In Jeopardy of Failing to Rise
And sometimes we fail to walk the air.
— Amiri Baraka
Foreword: The Importance of Contemporary Voices
After browsing through countless sets of poetry, blazing through heavy novels, and examining every literary magazine on the shelf for the inspiration I needed to write my Honors’ Thesis, I picked up Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer on a whim. Maybe I was just tired of searching, but I landed on that blue book with the delicate white title scrawled across the front and I somehow knew what I would be inside. I flipped open to the title story, read the first sentence, and knew I had found what I had been looking for.
Packer felt like a friend telling me stories in confidence. She winked through biting sarcasm and shouted her fearlessness through a chink in the wall. The serendipity of that moment only revealed itself after I had spent months with the book and knew I had barely scratched the surface. Fanned open from overuse and littered with notes scrawled in the margins, my copy of that pretty blue book now reflects what is inside: a dilapidated beauty full of wisdom and experience.
ZZ Packer was born Zuwena Packer in Chicago, Illinois in 1973. She spent most of her early years in Atlanta, Georgia and Louisville, Kentucky. After receiving a BA from Yale and an MA from Johns Hopkins, she taught high school for two years before committing to her writing career and pursuing her MFA at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She remarks that her experience in Iowa was unnerving because “It’s predominantly white. And it’s homogenous in this way that goes beyond race." Finally, she was a Stegner Fellow, so acted as Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. Packer emerged as a promising young writer of the twenty-first century when she appeared in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Issue in 2010. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is Packer’s first book, a PEN/Faulkner finalist, and a New York Times Notable Book.
The four stories I discuss were published individually before being included in this set. The New Yorker published the title story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” in 2003 and it soon received several awards. “Every Tongue Shall Confess” appeared in Ploughshares, “Doris is Coming” in Zoetrope All-Story, and “Speaking in Tongues” in The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, edited by Tom Grimes.
The compilation of short stories introduces eight young but exceptionally self-aware African-Americans—seven female and one male—who, through several seemingly pedestrian trials, come to realize that without supportive communities, they are unable to reach their potential as exceptional individuals. Their struggles reveal the dangers inherent within modern-day marginalization; no matter how innocuous the microaggressions and subtle inequities seem, Packer reveals the damage that bubbles underneath the surface.
All of her characters are flawed and broken. Their mistakes are both a result of sociopolitical situation as well as their very human selfishness. She does not maintain the same hopeful tone as many of her predecessors. There is no magic in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere; Packer’s stories echo neither the passionate march of Sula nor the resolve of Janie’s self actualization. Instead, Packer captures the trivial disappointments of pedestrian lives without minimizing the depth of each individual experience.
1. Packer’s struggle with the traditional black Bildungsroman
Through the stories of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Packer creates a Bildungsroman protagonist that diverges from the characteristics of the typical Bildungsroman. The prototypical Bildungsroman protagonist is an exceptional young boy living in a provincial community that restricts his curiosity and creative thinking.
On his journey into the outside world he encounters mentors and lovers that encourage his unprescribed reading and support him in his reconciliation with home in a way that allows him to be true to his personal values and stubborn resilience against the normative. This model first appeared in the eighteenth-century German novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Since then, scholars like Jerome Buckley have utilized this text to properly characterize subsequent Bildungsroman inventions.
This genre often emerges at times of great reform, so children take on the representation of the optimistic promise of potential for the future. It became a staple to black authors wishing to both portray the detriment of racism on childhood and the possibility of hope for overcoming prejudicial malignancy. Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks and Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin were both published in 1953, immediately preceding several huge successes within the civil rights movement. John Grimes in the latter story is a fourteen-year-old boy who was able to come to terms with his sexuality and his abusive and dominating father with the help of his mentor, Elisha.
Maud Martha pursues her academic ambitions though she eventually settles into her prescribed position as mother and wife. Though her story seems to end less bitterly than Packer’s stories, the suppressed rage evidenced in the last chapter supports Packer’s awareness of the discrepancies within the common Bildungsroman. In The White Boy, Shuffle, Gunnar Kaufman is able to bind the black community together against the oppression of the LAPD with his poetic prowess. Published in 1996, the book followed the LA Riots of 1992.
ZZ Packer’s engagement with the black literary tradition of the Bildungsroman addresses the silent spaces of America during the 2000s. While most of the short stories in this compilation feature protagonists that comply with the characteristics of a Bildungsroman hero, the divergence in the plotlines from the genre are specific and consistent. That Packer maintains the skeletal structure of the Bildungsroman but replaces the optimism of that genre with darkness is an evaluation of our conception of the individual.
The capitalist model of the Bildungsroman glorifies the misfit as exceptional and therefore capable of overcoming their social marginalization. Packer’s revolt against this model is not necessarily a rejection of the individual but a demonstration of the infeasibility of that individual succeeding without the support of some sort of community.
