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The family dynamics in Song of Solomon, Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Black Elk Speaks, and Bless Me Ultima demonstrate an expansive shift from what is generally considered to be a traditional, nuclear family. Each work presents a view of family life that depict characters attempting to build alternative families to find support, self-identity, and understand where they fit in.
Any discussion of family dynamics and minority groups requires some clarification of definitions. For minorities, a traditional family normally consists of Aunts, Uncles and Cousins rather than immediate, nuclear family members. Minority groups tend to cast a wider net when defining members of their "traditional families." In the following works, each of the main characters is forced to go beyond what is considered the traditional minority and majority family structure to find what they need. These characters develop an alternative family normally consisting of people with no blood relation.
Song of Solomon presents an image of what can be considered a majority traditional family. At first glance, the Dead family presents all the mechanics of a normal and functional family attempting to live out the American dream. The family unit is complete; there are no overt problems or missing pieces of the puzzle.
This image of a normal family quickly vanishes when we see how unhappy Milkman is within his family. He feels smothered; he lacks identity and direction for his life. His family does not provide what he needs most, a sense of where he belongs and fits in the world. In order to understand his own place and history he is forced to first leave his immediate family, then his extended family and finally search for alternative family members.
His quest is beyond the normal strive that a son feels to be his own man rather than his father's son. To help in his search, Milkman first turns to his traditional family. He begins to talk with Pilate about their family history. She is able to shed some light on their past and provides him with a starting place for his journey.
Milkman is trying to understand himself as a whole person and where he fits in on a macro level rather than simply carving his own niche. He does not feel complete until he has discovered where he came from. It is crucial for him to understand where he fits into the world, rather than simply where he fits into his family.
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During his journey, Milkman meets Reverend Cooper and his wife. Reverend Cooper is familiar with the Dead family and tells Milkman, "I know your people." This statement profoundly affects Milkman. "It was a good feeling to come to a strange town and find a stranger who knew your people. All his life [Milkman] had heard the tremor in the word: 'I live here, but my people....' But he hadn't known what it meant: links." Milkman begins to see where he comes from and where he fits in. He "beamed at Reverend Cooper and his wife. 'You do?'" (p.229).
Milkman is searching for his "roots," not his genealogy. His nuclear family, specifically Macon, is not able to provide what he needs. His extended family helps point him in the right direction, but it is the alternative family that he develops that finally gives him what he is looking for.
The idea of forging alternative family relationships is continued on in The Best Little Boy In the World (BLBITW). In this story, Andrew is from a majority family structure. He is the preverbal "All American Boy". Andrew enjoys all the privileges of being a member of the majority population. He is very well educated, comes from a wealthy family, travels, and is afforded opportunities that the average person does not have. Through all of this, however, he is still a member of a minority group because of his sexual preference.
Andrew's majority status provides an interesting twist to the issues he faces as a minority. In his mind, he is forced to keep his sexual preference a secret in order to maintain his place in the majority group. He fears total rejection if he openly admits his homosexuality. To a degree these fears are warranted, but as he discovers later, his family and straight friends are much more sympathetic and supportive than he expected.
As a majority family, Andrew's traditional, nuclear family is very much intact on the surface. In many ways his family is much like the Dead family in Song of Solomon. Both are concerned with wealth, prestige and social status. Both families are more concerned with their social class and presenting a good public image rather than truly dealing with family issues.
Neither father is able to communicate openly with their son. For example, Macon is only able to explain his neglect and indifference to Ruth after he had a fistfight with Milkman. He is never really interested in having any kind of serious conversations with Milkman concerning the family history, Milkman has to pry it out of him.
Andrew's father also has serious problems when it comes to communicating with his son. He is unable to talk to him about anything concerning human emotions. His "bird and the bee's" talk is a complete failure that leave Andrew with more questions than answers. Andrew actually ends up helping him out in order to get out of the socially awkward situation. Andrew's father doesn't appear able to provide much practical guidance or direction concerning psychosocial aspects. Both families simply expect their children to automatically grow up to be equipped, functional adults without having to teach them anything.
This lack of practical guidance results in Andrew not having the tools he needs to deal with his emotions, let alone understand his homosexual inclinations. This causes his opinions about where he fits in to society to be mixed. He feels he can't rely on his family for the support he needs to understand the conflict he is feeling inside.
