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.
Race, America, and the 1960s ThemeTracker
Race, America, and the 1960s Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees
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.
“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?
“You act like you’re my keeper. Like I’m some dumb nigger you gonna save.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.