The African American Bildungsroman was most popular during the peak of civil rights reform. The period was in a constant state of flux so invited new ideas and fearless voices. On the cusps of the new millennium, however, that activity fell silent. Microaggressions hindered active discussion about race and gender; questions were left festering in the stagnant void. Though Packer portrays her characters as capable of identifying the malignancies of their societies, the lack of a political framework leaves them without a place to productively discuss or deal with them.
Similarly to those of a traditional Bildungsroman, the protagonists of Packer’s stories are strikingly intuitive. Within their communities, they experience feelings of isolation and restriction of their creative potential. Instead of finding enlightenment when journeying outside of these spaces, however, the outside world proves to be just as inhospitable to his or her ambitious thinking. The adults of their community fail to understand the distress the protagonists experience and, in consequence, discourage any kind of possibility of internal triumph.
While a character of the Bildungsroman typically develops into a hero, most of Packer’s eight protagonists fail to reach that destiny. The conventions of the “novel of formation” are distorted into a pattern of self-destruction. Because the adult figures do not offer the protagonists solace from the feelings they internalize or even any kind of understanding of the issues they face, these misfits are left to bury their feelings even further until the pressures externalize in a transgressive, even dangerous way. Instead of confronting the perpetrators of their pain, these misfits displace their anger and lash out against undeserving and often similarly marginalized individuals.
2. Inability to Articulate
The title story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” follows Dina, a young woman from an economically impoverished neighborhood of Baltimore, as she attends her first year at Yale University. Though she seems to have overcome her poverty by attending an Ivy League school, her grief over losing her mother to kidney failure and her rage and feelings of incongruity to those around her undermine her personal and even academic success.
The Baltimore neighborhood that Dina grows up in is “antagonistic” toward her voracious reading habits. If one paid too much attention to books or learning, “It meant you’d rather submit to the words of some white dude than shoot the breeze with your neighbors." I do not think this reflects antipathy toward learning, but pessimism toward the possibility of upward mobility because of the education institution.
Black pop culture often complains of impoverished neighborhoods being unsupportive of their academic members. However, the Vox article “Acting white: The most insidious myth about black kids and achievement” cites several studies that show that academic success does not stigmatize academically successful black students any more than their white counterparts. Rather, intelligence in general is socially stigmatizing simply because the interests and thought processes of bookish students do not match those of their peers. Growing up, Dina was misunderstood for these reasons, so she learned to keep silent even when around students who could possibly offer the emotional and intellectual support that her mother—and the rest of her community—could not.
Though Dina’s mother is a source of love and support, she cannot be the mentor Dina needs because she cannot understand her. When Dina tries to relay what she learned on a school trip to the aquarium, her mother neither matches her daughter’s excitement, nor does she seem to comprehend the facts she rattles off. “She looked like a tourist who'd asked for directions to a place she thought was simple enough to get to only to hear a series of hypothetical turns, alleys, one-way streets. Her response was to nod politely at the perilous elaborateness of it all; to nod in the knowledge that she would never be able to get where she wanted to go.” It is almost as if Dina is speaking a language her mother cannot process. The gaze of complete confusion marks a barrier that neither Dina nor her mother can cross. The memory appears in a dream, which shows how deeply Dina internalizes the isolation of the moment.
Growing up for so long in silence, Dina is unprepared to properly communicate her feelings when the opportunity arises. She should be able to voice her need for support to her similarly academically inclined peers at Yale University.6 Instead, she expresses herself through anger which is read as dangerous instead of a reaction to her grief. During an orientation game in which each freshman identifies with an inanimate object, Dina chooses a revolver. Though it was a “recalcitrant” thing to say (as Dina calls it), it is an expression of her rage at a world that she feels disconnected from. Instead of recognizing it as such, the counselor and her peers are repelled by the violence of her statement: “The black guy cocked his head and frowned, as if the beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks of his experiment had grown legs and scurried off." His misunderstanding and even aversion toward her oddity pushes Dina even further out of the margins. Her cry for help goes unheeded and she is isolated even more.
When the school tries to help by providing compulsory therapy with the campus psychiatrist, Dr. Raeburn, Dina reacts by pushing away even more. After her Dean reprimands her and her roommate moves out, Dina adopts recalcitrance as a mask that buffers the pain of her isolation. She is successful in repelling the patronizing help of the dorm counselors that check on her by sitting naked in front of the door whenever they pop in. When the black students try to provide her with community, she is rude and hostile to their advances.
Dina’s rejection of the black community at Yale is, perhaps, the most curious instance of her self-exile, but it is clear that she feels out of place because of their economic status: “Most of them were from New York and tried hard to pretend that they hadn’t gone to prep schools. And there was something pitiful in how cool they were." She felt out of place in Baltimore because no one appreciated learning like she did; at a place where everyone appreciates learning, none are of the same socioeconomic status. Her story of the “boy with the nice shoes” demonstrates how much her poverty affects her self-esteem. After using food stamps to buy groceries, the boy—named Cecil—offers to help her carry the bags back to her home. She runs away because she does not want “someone with such nice shoes” to see where she lives. In this story, the main character does not feel marginalized by race but by financial disparity.
