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Reading Segregation Signs in Getting Mother’s Body by Suzann-Lori Parks

The Unknown's picture

Reading Segregation Signs in Getting Mother’s Body by Suzann-Lori Parks

            The segregation sign is a pillar of racism in the post-civil rights- United States. The segregation sign is an object of desire and social scorn. People look for these signs in museums and public exhibits, asking to be reassured that Jim Crow is indeed dead, yet wonder if these venues can adequately portray and describe the lived experiences of enforced race segregation. This essay will examine the cultural waste and debris left over from Jim Crow and its afterlife. The salience of race returns in the segregation sign. The contests over the meaning of segregation signs must be understood as part of the continuing struggle against racism and inequality.

            Post-civil rights subjects see Jim Crow segregation signs as embodying a well-known yet seemingly removed history. Literature has a critical role here as well. Expanding upon the work that has been done tracing historiographic preoccupations with Jim Crow in post-civil rights American literature, this essay uses the psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny to describe the effect of encountering fictional segregation signs today. The concept of the uncanny alludes to the process of inscription embedded in such signs, the process of making them readable and decipherable. Segregation signs both reproduced and generated racialized subjects in a process that adhered strongly to the I and not-I through the crowbar of Jim Crow citizenship, which in other words means U.S. citizenship. There is a further layer for contemporary fiction readers: connecting and sympathizing with and against those past subjects reading and interpreting the sign in the historical moment, some of whom may now be contemporary readers. This frame can be used to analyze and further understand an example of Jim Crow signage in the post-civil rights novel, Getting Mother’s Body by Suzann-Lori Parks. Getting Mother’s Body is set on the day before the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, but with the post-civil rights reader in mind (Parks 87). Segregation signs, particularly present day fictional representations, incite the historical uncanny when the ghost of legal segregation threatens to resurface from its seemingly settled place in history, thereby unsettling reassuring or congratulatory narratives of racial progress in a de facto era. The Historical Uncanny examines how certain memories become inscribed into the narrative of a country while others are suppressed or unremembered. For some, the uncanny may initially seem a strange or even wrongheaded way to frame fictive encounters with segregation signs today, because for many readers, such experiences are all-too-familiar and never forgotten, so they are consequently not able to return. Nevertheless, the concept of the historical uncanny explains the shift in the shared horizon of expectations in a national narrative of Jim Crow’s official death, as well as the impact of recreated signs in place of artifacts. In truth, the uncanny feeling of encountering an all-too-familiar yet fictive segregation sign today may be welcome and even recuperative, depending on the reader’s personal, intellectual, and political engagements.   

            Getting Mother’s Body is an especially good subject for a foray into the uncanny considering Parks’ preoccupation with burial sites, repeatedly unearthed history, and empty holes.These frames are prevalent in current thinking about Jim Crow and its long death. These prime repositories of the uncanny bear historical design: Parks unearths civil rights and literary history, digging up undead civil rights victories, as well as dead, but persistent raced subjects. Parks’ project challenges efforts to canonize an official racial progress narrative. Punctuating her novel with fictive, modern representations of segregation signs, Parks revisits those subjects of Jim Crow who do not fully share the benefits of civil rights gains and go on to emerge in shiny coffee-table books celebrating racial progress. These people have been excluded from an overly celebratory public memory. These subjects become the civil rights’ undead, waiting for a strong form of enfranchisement to enliven them. 

