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With Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black and Hill Collins’ essay, one can see that black culture vs. white culture each had its own form of normativity, yet, prejudice was brought forth, because of what was considered culturally, socially, and publicly acceptable. We can take away from this that lead character Stevie’s mother wishes that her family was white, yet expresses pride at being black, while never being able to make a definitive choice; as in Hill Collins’ essay, we get the idea that there were certain choices when it came to being black, yet if you were not a mammy, you were considered a failure; if you were a Jezebel, you were a whore (which is what Carla Perkins, Stevie’s best friend, is considered to be); if you were a Matriarch, you were undesirable to the opposite sex (something that Stevie’s mother exhibits characteristics of, and yet is married); and Stevie’s grandmother is the typical mammy, as shown here in this scene, with Stevie’s mother, Evelyn, giving her grief about her occupation: “You raised us to be tough.
I remember having to get myself dressed, help little Sheila and the boys get ready, fix breakfast, make Daddy’s biscuits.
Sometimes we went out wearing mismatched clothes, hair half combed, looking like ragamuffins, ’cause you’d left before day to go take care of some white family’” (33).
Because Carla Perkins is a Jezebel architype, many people during the novel do not approve of her. One example is Evelyn, Stevie’s mother, when Stevie is caught in a lie involving Carla when she is thirteen.
“Well, Mary Beth’s parents won’t give Terri a chance, just because she’s colored. I don’t think it’s fair not to give people a chance, do you, Mama?!” (62). While Evelyn Stevenson truly wants what’s best for her daughter, she is giving in to negative stereotypes, partially because Carla’s two older sisters both have a child each (later they each have a boy and a girl, according to Stevie). It is easy for Evelyn Stevenson to do this because even Carla’s mother does the same. “You are so polite. My other two daughters only ran around with riffraff. I tell Carla all the time, Be like Stevie, she’s going to amount to something” (67). Mrs. Perkins obviously means well, because she’s done everything but sell herself to care for her daughters. She seems to be the polar opposite of a welfare mother for she is employed as a hairdresser at a local salon—which is the fourth controlling image of Black women in Hill Collin’s essay. “Cinderella was not written about the negro woman. Do you understand?’ ‘Yes, I think so,’ I said, edging back a little from the knife” (69). Obviously, Mrs. Perkins wanted to keep Stevie on edge, to let her know the seriousness of the situation, and how much Stevie should not depend on the opposite sex for anything. Also, she is adamant that Stevie not be dissuaded from her career by taking up with a man, “Your Prince Charming ain’t never gonna come! Do you hear me?”” (69).
Mrs. Perkins wants to embolden Stevie against becoming a negative Black stereotype—i.e. a Jezebel—for she believes that Carla’s (as the would-be Jezebel) ticket to a good life depends on Stevie’s ability to succeed in hers, which means that Mrs. Perkins believes that Carla will have a good life by association, or, rather, that Stevie’s goodness will rub off on her own daughter. Hill Collins, right away, informs us of the negative Black stereotypes that we encounter in media, literature, stories, and other mediums of the past. Hill Collins mainly focuses on how women who themselves were Black are unable to find many career options besides that of domestic servitude. “The first controlling image applied to African-American women is that of the mammy—the faithful, obedient domestic servant. Created to justify the economic exploitation of house slaves and sustained to explain Black women’s long-standing restrictions to domestic service, the mammy image represents the normative yardstick used to evaluate all Black women’s behavior” (71). Stevie’s grandmother seems to be the epitome of this with one major exception—the Mammy was supposed to have been entirely devoted to the family she served, when Stevie’s grandmother seemed to love her own family very much, although Evelyn, Stevie’s mother, seemed to think otherwise. “Evelyn, you know I had to do whatever I could to make an honest dollar,’ Grandma said quietly. ‘Yeah, that’s why we never had Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving, ’cause you had to cook and serve their dinner’” (33).
Evelyn understandably harbors some resentment towards her mother, yet it is soon found to be unfounded, although Evelyn is a stubborn woman, as a Matriarch, who doesn’t wish to believe her theory otherwise. Evelyn chooses to see only what she wants to see, and is blinded by the fact that her mother attempts to apologize, probably thinking the apology is too late coming, yet she refuses to move on herself. When Stevie enters high school, she begins questioning her sexuality after meeting Nurse Horn and even though she has a boyfriend whom she later attempts to sleep with—Stevie just can’t seem to shake these frightening feelings, according to her, about Nurse Horn, no matter how awkward it is for her. What is difficult to understand is the very notion that Hill Collins barely touches on the subject, when Sinclair devotes a good chunk of the final part of Coffee Will Make You Black to it—perhaps she didn’t want to deal with potential stigma herself. It is a heartbreaking scene when Stevie speaks to her possible lesbianism and sexual confusion to Carla Perkins, her best friend of nearly four years, through thick and thin. “Carla, you would still be my friend, though, if I was that way, wouldn’t you?’ ‘You mean if’n you was funny?’ ‘We both know I’m not, but let’s just say if’n I was.’ ‘Naw, then.’ ‘Naw, then what, Carla?’ ‘Hell no, I wouldn’t still be your friend”” (223). What many heterosexual people don’t understand is—no matter what their race is—they will often have an easier time at getting ahead in life because of their sexuality. No matter who you are or where you come from, there is sexuality privilege as well as race privilege, and there is always stigma against both. The unfortunate thing is, of course, the deaths that happen because of sexuality and/or race.
Class also comes into play here —if you’re a target in class, gender, and sexuality, then you’re a walking target in some areas of the world. It is an awful thing to fear being who you really are, but many people live with it, every single day, because that is something we cannot change. In the beginning of Coffee Will Make You Black, Stevie seemed to be of the mindset that she was fully prepared for whatever life deemed appropriate to throw at her. However, as she goes forth in her schooling, she comes to realize that she would rather be a good person than a popular one. She gets an afro instead of opting for a perm, thus embracing her cultural heritage, much to her mother’s chagrin, and opts to join a civil rights club at school, rather than a social club which is equipped with finding her a good man to settle down with. Stevie comes to terms with her cultural heritage, and no longer resists it, like her mother, and comes to a rather reluctant understanding with her sexuality: “My life might not turn out to be easy, I thought. I just hoped that I turned out to be strong” (239).
With Hill Collins’ mold for what was expected of Black women, I concluded that Stevie is in a class by herself. She is not a Mammy, bent on serving her master or tending to their children. She is not a Matriarch, who wishes to order people around and keep them in line. She is not a Jezebel, who sees sex to get ahead in life or as a moment of momentary pleasure. And she is not a welfare mother, because she doesn’t have children, though she helps with her younger brothers, nor is she hell bent on squandering money and not working to get some back. Stevie is an empowering, intelligent, determined woman who is coming to grips with who she is, and what can and cannot be changed. Though she knows there will be a struggle ahead of her—not just due to her skin color, but quite possibly with her sexuality as well—she is prepared to be strong and to be her own person by following what’s right and what she believes in.
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