Andrew never mentions any family member outside of his nuclear family that he could turn to with questions or concerns. Unlike Milkman, he makes no mention of Aunts or cousins to turn to. Even his older brother appears to be completely inaccessible to him throughout his growth process. Though interestingly enough, his brother is the first family member he opens up to.
This lack of nuclear family support forces Andrew to build an alternative family of friends to find what he is looking for. Ultimately, his straight friends act as a bridge for him to connect with the gay lifestyle. Andrew's straight friend Hank is able to help him out by introducing him to someone else that he discovers is gay. This introduction to Oscar provides a legitimate way in the gay lifestyle and "Oscar took it from there" (p.124).
As a member of the majority group, Andrew knows where he fits into society. After all, he is white, wealthy and has an Ivy League education. The question for Andrew is, where does he fit into the minority population. Through out the story his encounters with other gay individuals help him to increase his self-discovery and affirms where he fits in the gay society. By the end of the story, for example, he becomes very aware of the kind of man and relationship he his attracted to.
The ending of the story shows that his understanding of himself and the way society views gays is an on going process. He is continuing to grow and continues to rely on his friends for support and guidance. He finally tells his parents and, "so far as they were concerned, I was still the best little boy in the world" (p.243). Being the BLBITW was what he always really wanted from his parents through out this process. However, he continues to feel that the true understanding and support comes from his alternative family of friends in the gay community.
Bastard out of Carolina presents a new twist to the traditional family paradigms seen in Solomon and BLBITW. In this story a stepfather is added to the equation, which completely changes the family dynamics. With the addition of Glen, the family presents the outer appearance of a normal, nuclear family. The reality of the situation is that Glen's involvement destroys the mother/daughter relationship between Anne and Bone.
In the beginning of the story, Anne and Bone are very close. Bone and Reese have no father figure in the house but Anne is able to provide the stability, support, and guidance they need. Bone's extended family of Aunts, Uncles and the grandmother are there to help as well. The extended family, while far from perfect, provides a strong source of love and support.
Glenn's addition to the family disrupts the relationship between Bone and her mother. When Glenn begins to abuse Bone, she turns to her mother for support and looks for an ally. Soon, Bone begins to realize that her mother is not there for her the way she has been in the past. Anne begins to distance her self from Bone. She tells her not to make Glen mad and begins to make excuses for his behavior rather than supporting her daughter.
As a result of this distancing, Bone moves to her safety net of Aunts and Uncles for support. She finds what she is looking for in her extended family. She is able to, at least partially, confide in her Aunt Ruth about the abuse she has received from Glen. She is still not able to fully confide everything that has been going on, "I thought, tell her all of it, tell her" (p. 124). But she is not able to.
Bone's Uncles demonstrate a level of protectiveness that her mother is unable to provide. They attack Glen when they discovered that he was continuously abusing Bone. Later, after she is raped, they very earnestly and honestly intend to kill him for what he did to Bone. Considering that they have their own problems with alcohol, jail, and women, they are still willing to do whatever is necessary to protect their family.
There really isn't a peer group for Bone to turn to for support in her time of need. They move so often that she is never able to establish any real relationships with other kids in her age group. She doesn't have an Alternative School full of kids with similar problems like Precious to turn to. Her only companion is Shannon and that relationship is more of convenience to help her get close to gospel singers than of a friend to confide in. The shallowness of the relationship is summed up by her question, "would they have come to my funeral?" (p. 202).
By the end of the story, Anne has abandoned Bone and left her with her Aunt Raylene. Raylene has been there for Bone in the past and appears to be about the only stable member of the Boatwright family. Bone has found a place with Raylene where she can find the support, direction, and stability she will need. Though this is an alternative arrangement for her to grow up in, it is much better than the family lifestyle with Glen and her mother.
In stark contrast to Bone, Milkman and Andrew, the families presented in the slave narratives and Push are ones of almost unimaginable chaos and turmoil. For Precious and the slaves, reliance on alternative families was necessary for survival rather than means of self-discovery and increased personal understanding. The slaves and Precious are simply trying to stay alive from one day to the next. They did not have the time or luxury of searching for in-depth self identity.