Dina’s infatuation with the Frank O’Hara poem “Autobiographia Literaria” explains her aloof behavior. The speaker expresses disinterest in connecting with others, but also extreme loneliness. Dina purposefully avoids human contact because her past has instilled the futility of trying to make others understand. She embraces isolation and characterizes herself as a “misanthrope,” but her relationship with Heidi—an overweight white woman from Canada—forces her to reckon with the true nature of her isolation. In her master’s thesis, Katy Howe argues that, “Because of her displaced or marginalized status, [Dina] develops rigid defenses that protect against the pain of rejection but that also prevent connection or relationship." Though many have failed to offer Dina support when she needs it most, her habit of bristling to kindness prevents her from ever forming a successful connection. Her nonchalant attitude impedes anyone from truly understanding her or being able to offer support.
The reclusive speaker in the O’Hara poem is able to find joy in the comfort of writing poetry. Dina remarks, “I knew the poem because it was one of the few things I’d been forced to read that I wished I’d written myself." Dina clearly craves that ability to regain her power and soothe her loneliness through writing. She and Heidi also read The Anxiety of Influence, a book that discusses the hindrance on a poet’s ability to write. Dina wants to attend to the inspiration of her isolation but the silencing on the part of her community—both in Baltimore and at Yale—stifles her ability to articulate. These challenges of miscommunication smother the little hope she has left after losing her mother. Writing poetry is the means to an answer that Dina has already given up on finding. Because Dina does not have hope, she cannot engage in such an optimistic act.
Dr. Raeburn identifies her problem as her tendency to “pretend,” or live in denial, but fails to help her overcome it. “‘Who knows?’ he asked with a glib, psychiatric smile I’d never seen before. ‘Maybe it’s your survival mechanism. Black living in a white world.'" It is his duty as her therapist to be nonjudgmental and to be the support that she never had. Instead he feels superior in diagnosing her as merely broken by her marginalized identity. Dr. Raeburn’s glib attitude shows that he sees no way or perhaps no reason to try and help her. An article in the American Psychologist, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice,” explains how prejudice can perturb white counselors from helping their clients of color: “Therapists who are unaware of their biases and prejudices may unintentionally create impasses for clients of color, which may partially explain well-documented patterns of therapy underutilization and premature termination of therapy among such clients." Dr. Raeburn undermines Dina’s pain by attributing it to her skin color and, in doing so, becomes apart of the problem rather than the solution. Because he refuses to help her navigate her defense mechanism, she hurts someone she loves. Instead of offering Heidi support and sympathy when her mother dies, Dina mocks the fact that Heidi has come out and devalues the pain Heidi is feeling. Dina loses her opportunity to overcome her isolation; she becomes the perpetrator of pain rather than just a victim.
Dina’s failure to overcome her defense mechanism when it is most vital to make a connection carries a sense of finality. She missed her opportunity to escape her isolation and express her pain so is condemned to never achieve inner peace. As the title story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” demonstrates the downward spiral of self-sabotage that almost all of the characters go through. The rest of the stories in this compilation follow a similar structure of possibility turning into rage, capitulation, and disappointment.
3. Searching for New Community
I argue that the civil rights movement created the right circumstances for the optimistic model of a Bildungsroman. That is not true, however, for Doris Yates. “Doris is Coming,” the last story in the compilation, introduces a young black woman living in Louisville, Kentucky during the civil rights movement. Like Dina, Doris bears the same academic ambition and is equally as isolating. She lives on the cusps of two worlds: the white children are icy toward her presence and the black students only speak to her about “Holy Rollers” or “what whites did in class, how they acted and how they treated her.” Her separation, however, is more concrete because—during 1961—Doris is the only black student in her high school honors classes. Her presence is itself a political statement and yet, Doris’ story is not one of triumph but one of loneliness. Her community’s disinterest in the fight for civil rights leaves her without sympathetic ears that offer support or access to participate.
All the adults in her life—her mother, her reverend, and a middle-aged Lithuanian man she befriends named Stutz—express distrust and even disdain for the Movement. They seem to believe that change will only invite danger and suffering rather than hope. When Doris informs her reverend of her interest, he responds, “Do you wanna starve, but keep your house with a hilltop view? Or do you wanna live in the valley with a full belly? Hmm? And what’s so wrong with the valley, Doris?” The valleys and hilltops he describes appear in the Bible: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.” From his conservative perspective, the Reverend chooses to be content with what rights they do have and fear what could be lost if they demand more. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who the reverend criticizes) references the same Bible verse in his “I Have a Dream” speech: he deciphers that it is only when the world is equal that struggle will cease and salvation will be realized. Stutz expresses a similar fear of progress. He suggests that integration would be bad for black-owned shops because their customers would flock to the white-owned businesses. Although Doris is able to rise and confront the illogical injustice of racism, the fears of her elders hinder her capability to do so.
