In a book on bees, we learn that the queen controls the worker bees in the hive by feeding them a substance that excites and energizes them.
The “substance” that August “feeds” Lily and Rosaleen, as we’ll see, is self-confidence combined with religious passion.
The next morning, Lily wakes up and finds a tall black man working outside the Boatwright house. She goes into the house and asks the Boatwrights who the man is. They explain that it’s Neil, a man who’s “sweet on June.” June likes Neil, but refuses to marry him. Lily realizes, for the first time, how odd it is for three unmarried sisters to be living together. May seems especially sad about Neil. Lily suggests she go to the stone wall, and May does so.
June’s reluctance to marry Neil brings up an important point: the Boatwright sisters seem to feel no urgent need to get married. They’re so secure and content in their self-contained female world that they don’t want to bring a man into the fold. And yet there’s also a sense that June may be denying herself happiness by sticking to her familiar way of life. This helps explain why May is saddened by June’s refusal to marry Neil.
June and Neil walk inside, and June asks what’s upset May. Impulsively Lily answers that May’s upset that June and Neil won’t get married. Neil laughs and introduces himself to Lily.
Lily isn’t a shy girl by any means—she says what’s on her mind, even if good manners would dictate otherwise.
On Sunday, the Boatwright sisters don’t go to church: instead, they hold their own ceremony, and neighbors come to their house to join in. The group is called the Daughters of Mary, and is made up of black women dressed in bright yellow skirts. When the Daughters have arrived at the house, August begins the ceremony by praising “Our Lady of Chains.” She tells a long story about how the slaves used to pray for their freedom. Once there was a slave named Obadiah, and he found a wooden figure in a river. Obadiah showed the statue to his friends, who were other slaves, and they agreed that the figure was that of the Virgin Mary.
We get a sense for the religion that the Boatwrights have designed for themselves and their community. This religion is meant to appeal to its audience; that is, it alludes to African-American history, specifically the history of slavery, and it places femininity in a central role. It makes sense that the Boatwrights’ religion be proudly and unapologetically black and feminine—a celebration of everything looked down upon by the white, patriarchal society the Daughters of Mary are forced to survive in.
August continues with her story. The figure of the Virgin Mary inspired the slaves to break free from their masters and escape. Ever since then, the slaves’ descendants have celebrated this statue of Mary. They call it Our Lady of Chains, not because she wears chains, but because she helps others break them. The Daughters of Mary cheer as August finishes the story—clearly they’ve heard it many times before.
Storytelling, sympathy, and affirmation are at the heart of this religion, which essentially says that with the help of the Virgin Mary, the black community can overcome its adversity. It’s telling that the Daughters continue to identify with their slave ancestors, 100 years after the end of slavery—not much has changed in terms of ending racism in America.
After the ceremony, the Daughters of Mary sing and dance together. One by one, they leave the house and return to their lives. Lily is intimidated by what she’s seen—she senses that she doesn’t belong here at all. Suddenly, she feels herself going faint. She wakes up hours later in August’s bed, with a washcloth on her forehead. For the rest of the evening, the Boatwrights fuss over Lily, giving her food and letting her watch the news. August and Lily watch a news report about how President Kennedy will send a rocket to the moon soon. August whispers to Lily that she’s seeing “the end of something.” August explains that when men land on the moon, the moon will lose its mystery. Later that night, Lily decides to show August the picture of Deborah soon.
Lily experiences feminine nurturing to an extent she’s never known before. Yet she also feels out of place, and indeed, she finally is—as she’s now in a community that affirms and supports blackness and a history of suffering, and no longer in a society where people like her are the norm, and minorities are made to feel “other.” It’s important that the chapter ends with the image of the moon—a classic feminine symbol—being “attacked” by a rocket—a masculine, phallic symbol. The implication is that femininity will lose its mystery and, perhaps, its power, when it’s violated by masculinity. And based on what we’ve seen of the places that are dominated by men—Lily’s house, the jail, the police station—it’s hard to disagree.