Breeder and Other Stories. – book reviews

Reviewed by Opal J. Moore Breeder and Other Stories by Dr. Eugenia
Collier Black Classic Press, 1994 Baltimore, Maryland 188 pages
Hardback: $11.95

I have stored up tales for you, my children My favorite children, my only children; Of shackles and slaves and a bill of rights.

Dr. Eugenia Collier has recently retired as chair of the English
department at Morgan State University in Baltimore, ending a
distinguished and dedicated career as professor of African American
literature. She is now contributing to that body of literature.

In “Breeder and Other Stories,” a collection of seven tales,
Eugenia Collier elaborates on the destructiveness of American slavery
upon African peoples and their families and, predictably, draws
connections between past and present conditions. With the exception of
the final tale, “Dead Man Running,” the stories are rendered from a
female or woman-centered point of view and strive to describe the
psychological and emotional losses of Black women and the resultant
damage to their children. “Dead Man Running,” told in the voice of an
anonymous omniscient narrator, closes the book with the story of the
teenager, Jazzy, caught up in a drug deal that ends in murder. As a
concluding story, it appears to represent the culmination of our
pageant of slavery — missing fathers, grieving mothers, and death.

Much recent fiction by Black women has focussed upon telling the
largely unrecorded stories of the lives of enslaved Black women.
Contrary to some critical commentary, the purpose of the best of these
works has not been to present the Black woman as martyr or as an icon
to redemptive suffering, but rather, to address Toni Morrison’s
observation that despite the factual accounts of slavery and the lives
of its former inmates, “there was no mention of their interior life.”

So much contemporary writing about slavery and the men and women
caught in that web of economics, power, and pain suggests the need to
understand more about the interior lives of our forebearers — more
than the much rehearsed tales of whippings and humiliations. There may
be a need to understand and accept the feeling parts hidden by veils of
polite or politic speech, especially the neat language of the law so
carefully crafted to obscure the human aspects of the confrontations
between life and jurisprudence. These realities, so long hidden,
omitted or obscured through renaming (as when rape becomes property
damage) can soon be denied and forgotten. Even when the facts of
official records are revived and reviewed, where is the story of the
interior life to be found? How is it to be revived and (re)viewed?

The stories offered in Eugenia Collier’s collection, in their best
moments, take us to the feeling parts of the history of slavery that we
simultaneously clutch to us and revile.

The lives of the women that she chooses to explore remind us of
Melton McLaurin’s history, Celia, A Slave (1991), which described the
passion and striving of Celia, a slave who was hanged in Missouri on
December 21, 1855, for murdering her master who’d kept her in forced
concubinage since she was fourteen years old. What elevates McLaurin’s
rendition of a tragic story is his acute attention to the absence of
information regarding Celia herself, despite the official record of her
own testimony, according to which she killed her master when he refused
to quit his sexual use of her, and incinerated his body in the large
cooking fireplace. What did Celia, or other women like her, feel? What
did they believe in? Where does feeling begin and end?

In stories like Rachel’s Children,” and “Journey Through the
Woods,” and the title work, “Breeder” Collier confronts US with the
moral nightmares of her female characters who are able to kill in order
to keep for themselves some shred of personal integrity.

The collection opens with “Marigolds,” written in the style of
memoir. In the episode, as it is recounted from memory, the youthful
Lizabeth is in transition. between girlhood and womanhood. The narrator
tells us that even now the marigolds remind her of, …the chaotic
emotions of adolescence, elusive as smoke, yet as real as the potted
geranium before me now…. I recall the devastating moment when I was
suddenly more woman than child, years ago in Miss Lottie’s yard.”

Miss Lottie is an old woman, poor, isolated, living with her son
who is what people once called simple. Miss Lottie possesses nothing
valuable except the beauty in her impulse to cultivate a bright patch
of marigolds every summer. One night, Lizabeth overhears her father
weeping because he has no employment and must depend upon his wife’s
income as the total family support: “My Mother, who was small and soft,
was now the strength of the family; my father, who was the rock on
which the family had been built, was sobbing like the tiniest child.
Everything was suddenly out of tune…”

The girl, Lizabeth, asks, “Where did I fit into this crazy
picture?” Having no answer, she climbs out of bed and carries her rage
to Miss Lottie’s yard to stamp, rip, and uproot the marigolds.