Olivia Berman, a young Jewish girl, emerges as Doris’s true mentor. During New Years Eve, Doris is waiting with the rest of her church for the Second Coming because the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World had calculated that the Rapture would occur on the last day of that year. In the midst of prayer and shouting, Livia (as she prefers to be called) appears in the back of the church, distracting Doris: “If Jesus had come at that very second she would have been left behind because she wasn’t thinking of Him.” Though Jesus did not appear, the person that could help her achieve personal deliverance did. Livia has just returned home after having been gone. It remains a mystery to Doris where she has been. Livia’s own “Second Coming” further identifies her as Doris’s “savior,” or her mystical mentor.
Livia encourages Doris to rebel against her restrictive community: she says, “I don’t think Reverend Sykes lets you do the things you want.” Doris recalls that he discouraged her from participating in sit-ins, demonstrating that she needs to adopt Livia’s rebellious attitude if she wants to become a civil rights activist. In Ten is the Age of Darkness: The Black Bildungsroman, Geta LeSeur explains, “They must, however question whatever values prevail in society and construct a morality and philosophy of life from the bottom up.” As we see by the way her interpretations of Bible verses challenge her pastor’s understanding, her religion is not equipped to give her the answers she seeks. With Livia’s influence, Doris slowly abandons the strict but bizarre moral codes of her church—which she demonstrates when she mocks the failed prediction of the Second Coming—in order to pursue what she thinks is right. Reestablishing ethics is not by any means an easy task. She has to replace black and white morals—such as respecting one’s elders—for abstract evaluations and speculation. She disrespects her reverend, skips school with Livia, and yells at her good friend, Stutz. Livia is, by no means, a confident mentor. She compares herself to Satan when she quotes the Bible verse, “I came from walking to and fro upon the earth. And up and down on it.” That Livia identifies with both Jesus and Satan shows that walking that road of “sin” is necessary to achieve coherence of self.
Livia encourages Doris to break from her inhibited lifestyle and is the only one that clearly sees the malignancies of segregation. Livia tells Doris that she is going to a school up North because she cannot endure the backwardness of the South. When Doris asks if Livia had attended a mental institution while she was gone, Livia responds, “‘Oh Doris,’ she said. ‘Don’t you know that the real crazy people are the ones who do the same thing over and over again? Expecting a different result every time?’” Doris can see that her monotonous routine of going from school to home to church is just the insanity that Livia has described. She knows that she will not receive permission to protest, but Livia’s comment promulgates her to act anyways. It is only then that she brandishes the dissonance she has long intuited: on her own, she goes to a whites-only diner and demands that she be served.
Despite Doris’s display of bravery, Packer maintains her sardonic realism. Because Doris is yet again alone, she is not able to make an impact. Her presence does not at all create the reaction from the patrons that she anticipated. The tired waitress pities her. She says that she cannot serve her but offers her the leftovers of her shake. The degradation of this moment is emphasized by the repulsive imagery: “The shake she handed over had a lipstick ring around the straw and a little spittle.” This is a much more subtle humiliation to when whites would heckle, attack, and spill food on blacks sitting at whites only lunch counters. Though the shake is not a fist, it is all the more painful because it creates no impact. No photos are taken, no sympathizers are present to witness, and no justice will be served.
Microaggressions such as these are emotionally traumatic because retribution does not seem justified or even possible. In her abstract of “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” Derald Wing Sue defines: “Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Speaking out against microaggressions is often punished by outright aggression or accusation of paranoia, so the victim of a microaggression must suffer alone. When racism is so subtle, it is much more difficult to combat. It is only when the aggression comes to the surface that race relations can be addressed.
Consider that the largest catalysts in US race dialogues in the past thirty years have been reactions to when police misconduct resulted in the death of black men. Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice are names memorialized not only because they were killed by policemen, but also because each of their names sparked the rage that bubbled beneath the surface. No one should have to die for us to pay attention to the staggering inequalities that fester in every U.S. institution. Black people living in America have significantly less access to health care, employment, wealth, education, voting, fair loans8 and even clean water.9 Black people living in America are significantly more likely to be incarcerated, expelled from school, will die in infancy, and be killed in a homicide. These have been facts for decades, but we only recognize them when a police officer shoots a 12-year-old boy for having a toy gun.
Like Packer’s other characters, Doris is unaffected by the religious feelings that influence the rest of her church. This could be interpreted either as a criticism of religion or as yet another indicator of the separation of these characters from their community. Also like the other characters, Doris experiences epiphany even if it is not religious. These epiphanies are striking, but not at all uplifting; instead, they are the recognition of the impotence of being marginalized. Jean Thompson in the New York Times says, “Doris has to find a way to take part in this great moral struggle despite an upbringing that equates morality with passivity.” Though she tries to be active, Doris fails to overcome the passivity that her elders have taught her. The final sentence of Doris’ story is tragic in its compliance: “The sky had just turned her favorite shade of barely lit blue, the kind that came to windows when you couldn’t get back to sleep but couldn’t quite pry yourself awake.” After the disappointment at the “White Only” diner, Doris seems to have lost all the fight she had in her. The feeling of being isolated in the wedge between two worlds is communicated in this metaphor. During that time, in between wake and asleep, everyone is completely alone. It also communicates her anxiety about her inability to move forward. That Dina feels the same way that Doris does in 1961, points to a need for unity toward revolution. These characters know that there is something wrong, but their pain goes untended and their political will repudiated.
