Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Being real when nobody else is around: "Godmother Tea" by Selena Anderson (Best American Short Stories 2020)

Nearly everyone probably agrees that the diversification of voices that's taken place in Western literature in the last five to eight decades is a good thing. While it can be intellectually and emotionally profitable to read works from cultural viewpoints external to the reader's, and although some truths really are universal, one of the reasons people read is to feel less alone, which means at least some of a reader's diet out to consist of people with a background somewhat similar to the reader's. So it's good for black readers to have some black writers to read. 

A funny thing happened during those decades of literary diversification, though. It became apparent that when black voices were able to tell their own, black stories, there was no unanimous opinion as to what being black meant. In reality, this shouldn't have been surprising, since centuries of literature from white writers with similar backgrounds had never revealed any underlying psychological unity. The heterogeneity of white thought on identity never bothered most white thinkers, but some black thinkers, perhaps feeling there should be a degree of unanimity within the members of one of the out-groups of society within itself, have evidenced some angst about the diversity of opinions of what authentic blackness means. 

This angst reverberates with young black people today, even those with no awareness of arguments within the black intelligentsia. Part of the black experience is a constant struggle over identity, with questions such as, "Am I acting too white?" or, "Is my lifestyle true to my identity as a black person in America?"

One way this identity battle manifests itself is when black people question other black people who use what they deem to be white vocabulary, or who dress white, or who live in white neighborhoods, or even who do well in school. As one study on African-American identity in adolescence put it:   

"...many African American youth underperform in school; the interplay between race and dis-avowal of achievement is the focus of a number of theories (Fordham, 1988; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Graham, 1994; Hudson, 1991). Thus, Ogbu (1991) and others (e.g., Steele, 1988) have described how awareness of racism and the need for collective struggle against racism result in a sense of in-group policing of boundaries. Group members who attempt to affiliate with whites or engage in activities viewed as white are sanctioned by the group. This may result in 'cultural inversion' or viewing conventional successes and achievements as not black and as threatening one's blackness. Similar in-group policing is described by Dyson (1993) among black academics, authors, musicians and creative artists who may find themselves channeled into particular content domains, techniques or styles and risk criticism by others in the black community if their work does not fit a narrow view of blackness or black traditions. Thus attempts to define blackness as not white may result in sanctions for those who focus on academics and schooling ."  

Joy has an identity problem. Literally.

The protagonist of Selena Anderson's short story "Godmother Tea," twenty-something Joy, is living this identity problem. She wonders somewhat obsessively whether her words, dress, and life are too white. This neurosis is helped along by a society constantly accusing her of being too white: her mother, her estranged friend, a random Nigerian guy at a party. When we meet Joy, her identity problem is quite literal. Her big problems in life, we learn, are that her best friend has abandoned her, her old boyfriend has a new girlfriend, and her driver's license is so expired that it is "becoming difficult to prove (she) was (her)self." The license is a fairly obvious symbol that her issues are related to identity. 

Outside of her identity problems, Joy's position in life isn't one our culture specifically associates with black Americans; instead, it's the rather more universal twenty-something concern for not having established oneself yet, needing help from parents, and wondering if life is ever going to take off. I'm a white guy in my late forties, and I'm still not sure I'm past that phase in life. Like Joy, a lot of the furniture in my house is from my parents. So one of her problems is specific to her blackness, while another is something experienced by almost every young adult in America.  

What makes Joy's experience of the universal crappiness of young adulthood specific to her is that she's currently without an identity. As a teen, her friend Nicole helped Joy to develop an identity that felt authentically Black in Joy's mind. Nicole seemed to Joy like a "real" black woman, and Joy imitated her: 

But what made us last was that when we were together, it felt like we were speaking a special language. Looking back, I think that maybe I had just learned to speak her way. I hung on to every turn of phrase and rhythm, because there was so much hope in them, the way her words sailed out and up with such poise and without fear. My mama didn’t even sound like that.