            Parks uses segregation signs to mark the paths of these civil rights undead. Parks’ novel consists of different voices, with each chapter named after the narrating character. Parks has her own version of rural throwbacks; the Beedes race to LaJunta, Arizona, to exhume Willa Mae (and her jewels) before her grave is paved over for a supermarket parking lot. The reader follows Billy Beede’s life in particular, as she gets knocked up by a travelling coffin salesman, cons her way into a wedding dress only to meet her supposed fiancé’s wife and several children, at which point she decides she needs to have an illegal abortion. Billy Beede’s predicament echoes her own mother’s fate, who died of a botched self-induced abortion. In this way, Parks situates her story as a feminist pursuit of the unfinished business of civil rights in the historical record. Other characters have different desires for digging up the treasure: Cousin Homer Rochfoucalt wants to go back to university so that he can become a senator someday even though his NAACP funds are low, Dill Smiles needs to supplement her deteriorating pig-farming enterprise, Aunt June wants to purchase a leg in her color, Uncle Teddy is a preacher who needs a church and eventually congregation, and Laz Jackson wants to pay for his marriage to Billy Beede, if she’ll marry him. Within these admitted plans, Parks also calls attention to the unspoken. For instance, Dill explains that early in their courtship, “…Willa Mae went and bellowed through the streets that I weren't no man. . . . Over the years they all put two and two together. But it remains unspoken" (89). As an open, yet private matter, Roosevelt wonders what she’s always fiddling with in her pockets, Aunt June calls her “Miss He-She-It,” the local barber compliments her by calling her a father figure and offering to give her a shave, and Laz is mystified to discover that “She pees standing up” (192).   

            In the midst of this whirlwind of competing interests, both spoken and unspoken, Parks litters the landscape with political signifiers on which the post-civil rights reader, if not the characters, pauses because such signifiers are now overdetermined receptacles of meaning in people’s historical imagination: the March on Washington, illegal abortion doctors, spectacle lynchings, and Jim Crow signs. For characters, though, they merely make up the pedestrian landscape of everyday life. In fact, the characters have more important things to think about, like, Dill Smiles’ latest pig litter or Billy’s five-month pregnant belly. So as the reader’s attention shifts east to Washington D.C. with its iconic desegregation initiatives and related social justice struggles, the narrative moves west toward Lajunta, Arizona, abandoning the well-cemented pathway of contemporary civil rights progress narratives.  

            In this gothic landscape, segregation signs also speak beyond the grave, obscuring the line between the Jim Crow “past” and the present. Parks uses allegories and notions of disinterment, burial and the talking dead in a story that deliberately tries to unearth the past, to explore Jim Crow’s undead in the post-civil rights imaginary: masculine lesbians living as men, ignorant beneficiaries of racial uplift programs, careless and inconsiderate light-skinned womyn, and the desolate working poor for whom legal equality at the national level may not address their day to day needs as much as may some jewels buried in the ground. Parks’ allegories of disinterring and unearthing also conjure up disconcerting aspects of contemporary efforts to try to return to civil rights-era court cases to redress past grievances and injustices. The most infamous example is the exhumation of Emmett Till in 2005, fifty years after he was tortured and killed (Davey and Ruethling 1). The FBI reopened the case to determine whether or not additional charges could be brought against anyone beyond the two acquitted killers, Roy Bryant and J. W Milam, who were by then already dead (Davey and Ruethling 7). The case was again closed with no further charges. Still, the very idea of the exhumation, as well as the strange defense argument that perhaps Till’s body was not Till’s body, incites the historical uncanny; a feeling that the Jim Crow past has not passed. Parks’ clever narrative stashes both a corpse and jewels in the same hole in the ground, making them inseparable in a quest to dig up the United States’ past.

Signs of a Struggle: Birdie and Billy’s Encounters with Legible Jim Crow

       Generally, the Beedes follow unspoken signs of Jim Crow that are found mostly off the page and in the minds of Parks’ audience members. At one point, Uncle Teddy schools Billy in how to follow such absent signs. As Billy gets on a bus, she reports, “I don't want no Freedom Riders now,’ the Driver says looking past Uncle Teddy to get a better look at me… ‘You best sit towards the back,’ Uncle Teddy whispers to me” (Parks 56). The reference to desegregation is both brief and short-lived, much like Uncle Teddy’s whispered lesson to his niece on how to navigate segregated terrain. A further unintended uncanny effect rises from the serendipitous parallel between the author’s name and that of Rosa Parks, whose place in the public memory now inextricably connects her with any scene of boarding a segregated bus. In any case, such casual, matter-of-fact references to unrepresented signs, customs, and encounters with Jim Crow mark the scenery of the novel and become conspicuous holes, marking the omnipresent and consequently unremarkable system of compulsory race segregation. So too does Parks guide readers in how to think about Jim Crow without forcing them to think about him. At one-point Uncle Teddy, as he ponders death, confesses, “My parents are buried in the colored section of the Butler County cemetery and my mind had planned, secretly, without me actually thinking about it, to lay Willa Mae alongside them” (47). If the reader enters the novel like Uncle Teddy, his/hur/their mind settles on civil rights and Jim Crow secretly, so that Jim Crow surfaces as a memory haunting this historiographic foray.