4. Feminine Impotence
While Packer demonstrates the forces that push Doris and Dina into apathy and acquiescence, her story, “Every Tongue Shall Confess” maps out a trajectory for where their lives lead. Clareese Mitchell has already succumbed to the patriarchal pressures of her church. The Brothers’ Church11 Council of Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized preys on her craving for “guidance and companionship” when her aunt is dying. In this respect, her Bildungsroman has already failed. Her journey into the Church proves to not only be unsatisfactory, but detrimental. She becomes even more isolated than she originally felt, and she is brought to the cataclysmic realization that she is—as a woman—impotent against the powers of men.
The nonlinear narrative is a compilation of Clareese’s memories of resentment. While in the choir benches waiting to perform her solo, she tries to “Persevere” over her anger at the church for making her wear white while she has her “womanly troubles.” Instead of doing so, she considers all the affronts made on her womanhood. This is similar to the structure of Dina’s story in which her grief tumbles out in dreams and in therapy. Because Clareese rumination on her flashbacks, however, her reaction is not implosive but externally aggressive. According to the article, “The Displaced Aggression Questionnaire” published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a person displaces aggression when they feel incapable or hesitant to react against someone that has angered them. Typically, they are silenced because the provocateur has power over them.
Those that are most likely to displace aggression often spend an inordinate amount of time ruminating. While most people forget about an aversive event after about ten minutes, people that ruminate will hold onto that anger for much longer. Clareese’s story is so dominated by rumination that the entire structure changes to accommodate it. Instead of being told chronologically, the sequence jumps erratically from one offense to another. She self-destructs because she cannot organize these instances into a recognizable and solvable problem.
The nurses Clareese works with do the same. They resolve their feelings of impotence by aggressing against each other. Even their aggression is indirect. They mock and deride Clareese, shouting at her back that she needs to “get laid,” debasing her womanhood and her independence. Though Clareese’s peers are hardworking, self sufficient, medical professionals, they can only value themselves in contrast to a man. They amuse themselves by making bets about who will be married first. Clareese resents that Nurse Holloway wears pumps to work “as if she was too good for the standard orthopedically correct shoes” because it implies that the approval of men is more important to her than being effective at her job. Because they cannot resist the patriarchy that suppresses them, these women tear each other down to reclaim the power they lose.
The first memory Clareese considers is perhaps the most troubling, but met with the least gravity: Deacon McCreedy, a man from her church, sexually assaults her. After he demands that she leave work because he is “concerned for her soul,” he eats the lunch Clareese has made for him, covers her eyes and tells her to sing. She obeys, and before she can stop him, McCreedy puts his hand down her pants. He pulls back in “disgust—no, hatred” when he realizes she has her period. In this episode, Packer not only criticizes the Church’s history of sexual abuse, but she also reflects on the dogmatic hostility toward women: McCreedy reacts in disgust at a bodily process that defines Clareese’s womanhood. To him, her body is only viable as a recipient of male penetration.
McCreedy is not the only one in the church to hold this view: Clareese says Pastor Everett “thought of her as something worse than a spinster, because she wasn’t yet old.” The word “spinster” referred to unmarried women in the Middle Ages who have passed the viable age to have children so are removed from the public sphere. This word prevails (though in pejorative terms) as a woman who is undesirable and alone. Clareese’s interpretation of the pastor’s perception shows that because Clareese has not made her body available to a man, it is not serving its purpose.
Unmarried men, on the other hand, are bachelors. Though the etymology of the word carries implications of youth or inexperience, bachelor does not imply shame or a deadline. A woman only functions as the complement to a man maintains his vitality with or without a woman. Simone de Beauvoir writes, “In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral to such an extent that in French hommes designates human beings, the particular meaning of the word vir being assimilated into the general meaning of the word homme. Woman is the negative, to such a point that any determination is imputed to her as a limitation, without reciprocity.” Both homo and vir are root words that reference the male and both are integral parts of words that signify humanity and positivity (e.g., virtue, virginity, virility, homo sapiens). Furthermore, man represents all of humanity while woman represents merely a subset of man.
A man is intended to be a presence, a force; a woman is a lack of something, a deficiency of vitality. She is designed to receive. As Beauvoir’s words indicate, women are not intended to place resistance against men so it is unsurprising when Clareese fails to react to being sexually assaulted by Deacon McCreedy. Her response to the event minimizes the gravity of his assault: “But she could forgive him—if Sisters could even forgive Deacons—for she could have understood that an unmarried man might have needs, but what really bothered her was how he ignored her.” While Clareese’s single status brands her as barren, McCreedy is able to maintain his virility as an “unmarried” sexual being. He has a right to his sexuality that she does not. She is bothered not by his action, but by the absence of it. When he ignores her, she has nothing to receive and nothing to react to; her place has been destabilized.
