he was 14, he had a girlfriend, and he was going to sleep with her in a field, when his father came upon them and whipped him badly. Troy, thinking that he was done, went looking for his father after that and found his father having sex with the girl, so he got upset with his father, and his father beat him unconscious. He awoke to the family dog Blue licking him, but he couldn’t see anything. After that, he figured he couldn’t go back home, so he walked all the way to Mobile and started stealing to survive. It landed him in jail for fifteen years, and that’s where he learned to play baseball and where he met Bono.

When Cory comes back home, Troy tells him that he’s in trouble because he found out that he quit his job at the A&P and he hasn’t been keeping his chores up. Cory tries to explain that he can’t do both work and football practice, and Troy tells him that’s his first mistake, strike one. He is to go and get his job back and quit the football team. Cory refuses, and tells his mom so. That afternoon, when Troy and Bono and Cory are out, they say they don’t know why Rose wants the fence put up. Bono suggests she wants it up to keep everyone close to her. When Cory leaves into the house to get something, Bono confronts Troy about his affair he is having, saying that Rose is a good woman and he shouldn’t be doing it. Troy, says he loves rose but can’t shake this other girl loose, and Bono replies that he doesn’t want to see Rose hurt.

They’ve had to go get Gabe out of jail for disturbing the peace, and it cost 50 dollars. During the time that Troy is explaining this to Rose, he also lets her know that he is going to be a father: the woman he is having an affair with is pregnant. To get Gabe away from the situation, she tells him to go get the watermelon in the fridge that he can eat and sell. Rose, upset that after eighteen years of love and work in the marriage, even knowing it was tough and wanting to give up often, Troy would cheat on her.  He tries to explain that he felt like he was standing in the same place for eighteen years and wanted a change, and she tells him that she’s felt the same way but never acted on it. Troy goes to hit Rose, and Cory sees and grabs Troy from behind and hits him. Troy tells him that that’s strike two.

Six months later, Rose confronts Troy about having signed a form to put Gabe in the hospital, and tells him that he’ll have to pay for that. And she also tells him that Alberta, the woman with whom he had the affair, died in childbirth. Troy leaves and comes back with his daughter, asking Rose to help him raise the child. She tells him she will raise the child, but that he no longer has a wife. Two months after that Troy comes into the house one day and when Cory tries to get past him without saying excuse me, an all out fight ensues. Troy tells Cory that he’s raised him and given him all he has because it is his responsibility, and when Cory gets upset and says that he’s done nothing but bully everyone and abuse them into fear of him, Troy gets ready to beat him. Cory picks up Troy’s bat and starts swinging it at him, but cannot bring himself to hit his father even as he is backed into a corner. They fight over the bat, and Troy is stronger than Cory. He gets it and tells him to get out of the house and never come back. Troy starts talking about death and preps to swing the bat at that fastball on the outside corner.

The final scene is the family getting ready to go to Troy’s funeral. Cory is a corporal in the marines, Lyons is just out of jail for the funeral before he has to do nine more months, and Gabriel is still in the hospital. Raynell, Troy’s daughter, is elementary school aged now. When Cory tells his mother that he doesn’t think he’ll go to the funeral because he can’t have his father still hanging over him, she tells him he will go and that he is just like his father, that for all that he did wrong, Troy was a good man and that he should respect him and recognize that he gave the best he had to him. She says that she loved him and lost touch with him, but Raynell is a saving grace and she intends to give her the best she has to offer as well. Afterwards, when Cory goes out, Raynell follows him and they sing the song their dad used to sing, Dog Named Blue, together. When they all walk outside together, Gabriel tries to blow his horn, which has no mouthpiece now, to open the gates of heaven for Troy. When no sound comes out, he does a ritual dance and tells Troy that it’s the way to go.

Brief Discussion of Themes
The Pittsburgh Cycle of plays is an attempt to center marginalized black history and experience. This play explores what it is like to live in the North in a city where black people are better off than in the South, but still not allowed full participation in society. Jim Crow laws are fully seen in the play with the discussion of baseball and segregation as well as Troy trying to get a promotion. The struggles of employment and poverty stem from this, which is evidenced by Troy’s discussion of his thieving in order to survive in the North until after he went to prison for fifteen years. The struggles of black family life are also a focus, with not just Troy’s family in the North, but his young family life in the South. Troy’s pride is that he has a good job and owns his home for his family to live in, and he guards money viciously because of his knowledge of what it is like to be without. That fear is what drives him to treat his son the way he does and to deny him the opportunity to attend college on scholarship: he doesn’t believe that anything has changed or will changed in white-black relations. It is a similar fear, a fear of staying in the same place, that leads Troy to be unfaithful, and it costs him everything. The plays end shows a recognition of human weakness and a recognition of the love and progress that is being made from generation to generation, as the struggle is passed on and the history of that struggle lives on through Troy’s children.

For a discussion of Jim Crow laws in Fences, see the study guide I am published in through the August Wilson Society.

 

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf P, 2014.

