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Liberals, White Guilt and Imperfect Acts of Atonement

December 17, 1985|CAROLYN SEE

No Marble Angels by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (Texas Center for Writers Press: $13.95)

Right-wing thinkers would have a field day with this book--if they ever read it, which is unlikely, since (A) it's written by an obscure woman author and (B) it's issued by a small press with primarily regional distribution. And yet, for those who happen to find "No Marble Angels," this may be a valuable philosophical or political acquisition as well as a literary one.

The phrase, "bleeding heart liberal," has perhaps never been so carefully explored; to be a "liberal," to allow oneself to really see political and racial injustice, is to suffer a certain amount of pain; to bleed, if only figuratively. The short stories and fragments toward a novel in this volume are about racial guilt and imperfect acts of atonement. Put another way, "No Marble Angels" questions the efficacy of any individual good deeds in a world already impossibly mired in corruption, ignorance, evil and hatred, and yet insists that for our own personal salvation these good deeds must be at least attempted.

The scenes for these short stories are the American South, before and during our government's institutionalized, heartening-but-heartless, only semi-effective attempts at racial integration. The title story (which springs from the proverb, "there are no marble angels in a potters' field"), is set in the city of Raleigh in 1968. A family of "decent" white people are interrupted in the (to them) engrossing project of living their lives by the stabbing of Rheba, their black maid-of-all-work who has been with them for the last 25 years. Why did she get stabbed?

"She must have done something," Aunt Josie, the lady of the house, says uneasily, and that serves as justification for the fact that the family decides not to pay her hospital bills. When Shannon, an idealistic niece, declares that "Rheba is family," her aunt sets her straight in a hurry: "Rheba is not our family. . . . She is like family, but she is not family."

Another Injustice

Very well, another injustice has been committed or created. If life in black-and-white United States were an enormous Seurat painting, this would be just one very small dot. Shannon considers what she may do--and the tremendous distances between what she wishes to do, does do and should have done are the grid upon which this story is stretched.

Later, in another novel fragment, "The Tutor," we see Shannon in Baltimore, living alone in a black part of town, trying--how futilely!--to right two centuries of past wrongs. But other questions immediately rise. Certain kinds of poverty and ignorance do not imply or guarantee others. When Shannon goes out to tutor a woman who cannot read, she finds that the woman, though illiterate, is far her superior in moral terms--a "bleeding heart" position, some might say, but no less true for that.

Another truth is that racism, the "objectification" of other human beings for the sake of a convenient world view, is not an exclusively white process. "The Tutor" hints at that, as does another fragment, "Of Imagination," where Shannon, living alone in a gruesome fleabag hotel, deprived of window shades is afraid to undress each night and lies down fully clothed on top of her bed as if it were a tomb--which, of course, in some ways, it is.

To even the most serious of world situations, the daily, the trivial, even the frivolous may be the best keys. In "Sissy Mamma's Wig," a 200-pound black seventh-grader commits a misdemeanor, stealing a white woman's luxurious hairpiece and sticking it up in a tree for the neighborhood to see. Certainly the lady deserves to have her hair filched; she's an awful stuck-up pain, about her looks and everything else, but the boy's deed begins to have repercussions, sending out ripples of sadness and sorrow that he hadn't even begun to consider.

Tying Together Two Matters

This is one of the "best" stories in this collection, tying, as it does, the problems of societal injustice and individual loneliness securely together, making us see that the two matters really are "inextricably combined," that the second we make another human being (or set of human beings) less than ourselves we increase our own loneliness a hundredfold, because there are so few left "like us," so many less people to talk to, to keep us company in life.

Although the author remarks in an introductory note that these stories "were written over a span of 15 years and revised continuously," some obviously succeed better than others. The issue of American civil rights itself, by its very drama, its Sturm und Drang , tends to overshadow some of these fictional attempts. The story that is perhaps strongest stays furthest away from racial issues as such.

In "History Lesson," set in Little Rock in 1956, the upcoming integration of the schools is seen by Joe Ward as just one more interruption to the completion of his master's thesis. In fact, Ward will never finish his thesis, he will always be trapped teaching in high school, and trapped as well by an inadequate or incomplete set of values that alienates him from his son, but that's only part of the family pattern of oppression and alienation, where father, mother, daughter and son have been nickel-and-diming each other to death for years. Until we learn to be generous across the board in a purely moral sense, we can't hope to cope with our racial tensions--still, we must try.

These are early thoughts of a serious and promising writer, and should be sought out and read.

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