Over the past couple of posts, I have written about the way that Frank Yerby challenges stereotypes and the Cult of True Womanhood in The Dahomean (1971) and A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest (1979). Today, I want to conclude this discussion by briefly highlighting the ways that Yerby constructs his African, African American, and mixed-race female characters in these two novels as counters to the white women who explode the myth of Southern womanhood in A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest. “The survival of the South-my-South, the one I know and love,” according to Ashton Bibbs in Yerby’s 1979 novel, “depends upon the White man’s being up, and the nigger, down” (418). The Cult of True Womanhood worked to maintain this hierarchy, constructing a binary that placed virginal aspects on white womanhood and oversexualized desires on blacks and others. Patrica Hill Collins argues that under “the cult of true womanhood” white women “were encouraged to aspire to these virtues” [while] African-American women encountered a different set of controlling images” (72).
Hill Collins notes four “controlling images” placed on black women: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother, and the jezebel. All of these images can be traced back to slavery and continue in today’s culture; however, for our purposes here, we will focus on the jezebel, whose “function was to relegate all Black women to the category of sexually aggressive women, this providing a powerful rationale for the widespread sexual assaults by White men typically reported by Black slave women” (81). Yerby attacks this image by presenting his African, African-American, and mixed-race characters as less sexually aggressive than his white female characters, specifically highlighting their chasteness, desire to wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity, and their aversion to adulteress encounters.
In The Dahomean, Yerby presents a narrative set entirely in Africa, presenting African women like Agbale and Dangbevi. Each of these women uphold the virtues of purity and submissiveness that the Cult of True Womanhood sought to present as the ideal in America. Yerby does these representations of womanhood with other African characters that do not uphold purity of submissiveness. While he does this in The Dahomean, the juxtaposition with white womanhood does not come through because there are no white female characters to compare and contrast the characters’s actions with. However, A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest provides readers with characters that juxtapose one another in their actions and desires.
Last post, I wrote about the white females Pamela and Ruth and how they do not uphold the Cult of True Womanhood but rather demytholigize it by their sexual aggressiveness. Counterpunctual to these two women, the black Phoebe and mixed-race Ruby present images of womanhood that more closely resemble the purity and submissiveness embodied in “the cult of true womanhood” and deconstruct the stereotypical image on non-white women. Before she marries Wes, Phoebe is a virgin, not engaging in any sexual activity (consensual or forced). After Phoebe leaves, because she becomes pregnant with Bob Bibbs’s child after he rapes her, Ruby makes a play for Wes. Like Phoebe, Ruby is a verging as well; however, she really wants to consummate her relationship with Wes. She teases him and tries to get him to sleep with her; however, she does not go to the extremes that Pamela does with Tolbert. Instead, when Wes refuses her advances, she submits to him, unlike Pamela.
Before marrying Bob, Pamela was already three months pregnant, and as she tells Tolbert, “[a] whore, . . . [a]t least at heart” (113). During her talk with Tolbert, Pamela seeks to dismantle the idol of true Southern womanhood. She tells the lawyer that her pregnancy did not occur because of rape or a lapse of judgement on her part; instead, it “was the result of-enough, frequently repeated-carnal sin to have endangered the Egyptian hosts” (113). Pamela admits her inability to live up the Cult of True Womanhood, and countered with her “carnal” actions, Phoebe and Ruby exist as models of purity, saving themselves until marriage and even disallowing men to see them naked before their wedding nights. Ruby admits to Wes that no man, not even her father, has seen her naked since she was eight or nine.
Phoebe counters these myths even after Bob rapes her. After Bob forces himself on her, Phoebe tells her assailant she is going to kill herself the next day because she “promised th’ Lawd I’d be faithful ‘n true t’ my man,” maintaining her purity and submissiveness to Wes; she even insists that Bob turn around as she gets dressed (310). Her request to have Bob turn around, which he does, makes him feel ashamed and experience an “absolute hatred of self” (311). This rape needs to be looked at in relation to the rape of Pamela later in the novel. At this time, I do not have the space to look at these two incidents together; however, that would prove a fruitful examination.
There are other instances in the novel that show Yerby demystifying the idea of Southern womanhood by juxtaposing white women with black and mixed-race women. What I have presented here is a small sample of these instances. For a longer project, I plan to look at the way that Yerby deconstructs this myth throughout his works, specifically in Gillian (1960) and the two novels mentioned here. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in th comments below.
Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowing, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Yerby, Frank. A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest. London: Granada, 1981.