The Gilded Six Bits, a short story written in 1933 by Zora Neale Hurston, is tale about forgiveness. The story takes place in a small African-American town of Eatonville, Florida, in the early 1930s. It is a complex tale of love, desire, indiscretion, anger, fear, uncertainty, disappointment, bewilderment, need, reconciliation, and finally, acceptance. The main plot is that Joe Banks reconciled with his wife, Missie May, who betrayed him and bore him a son, which may not even be his child. In this story, a complex process of interdependence and forgiveness is revealed. Yet this simple plot contains many subtle layers.
When thinking about Missie May’s betrayal, it is important to question, “How could an African-American woman buy her husband the sort of gift that (presumably) white-skinned women provided to their loved ones during that time and place? Where did any woman find paying jobs during that time and place? What kind of jobs were they? Who were the type of women that got hired? What sorts of jobs were offered to uneducated African-American women at that time? Were good paying jobs available to African-American women who lived in isolated African-American communities?” The situation is very complex. Embedded into the story are social dynamics (and inequalities) that are connected to economics, race, and gender. I think it would do us well to not apply our own contemporary standards of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ to Joe and Missie May’s actions. Instead we can learn from their responses to the injustice that existed all around them.
Consider the injustice in the intersection of gender/economic inequality. At that time in history, it was a social norm that women depended on men to provide income for the household. Consider also, how Joe Banks treated his wife under those circumstances. Joe Banks initiated a game with his wife each week after he was paid. The game was that he would throw money at her and she was to chase him and catch him and search him to find the gifts he was hiding in his pockets. This resulted in a playful sparring and displays of affection and love. Yet, in a way, Joe Banks bought his wife’s affections and set the stage for future outcomes.
I wonder if Joe was truly aware of what his actions communicated?
Joe would throw money to the floor (to the floor ! ! !) for Missie May to retrieve and place next to her dinner plate. Missie May would say,
“Who dat chunkin’ money in mah do’way?” . . . “Nobody ain’t gointer be chunkin’ money at me and Ah not do ’em nothin’.”
Why did Joe do that? What message did that send to Missie May? Joe treated Missie May like she was for sale and he was buying her affections. Was he aware of that? Perhaps not. I suspect he was just living life in the way that history and society shaped it for him.
I believe that Missie May was coerced into positions of prostitution because of a situation of desperate poverty. Remember, this story took place in the southern U.S. in a very poor African-American community during the Great Depression. This was only 70 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and 31 years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s success with the Civil Rights Movement. This context indicates the level of oppression and poverty that these folks endured. Consider the description of the community, the house, the yard, and the rather bleak disposition of that time and place.
It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support . . . But there was something happy about the place.
This was an impoverished place during a time of great austerity. Missie May relied on her husband to provide for her, and he treated her like a prostitute in return.
Joe degraded Missie May in other ways, too. Consider the way he encouraged a game of touch-me-here and touch-me-there search-my-pocket-for-trinkets.
“Unhhunh! Ah got it! It ’tis so candy kisses. Ah knowed you had somethin’ for me in yo’ clothes. Now Ah got to see whut’s in every pocket you got.”
Joe smiled indulgently and let his wife go through all of his pockets and take out the things that he had hidden for her to find. She bore off the chewing gum, the cake of sweet soap, the pocket handkerchief as if she had wrested them from him, as if they had not been bought for the sake of this friendly battle.
“Whew! dat play-fight done got me all warmed up!”
Isn’t that the sort of grooming that dirty old uncles do with their nieces and such? I see no love in this, only manipulative behavior. The actions speak, “If you want what I have – then give me what I want in return.” Joe bought his wife. He owned her.
Joe not only treated his wife, Missie May, as though she was a prostitute and for sale, he also dominated over Missie May in other ways. He controlled what she was allowed and not allowed to eat. Consider how he denied Missie May of the spicy potato pudding that she made.
Missie May reached for a second helping of the tater pone. Joe snatched it out of her reach.
After Missie May had made two or three unsuccessful grabs at the pan, she begged, “Aw, Joe, gimme some mo’ dat tater pone.”
“Nope, sweetenin’ is for us menfolks. Y’all pritty lil frail eels don’t need nothin’ lak dis. You too sweet already.”
“Naw, naw. Ah don’t want you to git no sweeter than whut you is already.
He also controlled what clothes she would wear and what activities they would enjoy.
We goin’ down de road a lil piece t’night so you go put on yo’ Sunday-go-to-meetin’ things.”
Missie May protested that she did not want to be objectified, but that she wanted to be treated with respect, instead.
“Don’t you mess wid mah business, man. You git in yo’ clothes. Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath. Ah might not look lak one, but if you burn me, you won’t git a thing but wife ashes.”
Yet, Joe insisted that she go, and he paraded his wife as an objectified showpiece to a known womanizer, “Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places–Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on.”
“Go ‘head on now, honey, and put on yo’ clothes. He talkin’ ’bout his pritty womens–Ah want ‘im to see mine.”
Missie May had no interest in meeting this man, or in his money, but it was Joe that insisted that she go.
