On a recent trip to New Orleans, I stopped by Librairie Bookshop on Chartres and picked up four Frank Yerby paperbacks: The Saracen Blade (1952), Gillian (1960), The Man from Dahomey (1971), and A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest (1979). Since then, I have been delving, in earnest, into Yerby’s oeuvre, one that includes thirty three novels. I’ve written about his first novel The Foxes of Harrow (1947) before and the subversive elements that exist beneath the surface of Yerby’s “costume romance” that appear to reinforce the mythological ideal of a romantic South.
Maligned during his life and after his death by critics, Yerby’s work needs to be reexamined and explored in the ways that it strives to deconstruct false mythologies of the South. To do that, we need to look at Yerby’s life’s work as a whole, not just at his novels. This includes poems and short stories that he wrote and got published before he made it big with The Foxes of Harrow. These texts are, for a lack of a better term, protest writings. They directly challenge the hegemonic system that maintains its power and control over blacks. One such story is “White Magnolias,” a piece that originally appeared in 1944 in Phylon.
The short story (only about seven pages) focuses on Beth Thomas, a white teenager, asking her black friend Hannah Simmons over to her house for tea. Beth’s parents do not want Hannah in their house because she is black, and the main focus of the story centers on the debate that Beth has with her parents about Hannah’s humanity. Eventually, Hannah appears and a verbal confrontation occurs between Beth’s parents and herself. Bruce A. Glasurd and Laurie Champion argue that “White Magnolias,” along with Yerby’s other short stories, need to be reevaluated because “Yerby, as did Chester Himes, attempted both to reach and to teach about the evils of the current race situation in the United States; this approach makes his stories both politically effective and tragically ignored” (16).
From the title of the story, Yerby draws our attention to the symbol of the magnolia and its reference to both the South and white womanhood. This symbol recalls similar images of magnolia’s in Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Langston Hughes’s “Magnolia Flowers.” While the magnolia, in Holiday, Hughes, and Yerby, contains elements of beauty, violence lurks underneath. The scent of magnolias in “Strange Fruit” becomes overwhelmed by “burning flesh,” the magnolias that the speaker looks for in “Magnolia Flowers” turn up a dead body that the speaker trips over, and the magnolias that line the Thomas’s walk in “White Magnolias” hide the hostility and cruelty behind the veneer of beauty.
In “White Magnolias,” Yerby comments on the barriers to upward mobility by African Americans in the South. Even though Hannah’s father is a well-respected doctor in the community, her brother is at Harvard, and she has a degree from Fisk and plans to attend Boston University for postgraduate work, Beth’s mother and father see her as nothing more than a servant. From the very beginning, Beth’s parents (Clint and Martha) cannot believe that Beth wants to share the table with Hannah, and her mother even thinks that Beth wants Hannah to serve her food. As such, even though Beth tells her parents that her and Hannah are friends, Martha tries to get Hannah to work for the family as a maid: “How’d you like to come to work for me? Just for the summer I mean – or longer if you’d give up this foolish notion about postgraduate study. I have the feeling you’d be quite a treasure” (323). They do not see her, or her family, as equals. In fact, Clint tells the group gathered on the porch, “But let me tell you – all the money and all the education in the world won’t make a white man out of a nigger! All it does is to make the critter miserable. Wanting things he never can have. Forgetting he’s black and trying to act white. Getting into all sorts of trouble–” (324).
Beth’s parents believe the “race problem” has been solved a long time go, because “[t]he South solved it years ago. Treat the Negro kindly, but keep him in his place” (321). That place, as Beth’s parents espouse, is subservient to whites. The magnolias represent this social hierarchy, and they take center stage from the opening of the story when Clint tells her about the beauty of the magnolia and its relation to white womanhood. As Hannah comes up the walk near the middle of the story, she looks up at he magnolias and tells Beth, “I hate magnolias. . . They always meant something to me something unpleasant – like useless beauty that can’t even stand a breath. But I’m being silly. They really are beautiful, aren’t they?” (322). For Hannah, the magnolias, while beautiful, maintain something hideous underneath.
Beth, after fighting with her parents and talking with Hannah, realizes the falseness of the Southern myth as well. At the end of the story, when Hannah says that the magnolias “are lovely,” Beth starts to think back to an “idyllic” South with the smell of jasmine and magnolias in the air as women is hoop skirts move about the landscape. However, she stops halfway through her thought and realizes the falseness of her vision. Rather than seeing women in hoop skirts, she sees “only the long line of black men and women in their faded rags moving between the stalks of the cotton. And the auctioneer was holding open a black man’s mouth to show his fine teeth. And the slow heartbreaking songs rose up from the little cabins and the stench of black flesh drowned out the jasmine” (325). Here, Yerby undercuts the beauty of the magnolias with the stench of death in the same way that “Strange Fruit” and “Magnolia Flowers” do. At the end, Beth takes a magnolia flower from the tree and tears “the heavy, waxen petals into shreds,” thus destroying the mythic image of the South that existed in her mind (326).
There is more to Yerby’ story than I could talk about here. Let me know what you think about it in the comments below. Make sure to stay tuned for the next couple of posts when I’l be writing about Gillian and The Man from Dahomey.
Glasurd, Bruce A. and Laurie Champion. “‘The Fishes and the Poet’s Hands’: Frank Yerby, A Black Author in Whitee America.” Journal of American and Comparitive Cultures (2000): 15-21.
Yerby, Frank. “White Magnolias.” Phylon 5.4 (1944): 319-326.