Alice Walker’s ‘Roselily’: Meditations on Culture, Politics, and Chains

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Author: Trudier Harris
Editor: Catherine C. DiMercurio
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 272)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,549 words

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[(essay date 2017) In the following essay, Harris demonstrates how the story “Roselily” employs the African American call-and-response tradition as a narrative strategy. Through a close reading of the protagonist’s interior monolog, Harris demonstrates the story’s critique of traditional marriage and gender norms.]

In her short story “Roselily” (1971), which appears in In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), Alice Walker depicts a front-porch Southern country wedding in Panther Burn, Mississippi, in which a young African American woman who has had several children out of wedlock unites her fate with a Chicago-based black Muslim who will presumably whisk her away to a new life and new opportunities. Into this seemingly simple array, Walker introduces historical forms and patterns integral to African American culture. The story takes the shape of Roselily’s silent responses to the wedding vows, responses in which she imagines and contrasts, in far less than romantic terms, what potential realities those almost benign words could harbor; during that process, history and politics inform the shape of the story as well as her reveries. A small country wedding, therefore, becomes the site upon which a woman’s fate is examined through the lenses of call and response, pre-marital sex, out of wedlock pregnancies, the cultural space of the front porch, community censorship, migration, militant—including Muslim—politics of the 1960s, traditional attitudes toward marriage, and the imprisoning consequences of what marriage could mean for a woman who has little to offer and even less with which to bargain with her future husband. Roselily is not in love, but, as the story develops and like most of the female characters in In Love & Trouble, she is definitely in trouble.

Call and Response

Walker structures her story in a familiar African American cultural pattern, that of call and response. Derived from Africa and as old as black life on United States soil, call and response covers a variety of African American cultural interactions, including secular and sacred traditions that range from work songs to blues performances to storytelling to church services. Perhaps most readily readers will think of the interaction between a preacher and the congregation that hears the sermon she or he delivers. As the preacher intones his or her text, congregants might easily reply, “Preach it!,” “Tell the Truth!,” or “I’m a witness!” Call and response implies a give-and-take collaboration between performer and audience, between messenger and receivers of the message. It suggests that there is a sympathetic relationship between the person who is singled out for performance and the masses of those who witness the performance. It can potentially, as poet Sterling Brown makes clear in “Ma Rainey,” have a soothing, healing effect upon the masses for whom the performer is offering a sermon or a song. Perhaps even more notable than Ma Rainey—at least to contemporary audiences—are the interactive exchanges that master bluesman B. B. King had with his guitars, which he successively named “Lucille.” He would sing/talk (call) a portion of a song, and the faithful Lucille...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420126823