Because Sisters cannot “forgive Deacons,” Clareese must redirect her anger elsewhere. She expels her pent-up rage by aggressing against a man that is even more impotent than her. While trying to convert her patient, Cleophus Sanders—who maintains his cheery and flirtatious disposition despite his amputation—she reacts “disproportionally” when he expresses misgivings. When he asks Clareese why there is so much suffering in the world—an understandable question from a man who has just lost his leg—the impotence she has been feeling is amplified. “But most, like Mr. Toomey, cast the Lord aside like wilted lettuce, and now the clean hospital room was just a reminder of the emptiness, the barrenness of her patients’ souls.” The exaggerated imagery of this sentence denotes an urgent desperation that exceeds an appropriate reaction. Enraged, she yells at Cleophus, telling him that no one has the right to live, only to die. Every time a person that ruminates thinks about the thing that caused them to originally be angry, they are priming or activating their aggressive behavior. He chases after her when she leaves in a frenzy, but he falls trying to manage his crutches. “She heard the clatter of him gathering his crutches, and even when she heard the meaty weight of him slam onto the floor she did not turn back.” Cleophus has just lamented God’s indifference; in an ironic twist, the gruesome bitterness of this description seems to confirm it. After considering all of the disrespect she has suffered, Clareese acts out against the only genuine person in her life. In fact, Cleophus is the antithesis of those that have degraded her womanhood. He offers her companionship and admires her whole person. Because she cannot express her anger to her real provocateurs, she puts her job in jeopardy and hurts the only man that cares for her.
Typically, the Bildungsroman form calls for an epiphany that changes the protagonist. Clareese’s traumatic revelation mirrors that of John’s in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Instead of realizing his faith, John is able to reconcile with his homosexuality and Gabriel’s oppression because of the hallucinations he experiences while on the “threshing floor” of Temple of the Fire Baptized. Clareese is overcome with extreme pain while sitting in the choir stalls of the church: “And at exactly that moment, it hit her, right below the gut, a sharp pain, and she imagined her uterus, that Texas-shaped organ, the Rio Grande of her monthly womanly troubles flushing out to the Gulf.” The word “flushing” insinuates purification, much like a baptism. The Rio Grande is the fifth largest river in the world and flows through mostly arid regions, making it a symbol of fertility. It also acts as a natural border between America and Mexico, which comments on the rift between genders in this book. Packer’s comparison of the size of her uterus to Texas insists on the power of her womanhood. This is reminiscent of Nikky Finney’s poem, “The Clitoris,” which compares this bodily organ to the size of Africa, both of which are frequently underestimated. Because Finney and Packer compare their sexual organs to powerful, massive lands, they reclaim the power of their bodies. This enhances the rage Clareese feels at being oppressed: she knows that she is strong, but her community grounds her into passivity.
It is doubtful, however, that Clareese’s epiphany is as liberating as John’s. Though Clareese could embrace her power as a woman and walk away from the subjugation of the church, it seems that her anger will work against her: Now she knew why he’d come. He’d come for her. He’d come despite what she’d told him, despite his belief. Anyhow, she disapproved. It was God he needed, not her. Nevertheless, she remained standing for a few moments, even after the rest of the choir had already seated themselves, waving their cardboard fans to cool their sweaty faces.
Clareese is the antithesis to the men of Clareese’s church who patronize her, so has put pressure on the doubt that irks at her dogmatic mind. Her resentment should be a catalyst, but her beliefs and her personal growth remain static. Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones argue in their Encyclopedia of Contemporary Writers and Their Works that it is the “polarized identities” of Packer’s characters that hold them back. They write, “In some instances, Packer’s characters make a clear choice to return to the world they feel most comfortable inhabiting; either a choice of cowardice or an attempt to integrate new knowledge into old understandings.” It seems that Clareese’s choice is an influence of the former. Clareese’s experience of her sexual assault and misogynistic oppression is not enough to push her away from the dogma of blind, unwavering loyalty to her church. She rejects Cleophus’s offer of real love and community for a false sense of righteousness and religious fervor.
5. Fixing the Bildungsroman
While the other characters fail to change their situations, 14-year-old Tia Townsend does not. “Speaking in Tongues” is the one story out of the eight in the collection that ends both successfully and adheres to the conventions of the Bildungsroman. Tia is just as isolated and arguably faces even more dangerous challenges than her counterparts, but she is able to overcome both because she makes active choices to change her situation. More importantly, she is the only character that has the mentors to encourage her to do so.
Tia lives in rural Montgomery, Alabama with her great-aunt Roberta, who acts as her legal guardian. She and her friend, Marcelle, are the only “saved” evangelical students to attend their high school. This would be isolating enough if their inability to wholeheartedly embrace their religion did not also separate them from the rest of their Sunday school class. While the other students have begun to speak in tongues, Marcelle and Tia have not. Speaking in tongues is the practice of uttering what is believed to be a divine language when enraptured by prayer in church. Tia explains, “You could only truly speak in tongues when all worldly matters were emptied from your mind, or else there was no room for God.” Those that are able to speak in tongues have succeeded in blinding themselves to the concerns of their immediate present; Tia’s exceptional awareness of these “worldly matters” repels such blinders. Despite Tia’s best efforts to speak in tongues and fully embrace her religion, she cannot foster an unyielding belief in God.