       Nevertheless, the reader still comes across some explicit segregation signs at a rural road-side filling station managed by two working class white people: Rude, the fooling-around cardboard cutout of poor white racism, and Birdie, his wife, who herself is not particularly loyal. In the middle of nowhere, Parks includes a small desegregation struggle far removed from Washington politics and even the black community. Parks further creates a feeling of out-of-placeness by inserting into the prose novel an illustrated reproduction of a Jim Crow sign amid other filling station signs: “We don’t serve No niggers” (186-87). This segregation sign, appears fairly late in the narrative, which juxtaposes Billy’s strange tendency to pay little or no attention to it. In calling attention to this passage, it is important to note the pictorial representation of a handwritten segregation sign. Parks’ pictorial signs are clean, typeset depictions of messy, gruesome subjects. Further, Parks creates an unconventional visual parity between a Jim Crow sign and an official brand-name Texaco sign. Additionally, while the unusually brisk sign may initially appear cartoonish, its combination of typest authority and simple, local practice is disturbingly evocative of the not-so-secret life of Jim Crow’s handwritten signs in US history.   

        Considering its clear visual presence, it is noteworthy that Billy does not remark on the sign when she encounters it. The sign just hangs there, haunting the reader’s view. An uneasiness develops in the reader to urge Billy to read the sign, to inform the reader as to how it fits into the narrative, to make it readable and decipherable for the reader. That is, the reader desires, almost enforces Billy’s subjugation to the sign in order to know Jim Crow’s place. Billy does not comment on the “We don’t serve No niggers” sign, choosing to not remark on the excessive emphasis on “no,” for instance, a previous struggle is written onto another segregation sign, but disseminated to the reader in prose, not a pictorial representation. On Billy’s way to the restroom, she reports, “They got one for ladies and one for gentlemens with a 'Whites Only' sign that's been crossed out, rewrote, and crossed out again” (188). Billy reads this artifact dispassionately; she doesn’t shake her fist in protest nor allies with the ghostly hand that crossed out the sign in the first place. This is serendipitous because the reader learns that the struggle encrypted onto the sign is not the hand of an activist. Instead, the sign documents a spousal quarrel between the white owner and his wife, a conflict over which of them determines who enters the commercial space. Further, the inscription on the Jim Crow sign precedes the action; the promises- in this instance false- of anti-segregation activities hang like signs on the journey to Lajunta. Yet Park shuffles the story along, barely allowing readers to pause before the next comical incident. Given such obvious absences, the reader must fill them with historical information, relying on his/hur/their own memory or knowledge of how Jim Crow functions. Birdie doesn’t name Billy’s racial category, it is elided or represented in a “you know.” Billy narrates, “The gal pipes up quick, ‘Rude don't serve - well you know, you'd best be getting food someplace else” (187). Birdie’s “you” traps the reader, who is now in a Jim Crow mindset placing Billy and Birdie onto a colored and white map, delineating between here and “someplace else,” between black and white spaces (187).

           From these unspoken moments of demarcating racialized space, the reader should, eventually, notice what does capture Billy’s attention and imagination. Billy enters the toilet from which she is barred, looks it over, particularly noting its colors. Birdie reports,

The ladies room got yellow tile on the floor and a yellow-colored toilet and a yellow- colored face bowl with a tap for the hot and a tap for the cold and a slim, almost- used-up yellow-and-white bar of soap. I take my time in there. . . (188).

