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Reading, The Bluest Eye: Leverage

January 27, 2009

“Cholly commenced to getting meaner and meaner and wanted to fight me all of the time. I give him as good as I got. Had to. Look like working for that woman and fighting Cholly was all I did. Tiresome. But I holt on to my jobs, even though working for that woman was more than a notion. It wasn’t so much her meanness as just simpleminded. Her whole family was. Couldn’t get along with one another worth nothing. You’d think with a pretty house like that and all the money they could holt onto to, they would enjoy one another. She haul off and cry over the leastest thing. If one of her friends cut her short on the telephone, she’d go to crying. She should of been glad she had a telephone. I ain’t got one yet. I recollect oncet how her baby brother who she put through dentistry school didn’t invite them to some big party he throwed. They was a big to-do about that. Everybody stayed on the telephone for days. Fussing and carrying on. She asked me, ‘Pauline, what would you do if your own brother had a party and didn’t invite you?’ I said ifn I really wanted to go to that party, I reckoned I’d go anyhow. Never mind what he want. She just sucked her teeth a little and made out like what I said was dumb. All the while I was thinking how dumb she was. Whoever told her that her brother was her friend? Folks can’t like folks just ’cause they has the same mama. I tried to like that woman myself. She was good about giving me stuff, but I just couldn’t like her. Soon as I worked up a good feeling on her account, she’d do something ignorant and start in to telling me how to clean and do. If I left her on her own, she’d drown in dirt. I didn’t have to pick up after Chicken and Pie the way I had to pick up after them. None of them knew so much as how to wipe their behinds. I know, ’cause I did the washing. And couldn’t pee proper to save their lives. Her husband ain’t hit the bowl yet. Nasty white folks is about the nastiest things they is. But I would have stayed on ’cepting for Cholly come over by where I was working and cut up so. He come there drunk wanting some money. When that white woman see him, she turned red. She tried to act strong-like, but she was scared bad. Anyway, she told Cholly to get out or she would call the police. He cussed her and started pulling on me. I would of gone upside his head, but I don’t want no dealings with the police. So I taken my things and left, I tried to get back, but she didn’t want me no more if I was going to stay with Cholly. She said she would let me stay if I left him. I thought about that. But later on it didn’t seem none too bright for a black woman to leave a black man for a white woman. She didn’t never give me the eleven dollars she owed me, neither. That hurt bad. The gas man had cut the gas off, and I couldn’t cook none. I really begged that woman for my money, I went to see her. she was mad as a wet hen. Kept on telling me I owed her for uniforms and some old broken-down bed she give me. I didn’t know if I owed her or not, but I needed my money. She wouldn’t let up none, neither, even when I give her my word that Cholly wouldn’t come back there no more. Then I got so desperate I asked her if she would loan it to me. She was quiet for a spell, and then she told me I shouldn’t let a man take advantage over me. That I should have more respect, and it was my husband’s duty to pay the bills, and if he couldn’t, I should leave and get alimony. All such simple stuff. What was he gone give me alimony on? I seen she didn’t understand that all I need from her was my eleven dollars to pay the gas man so I could cook. She couldn’t get that one thing through her thick head. ‘Are you going to leave him, Pauline?’ she kept on saying. I thought she’d give me my money if I said I would, so I said ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘All right,’ she said. ‘You leave him, and then come back to work, and we’ll let bygones be bygones.’ ‘Can I have my money today?’ I said. ‘No’ she said. ‘Only when you leave him. I’m only thinking of you and your future. What good is he, Pauline, what good is he to you?’ How you going to answer a woman like that, who don’t know what good a man is, and say out of one side of her mouth she’s thinking of your future but won’t give you your own money so you can buy you something besides baloney to eat? So I said, ‘No good, ma’am. He ain’t no good to me. But just the same, I think I’d best stay on.’ She got up, and I left. When I got outside, I felt pains in my crotch, I had held my legs together so tight trying to make that woman understand. But I reckon now she couldn’t understand. She married a man with a slash in his face instead of a mouth. So how could she understand?”

10 Comments
  1. MargaretJamison permalink
    January 28, 2009 5:08 am

    That is just like women of privilege to advise the women beneath them to appeal to institutions that have served only privileged women well, when they have served women at all – the police, the law, the banks, the schools, the parents, the family, the church, etc. Those institutions, even when they serve women, do not serve them equally. And to abrogate responsibility for exercising the power one does have to improve another woman’s circumstances in favor of directing that woman toward biased institutions is just so, so wrong. All that woman had to do was give Polly the $11. And instead she told her leave her husband and go ask a white court for alimony from a man who didn’t have a job. Gee, thanks.

