The Theme Of Racism In Alice Walker’s Flowers

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‘The Flowers’ (1973), is a bildungsroman short story by Alice Walker set in the deep south of 1930s America. Exploring the loss of innocence of a 10-year-old girl Myop, and the conflict between the fantasy of a child’s mind and the reality of the world in which the child is thrust. ”The Flowers” utilises distinctive voice to communicate the idea of racism and the subsequent trauma that young African Americans face. Conveyed through the characterisation of Myop, symbolic use of a dead body and a noose and juxtaposition of the setting.

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The idea that racism against African Americans results in a premature worldliness, is expired by Alice Walker through the characterisation of Myop. It is established early in the text that Myop’s life is full of hardship as her family “harvest(s)… corn, cotton peanuts and squash”, however, is presented through rose-tinted glasses as Myop claims each day brings a ‘golden surprise” reinforcing to the reader the idea that she lives in a world of nativity unaware of the poverty that her family experiences. Her childlike mindset is further cemented when she taps a little song with a stick she carries, suggesting her free-spirited and playful nature. The subtle mention of her “dark-brown hand” implies she is African American and given her family are described as ‘sharecroppers” conveys to the reader that she lives in the early 20th century in the southern states of America. Her happiness and childhood are further depicted in her venture of picking wildflowers, a task that she becomes so engrossed in that it carries her a “mile or more from home”. This is symbolic as the further she moves from the peace and security of home, the more she ventures into uncovering the harsh reality of the world. The discovery of the dead man is symbolic of the harsh truth that her race faces. Such realities she discovered alone, thus free from the shield that her mother usually provides. The flowers she collects throughout her journey whilst singing songs and dancing around demonstrate Myop’s guilelessness. However, upon the discovery of the noose and the viola of this man’s death, she lays them down supposedly out of respect. While it never specifically states that she recognises what the noon means, her shift in mood and tone suggests that she understands that it is a symbol of racial violet against people like her. Upon laying her flowers down, the narrator states “the summer is over”, however rather that the seasons changing, it is Myops premature transformation from an innocent, unworldly child to someone with a clear understating towards the worlds racial violence. This clear change in Myop’s characterisation is representative of the forced shifts African Americans face in retaliation to racism and racially based violence

Alice Walker further explores the idea of early exposure to racism and loss of innocence through the juxtaposition of the setting. When we are first introduced, walker uses idyllic imagery to describe her day as ‘never [been] as beautiful] and that she felt as light […] in the warm sun’ allowing the reader to experience the peace that surrounds her life on the farm. It is clear that she is comfortable exploring the woods behind her house, where “often [..] her mother [takes] her to gather nuts.” As she ventures beyond the boundaries shared with her mother, it then ‘arms laden” with “stranger blue flowers” that the tone changes as she encounters “strangeness”, “gloom” and “dampness”. myopic attempts to return to the “Peacefulness of the morning” but the feeling of wellbeing has been lost for both Myop and the reader. Demonstrating the dark looming cloud that is racial discrimination in America. Myopic in her vision of world things she, steps into the “eyes” of the skull and rotted skeleton; the universal symbol of death. Drawing comparisons the Red Riding hood in the fairy tale that warns fo the Big Bad Wolf, Myop learns that past the safety of her own home, is a world that is dangerous, in her case the knowledge of the existence of racism. The juxtaposition of the use of imagery and the severe change in tone between the beginning and the end of the text forces the reader to understand the apocalyptic impact that her discovery has had on Myop’s young life.

The text emphasises the idea that despite supposed improvements with the treatment of African Americans, racism and Violence is still a deep-rooted issue within American society. ‘The Flowers’ uses symbolism of the noose and the body of the deadman to highlight the circle of racial violence and the subsequent effect that has on the African-American youth. The dead man whom Myop discovered is symbolic of the violence faced by African Americans, the rooting nose that was found nearby indicated to the reader that he was presumable lunched and murdered by a group of white men. A common crime that would occur to African Americans in the early 20th century. A parallel can be drawn to the time of publishing, 1973, where African American civil rights were being heavily advocated and campaigned for. While there wasn’t any lynching, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King jr, leaders of such campaigns were assassinated less than 5 years before publishing. This reinforces the idea that despite decades between the time the text was set and was published racial violence against African Americans is still deeply embedded in American society and is affecting the way that their youth is grown up. The noose that was “barely there” but still “spinning […] in the breeze” is symbolic of racism and lynching itself. While there are no longer lynching in the traditional sense, their presence is still extremely prevalent in African American culture as this occurred regularly only 3 generations from today, and 1 generation as of publishing. And while a “wild pink rose” is growing nearby symboling peace, the memory still lingers and affects the youth of then and now.

‘The Flowers’ uses symbolism, juxtaposition and characterisation to craft a distinctive voice that reflects the idea of racism and the subsequent trauma that young African Americans face, particularly through the loss of innocence. The repetitiveness of the theme drives home concept of racism from the perspective of a child discovering the world for the first time. Something that leaves the viewer unsettled because shielding and protecting young from mature themes is a primal instinct ingrained into western culture. Despite being written in a time full of radical change, racism was still a major part of American culture and although being almost 50 years in the future from the time of publication, similar levels of discrimination are still happening today. And while Alice Walker heavily uses flowers to represent peace and forgiveness within her works, it begs the question have we really progressed from early 20th century? 

16 August 2021

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