Nicole taught Joy about "the dozens," which, as an outsider to the culture that practices it, I understand as something like "talking shit about each other for fun." It is, apparently, something one has to be able to do well in order to be accepted in some black communities. 

But Nicole has graduated from her teen self. She's got a job now, and a fiancée, and she goes to parties at houses on oaky boulevards where you have to "enter a gate code to even get inside the neighborhood." Seeing Nicole embrace this new side of herself is confusing to Joy, because Joy so often feels pressure not to act white, but here, the very person Joy thought could teach her about being authentically black seems to have decided that version of herself in in her past. Joy is left feeling that Nicole is "becoming one of them," while Joy is "becoming the wrong version of (her)self." 

I don't know if this Key and Peele sketch is the most accurate depiction of black intra-cultural pressure to be authentically Black, but it is probably the funniest one I know of. 

The godmother

Joy feels conflicted about taking help from her mom, the deliverer of furniture. She feels conflicted about nearly everything. She imagines her mother's charity is a subtle way of judging her, the "messy presents" like gym passes and coupons for maids more a commentary on Joy's shortcomings than attempts to help. Joy imagines not just what her mother really thinks about her, but what all of her long train of ancestors think. She isn't sure if they approve of her or disapprove, and she splits it in half by supposing they look at her with "loving disapproval." She imagines that her mother is looking at her funny for using too white a word ("self-reflexive"), but she also imagines her family praising her for having grown up into a "well-spoken young woman full of potential." Joy's mental state can be aptly summed up by a phrase she uses early on: "a complaint I'd been having with myself." 

As Joy is imagining what other people, living and dead, think of her, she conjures up the godmother from the mirror her mother gave her. Like everything in Joy's head, the godmother is a bit of a contradiction:

The godmother is like an ancestor who never really left. Someone who’s here even when they’re not. The godmother is what happens when somebody asks your name and you suddenly can’t remember. When it’s gorgeous outside and you work up the nerve to be part of something but not enough nerve to brush your hair, that’s the godmother. Maybe you stay up too late and are tempted to give yourself completely to unrequited obsessions. That’s the godmother’s doing, too. When life speeds through its continuum without pushing you forward, she starts to look your way. You have to be careful with this familiar face. She’ll have you batting your eyes and practicing your smile. 

There's some truth in there, but a little bit of that description is Joy's own self-contradicting brain at work. Joy actually comes closer to the truth about what the godmother is when she's trying to dissimulate to Nicole about it, to ask her friend about the godmother without telling the full truth. She describes the godmother as "a scenario where versions of my former self judged me through the bedroom mirror." That's the narrator giving the reader a non-magical-realist way of understanding the godmother, and it's believable that Joy's imagination is so active where judging herself is concerned that she would conjure something as real as the godmother, symbol of past generations come to life to tell her what she's doing wrong. 

Within Joy's imagination, the godmother cooks for her (soul food, mostly), and chastises Joy for trying to make fancy food she can't pronounce. In that sense, the godmother seems to be answering that part of Joy's brain that feels guilty for being too "white," i.e. having a good education, speaking collegiate English, aspiring to learn about and experience things from all over the world. But the godmother's not just the voice telling her to stop being white; the godmother also critiques Joy for wanting to remain black according to her teen self's understanding of what that meant, i.e. refusing to make decisions that could increase her material comfort, the "the blasé way I naturally stood squandering my opportunities."

The mixed message is itself the message, which is that there is no magical message

Joy is a little mixed up about whether the godmother wants her to get her shit together in a traditional sense so she can get ahead in life, or whether the godmother wants her to stop worrying about white people things like getting ahead and be her true self. She senses, though, that it's more the former. She believes the godmother would "find a way to come out on top." 

Immediately, what this means to her is that she is going to act out a bit and get her ex-boyfriend Andre to have sex with her even though he's with a new girl, Porsche. (Porsche is a fascinating part of this story I don't really have time to go into, but what draws me in about her is that she's got the bougiest white girl name you could just about image, but also, Joy sees her as kind of a black girl's black girl. Her slang is so authentic, Joy concludes, that it "takes skill to get to that level, years if you study really hard." Why "study"? Does this mean Porsche, also, is having to feel her way around her blackness and figure it out?)