  2. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    January 28, 2009 7:57 pm

    I know it is far fetched, but I cannot read Pauline’s narrative without thinking of feminists who scream to third world women, MOON CUP, MOON CUP! Good grief.

    The story starts 1941, and this is back before Pauline had children, so we are talking 1926-27, and this woman (white) wants Pauline to go to court (what will Pauline eat while she is waiting for the courts to take her, where will Pauline live?) and demand alimony, from as you said a man who has no job and when he does he drinks his pay away. The thing that kills me is, she EARNED the $11. It was her money.

    I cannot comprehend people, more specifically women, not imagining themselves in the other woman’s shoes when she is in the position to feed/help a woman or not. Who cannot see the potential to abuse that power? Or more importantly, who can claim that there is no a power structure?

  3. Joan Kelly permalink
    January 28, 2009 8:19 pm

    Hi Margaret and Kitty,

    I read this book years ago but haven’t been re-reading it with you right now. Maybe I will catch up some time soon, not sure. At any rate, re: what you say above, Kitty, in regards to women not imagining themselves in other women’s shoes…

    I actually feel like, in addition to race and class hatred, it seems to me like in fact women DO imagine themselves, sub-consciously at the very least, in the other woman’s shoes when they are preachy/condescending/judgmental instead of compassionate and/or helpful and respectful towards women who are in abusive relationships.

    I think it is precisely that association – “it could be me” – that terrifies and angers women; it makes them urgently need a reason to believe that it’s the abused woman’s fault. If I can make it her fault – she “should” do this, that, or the other thing that I just think is plain common sense and so easy to do! – then I can believe I would never do what she’s doing, to be in the situation she’s in.

    I feel like there’s a difference between “I wish women never ever tolerated anything from men – I wish we all just never took any shit at all” and “it’s so pitiful that you, stupid individual, aren’t strong enough to avoid men that anyone else would have known to stay away from, or would get away from now.”

  4. MargaretJamison permalink
    January 28, 2009 8:30 pm

    ***If I can make it her fault – she “should” do this, that, or the other thing that I just think is plain common sense and so easy to do! – then I can believe I would never do what she’s doing, to be in the situation she’s in.***

    The thing is, though, that believing in the “plain common sense and so easy to do!” solution is in itself a leveraging of the privilege they currently have, as women are NOT in the shoes of the women they’re looking down their nose at. You know what I mean? They recommend “solutions” to these women that are not equivalently available to all women. If a white women tells a black woman to go to the police – because that’s what *she’d* do if she were in that situation – well, she’s leveraging white privilege. It isn’t the case that the self-righteous white woman is *scared* of ending up in Polly’s shoes; it’s that the white woman CAN’T be in Polly’s shoes, would NEVER be in Polly’s shoes, because she’s white. Her whiteness protects her from the fate of standing in a white woman’s yard begging her for $11 she’d already earned. A white woman owed wages for services already rendered would have far more recourse than Polly did, even if she also had a sorry-ass husband who drank their money away. So, even if she did EXACTLY what Polly had done – married an asshole, moved far away from family and friends with said asshole, and held things together while he pissed their funds away – she’d STILL not be in the situation of having to beg a white woman for money she’d already earned. And yet, the white woman absolutely takes NO responsibility for Polly’s circumstances!

  5. MargaretJamison permalink
    January 28, 2009 9:32 pm

    ***I feel like there’s a difference between “I wish women never ever tolerated anything from men – I wish we all just never took any shit at all” and “it’s so pitiful that you, stupid individual, aren’t strong enough to avoid men that anyone else would have known to stay away from, or would get away from now.”***

    I agree that they are slightly different, but at the same time, I’m not really sure that there’s a resolution that can be had, so that women don’t hear the latter when it’s the former being said. And even when it is the former being said, I sort of can’t shake the feeling that it is inherently a criticism of the women who are demonstrably NOT doing their best not to take shit from men.

    I don’t know. I think there’s no way to really critique patriarchy without also criticizing the people who are married to patriarchal tenets. If I say, “I wish no woman would take shit from men,” and you’re a woman who “likes” to take shit from men, well, I’ve deemed you lacking and insufficient. Maybe you don’t care about that because you like sucking dick more than you like being considered feminist-ly competent and philosophically sound, but I certainly can’t deny that such a statement as “women shouldn’t take shit” is a denunciation of women who take it.

    I’m really starting to come away from that school of thought which says that feminism has to be for all women. It’s simply not. When some women do actually benefit from patriarchy, we have to accept that eliminating patriarchy would be detrimental to quite a few women. That’s not a failure of radical feminism; it’s simply a fact that some women are as much our enemies as men.

