The Secret Life of Bees

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Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Secret Life of Bees, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon

The Secret Life of Bees takes place in 1964, immediately after the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Civil Rights Act is often regarded as having ushered in a new era of American history. With it the U.S. government finally defended African Americans’ legal and societal rights: blacks could eat in restaurants, use public bathrooms, vote, and drive without fear of legal discrimination. But as Kidd makes very clear, black people’s problems didn’t end in 1964. On the contrary, after the Civil Rights Act, racist whites in many parts of the United States regarded it as their duty to continue harassing and excluding black people. Black people were beaten and murdered for registering to vote, bullied for eating in “all-white” restaurants, and sent to jail by racist sheriffs for trivial offenses. In her novel, Kidd examines the racism of the 60s America from the perspective of a white teenager, Lily Owens (partly because the novel is based on Kidd’s own adolescence). It’s important to understand some of the advantages and disadvantages of this narrative approach.

As Lily sees it, African Americans are the victims of an endless series of tragedies. In the course of the book, black characters are arrested without grounds, beaten by the police, harassed by racist townspeople, etc. It’s important to note that whenever black characters try to fight back against this injustice, they make their lives markedly worse (for example, when Rosaleen stands up to a group of bullying townspeople, she ends up in the hospital and charged with a crime). In the absence of any clear “solution” to their problems, most of the black characters in the novel turn to prayer and religion in an effort to find happiness. They can’t eliminate the sources of racism, so they pray for a day when racism will end.

If there is an antidote to racism in The Secret Life of Bees, it is understanding—specifically, the understanding of whites. The protagonist of the book is a young white woman who initially exemplifies many of the white community’s prejudices about black people. Initially, Lily assumes that black people are lazy, foolish, and dishonest. But during the course of her adventures in Tiburon, South Carolina, she realizes how lazy her own stereotypes are: the wisest, most competent people she meets in the book are black. The implication is that if white people could come to experience black culture and community for themselves, racism would eventually fade away.

At the same time, The Secret Life of Bees has been criticized in some circles for depicting the challenges of race and racism in America only from the point of view of a white character rather than a black one. One major limitation of this decision is that it seems to give the impression that racism would end if white people would just “try out” black culture for a few weeks—i.e., the problem is cultural and individual, more than political, historical, or economic. This is a narrow view of a large and complicated issue, but it’s also a view that makes for an easier-to-handle story. Despite this limited perspective, Kidd does make a good point by telling her story from Lily’s point of view: racism begins early on, sometimes in insidious, undetectable ways—and it’s up to each individual to acknowledge their own prejudices and work to change them. By addressing one’s racial prejudices early on, as Lily does, it’s possible to become a better, more open-minded person.

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Race, America, and the 1960s ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Race, America, and the 1960s appears in each chapter of The Secret Life of Bees. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Race, America, and the 1960s Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees

Below you will find the important quotes in The Secret Life of Bees related to the theme of Race, America, and the 1960s.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I used to have daydreams in which she was white and married T. Ray, and became my real mother. Other times I was a Negro orphan she found in a cornfield and adopted.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Rosaleen , T. Ray Owens
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Lily has a lonely life with her father, T. Ray. In her imagination, she fantasizes about escaping her home and "starting over." For Lily, Rosaleen--the black woman who usually takes care of her--represents a path to escape. As far as Lily can tell, Rosaleen is a proud, confident woman--practically a role model for Lily, who seems neither proud nor confident.

The quotation is important because it suggests Lily's deep need for a maternal figure--a need that trumps the racial mores of the era. Despite the fact that blacks were still treated as second-class citizens in the South during the 1960s (the era in which the novel is set), Lily gravitates to Rosaleen without hesitation. Her need for a mother is so great that she ignores the racist sentiments of her father and friends (although Lily still has a racist worldview at this point). Lily's fantasies of becoming a "negro orphan" also foreshadow the plot of the novel. As we'll see, Lily will run away and join a family of black women.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“Well, if you ain’t noticed, she’s colored,” said Rosaleen, and I could tell it was having an effect on her by the way she kept gazing at it with her mouth parted. I could read her thought: If Jesus’ mother is black, how come we only know about the white Mary?

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Rosaleen (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Black Virgin Mary, The Black Virgin Mary
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Lily and Rosaleen are "on the run" from the police (Rosaleen has been unfairly arrested for defending herself from a group of racist white men). They decide to travel to the city of Tiburon, based on a picture of the Virgin Mary depicted as a black woman, which Lily finds among her dead mother's possessions. Rosaleen is reluctant to travel so far based on nothing but Lily's hunch, but she's also interested in tracking down the people who would depict such an important Biblical character as black.