Slavery families were routinely split up and sold to different plantations. Douglas points out "It is common custom...to separate children from their mothers at a very early age" (256). He concludes that this is done to break the bonds between mother and child. This action greatly affects the child's sense of identity and understanding of their place and role within a family. By separating children at a young age, the slave owners were attempting to control the development of the children. Their goal was to prevent bonds from being built that could undermine their control and dominance.
If a family was lucky enough to remain in tact there was always the threat of separation at a moments notice. Mary Prince's vivid recollections provide an example of the complete uncertainty that the slave faced. "I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners; so that we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage" (p.191). At a moments notice, the external forces beyond their control would force dramatic changes in family dynamics.
As a result of these practices, both Prince and Douglas are forced to establish alternative family relationships throughout her lives. It was common for slaves to refer to older slaves as "Aunt" and "Uncle." Prince speaks of her "Aunty Hetty" who showed her great kindness even in the mists of her own terrible plight. The use of these terms shows the strong need to have family members within one's life. The titles also set a social structure or hierarchy that facilitates knowing where one fits into society.
Non-family relationships were an important component, for example, Prince is ultimately driven to live in the Church and the Anti-Slavery Society. She is faced with the choice of living free or returning to slavery to be with her husband. Here again the traditional family is forced to take a backseat because of external forces.
Prince is driven into a ring that is in many ways outside the alternative family structure. She is living in a foreign country and amongst people that do not even fully comprehend what slavery is about. She is in an almost totally foreign environment. This affects her self image in that she now not only has to figure out what her values are, but she needs to explain to others why and how she has gotten to where she is.
In the context of family support and relationships, Precious can be compared to Prince and Douglas. The slaves were forcibly cut off from their families and had to forge alternative family relationships on their own. Precious is forced to do the same because of the abhorrent conditions she faces at home. While she has a family, she would be much better off without them. Neither Precious nor the slaves has the support, guidance, or encouragement of their immediate family.
With no immediate support group around her Precious focuses on simply surviving from one day to the next. The abuse she faces at home does not allow her to focus on anything other than living from moment to moment. Precious, like the slaves, does not have the luxury of thinking past her immediate physical needs and self-preservation.
Precious' inner circle of family is her worst enemy. Between her father raping her and her mother's abuse and neglect, it is a miracle that she survives at all. The next circle of defense, her extended family, does not play an active role in her life either. Her Grandmother takes care of her first child for her, but is uninvolved beyond that. As a result, Precious doesn't have the option of seeking out guidance from any member of her family .
The lack of support and identity at home forces Precious to desperately search for any identity. Her first attempt at finding self-worth is in Mr. Wicker's math class, which she is proud of her role. "Kids is scared of me...I'm like the polices for Mr. Wicker. I keep law and order" (p. 6). She knows she has difficulty doing math, yet she feels good about herself and is pleased to note that "I wish I could tell him about all the pages being the same but I can't. I'm getting pretty good grades. I usually do" (p.6). She is yearning to see anything positive in herself and will take whatever she can get, even if she knows it is not true.
Her desire to know where she fits, coupled with her illiteracy, contribute to her behavior in school. Without anyone to help her develop her identity, she behaves the only way she knows how to relate to others. She acts like a bitch in school to know where she fits in. This behavior is also a defense mechanism that she feels is important to hide her pain and insecurities. She is forced to create her own comfort zones simply to survive. She has no guidance, love, support, or direction to do otherwise.
Her life takes a drastic change when she begins to attend the Alternative School. Here, she is finally able to find the alternative family she has been looking for. This revelation is not an epiphany like Milkman's, but a more gradual development. Precious is understandably not able to trust people and it takes some time for her to begin to open up.
A pivotal point for Precious is when the other classmates admit to not knowing how to read or write, and Precious begins cry. "I want to tell her what I always wanted to tell someone, that the pages, 'cept for the ones with the pictures, look all the same to me...Is I Miz Rain," I axes, "is I in the right place?" (p.48). Ms Rain and her classmates become her alternative family. They are the ones that support her and help her develop her self-identity. They provided her with what her traditional family could not. Precious recognizes this and turns her back on her mother and the destructive affects of her family.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Black Elk Speaks provide a version of family life that is unlike any other examined. The Native American culture generally has a much deeper sense of community than other minority groups. The community or tribe becomes the alternative family for everyone. This helps promote a strong identity as a Native American, and as a member of a specific tribe.