“Marigolds” sets the tone for the entire collection, a world where
everything is out of tune, and women repeatedly ask, “Where do I fit
into this crazy picture?” Sometimes, having no answers, they turn their
hands to destruction. Sometimes, like Miss Lottie, they raise
marigolds, obscenely beautiful, and seemingly pointless, in the midst
of death and dust. And sometimes, they give Up. When Lizabeth destroys
the marigolds, Miss Lottie never replants her garden.

The second story, “Ricky,” elaborates on the themes of “Marigolds”
and predicts the closing story, “Dead Man Running.” Ricky is Vi’s young
nephew, left orphaned and homeless by the disappearance of his father
and the mental deterioration of his mother. Against the advice of
family and friends, the elderly Vi who has been abandoned by her
husband, takes in the eleven-year-old and tries to undo all of the
damage done by poor parenting and incompetent functionaries of social
institutions — including the courts, the schools and the child welfare
agencies.

Vi discovers that though Ricky has considerable charm, he also has
secret demons. He is a seemingly incurrable bed wetter and harbors
violent tendencies that he acts out upon other children and helpless
animals. In other words, Ricky is beautiful and scary. Realizing this,
Vi reneges on her rescue mission. Feeling tired and overwhelmed, she
puts Ricky out of her home and remands him to the failing systems of
the state. But she is haunted by his absence, and she has forgotten to
retrieve from him the key to her front door.

In nearly every story, we encounter the women who face the
impossibility of motherhood, both in and beyond literal slavery. In
“Breeder,” Collier creates the voice of old Aunt Peggy, which conjures
a memory of the days of kitchen talk, of the unique moment when an old
mother would turn from the potato salad preparations with the sudden
unrehearsed resolve to tell a story she never could tell if she were
not near death. The story that Aunt Peggy tells is not meant to he
original. It is a dramatization of the frequently referenced breeding
slave woman, a story not detailed in any of the celebrated narratives
of Frederick Douglass’ Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, or well
known others.

We arc told that, having barely come into her womanhood, Peggy was
one day ordered out of the fields and into a shed where she was
expected to couple with a male slave brought over from another
plantation. Peggy hears two daughters in succession who are sold to the
slave trade. When she hears a son, she decides she will keep this one,
and chops off his foot with an axe to ruin him for the trade.

Other stories explore a similar desperation. In “Rachel’s
Children,” a lonely college professor confronts the ghost of a slave
mother seeking beyond the grave for her children. In Journey,” Azuree
takes her own child’s life as a protective measure.

These stories of women and their children fail if they can do no
more than excite a knee-jerk pity or outrage, or worse, weariness of
the past. They succeed if they can hear us up and into the feeling life
of people who have lived and died before us. What must a woman feel
when she is called out of the fields one day and sent into a shed to he
initiated into her first sexual experience through the authorized and
routinized rape of the slave breeding industry? What would such a woman
feel about the birth of the child bred for sale? How does she know this
child? How does she know herself? At what point did Black mothers turn
from the fierceness of Celia, who killed her master for the love of a
Black man, to killing and maiming our own children for the same love of
them? When Aunt Peggy severs the foot of her infant son to make him
unfit for sale, is she a hero or a co-inspirator in the madness of
slavery? When Vi turns her nephew out into the streets to be dealt with
by the system, is she a character in a story, or is she us? Are we, in
America, destined, as these women seem to be, to remain trapped in an
immoral machine, madly inventing our own moralities of death and
multilations? Far from indulging in self-pity, these stories should
engage our understanding and questioning of our revulsion of the past,
as well as our self-protective embracing of it.

Each of the stories in “Breeder” describes a condition of profound
loss — not the loss of love itself, its pulse or impulse, but of its
embrace. They tell of a loss of orderliness, of any of the traditional
illusions of safety, of the pure luxury of expectancy. If such stories
sound too gloomy or pessimistic, readers should remember that stories
do not predict the future. Only our individual and collective answer to
Lizabeth’s question — Where do we fit in this crazy picture? — can
deliver hope or justify despair.

Opal Moore is associate professor of English and creative writing at
Radford University in Radford, VA. Moore is currently working on a
collection of poems and essays.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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