In a way, Lily's quest to track down the "Virgin Mary" is a quest to find a maternal figure: without ever saying so, Lily seems to want to go to Tiburon to learn more about her mother, and perhaps even find solace in the religious mother-figure of Mary. Rosaleen's interest in going to Tiburon is a little different, as the passage makes clear. Rosaleen seems to be most curious about meeting people who share her religious convictions but don't exclude African Americans from religious practice (unlike the racist white preachers we've met in Chapter 1). In a nutshell, Lily seems most interested in the maternal implications of the Virgin Mary picture, while Rosaleen seems more interested in the racial implications. The picture speaks to both women, but in different ways.

“You act like you’re my keeper. Like I’m some dumb nigger you gonna save.”

Related Characters: Rosaleen (speaker), Lily Owens
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Lily and Rosaleen are still on the road, fleeing from the police. They've agreed to journey to Tiburon, a town that's many miles away. Along the way, Rosaleen begins to get fed up with Lily. It was Lily's idea to go to Tiburon in the first place, and lately, Lily has been acting like the "leader" of the duo, despite the fact that Rosaleen is a much older woman, and has been taking care of Lily for many years. Rosaleen calls out Lily for her condescending attitude--an attitude that's rooted in racial prejudice as much as anything else.

Although Lily has generally been presented as an intelligent, fair-minded young woman, Kidd doesn't deny the fact that she still has the racist worldview of her time and place. Lily would never hurt Rosaleen, but she's been trained to think of Rosaleen--and all African Americans--as being "below" whites in every way. The quotation is important, then, because it establishes a problem--Lily's cluelessness around African Americans--that will slowly be solved over the course of the novel.

Chapter 4 Quotes

I walked the length of the fence, and it was the same all the way, hundreds of these bits of paper. I pulled one out and opened it, but the writing was too blurred from rain to make out. I dug another one. Birmingham, Sept 15, four little angels dead.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), May Boatwright
Related Symbols: The Stone Wall
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lily follows May Boatwright--the strange, quiet Boatwright sibling--to the stone wall near the Boatwright house. There, Lily finds hundreds of slips of paper, crammed into the cracks of the wall. One of these slips of paper mentions four "angels" killed in Birmingham--a clear allusion to the four black girls who were murdered when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a black church that had been supportive of the Civil Rights Movement.

May is deeply saddened by the racism and intolerance in the United States; whenever a new tragedy occurs, she writes it down and slips the note into the wall. May is a vessel for the racial tragedies of her country; moreover, she herself has become so overwhelmed with tragedy that she's turned to the stone wall to help her "carry the weight." May's actions have a ceremonial, performative quality. As with the other ceremonial acts in the novel, May's behavior doesn't literally accomplish anything, but the symbolic act of filing away papers helps May feel stronger and more in control.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“The people called her Our Lady of Chains. They called her that not because she wore chains…”

Not because she wore chains,” the Daughters chanted.

“They called her Our Lady of Chains because she broke them.

Related Characters: August Boatwright (speaker)
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, we see the Daughters--a group of black women who worship the statue of the Lady of Chains / Virgin Mary--uniting together in ritualistic celebration. The passage makes several important points about the nature of the Daughters' religious practice.

First, the passage suggests the way that ritual is used to reinforce religious faith and create a sense of community. Everyone in the scene already knows the story of the Lady of Chains (they've been saying the chant for years). But the Daughters continue to perform the chant to remind themselves of the beautiful story on which their religion is founded: a story in which a prisoner attains freedom and dignity through the strength of her faith. Moreover, the chant builds cooperation and unity between the Daughters: the Daughters are a close-knit group, and their religious rituals keep it so.

Additionally, the passage shows some of the racial components of the Daughters' religion. By choosing to worship a prisoner, the Daughters (all of whom are black) clearly allude to African Americans' traumatic history as slaves for white Americans. "Chains" might also suggest the racist laws and practices that keep black people poor and segregated, even 100 years after slavery was banned. By celebrating the story of the Lady of Chains, the Daughters are suggesting that even the most racially persecuted members of society can find happiness and empowerment by embracing God.

Chapter 7 Quotes

At my school they made fun of colored people’s lips and noses. I myself had laughed at these jokes, hoping to fit in. Now I wished I could pen a letter to my school to be read at an opening assembly that would tell them how wrong we’d all been. You should see Zachary Taylor, I’d say.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Zachary Taylor / Zach
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

As the passage makes clear, Lily grew up mocking black people as inferior. It was common for the white students at Lily's school to make insensitive jokes about blacks--and Lily herself joined in. Now, having met a beautiful black boy, Zachary, Lily sees how wrong she was to joke about black people.