Joy gets Andre to not only have sex with her, but to lie to Porsche to get the man's shirt she was wearing off her back and into Joy's car. She's won some little petty game she had going on in her mind with Porsche. She thinks that this was the key, the attitude change the godmother had planned for her. She drives the next day to get her license renewed, thinking "the city seemed to have changed its opinions about me. I could speed up traffic with the nod of my head. I could weave through lanes. There wasn’t a person alive whose angry gaze could get their hooks in."

It's a false epiphany, though. The DMZ is closed, because it's Easter, a fact that Joy somehow missed. She walks away from the building and almost gets hit by a car, "zipping the city back into order." She hasn't gone through a dramatic change yet that will resolve her identity problem. 

There is one more act to the story, and in this final act, Joy finally figures out how to "get over." The godmother is being kind of hard on Joy while Joy is crying in the tub, but when Joy gets out, the godmother offers her tea. One more time, the godmother tells Joy she "talks like a white girl." She tells Joy she "can't even be real when nobody else is around," but she also gives her the tea to drink (which is, let's face it, kind of a white girl thing to drink). Confused beyond her ability to cope, Joy prays "to be in harmony with the city I called home and with my time on this earth and for this to show in my face and the way I talked. And if none of this was meant to be, I prayed that I wouldn’t want it in the first place, that I would be turned into a different girl completely."

This is the moment she finally solves her identity problem, the moment "when things turned around for me," and this time, the epiphany is real. Because she hasn't figured out her identity relative to what someone else thinks it should be, her friend or her mother or her mythical ideas of the ancestors. She's figured out what she wants for herself. She puts on an orange dress she "used to like," suggesting she had put her own tastes to the side for a time and is now reclaiming them. She heads outside, forgetting her wallet, but the guy at the store just gives her the soda she wanted to buy, apparently content with her now that she is content with herself. Joy concludes by saying that her ability to be true to herself, her own reflection in her own mirror when nobody else was around, is "how she got over."

A nice twist on an old concept

Black literature of the past half century has often looked to the ancestors for wisdom needed to face life today. Some stories imagine that communion with past ancestors and traditions could bring wholeness and new vibrancy. In "Godmother Tea," the ancestors do have a lot to offer, even if it's sometimes "messy presents," because the ancestors, in spite of their judgments based on their own prejudices, still have a "loving disapproval" even when they disapprove. But the ancestors also sometimes need to clear out of the way. Joy isn't able to "get over" until she is truly alone, until the godmother is really gone and there was "nobody there to explain to me my options." 

Joy isn't made whole through imaginative communion with the ancestors; she's made whole when they go away and she's able to get to work figuring out who she is when there isn't a voice in her ear telling her what she ought to be. 

Other readings of this story: Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory and Karen Carlson, the mother of BASS blogging, at A Just Recompense


  1. I saw the story being less about race than you did. I felt it was about how Joy was trying to figure out who she wanted to be while listening to other people's judgments of her. There were a few mentions of being criticized as being too white, but I don't think they were a major issue with Joy.

    I wondered if Anderson wanted the Godmother to act like a magical character (Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life) to guide her, or did the Godmother represent Joy's own subconscious being her own harshest critic, or even represent a successful version of what she wanted to become.

    I liked this story the most so far, but then I've read it four times now. Probably if I had read the other two stories four times I'd have liked them a lot more. I find the more effort I put into a story the more I admire them. The trouble is I don't have the time and energy to do that for every story.

    1. Hmm, I agree with Jim here; I don't think this story is about "Black identity" but about "identity" period. The fact that Joy's story or actions have to do with Black culture are not intended to contrast with White culture for the sake of some greater theme.