When Tia laughs at the “ridiculousness” of the way her Sunday-school books are written, Sister Gwendolyn—her teacher—takes her into a closet and asks her to receive the Holy Ghost. Tia is unresponsive, so Sister Gwendolyn goes to aunt Roberta. “She knew what they were thinking: Tia did not Believe, thus Tia Laughed in her Heart, thus Tia was not able to Speak in Tongues. Their thoughts headed toward the same conclusion as tiny ants march toward the same mammoth crumb of bread.” Tia’s perception of their thought process shows that she thinks they blindly conform to the morality of the Bible. The oxymoron of the phrase “a mammoth crumb of bread” suggests that Tia doubts the massive power of their God. She characterizes their thought process with Biblical rhetoric, showing that they do not have a mind of their own. However, that same mindless, drone-like devotion to their religion also binds them in a way that is unbreakable. Tia describes their thoughts as “tiny ants,” a colony in which the individual always perishes. Whether or not Tia doubts her religion, it is obvious that she resents her inability to join the community.
Instead of accepting her isolation, she looks for the feeling of belonging elsewhere. The last time Tia had seen her mother was when she was seven, but she still longs for the hazy memories she has of her. “How her mother would absently stroke her hair, wherever she happened to be, like a starlet. How she would hold Tia’s face with both hands, as if it were a big blossom.” Tia knows what it feels to be cherished, to feel loved; these memories function as solace from her isolation. They are not marred by the fact that her mother was addicted to drugs at the time, so Tia goes looking for her. She decides to use the thirty-four dollars she has to take a bus to Atlanta, Georgia. Despite recognizing the danger of it, 17-year-old Marcelle succeeds as Tia’s first mentor because she supports her journey. If Marcelle had tried to discourage her, Tia would have missed her opportunity to leave the community and reach the integral part of her education as an exceptional individual.
The stated goal of Tia’s Atlanta trip is to find her mother, but the greater reason for her pursuit is the need for a sense of belonging. On the bus ride, she projects this yearning onto the bus driver: “Tia could only see the back of his head but he seemed to be thinking, I will leave you all behind, and then where will you be? I will enter this here growth of weed and disappear forever.” The tone here is different from the Biblical rhetoric of Roberta and Gwendolyn’s speech, but is still marked by an unusual formality. The image of slipping into the brush has an elusive, mystical quality to it. The image of her mysterious escape mirrors her own travels. Attributing these words to the bus driver’s thoughts shows how desperately she craves the connection of knowing that she is not alone in her experience. She urges him to “Go,” but instead—as is typical of Packer’s sardonic humor—she sees that he is only relieving himself. An episode such as this would have been disheartening enough to the other characters that they would give up. Tia’s unwavering optimism pushes her forward, propelling her toward the connection she is looking for.
Tia first demonstrates her exceptional awareness when she considers the unspoken barriers that linger between races in the late nineties. Waiting at the Montgomery bus stop, she considers: “Perhaps this was exactly how it looked when King lived here, and she tried to imagine where the ‘Colored’ and Whites Only’ signs would have hung, then she realized she didn’t have to. All five blacks waited in one area, all three whites in another.” Here, Tia refers to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott that began at that very station. She recognizes that racism persists, but in much more subtle ways than thirty years prior. The parallel between the boycotters and Tia boarding her own bus indicates a mobilization of her racial education.
When she arrives in Atlanta, she sees just how little has changed since MLK led the boycott on that bus station in Montgomery. The black people she comes into contact with have no other way to survive than to sell drugs and their bodies. LeSeur explains, “Black children do not remain childlike for long in the United States, but are initiated into the larger problems and cruder side of life very early.” Tia’s arrival in Atlanta—a city that maintains a predominantly black population—14 exposes her to a reality of race inequality in modern-day America that is much more malignant than ingroup favoritism.15 She sees that the truly malignant aspect of race inequality in America is economic.
Upon her arrival in Atlanta, she is neither able to find her mother nor pay for a place to sleep with her limited funds. She meets Dezi, a drug dealer, who offers to let her stay in his home. Though she originally recognizes the danger of accepting help from a thirty-year old man who feels a “connection” toward her, she is eventually won over: “A surge of affection rose in her for Dezi, for his protectiveness, for the pain in his eyes.” She considers him to be a misunderstood person, like herself, and accepts his apparent hospitality. This, again, shows her desire to connect.
Marie, a sex worker who claims to be partners with Dezi (readers are left to imagine the nature of their business), is neither silent nor compliant. At first, Marie comes off as an abrasive and jealous ex-girlfriend. When Tia asks enough questions for Marie to reveal her true self, readers must acknowledge the humanness of a woman who would otherwise be met with indifferent disgust. She says that she is only working until she has enough money to purchase a condo for her and her children. Marie becomes a victim of circumstance and a mother rather than a prostitute.
