By: Kimberly Brown
Home. What actually does that mean? Home, to many people, means different things. The Webster definition of home is: “one’s place of residence; the social unit formed by a family living together; a familiar or usual setting; a place of origin.” While researching the subject matter and asking a fellow Gettysburg student, she defined home as being “a place of comfort, where my family is, somewhere I can lay my head down.” The bigger question is what happens when that physical home was never really a ‘home’ for a person. In the case of Leonie in Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, or Celie in The Color Purple by Alice Walker, both of the female characters share a similar struggle of trying to define and find a ‘home’ for themselves.
For Leonie, where her parents raised her, in Mississippi, was not really her home. Her ‘home’ consisted of the father of her two children, Michael. Ward writes “three years ago, I did a line and saw Given for the first time. It wasn’t my first line but Michael had just gone to jail.” Michael is her safety net; he is the one that allows her to forget and lead her to believe that she has no responsibilities. In Leonie’s ‘home’, Michael is that safe haven instead of the actual place. What’s really interesting is how the ‘home’ of her children is a troubling place, and even her brother . Keep in mind, the use of ‘home’ is being used fluidly, and out of its normal four wall concept. In one of her chapters, she says “Make sure you get in the rolls, I say. Jojo flinches like I’ve hit him. Shines closer to the mirror. It feels good to be mean, to speak past the baby I can hit and let that anger reach another. The one I’m never good enough for. Never Mama for. Just Leonie, a name wrapped around the same disappointed syllables I’ve heard from Mama, from Pop, even from Given”. Just hearing the tone of her voice, one of hatred but also an underlying tone of longing, she wishes she had the family that shares blood with. With everyone being disappointed in her, it is like she is getting exiled from the family, kicked off the island, with her only source of love, although extremely messed up, from Michael.
Michael is a white man and Leonie a black woman. Michael’s family does not approve of her, and her own family thinks she is too blinded by love to see what she is actually doing to herself and her children for a man. There are instances where the reader thinks that Leonie actually thinks of the place where she was born was her home: “suddenly I hate her because she can walk and my mama can’t. And then I hate Joseph because he called my daddy a boy. I wonder what he knows of my daddy, how he could look at Pop and see every line of Pop’s face, every step Pop takes, every word out of Pop’s mouth and see anything but a man.” In this scene, Michael, Leonie, and the kids go to Michael’s parents’ house once he gets back home from jail. She’s defending her father specifically because he was once a part of her home, but after Given, her brother, dies, and she got together with Michael, their dynamic changed. So the physical home was always stable, but there was something about this figurative home that was destroyed. That small moment shifts after her mother. Ward writes,
“Shhhh,” he murmurs.
“Up to Al’s”
Michael knows. He knows what I’m really asking for: the seed at the pulpy heart of the fruit.
“We can just leave”
To get high…
“We can’t ,” he says
“Please.” The word is small and acid as a burp. It lingers between us.”
This one moment toward the end of the novel, shows how her parents and children were never key figures of her ‘home’, they were just pawns from God in for she cared nothing about.
Looking into another lens of having no ‘home’ to go to or be safe under is evident in The Color Purple by Alice Walker. From a younger age she had never had a ‘home’, from the very beginning we see her as her own ‘home’ broken into. Walker writes “She went to visit her sister doctor over Macon. Left me to see after the others. He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t. First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.” There is a small moment where she begins to create that home back up with the help of her sister, Nettie: “Us both be hitting Nettie’s schoolbooks pretty hard, cause us know we got to be smart to git away. I know I’m not as pretty or as smart as Nettie, but she say I ain’t dumb.” With the help of Nettie she begins to regain the confidence and safeness that was stripped from her in the beginning of the novel.
This concept of your body being your home gets shattered within the first page of the novel. The definition is also augmented in this story but not because of the main characters, but by it being forced upon her:
Pa call me. Celie, he say. Like it wasn’t nothing. Mr. _____ want another look at you. I go stand in the door. The sun shine in my eyes. He’s still up on his horse. He look me up and down. Pa rattle his newspaper. Move up, he won’t bite, he say. I go closer to the steps, but not too close cause I’m a little scared of his horse. Turn round, Pa say. I turn round. One of my little brothers come up. I think it was Lucious. He fat and playful, all the time munching on something. He say, What you doing that for? Pa say, Your sister thinking bout marriage. Didn’t mean nothing to him. He pull my dresstail and ast can he have some blackberry jam out the safe. I say, Yeah. She good with children, Pa say, rattling his paper open more. Never heard her say a hard word to nary one of them. Just give ’em everything they ast for, is the only problem.
Celie, not even of age yet, is forced to get married to an older man with kids, taking the role of a stepmother. Even though she is married, it is not to build a union between two people. It is more like a way of controlling Celie. Home, in the standard definition, is a place of love, one that has its problems but for the most part is one that keeps a smile on your face when you think about it; a place where nothing but good memories overflow in your mind. None of that is the case for Celie. Her home is Nettie. The moments where she is writing to her once Nettie travels across the world, her words of encouragement, constitute as Celie’s home. By the end of the novel, Celie is rooted in that utopian home, “When Nettie’s foot come down on the porch I almost die. I stand swaying, tween Albert and Shug. Nettie stand swaying tween Samuel and I reckon it must be Adam. Then us both start to moan and cry. Us totter toward one nother like us use to do when us was babies. Then us feel so weak when us touch, us knock each other down. But what us care? Us sit and lay there on the porch inside each other’s arms.”
In reality, people physically have had their homes taken away. Author Matthew Desmond is an American sociologist who works as a professor at Princeton University. His book Evicted centers around many urban families in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee who have been removed from their homes and the many challenges that come with losing your home. In an excerpt of a chapter, Desmond writes, “The day Arleen and her boys had to be out was cold. But if she waited any longer, the landlord would summon the sheriff, who would arrive with a gun, a team of boot-footed movers, and a folded judge’s order saying that her house was no longer hers. She would be given two options: truck or curb. ‘Truck’ would mean that her things would be loaded into an eighteen-footer and later checked into bonded storage. She could get everything back after paying $350. Arleen didn’t have $350, so she would have opted for “curb,” which would mean watching the movers pile everything onto the sidewalk.”
Also, with a little more research, in a Penguin Random House academic study guide, there were many stories on people that were all connected facing the same problem. Revealing some noteworthy information, from the book, “Landlords evict roughly 16,000 adults and children every year in Milwaukee—or about 40 people every day.” This issue of eviction is not just in the city of Milwaukee, it all over the world. And it does not get talked about enough.
While in Sign Unburied Sing, Leonie’s relationship to the home is like a roller coaster, ultimately ending. Celie never had the chance to establish a home until the end, and by then, there are almost one hundred pages that have passed. Matthew Desmond puts this concept of home into perspective, into reality. Though his work it is a useful tool to see what happens when there isn’t a physical eviction that takes place for this literary characters, it also have a weird connection to the things associated with the world. Juxtaposing the two novels shows the two ways in which ‘home’ defines each character. For Leonie, home is defined by Michael and the escape of her responsibilities. For Celie, she is defined by the home of Mister. Being forced into this marriage allowed her to build herself up and by the end realizes that this ‘home’ is not beneficial to her and gains the courage to walk away. The definition of home in the light of these two women change as well. Home no longer is a social unit of family living together. Leonie is never at her parents’ home, and for Celie, she has entered another place of shelter that is not safe or comfortable.