“Joe, Ah hates to see you so dumb. Dat stray nigger jes’ tell y’all anything and y’all b’lieve it.”
All throughout this story, Joe was in control, manipulating Missie May, leading her to where she would go and what she would do, even sometimes against her will.
Missie May had no interest in the man or the lifestyle of Mr. Slemmons. It was Joe who desired riches, and recognition.
“Good Lawd, Missie! You womens sho is hard to sense into things. He’s got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain and his mouf is jes’ crammed full of gold teeths. Sho wisht it wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.”
“Ah don’t see whut de womens see on ‘im. Ah wouldn’t give ‘im a wink if de sheriff wuz after ‘im.”
Missie May did not want the gold coins for herself; she wanted them for her husband.
The impression I received was that Missy May was raised the daughter of a prostitute, and it was feared by her mother-in-law that Missie May would follow in her mother’s footsteps. Joe’s mother said, after the baby was born,
“You ain’t ask ’bout de baby, Joe. You oughter be mighty proud cause he sho is de spittin’ image of yuh, son. Dat’s yourn all right, if you never git another one, dat un is yourn. And you know Ah’m mighty proud too, son, cause Ah never thought well of you marryin’ Missie May cause her ma used tuh fan her foot round right smart and Ah been mighty skeered dat Missie May wuz gointer git misput on her road.”
Missie May might very well have come from a home where her mother lived a life of prostitution. If so, this is the way that Missie May learned to survive.
It is a fact, that for millennia, women have sometimes used the only way they could see possible to earn an income. One reason that they do this is because society excludes them from other forms of gainful employment. They want or need to provide for their loved ones (or even themselves), but see no other way to do that. It is also a fact, that for millennia, men dominate over women. Many women learn that it is safer to submit quietly, as then they are less likely to experience a violent reaction from a rejected man. Additionally, women are expected to submit to a purity culture, and men are not. Women who do otherwise are many times stigmatized and penalized.
Consider also the injustice of the intersection of racial/economic inequality. Joe was impressed with the display of wealth and braggart personality of Mr. Slemmons. Joe desired what Mr. Slemmons had. Because Missie May loved her husband, she wanted him to wear fine gold decorations as Mr. Slemmons did – and Mr. Slemmons explained that white-skinned women gave their loved ones gold coins. So Missie May devised a plan so that she could give a fine gift of gold coins to her husband, but her plan backfired when Joe arrived home unexpected. If Joe had not been so impressed with the trappings Mr. Slemmons displayed, perhaps Missie May might not have made the choice that she made.
I wonder if Missie May would have chosen different actions if life was different for African-Americans in that time and place, than it is was. If Missie May wanted to provide her love with fine gold coins (as she was told that white-skinned women did) where would she have access to such?
In the face of their imperfect responses to the gender and racial economic injustices, the husband and wife spent some time in anger, fear, uncertainty, disappointment and bewilderment over what had taken place. Yet their dependency upon one another kept them together. They each filled a need for the other. It was the recognition of their need for one another that allowed them to reconcile and realize a new place of acceptance in their lives. Both Joe and Missie May learned to accept their imperfect responses to the oppressive situation and desperate poverty in which they found themselves. They came to a place of acceptance that each of their actions rose out of situations of great poverty and the racial injustices that had shaped their lives. They learned to forgive their individual and collective responses to unjust social systems. One was not ‘more guilty’ and in need of greater forgiveness than the other.
Social pressures shape an individual’s actions. Recognizing a larger perspective may soften the hurt and open the door to a process of forgiveness. It is easy to rush to a judgment concerning Missie May’s guilt and Joe’s good heart. It was good that he was able to forgive Missie May and he even pointed out to Missie May that she should forgive herself too. I believe that the main point of the story was that these folks should forgive themselves and each other for the very difficult situation in which they currently found themselves. Their actions rose out of situations of great poverty and the racial injustices that had shaped their lives – people for sale ! They learned to forgive their imperfect responses to an unjust economic system.
Applying this teaching to our own lives, we can understand that none of us are perfect and that we depend on one another for our own wellbeing and survival. When we realize our own imperfections, we can find it easier to accept others’ imperfections. Additionally, other’s actions may be the result of how we treat them. Joe and Missie May came to terms with each other’s imperfections. Joe forgave Missie May for her indiscretion and accepted the gift of a son. Missie May forgave her husband for paying her for affections with the gilded coin when she once again joined in with the playful payday routine of coin tossing and searching for gifts. Forgiveness is being able to see beyond one’s own and pain and suffering and being able to take in the perspectives of others. Forgiveness is about recognizing that we need each other, and its about acceptance of human imperfections in both self and other.
By this tale, Zora Neale Hurston communicated the complexity of human interdependence and relationship. Perhaps one of the author’s intents was to explore the social injustices that take place where the intersection of racial, gender, and class inequalities meet. These are all evident in her very short story. Perhaps another intent of the author, was to also examine the injustice in the systems so that an individual’s imperfect responses and actions to an unjust system can be forgiven.
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