Marie also becomes Tia’s confidant and advisor as she moves forward with her relationship with Dezi. Despite Marie’s warnings, Tia submits to Dezi’s sexual advances. Though Bildungsroman novels typically feature two affairs—one that is “exalting” and one that is “debasing”—Tia’s relationship with Dezi functions as both. Because she is fourteen and Dezi is over thirty, she is not old enough to give consent. “Dezi had taken something away from her when he kissed her, but she could not name it.” Though she does not necessarily reject him, this moment shows that Tia is not actively making the decision to engage with him. Several times, he pressures her into moving past what she is comfortable with.
Despite this disturbing reality, Tia still learns from the experience. “Dezi’s erection was as insistent as his tongue, and as they swam over one another on the couch, she knew that this was her chance, like birth, to be part of someone. Then it hit her with a sadness: if sex and birth meant being part of someone, then death meant you belonged to nobody at all.” This is an existential moment for a fourteen-year-old to have. Though not as academically ambitious as the other protagonists, Tia clearly still has the same unique intuition. She has finally found that feeling that she has been missing: being apart of someone. In finding this, however, she also realizes that being with a person is not the solace she is searching for. She rejects him because she realizes—in death—we are all alone. So, feeling whole is not about being with another person; it is about finding one’s space as an individual. This is, in essence, the goal of the Bildungsroman. Tia can return home now that she has experienced her epiphany and matured into independence. To return, however, Tia needs a catalyst, which comes in the form of yet another debasing sexual experience. Tia falls asleep after yet again rejecting Dezi’s advances; when she wakes up and finds evidence of arousal, she mistakenly believes Dezi has raped her. After almost stabbing Dezi in her frantic escape, Tia goes to Marie with her confusion. Though Marie confirms that Tia had not been raped and explains what happened, she still plans a way to get Tia home and away from Dezi. Marie demands that all of the other sex workers give her money so that she can buy Tia a ticket home. In that moment, Marie reacts by claiming her power and agency and also by acting like a mother. The spirit of womanhood unites the sex workers around Tia. When Dezi tries to get Tia back and goes to grab her, “The street girls pinned Dezi to the ground with their high heels and platforms, screaming all at once to Tia, ‘Run! Run! Run!’” They unite against their oppressor instead of separately tearing each other down (as the nurses do in “Every Tongue Shall Confess”). Tia has created a community of her own: that of women.
“Speaking in Tongues” is one of the darker stories of the set, but it is the only one with a climax and a conciliatory ending. While the others cut to black after some odd sentiment of depression lingering, Tia’s story is triumphant. Her story is perhaps the most traumatic and the most viscerally impactful of all, but the last line is the most indicative of Tia’s successful rise: “Tia stood up and brushed gravel and broken glass from her skirt. And she ran.” While every other story ends with a sense of hopeless finality, this sentence is active and promises a future of empowerment. Tia’s story is open-ended and propitious.
In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance to this essential fact.” He dreads the fact that his son will be so unbearably self-aware and have to see himself in contrast with others. He mourns that, because his son was born black in America, he is exposed to the ugliness of the world. However, he knows that it is also a gift because his son will be cognizant of the truth of the world. It is truth—not privilege or power—that defines the value of a life.
Tia accepts this same charge. She becomes painfully aware of the gruesomeness of her world but, unlike the other protagonists, she is able to survive that reality. Marie is the missing link in the other stories. She and the other sex workers band together to save the young girl from the perpetrator of their pain. Marie activates this group of downtrodden individuals and in saving Tia, they empower themselves. When Marie sends her off, she tells Tia to never let anyone lock her in a closet again. Though she is referring specifically to when Sister Gwendolyn took her into the hymnbook closet, it speaks more generally. It demands that oppressed people claim their sense of Self and rebel against their oppressor. The rest of the characters either fail to ask for support, or their educators fail to supply it. Packer’s reconciliation with the conventional Bildungsroman in this story demonstrates that mentorship is vital to the formula for success of the exceptional individual.
Packer’s resistance against the optimism of the Bildungsroman genre is exactly what makes her a significant addition to it. She acknowledges that the individual does have power: her characters exude that terrible beauty of the burden of consciousness. At the same time, Packer warns of the harrowing effects of being so soon and so violently exposed to the pain of the world. The dissonance these black women experience within their white patriarchal societies can enlighten, but it can also destroy. The individual cannot hope to reach self-discovery and positive growth if they try and do it alone: they will end up as hopeless as Dina, as helpless as Doris, or as angry as Clareese. It is not that Packer is rejecting the standard Bildungsroman template; she is supplying a caveat. If children like Tia have educators like Marie to ease this burden, they can escape the endless cycle of disempowerment, isolation, and rage that all of the other protagonists fall into. They all have the potential to become exceptional individuals as long as they have a community that offers unwavering and nurturing support.