      I'm from the south and I interpreted a couple things differently. Porsche is a fairly common Black name (maybe in pop culture more so than real-life but I don't believe it's intended to mean a White name like you allude to here). Parties that have a White, suburban vibe are a real thing, and they aren't only differentiated by Black culture but class differences as well. I imagine that party in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia in a wealthy neighborhood. Nicole isn't only assimilating to White culture, but upper-class culture more generally.

      Maybe I'm not articulating it great, but I think Anderson wanted to articulate an identity crisis of a southern, young, Black woman not "because" she is Black, but because that's the type of person she knows well.

      I really appreciate your analysis though and I honestly have no idea what Anderson's true intentions were here. It'd be awesome if somebody could do a brief interview with her about it!

    2. Just did a quick internet search and found this: https://catapult.co/community/stories/something-that-looks-like-a-story-with-selena-anderson-and-jessica-wilbanks. The fact that it doesn't include mentions of an overall theme of Black identity is obviously not conclusive, but indicates this was probably not one of her greater intentions with this story.

    3. I don't really care too much what the author intended or thinks she intended. (You can search "intentional fallacy" if it's not a concept you already know about.) If the story's about identity, and the character is black, then it's also, at least in part, about black identity, or her understanding of what that means for her. Beyond that, Joy has tons of people in her life questioning her black authenticity, and she reads it into others around her as well. It's all over the story.

      I would agree that the story's not JUST about black identity. One of the things that's great about it is how the character is dealing with identity issues on a number of levels. Racial identity is one, but so is her identity as a young person trying to find her way in life. Identity in general not being confined to one category, the story does a nice job of not confining it to just one category, either.

      That being said, I'm interested in some of the cultural things you told me I didn't know about, like the fact that Porsche is a popular name for young black women. I've always thought of it as a preppy white-girl name. To be honest, I barely thought of this as a southern story, because other than the one line at the beginning about her living in a southern city with an ancient economy, nothing in the story really struck me as specifically southern. It felt like she put just enough southern stuff in there to make it acceptable to Oxford American, which likes to focus on writing from the American south. But if you say it feels southern to you, I'll believe you.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Jake. I am really having trouble concentrating on works which don't very quickly grab me. So every week, it seems like I am dropping a novel, since it failed to immediately resonate with me,and I am not prepared to devote the necessary time to it. With this story, my reading was very cursory and I skimmed sections. But at least I knew that Karen and you would guide me through it. I have a much greater grip on it now and perhaps if I devoted time to reread it thoughtfully, I might like it. But I don't think I will, hahaha. For now I am prepared to classify it as one of those stories which Sittenfeld talks about, a fine story, just not right for me. I really appreciate your analysis.

  3. I identified so strongly with the "do I have to be what everyone keeps telling me to be" theme - and the friend who moves on to higher-class friends leaving struggling artist Joy behind - and the messy gifts - that I kind of overlooked the black identity aspect. I wonder how it compares to the white kid, from the farm or other rural setting, who goes to college and talks differently when he returns. There's this tendency to blame him for forgetting where he came from, but there's a difference between change based on growth and preference, and a change that's put-on to attain respect. I get the sense Nicole is in the second category somehow, though everything is pretty vague in the story, isn't it.
    Anyway, I'm glad you went into black identity more deeply than I did. I kind of feel like a jerk for not giving it more prominence.
    Thinking of the godmother as part of Joy's mind, instead of some magical-realism spectre, really changes things, doesn't it.
    Oh, and names - I wonder if Joy's mother named her in hope, or as a description - like, You will have joy, or I have joy because I have you. Or both, I suppose, I tend to think in quanta instead of spectra. The name Porsche is downright weird - I kept flashing on A Fish Called Wanda - but I got the sense of Andre upgrading, too. Except Porsche doesn't seem all that upgraded.
    And thanks for the explanation of the Dozens - I read right past that. A few years ago, there was a poem in Pushcart titled Daddy Dozens - and it was just this kind of playful insult (My daddy's forehead is so big it needs its own zip code). I had no idea of the significance of the title.


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