As I read Ernest Gaines’ “Bloodline” recently, the interactions between ‘Malia and Frank Laurent stood out. The story, essentially, centers around Copper, the son of Frank’s brother Walter who raped Copper’s mother. Copper has returned to the Laurent plantation to claim what is his, by birth. Essentially, he arrives to overthrow the system that denies him an existence due to the fact that his mother was Black. It does not matter that Walter raped Copper’s mother. What matters, for Frank and others, is that his mother was Black.
While Copper’s return and the ways that Frank and the other characters react to his return is the focal point of the story, it is not what I want to focus on extensively today. Rather, I want to look at the ways that Felix, the 70-year-old narrator of the story, hints at something more between Frank and ‘Malia. We know that Walter is Copper’s father, so there is not speculation that Frank may be his father and ‘Malia his mother. However, there are hints that Frank and ‘Malia have had a relationship over the years and that they are intimate with one another. This intimacy, though, never becomes public, at least in the action that occurs in the story.
Throughout the story, Felix and others mention the oppression, through sexual and physical violence, that Black women endured at the hands of white land owners such as Walter Laurent. Early in the story, Felix thinks about Copper’s genesis. He says,
While I was in the shop, I thought about that boy in the quarters. I thought about his mon and his paw. Walter Laurent. That was one, that Walter. A black woman, no matter who se was, didn’t have a chance if he wanted her. He didn’t care if it was in the field, in the quarters, the store or that house; when he got his dick up, he hopped on any of them.
Walter viewed it as his right to take any Black woman, whenever and wherever he so desired. Those times, though, according to Felix, “are gone” just like Walter. This is what the characters in this story struggle with, the changing times.
It appears that Frank wants to change the dominant rules that structure the characters lives, but he feels too old and weak to even attempt change. Like Jack Marshall in Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, Frank argues that the rules found him, he did not create them. He tells ‘Malia and Felix, “I didn’t write the rules. I came and found them, and I shall die and leave them. They will be changed, of course; they will be changed, and soon, I hope. But I will not be the one to change them.”
What stands out in Frank’s comments is not that the rules will change but that he will not change them. This part is striking because immediately before he utters these words he hints at a possible ongoing intimate relationship with ‘Malia. He tells ‘Malia and Felix that Copper, nor them for that matter, will ever enter the front door of the house solely because they are Black. Even with this, he pays ‘Malia a compliment that suggests an intimacy between the two. He says, “And to me she is only the second woman I’ve had the good fortune of knowing whom I can call a lady. But she happens to be black, Felix, and because she’s black she’ll never enter this house through that door.”
Frank’s statement that ‘Malia is only the second “lady” he has known is telling, because it, along with the ways they interact with one another, hints at a private intimacy that Felix may or may not know about. If Felix knows about their relationship, he keeps it hidden from the reader, only subtly even hinting at it. Early in the story, Felix describes ‘Malia’s house in the quarters, the house where Copper is staying. He comments that it is the first one in the quarters and has “two little chinaberry trees and a mulberry tree in the front yard.” When Frank comes to the house to meet with Copper, he tells Felix, “I used to come here when I was a young man. . . . I used to sit on those steps. That mulberry tree there is old as I am.” Inherent in Frank’s comments is a familiarity, an intimacy, with ‘Malia’s house. This could be, of course, do to the proximity. However, it hints at something more.
Throughout the story, Frank and ‘Malia interact as if they are intimately involved. The first time we see them together occurs in part 4 when we see them sitting in the library together. Felix says, “‘Malia was sitting in one corner sewing a dress; Frank was in another corner reading a book. Both of them was sitting by a lamp.” Each time Felix enters the library, he sees ‘Malia and Frank in the same manner, sitting together and presenting an image of the domestic. They have an intimacy together that allows them to exist without speaking and to share the same space. If Frank would not let ‘Malia in the front door why would he let her in the library, a space where Felix has never sat down in?
As Felix leaves the library one time to get men to go fetch Copper to the house, ‘Malia asks Frank to leave Copper alone. He screams that he will not and tells Felix to go and get the men. Like earlier, ‘Malia and Frank are sitting in the library, enacting a domestic scene. While walking out of the library, Felix overhears ‘Malia ask Frank, “Is that any way to talk to Felix? . . . Is that any way to talk to Felix? Who you got beside me and Felix? Mr. Frank? Who?” Frank replies, “Nobody.” We could take this exchange as ‘Malia playing the role of the mammy figure or the contented servant, but there is something more going on here. This is not the first time the couple has a conversation like this, one that mirrors a wife and husband.
This returns me to the question I pose earlier about why Frank allows ‘Malia to sit in the library but not enter the front door. To me, his insistence to deny her entrance through the front door is his way of maintaining control and denying his feelings for ‘Malia. If he acquiesces and allows her to enter the front door, that act would be a public declaration of his intimacy with ‘Malia, and that public declaration would lead to change. He is not ready for that change. Allowing her in the library, though, he does not present the relationship in public; instead, he keeps it within the confines of his house, never having to acknowledge it, not even, it appears, to himself.
Frank’s move to keep his intimacy private is no different than Walter’s blatant raping of women anywhere and everywhere. While Walter makes his acts public, Frank hides them, afraid of what others might think. We do not know, if a relationship exists, how it began. Was it like Pauline and Bonbon in Of Love and Dust, a relationship that started with Bonbon forcing himself on Pauline but then turned into something more when Pauline and Bonbon began to legitimately love one another? We don’t know. What we do know, though, is that if Frank admits that he loves ‘Malia then the whole system will crumble because in that act he will admit her humanity and her equality with himself. As he states, he is not ready for this, even though he hopes it will occur.
This is not, of course, all that I could say about this topic. What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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