Summary of Work
Citizen is a work of poetry about what it means to be black in America. Claudia Rankine starts her work by remembering experiences in her past—from the white girl in Catholic school who cheated off of her and thanked her by saying that she wasn’t very dark or didn’t look very black for a black girl to having her partner complain about having to hire a person of color as the fiction writer at the university—and how white people have made her invisible through their words and actions. When she went to walk into a board room for a meeting and overheard white people saying that when black people spoke to each other it was like listening to a different language, she thought about waiting a good while to go in the room. When a white friend used the term “hoe” to refer to her when she was late, she called her friend out on it by asking, “What did you say?” and her friend was too ashamed or embarrassed to repeat it. When she has called others out for using the N word to describe black teenagers or people, white people have been angry at her for calling them out or for taking offense at their use of language.

She actively discusses how language has power precisely because it makes racism hyper visible: the features that others despise about black people are brought to center stage. She discusses this at length by bringing up the competition history of Serena Williams. She talks about the outright racism that Serena has faced in her career, a black tennis player in an almost all-white sport. The racism got so bad that new tech was invented to prevent it, and commentators even outright had to admit the bias. And she discusses how well Serena has dealt with most of the hatred she’s received on and off the court. Yet when she has outbursts because of the built up resentment over racist actions that have damaged her career and person, the media sees her as insane.

Rankine also discusses how there is a man on youtube who has stated that in order for black artists to be successful they have to commercialize and channel their rage and anger. It cannot be real anger, but must be a kind that white people can consume in entertainment and feel like they can understand. And yet, Rankine knows there are other types of anger, and she states that every black person has had moments where they would like to beat down every white person they see because of that rage. And yet they cannot, because their bodies are rendered dangerous if they don’t present as white people want.

She presents a series of scripts about a variety of injustices black people have faced: murders by the hands of the police, lynching and beating and murder at the hands of white people, and police profiling as they strip search black people who do not even meet the description of the perpetrator they are looking for. She has a list of names that read “In Memory of . . .” that list all the black people who have died at the hands of the police at the time of the book’s publication. The “In Memory of” fades from the page as it continues, emphasizing that the names will continue to be added and cannot be numbered.

Using the FIFA World Cup event where the Algerian team member head butted another player in rage, she discusses how people of color are always expected to be better than everyone else in their behavior and are held to a higher standard than those perpetrating racism and hatred. As the Algerian is labeled a terrible person, terrorist, and a “typical Muslim” for his action, everything that led up to the moment is lost. She also discusses how the race riot in London over a black man’s death was dealt with so much differently than the Rodney King riots, and people in London focused on the looting and rioting so much that it seemed the cause of the rioting was nearly forgotten. When she asks her journalist friend if he will write about the issue, he tells her no, and she realizes that these are issues that white people can just set aside, while black people must live with the reality every day.

The book is filled with illustrations and photographs: from the video clip reels showing the Algerian head butting the other player to a white opposing player of Serena’s stuffing towels in her shirt chest and pants butt to imitate Serena Williams, ultimately performing the blackness that white people want from her. There are also paintings and archival photos that go along with the various topics that Rankine explores in her poetry.

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
The poem itself feels like a very free form verse. It reads more like prose than like poetry, with the poem itself being broken into paragraphs and seven sections. There are points throughout the work with a lot of white space, sometimes pages of it. The images are often placed under paragraphs or given their own page entirely, sometimes spanning two pages.

Brief Note on Themes
The whole of this work looks at what it is like to be black in America. Largely, it explores how racism takes many forms and has many affects on black people, both visible and invisible. Rankine tries to tell people what it is like to be embodied as a black person, and that their blackness is most often felt when in a room or space full of white people, where white people become aware of their racist language as they are using it in front of people of color. The power of language to determine embodiment is a large theme throughout the book; what are we saying that determines how we see people or expect them to behave? Language as an apparatus of power to uphold white superstructures of racism plays a large part, but so do the images. How do the images of blackness, some of which are provided in the book itself, shape what it means to be a black person in America? And how do those race relations and images extend out from America to other countries? Racism has perhaps one of the largest effects in the justice system, where countless innocent black people are stopped, frisked, arrested, and murdered by white police officers because of fear and images of racism that govern their understanding of black people.

Racism as it pertains to interracial relationships also plays a part in this work. From the times that Rankine forgives or stays quiet about racist trespasses her partner or friends make regularly against her to the casual encounters in a bar or on the street, Rankine reveals that people of color are genuinely working harder than white people to mold to the systems that exist and to not make white people feel too uncomfortable when there is a person of color in their presence. This was highlighted perfectly in the scene where she is listening to someone discuss how comedy comes from context, and how things are funny until a black person can hear what you’re saying about them.

The weight of the work that is being asked of black people, socially, personally, publicly, privately, is so much that it is crushing them to some extent, and yet they have no way out of the situation. They must still be careful to not end up dead like those in the news, and to not lose their jobs or offend their majority-white coworkers, and to maintain proper decorum no matter how terrible the words white people sling at them in racist hatred. Rankine shares her memories of what it means to be a black person in the US as a lesson for all who read about what people of color in the US and elsewhere face, and how it is handled, and she leaves us with that knowledge, almost as a call that we do something with it.