This identity is distinctly different from the families of other characters discussed thus far. All the other protagonists have identified with their families first. Bone is a Boatwight woman, Milkman is from the Dead family, and Andrew's family name is important enough to him to not be included in his novel.
In Lone Ranger, Victor comes from a dysfunctional alcoholic family. He has a good relationship with his mother, but his father is absent. The majority of the story revolves around life on the reservation. Victor's identity is based on his alternative family of Indians.
Victor points out that "all the Indians, the eternal survivors, gathered to count their losses" P11. They not only share failures as a community, they share success as well. For example, everyone is preoccupied with the success of the Basketball team and any talented young player. Anytime anyone does well, it is a cause for everyone to celebrate.
Black Elk is also closely connected to his alternative family. For him this goes beyond his living relatives and fellow Indians. Through his visions he is able to communicate with his forefathers and see the future generations.
These visions are what guide him through his life. They show him how he needs to act and what to expect. He learns at an early age that he will be a medicine man. During his Great Vision, he is told "you shall walk upon the earth, and whatever sickens there you shall make well" P22. His visions provide him his direction, identity and support.
Bless Me Ultima is a unique story and differs from every other novel in many ways. The loving household sits in stark contrast to the negative forces that other characters, like Bone and Precious, have to deal with. The parents truly care for the children and while they are not perfect, they do provide a devoted and supportive home for them to grow in. Each parent is active and concerned about the development of their children.
In addition to the family support, Tony also has a strong outer circle of extended family to turn to. His Uncles, and to a lesser extent his older brothers, are there for him to provide an example, guidance and support. They to are truly concerned with his development and want to help him.
Even though Tony's parents are polar opposites on many subjects, it is apparent that Tony continues to have a strong relationship with them. Like all parents, each has an idea of what they feel their children should do or be when they grown up. Neither makes his life overtly difficult, but they do apply certain pressures that only parents can exert on a child from time to time. While Tony's parents want different things for him, each is really only concerned with his happiness and well being.
The parents attempt to influence Tony's development is very different from the lack of support that Milkman had to deal with. In wanting to know who they are, both Milkman and Tony embark on two separate journeys searching for identical answers.
Tony is trying to discover who he is by searching for what direction his life should take. His quest for understanding is self-initiated. There is nothing that drives or compels Tony to look outside his family for the support he needs. Milkman, on the other hand, is forced out as a result of his fathers lack of support.
Tony's dilemma comes from being caught in the middle of so many cultural and spiritual issues. His life is the junction between different languages, lifestyles (town or farming), religions (Catholic or medicine man), and heritages (luna or llano). As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Tony is the bridge between these positions.
Tony recognizes the paradox in his life and naturally questions what direction his life should take. As a seven year old, he is capable of not only seeing both sides of the issues, but also able to see the merits. As a result, he is unsure of how to proceed and turns to an alternative family member for direction. He asks Ultima, "Now we have come to live near the river, and yet near the llano. I love them both, and yet I am of neither. I wonder which life I will choose." (P41). Like any good sage, she doesn't give him any concrete direction to follow. She simple offers him advice and asks him questions that are designed to open his mind to the possibility of other options.
Ultima is the only character that is truly able to emphasize with Tony. She can see how his life is the link between so many different cultural and spiritual issues. She recognizes that his life must take a new direction of its own and does not attempt to push him down any specific path. Instead she is there to care for him and provide him with love, understanding, and support.
Ultima's role as an alternative family member is the culmination, and embodiment of every other alternative family member examined. Her character exemplifies the love of Ms Rain, Aunt Raylene and the "Aunts" and "Uncles" from Prince and Douglas. She shows the unquestioning support of Andrew's straight friends and Milkman's Reverend Cooper. Ultima is a spiritual guide for Tony like the visions in Black Elk and The Lone Ranger.
Majority culture emphasizes the traditional family and defines family as parents and their children or related by blood. Individual family members normally do not think to step outside this family structure for self-identity, support, or direction. A combination of immigrant culture and " The American Dream" has de-emphasized the role of the extended family.
In contrast to this, minority families traditionally rely on extended families for support, self-identity, and to understand where they fit in. The works presented take this idea one step further as the characters develop alternative family structures. The main characters in each story found increased knowledge and comfort in either strangers, friends, or distant relatives. The realm of "family" is redefined for both the character and the reader. These minority works support the philosophy that, " it takes a village to raise a child".
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