The passage makes an important point about how racism is perpetuated over time. Lily doesn't particularly dislike black people, but she joins in her friends to "fit in." For all Lily knows, nobody at her school genuinely hates black people--rather, the general "peer pressure" of racism sweeps Lily and her friends along. In addition, the passage suggests that the ultimate antidote to racism is education and experience. White people continue thinking of black people as inferior, it's implied, partly because they're ignorant of black people's lives. All it takes for Lily to renounce her racial insensitivity is to meet one black boy her own age--a testament to the isolation of prejudice.

At the same time, this is a rather oversimplified view of racism. Kidd only deals with prejudice on the individual level, and so her "lesson" that white racism could be overcome by white people just meeting more black people (and beautiful black people in particular—it's suggested that it's mostly Lily's attraction to Zachary that humanizes him for her) certainly doesn't deal with other larger, more structural incarnations of bigotry and oppression.

“Lily, I like you better than any girl I’ve ever known, but you have to understand, there are people who would kill boys like me for even looking at girls like you.”

Related Characters: Zachary Taylor / Zach (speaker), Lily Owens
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Zachary Taylor, the handsome black youth on whom Lily has developed a big crush, tells Lily that he's attracted to her, but can't give in to his feelings. The reason Zachary can't date Lily is that he'd be risking his life: the "color line" is so severely enforced in the South that a black boy could easily be murdered for dating a white woman. (Zachary may be alluding to Emmett Till, the black 14-year-old who was infamously lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman.)

Zachary is far more aware of the realities of race in the South than Lily is (because Lily doesn't have to be, and Zach does). From Lily's perspective, the only thing that matters is that she and Zachary like each other--but Zach knows better. It's highly unfair that Lily and Zach must wait to date one another, but they have little to no choice in the matter. The fact that Zachary wants to wait (even at the end of the novel) reflects the fact that the fight for black equality is far from over: even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there's an enormous amount of work left to do.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Outside, the night sky was moving over us. I was aware of it, aware of the way Clayton had said he seemed all right, as if we all understood he wasn’t but would pretend otherwise. August closed her eyes, used her fingers to smooth out the skin on her forehead. I saw a shiny film on her eyes—the beginning of tears. Looking at her eyes, I could see a fire inside them.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), August Boatwright , Zachary Taylor / Zach , Clayton Forrest
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Zachary Taylor is wrongfully arrested for supposedly fighting with a group of racist whites. August and Lily learn that Zach will be forced to spend the next five nights in jail--something that August finds infuriating.

The passage reminds us of the outrageous bigotry that the African American community faced in the 1960s. Although blacks had some legal protections, these protections were poorly enforced, with the result that teenagers like Zach could be sentenced to nearly a week in jail (or worse) for essentially no reason at all. Furthermore, the passage depicts August at her strongest and most maternal. Although August has no biological connection to Zach, she considers Zach her "family"--they've known one another for many years, and she cares about him deeply. August is a "mother" to many, like the Virgin Mary herself, and she clearly considers Zach to be one of her "children"—just as she does Lily.

Chapter 10 Quotes

But I will tell you this secret thing, which not one of them saw, not even August, the thing that brought me the most cause for gladness. It was how Sugar-Girl said what she did, like I was truly one of them. Not one person in the room said, Sugar-Girl, really, talking about white people like that and we have a white person present. They didn’t even think of me as being different.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), August Boatwright , Sugar Girl
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important scene, Lily depicts a meeting of the Daughters. The Daughters joke about banks being for "white people only." Although all of the Daughters are black, they seem not to notice that Lily is white—and therefore visibly "different" from the rest of them. In short, Lily is in on the joke, even though, on the surface of things, she should be the target of the joke.

It's important to notice that this observation only comes from Lily's perspective, however—it seems highly unlikely that the Daughters no longer consider Lily to be white, simply because she is now part of their community. This also highlights Kidd's sometimes problematic views on race—as if Lily can somehow "become black" simply by overcoming her own racism and spending a few weeks with some black women. Lily has certainly faced many struggles of her own, and has found mother-figures in black women, but this doesn't mean that she isn't still ignorant of the black experience. Yet the larger point of this scene is that Lily has found a community that embraces and cares for her, and she no longer feels like an outsider in the Boatwright home.