    Of course, I don’t see the white woman in this excerpt as being on the side of feminists. She isn’t telling Polly not to take any shit from men. She’s telling Polly not to take any from black men, which is an entirely different can o’ beans. After all, her advice is that Polly go and suck up some jizz at the county courthouse, so the white woman isn’t opposed to patriarchal collusion, so much as she is opposed to black women’s collusion with black men.

    If she were actually saying that she was opposed to all women colluding in any way at all, though, she’d have given the woman the $11 so she could get away from him without putting herself in harm’s way.

  6. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    January 28, 2009 9:41 pm

    Hi Joan, thanks for adding to the discussion. I think I understand what you are getting at in a Dickensian sort of way. It seems to be a common trope in most of his novels, the middle classes and the working-poor treat the newly poor (especially someone who once had something) like crap. In a way it is sort of , “now you can see what it feels like.” But it is different here for Polly and her employer. For one thing (and I realize I am going with this and it may not be what you were going for) when people are afraid they may end up with the same fate as someone who is down and out, mistreating them may provide some pay off that satisfies their sub-conscious. However, that is usually among people who identify with each other. White people to white people.

    In Pauline’s case, I don’t think the employer is putting herself in Pauline’s shoes, not the least bit. The differences are so vast, the employer would have to make a monumental effort. What is in it for her to imagine herself in Pauline’s shoes? Because, she knows sub-consciously, if not consciously, if she did imagine herself as Pauline, truly put herself in Pauline’s shoes, her conscious would no longer allow her to get away with the power and authority she wields over people (Pauline). The lost of power is what keeps women like this from truly crossing over and imagining themselves in the other woman’s shoes. To experience the feeling of being in Pauline’s shoes would create a conflict in the employer’s mind, –a conflict she cannot afford to have if she wants to keep living at the standard she is living.

    When I read this narrative I inferred all kind of details. Like the employer is keeping the $11 from Pauline so she can have that money. So she can buy something to show off in front of the other white women, to justify an expenditure to her husband, etc. All at the expense of Pauline. Because I cannot imagine how if she truly truly put herself in Pauline’s place she would withhold the $11,– unless there was something in it for her.

  7. Joan Kelly permalink
    January 28, 2009 10:57 pm

    Yeah, what you both just wrote (and thank you) makes sense to me and is more accurate. I think I’m personally touchy around the topic of how some women treat other women who are in shitty and/or abusive situations, and the way some women talk to/about other women they know who are in such situations…I’d rather have believed it’s fear than…coldness, or predation.

    What you said, Margaret, about leveraging privilege, you’re right. And what you said, Kitty, about imaginging what she would do with the $11 she stole from Pauline, that makes sense too.

    It’s not even that I don’t want to believe this one white woman character in the book (or any one white woman in real life) could be cold and predatory. I just had a reaction to what you said (and by reaction, I mean it made me feel something and want to say it), Kitty, about women not being able to imagine themselves in another woman’s shoes when they could help her. Reading this all again, it doesn’t seem like it applies to this at all.

    Margaret – I agree that the difference exists but that “…there’s no way to really critique patriarchy without also criticizing the people who are married to patriarchal tenets.” I’m so uncomfortable with that. Which I mention simply as an observation about myself, not as a lament. I am SO uncomfortable with ever feeling critical of women even as they are suffering because of things men do.

    I don’t feel like I have the same conviction about all of it that you do, though. By which I mean, I do believe men could reject male supremacy, and it’s precisely because I believe this that it bothers me so much that they don’t. I don’t subscribe to the idea that men do x because women let them = all there is to it. Although I do agree with everything you said about some women being invested in what they do get out of male supremacy, because of things they may personally like about the way things are.

    So what I mean about there being more to it than that for me, always, whenever men are doing oppressive and destructive things and any given women are going along with it is that there are a ton of things that I could technically get away with. Shit that I could get people to take from me, and not even object that much, or even feel like they love me and the shit I do to them doesn’t alter that love. It still makes me a horrible fucking person who should not be doing it at all, no matter what anyone else will or won’t put up with.

    I don’t even feel like this makes total sense, but that aspect of it does make me uncomfortable with criticizing women who take shit with men. Not because it’s not a legitimate topic, but because whenever it’s going on, I am, on an emotional level, feeling like well what the fuck are we taking our eyes off the dudes for?

    Sidebar – some Typhoid Mary or Larry at my office has given me whatever sickness he/she has, which is different from the one I just got over a day or so ago, and which is presently fogging my brain with rising feverishness.

    Not to say that I always make sense when I’m 100% well, just that I feel rambly and like stuff I want to articulate is just out of my grasp right now.

    Appreciated and agreed with both your comments, though, and wish I were up to the level of response they deserve.