She lingers as an act of resistance, her way of making a mark unreadable in the pictorial field, but only in the prose narrative. She attends to this colored space, which is not the same as, but nevertheless evokes the back-and-white world of Jim Crow. Further, this space is yellow, the typical and infamous sign of the mulatta in the Jim Crow world, and a status that also ostracizes Billy on account of her dark skin tone, in contradistinction to light-skinned Willa Mae, who could pass. Nevertheless, Billy occupies this space and concludes her evaluation by comparing gas stations as             uncanny duplicates across the color line, with the poor white couple’s Texaco outshining the one in her uncle’s station, such as how “It's neat and clean, twice the size of ours” (188). Billy is not a customer; she is rather an intruder and a surveyor. The signs exclude and block Billy while she unofficially and conspicuously takes her time in this white, or perhaps yellow, space.

            The notion of the historical uncanny suggests that, for a post-civil rights imagination, the segregation sign is both a familiar object and a persistently strange object as it signifies an era to which the reader is ineluctably drawn and at the same time resists returning. To thoroughly read a segregation sign in contemporary literature, one must either pry it out of place or reignite a half-buried world-view of white supremacy and sanctioned brutality, although some may be of the opinion that such signs should remain rotting in the national basement, nowhere near the public eye. In the ephemeral switcheroo of the return of the oppressed, fictitious segregation signs today threaten to swap or at least entangle the Jim Crow subject and the post-civil rights reader.    

Reexamining Segregation Signs: How to Read Jim Crow Today

            How do we read segregations signs through the layers of history and stories of the death of Jim Crow that we tell ourselves? Are we exhuming him or was Jim Crow buried too early? Many feel dread because these signs are not merely dead, unreadable facts from outdated ways of thinking. Jim Crow occupies a position in the post-civil rights historical imagination that would conceive of enforced race segregation as an unjustifiable and ludicrous practice from which post-civil rights society has emerged and which it has supposedly rejected. We read these signs, seeking evidence that they no longer hold weight. Yet in rendering them readable, we mark the ease with which we can read Jim Crow’s mind.

            We must not fall victim to post-civil rights progress narratives that insist on a division between past and present. What happens to our sense of self, both historical and personal, when we identify the ghost of Jim Crow within ourselves? As Billy and Birdie read these segregation signs, in a way, we as post-civil rights subjects are rereading them. An uncanny feeling arises given that our first experience with them seems so familiar, so readable. Yet, when we return to the iconic scene of Birdie and Billy squaring off across the color line, can we read a segregation sign outside a pathological framework of want, inferiority, and humiliation? In choosing to inscribe segregation signs, Parks evokes a well-known Jim Crow history for her contemporary readers, one which incites a historical process of racialization that is concerned with the way in which language and notions of race have developed and evolved through time. As readers, we must become Jim Crow subjects educated in how to read such signs. In this vein, Parks’ novel, Getting Mother’s Body, incorporates critical evidence of Jim Crow for a contemporary era often too quick to announce a political, generational, or psychological break from that earlier moment in race relations. This evidence, nevertheless, requires an uncanny reading practice. Therefore, we must reread this sign because of the historical uncanny, this sense that the object is familiar and known in the historical landscape, yet new in the narrative terrain. Indeed, as readers we see this echo in the desegregation struggle inscribed on the sign before Billy’s encounter, that unnarrated moment when Birdie and her husband crossed out and rewrote the exclusionary marks. In rereading this sign that she has never before encountered, more than self-abnegation, Billy uncovers Bridie’s weakness, or in the language of Willa Mae’s con-artistry, Billy discovers Birdie’s “hole” (30-31). Billy then writes herself into a script in which she will emerge as the victor.

