"Brooklyn" by Paule Marshall

30Dec04

I was surprised that the main character of “Brooklyn” is an older, white, Jewish man. But he provided an interesting counterpoint for the young Black woman. Both he and the young woman have been alienated from their cultures and have suffered for this alienation. His insincere involvement in the Communist party as a young man concerns him in the McCarthy madness and leads to his dismissal from two jobs. This feeling of existing outside of society precipitates his attraction to Miss Williams, whom he describes as “exotic” and who reminds him of a Paul Gauguin painting. Like Gauguin escaped the French social structure by going to Tahiti, Max looks to escape the unfriendly American society of the 1950s in Miss Williams. He also seems to think that a liaison with Miss Williams would somehow be redemptive or at least therapeutic for him:

Her slight apprehensiveness pleased him. It suggested a submissiveness which gave him, as he rose uncertainly, a feeling of certainty and command. Her hesitancy was somehow in keeping with the color of her skin. She seemed to bring not only herself but the host of black women whose bodies had been despoiled to make her. He would not only possess her but them also, he thought (not really thought, for he scarcely allowed these thoughts to form before he snuffed them out). Through their collective suffering, which she contained, his own personal suffering would be eased; he would be pardoned for whatever sin it was he had committed against life.

Dismissed by his father for failing to remain a devout Jew, dismissed by society as a “Communist,” Max has had his power and his feeling of power stripped from him. By sleeping with Miss Williams, he would somehow regain a sense of power, dominating a person of a subordinate sex and race. (Though Max is Jewish, he is still white.)

Similarly, Miss Williams exists in some marginalized space of American culture. She was taught by her parents not to trust white people, but not to associate with Black people whose skin was darker than hers. While a relationship with Miss Williams was supposed to empower Max, his proposition actually empowered her. Finally forced to confront a white person, Miss Williams realizes that they do not have as much power over her as she thought. She tells Max:

“Because how could you harm me? You’re so old you’re like a cup I could break in my hand.” And her hand tightened on his wrist, wrenching the last of his frail life from him, it seemed….Suddenly she was the one who was old, indeed ageless. Her touch became mortal and Max Berman saw the darkness that would end his life gathered in her eyes.

In this moment, Miss Williams reverses the race roles and, indeed, drains Max’s power. Outside of this moment, she gains a confidence and self-assuredness that she did not possess at the beginning of the story, while at the story’s finish Max drives “back through the darkness” to his home.

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