  8. MargaretJamison permalink
    January 28, 2009 11:31 pm

    ***I don’t subscribe to the idea that men do x because women let them = all there is to it. ***

    I don’t either! I’m just satisfied in a way that you are not that men AREN’T going to do anything to change their behavior in meaningful ways and that it’s up to women to defeat patriarchy, if we want to. I’m not convinced that there are very many women who actually want to. And I also believe that a whole bunch of women waiting around on men to make changes to their behavior and psyche that they’ve resisted making for milennia is in itself a manifestation of patriarchy. I believe that women can save ourselves better than men could come to our rescue, even if they were inclined to do so, which they have not shown themselves to be. That so many women believe that patriarchy will be over only when men choose to change, rather than that it will be over when women force that change, is a holdover from a patriarchal mindset. That’s why I focus on women and have abandoned all diatribe and rage directed at men. It is women who will save women from men.

    And I don’t say that because I’m ignoring the fact that men are assholes for taking advantage of this situation. I say it because I fully acknowledge that.

  9. Joan Kelly permalink
    January 29, 2009 5:34 pm

    Ah, from reading the above, I think I am closer to your view than I maybe sound? Or else I’m a person who feels a jumble of things and can’t keep it all straight or sound consistent, ugh.

    But yeah, what you said about not waiting for or expecting men to change – I’m not sure how to articulate how I feel about holding men accountable while believing 100% that extricating oneself from beholden-ness to men in any and all ways is the only thing women can do that will actually bring about change in their own experiences.

    So I think I would say that I believe men can change, and agree that most simply won’t and don’t want to. I also agree that there are plenty of women who not only won’t and don’t want to extricate themselves to change *their* experiences, but who don’t want the men they are beholden to to change either. Or at any rate don’t require it. Which outcome is the same so it doesn’t matter much to me whether they are woo-hoo-my-man’s-great-the-way-he-is! about it or damn-I-wish-he-would-change-but-I’m-not-going-to-disengage-just-because-he-won’t.

    I know we talked a while back about in emails I think it was, about how I wish for women that they can feel good in their dealings with men – because I generally don’t, and it’s painful, and in a sense I do wish ignorant bliss on people sometimes. Basically I will talk to people (but of course it’s mostly women) about my radical views and some of my choices if it comes up – I certainly won’t try to talk anyone *into* having a happy outlook on white male supremacy. But although we come at it from obviously different places, like you I don’t spend my time trying to convince women who are happy with how things are to see it differently.

    I feel like the kind of feminism we talk about here is not for everyone, like you say. I just don’t have a firm grasp on how or why some women feel it and some don’t. I do believe that various privileges can certainly influence a woman to want to cling to whatever position she can get in the hierarchy. But sometimes it seems to me almost like people are pre-disposed to either feel/see things these ways or not?

    And this is of course super me-centered but it does color why I feel the above: my circumstances would seem more to have predisposed me to feeling like, hey, the way things are ain’t so bad, I can do and have and be x, y, and z, etc., not in spite of being a woman, but *because* of the “type” of woman I am (i.e. the ways my particular self are privleged over other women’s selves).

    But I have felt how I feel since as far back as I can remember, way before I’d ever heard about feminism, much less anything radical, and all the while being raised and formed in white male supremacist culture. By white male supremacists and their allies, basically.

    It has always felt wrong to me, and I never felt like I “had my eyes opened” or was persuaded by anyone to develop a radical disposition, so much as I felt like, thank fucking god somebody finally is articulating things that I’ve always felt and did not have the vocabulary to put my finger on. Finally someone is making sense, what a fucking relief that I am not the only one who feels this way, and that I have words for it now.

    Considering how extreme and pervasive white male supremacy is, the fact that so many women do not have that reaction or streak in them or whatever you want to call it, it makes me feel like, well maybe some people could have been raised by radical separatists and they would *still* be like, “eh, the world doesn’t look as bleak to me as it does to you. Lighten up, ladies.” I don’t know.

  10. MargaretJamison permalink
    January 31, 2009 5:22 pm

    ***Considering how extreme and pervasive white male supremacy is, the fact that so many women do not have that reaction or streak in them or whatever you want to call it, it makes me feel like, well maybe some people could have been raised by radical separatists and they would *still* be like, “eh, the world doesn’t look as bleak to me as it does to you. Lighten up, ladies.” I don’t know.***

    It’s disheartening, isn’t it, whether it’s a clinging to privilege or an inability to see? I do agree with you, though, that there are some women who will simply never be on the side of radical feminists, who will always be men’s women. I’m letting go of my sense of obligation at framing my feminism as being beneficial to them, too.

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