            The process of rereading, which is embedded in the historical uncanny, nevertheless, opens up a re-signification so that Billy can write her story into the official national narrative of Jim Crow. In view of the fact that the memorialization of the Civil Rights Movement often presents a singular narrative, there is a constant need to return to the artifacts that bear witness to those injustices and demand present responsibility for past wrongs, as well as address the ways in which Jim Crow is not yet past. Yet, when we encounter a segregation sign in historiographic fiction, its very legibility threatens our rational certainties that these signs are from an era that is past but has not passed. If we don’t read ourselves onto the signs, we become part of a progress narrative that would bury Jim Crow alive. Jim Crow won’t offer soothing blues songs from his grave like Willa Mae. 

Works Cited

Davey, Monica, and Gretchen Ruethling. "After 50 Years, Emmett Till's Body Is Exhumed." The   New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2 June 2005.  Web. 4 Nov. 2016.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother's Body: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

The Unknown—
Last month, you wrote about “black placelessness” and “racialized places”; this time, you’ve turned your attention to “reading segregation signs,” as markers that “incite the historical uncanny” and so evoke “the unfinished business of civil rights.” This is a rich, rich trove of material, with geographical overtones, and several (not always quite intersecting!) trajectories.

I’m especially appreciating your observation that, as the historical narrative “shifts east to D.C.,” the action of Parks’ characters “moves west toward Lajunta, Arizona.” I’m struck, too, by your interpretation of Billy’s lingering in the “yellow space” of the bathroom “as an act of resistance”—as well as by your reading the various, casually presented Jim Crow signs as “conspicuous holes” in the novel, “marking the omnipresent and consequently unremarkable system of compulsory race segregation.” Are you hereby enlarging Parks’ idea of “holes,” as sites of individual vulnerability, which leave each of us open to manipulation, to political sites of vulnerability, where all of us (as reader-citizens?) can also be manipulated? An intriguing idea…

It’s actually the multiple readings of the segregation sign that interest me the most. Your analysis focuses on its double life as “both a familiar object and a persistently strange” one. You explain in your intro that you will be using “the psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny to describe the effect of encountering fictional segregation signs today,” and define the concept of the uncanny as “the process of inscription embedded in such signs, the process of making them readable and decipherable.” I’m a little puzzled by that definition (where’s it from?), since I think of the uncanny as unsettling any predictable or orderly act of decoding. I’m also puzzled that you didn’t draw explicitly on some definitions close to hand, those of haunting that we read by Avery Gordon, Eve Tuck and C Ree.

What really, really grabs me most here is the interesting tension between the supposed clarity of a “sign” (the relation between a signifier, and what it signifies) and the unsettling, always shifting reading that haunting implies….How much do you know of semiotics? (Have you taken any linguistics?) An important figure in that field, C.S. Peirce, developed a theory of the sign as a 3-way relationship between "something, that stands for something, to someone”: in this theory, there’s a sign (in physical form), its object (the part of the world that it carries meaning about), and its interpreter. To which you add the uncanny, the haunting?

What really, really, really intrigues me, @ the end, is your saying that the process of re-reading you’ve initiated “opens us to re-signification,” as we “read ourselves into the signs.” If so, you’re tumbling Peirce’s ideas, so that the three parts all get re-signified, as the reader is read in turn. Fascinating!

You actually make quite a bit of “the reader” throughout (“the reader follows Billy,” “the reader’s attention shifts,” “an uneasiness develops in the reader,” “the reader desires,” the reader learns,” etc. etc.)  Who is this reader? Are you just tracing your own experience, then generalizing from it to that of all of us? (Cf. hannah’s rendition of the multiplicity of our interpretations, including one of your own: /oneworld/poetics-and-politics-race/home-and-hyacinths-how-way-we-see-world-influences-way-we-approach-stories )

When you come to your writing conference (this week or next?) let’s of course talk through some of this, and/but also really focus in on your current independent study. You wrote that you’d like to read A Country Called Prison, and/but that you’ve also already read Americanah, so would like to write about that. Look back through your notes on the novel before we meet, and come with a coupla ideas we can explore together—I’m looking forward to the conversation!