Lucy and Todd

Some Soul to Keep – J. California Cooper

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm

These are longer than her usual stories, and concern women in particular.  There’s a nice emphasis on women having men on their own terms, not on men’s terms.  Perhaps because of this, men remain remote figures here: only a few prove to be of any use to these women.

There’s a wild authority in the conversational language Cooper uses, a musical transcription of African-American speech, but even more boldness in the world she creates in which women are REAL: they’re BIG and, when not deprived of everything, they can be all-encompassing.  It’s refreshing to watch a writer take women’s experiences and expectations so seriously, from poverty to orgasms (‘opera singing’), motherhood to property-ownership, from thoughts about Shakespeare, to music and the alphabet.

She doesn’t shrink from woe, but tells us about it on the way towards finding some solution.  We see eugenics irritably attempted against a girl because she’s ‘black, blind and broke’ and yet wants to have a baby anyway; and the lawlessness endured by the ‘underprivileged’ (a word Cooper uses with subtle irony), as one girl’s parents are burnt alive in their house by the KKK while she cowers outside.  By intricate twists and turns in the plot, Cooper somehow manages to contradict, or at least alleviate, the apparent hopelessness of her characters’ plights, in wish-fulfillment stories in which the good people eventually prosper. But Cooper’s optimism is never crass – it carries a weight of sadness along with it, and the success at the end is colored by the anger you still feel about what these gals have been put through (their survival sometimes looking pretty unlikely).

A lot seems to rest on education, and money, which Cooper offers as the quickest routes out of degradation. Satin sheets are mentioned, an emblem of bourgeois comfort.  Radicals in “Black Power: Mixed Tape”, a fascinating Swedish documentary about the black power movement in America during the ’60s and ’70s, bemoaned the way black liberation got sidetracked in the ’80s into a drive towards financial security, and the growth of a (conservative) black middle class: capitalism won yet again, and socialist principles got left behind.  But Cooper’s emphasis on money seems merely pragmatic.  Get money and power, she suggests, and use them to increase your choices, and spread compassion.  The sense of community, and charity, in her work is strong.

She likes to concentrate on the individual, but Cooper can nimbly reach beyond the personal into the political.  When the blind girl is eventually given a place to live, she remarks, ‘I got a temporary room with a little kitchenette with a little—very little—monthly check I was gettin that they give disabled people. It seems somebody rather spend it on war and gettin more people disabled.’  With this, Cooper notes decades of U.S. government warmongering.

And wonderfully, when a mean rival who’s had a somewhat easier life starts criticizing her yet again for having children, a downtrodden heroine finally erupts with: ‘…Four times me is in this world. Loving me! And four times them is growing up calling me Big Mama. Loving me. That’s what I am…a big mama.’ – poetry, and a beautiful defense of procreation.  Cooper is constantly trying to find a NATURAL, human way for women to live, love and be happy – despite everything they have to endure – and biology has its place in that.

LE

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