It’s been a little while since I read Kaye Gibbon’s Ellen Foster, but I remember the relationship between Starlette and Ellen. A relationship like that does not appear in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, but what does exist is the presence of African Americans in a mitigated role as the “other” in relation to the Boatwright family. Two scenes in particular grabbed my attention when reading Allison’s novel. Both scenes involve either African Americans or references to them, and they both contain people gazing at one another in a judgemental manner.
The first scene occurs when Bone and Reese visit their Aunt Alma after she leaves Wade and moves into an apartment building. There, Bone and her cousins look over the railing downstairs to see faces staring back up at the them. Bone says that the “[s]hiny brown faces kept pressing against the glass and then withdrawing, stern blank faces that we barely tell one from the other” (83). Bone looks at the faces staring out of the windows and thinks about the fact that she has never really interacted with African Americans before, becoming curious. Here, the faces staring back at her take on the image of being in a zoo or exhibit, behind glass and not interacdting on any level. The reason for this, Bone’s cousin Little Earle says, is because their mother “sure an’t happy we moved in here” and told her children that if they played with the white kids “she’d beat their asses” (84). The relationship between the children does not exist, even though they start to play with each eventually.
Bone has a hard time telling if the face that continually stares at her belongs to a boy or girl. After realizing it is a girl, Bone wants to speak to her, but she never does. Instead, she just thinks, “I had never before spoken to a colored person in anything more than the brief, careful ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ that Mama had taught us. I was as shy with those kids as they seemed with us” (86). Bone wishes the girl would speak with her, but nothing ever happens. Even though she has heard her uncles and stepfather tell jokes about the “niggers,” she turns the focus back to herself and her lack of status in the white community. Pondering why the girl never spoke to her, Bone says, “Her mama had probably told her all about what to expect from trash like us” (emphasis added 86). The word “trash” provides the key here. Rather than focusing on race as the reason the two groups of kids never spoke, Bone perceives it as a comment on her social standing as “trash” to the people in the community.
When the family goes to James’s house for a birthday celebration, Bone and Reese had to eat in the backyard while the rest of the kids “went in an out of the house, loud, raucous, scratching their nails on the polished furniture, kicking their feet on the hardwood floors, tracking blood in on the braided rugs” (101). James views Daddy Geln’s family as “trash,” relegating them to the outside of the house while those who appear superior in regards to status can do whatever they would like to do. What makes this scene interesting is reading it in comparison with the apartment scene discussed above. Here. Bone and Reese appear to be confned within the zoo while others look and comment on them. Staying on her best behavior, Bone comments that Daddy Glen’s “people watched us out the windows,” flanked by books and framed pictures (102). One of the kids even stares at Bone like she is an elephant in the zoo.
Later, Bone overhears Daddy Glen’s brothers, James and Daryl, talking about the family. Who speaks is not indicated. Instead, it comes across as a series of thoughts that both brothers maintain about Daddy Glen’s choice of wife and stepchildren. The conversation goes as follows:
“Look at that car. Just like any nigger trash, getting something like that.”
“What’d you expect Look what he married.”
“Her and her kids sure go with that car. . . . ” (102)
The disctinction here rests on class, not race. Bone and her family could assimilate into society, if they had the money and respect to do so. However, the family that Bone encounters in the apartment does not have the same opportunities. In both cases, the characters begin to play into the stereotypes that others place upon them. For example, James and Daryl refer to Bone and her family as trash. As they leave the party, Bone recalls what her Aunt Madeline said, “Trash steals.” She takes some roses, but nothing more. While she may play in to the perception that others hold, she says, “No hunger would make me take anything else of theres” (103).
This is just a brief discussion of two very important scenes in Allison’s novel. What do you think? How does the marginalization of African Americans in the novel affect the reading? People continually refer to her and her family in deragatory terms. Even with these comments, we do not see a large African American presence in the novel. What does this say? Does it say that Bone and her family can overcome? Does the lack of African American characters say the family can overcome because they are white? Let me know in the comments below.
Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Plum Books, 1993. Print.