One of the effects of having three narrators with wildly different backgrounds (Ruth, Turk, and Kennedy) is that, through their stories, the reader is forced to recognize that there are some things that remain the same between them, despite the differences in their skin color, their jobs, and their beliefs. This is most apparent in the way that the novel portrays intimate moments between family members, especially when it comes to the relationships between parents and their children. By exploring these relationships, Small Great Things suggests that building a family through raising children is one of the most important elements that creates a shared sense of humanity among all people.
The novel opens with Ruth telling the reader about "the miracle": seeing Mama's employer, Ms. Mina, give birth to her son, assisted by Mama and watched by Ruth, her sister Rachel, and Ms. Mina's daughter, Christina. Ruth is careful to note that the miracle wasn't watching Ms. Mina give birth, per se; the miracle was seeing the boundaries that separated Ms. Mina from Mama dissolve, turning the experience into one of watching one woman help another woman. This is what inspires Ruth to become a labor and delivery nurse in the first place, and what she draws on to connect with patients through the course of her work. She discovers that laboring women are often in desperate need of a friend and confidante with whom to share stories of rape, abuse, or fear that they feel unable to tell anyone else—and, because Ruth is both a complete stranger and their nurse, she's able to use her anonymity and ability to direct how a patient is cared for to soothe these fears.
While the novel in no way excuses the racist beliefs espoused by Turk and Brit Bauer, it also invites the reader to see them and their way of life as human and, in many ways, not dissimilar to that of anyone else. Turk and Brit meet at a child's birthday party that bears all the hallmarks of a normal birthday party: cake, ice cream, and lawn games. They attend music festivals where entire families gather, babies and all, and Turk's marriage proposal (spelling out "will you marry me" in vegetables) is heartwarming and almost allows the reader to forget that the two came together in the first place because of a shared hatred of people of color. They are also just as excited as Ruth's other patients to become parents, and just as devastated as anyone else when Davis suddenly dies. However, all of these normal events are decidedly not normal in important ways. The piñata at the birthday party is of a black man hanging from a noose, the music festivals feature white power bands, and Turk unfairly blames Davis's death on the only black nurse on the labor and delivery unit. Together, these differences illustrate how white supremacists use the family unit—which Ruth insists is a unifying force among all people—to corrupt and divert the joy and emotion of a birthday party or of a child's birth and instead force these events to symbolize hatred and promote a system predicated on dehumanizing others first and foremost.
Though Ruth's family relationships aren't tainted by overt racism in the same way that Turk's are, she nonetheless struggles to take pride in her family and the ways in which her family members have created their own identities. Ruth's older sister, Rachel, experienced an identity crisis in her late teens, which culminated in her changing her name to Adisa to connect with her African roots in her early twenties. Ruth struggles to understand Adisa's motives and desires, especially when it seems as though Adisa is playing into every negative stereotype of black people that Ruth can think of: having multiple children starting in her teens, not marrying, and not policing her children's involvement with drugs and gangs. Even harder for Ruth to reckon with is Mama's relationship with the Hallowells, the extremely wealthy white family she works for as a maid. Though Christina and Ms. Mina talk about Mama as though she's part of the family, and despite the obvious pride that Mama takes in her work, Ruth believes that real family shouldn't earn paychecks. To make Mama's relationship with the Hallowells sting even more, Ruth also feels as though caring for the Hallowells meant that Mama was kept from properly caring for her own blood family when Ruth was a child, thereby depriving her of precious time with her mother.
Ruth is well aware of the racial undertones that affect both her thoughts on Adisa's family as well as Mama's relationship with the Hallowells. Especially when considered next to ways that racism corrupts families within the white supremacist communities, this indicates that hatred, racism, and racially motivated power dynamics have the power to poison families, just as they can poison anything else. Instead, choosing to accept that family members can make their own choices, hold their own beliefs, and aren't any less human because of who they are is the only way to effectively be a part of a family.
Family and Shared Humanity ThemeTracker
Family and Shared Humanity Quotes in Small Great Things
As Christina held my hand and Ms. Mina held Mama's, there was a moment—one heartbeat, one breath—where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another.
Babies are such blank slates. They don't come into the world with the assumptions their parents have made, or the promises their church will give, or the ability to sort people into groups they like and don't like.
In that moment, we're not black and white, or attorney and accused. We're not separated by what I know about the legal system and what she has yet to learn. We are just two mothers, sitting side by side.
"You are not an imposter," Sam Hallowell told me. "You are not here because of luck, or because you happened to be in the right place at the right moment, or because someone like me had connections. You are there because you are you, and that is a remarkable accomplishment in itself."
"They promised us we'd be part of something bigger than us. That we'd be proud of our heritage and our race. And maybe that's, like, ten percent of the whole deal. The rest is just hating everyone else for existing. Once I started thinking that, I couldn't stop. Maybe that's why I felt like shit all the time, like I wanted to fucking bust someone's face in constantly, just to remind myself that I could. That's okay for me. But that's not how I want my kid to grow up."
She looks at me, and we both laugh, and in that instant we are merely two women, standing over a lasagne, telling the truth. In that instant, with our flaws and confessions trailing like a slip from a dress, we have more in common than we have differences.
It is a picture of a Black woman wearing a maid's uniform, holding a little girl in her arms. The girl has hair as light as snow, and her hand is pressed against her caregiver's cheek in shocking contrast. There's more than just duty between them. There's pride. There's love. "I didn't know your mother. But, Ruth—she didn't waste her life."
She falters, then gathers up the weeds of her thoughts and offers me the saddest, truest bouquet. "I didn't know."
"Why would you?" I reply—not angry, not hurt, just stating a fact. "You'll never have to."
I have been thinking about what Odette Lawton said: if I hadn't spoken out against the black nurse, would this have ended differently? Would she have tried to save Davis the minute she realized he wasn't breathing? Would she have treated him like any other critical patient, instead of wanting to hurt me like I'd hurt her?
My head actually aches from holding three incompatible truths in it: 1. Black people are inferior. 2. Brit is half black. 3. I love Brit with all my heart.
Shouldn't numbers one and two make number three impossible? Or is she the exception to the rule? Was Adele one, too?
I think of me and Twinkie dreaming of the food we craved behind bars.
How many exceptions do there have to be before you start to realize that maybe the truths you've been told aren't actually true?