One of the major critiques of Native Son in our class discussions centered on the objectification of women in the text. Bessie and Mary were brutalized and and dehumanized by Bigger, and in a way by Wright. I wondered then how Baldwin would shape the women characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Would his female characters have more dignity? To what extent would female characters be at the forefront of the text? I decided to examine the passages with Florence to answer this question. (Of course, my answer now will be limited given that I have not finished the book.)
Florence describes growing up in a home with her mother and Gabriel as difficult for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because everything she wanted was handed over to Gabriel simply because of his gender. Her mother gave him everything of value: nicer clothes, better food, and “the education that Florence desired more than he” (68). In this scene, Baldwin makes sure to include the structural inequalities affecting women, but especially black women, at this time: they were often undervalued and given second priority. Florence, though, within this cultural and structural oppression, enacts more agency than any woman in Native Son. Florence is a narrator in this text, with the ability to tell her own story and develop a more nuanced perspective about the family relationship. She also leaves her mother and brother and moves north. Her physical movement away from this environment where she is undervalued shows that she values herself and prioritizes her wellbeing, a choice that Bessie and Mary never have the chance to make.
Florence moves north, but she does not escape her oppression. Her relationship with Frank is a combination of her trying to exercise power and her being treated as less than once again. When Frank would come home drunk, Florence felt some semblance of power: “Then he, so ultimately master, was mastered. And holding him in her arms while, finally, he slept she thought with the sensations of luxury and power: ‘But there’s lots of good in Frank. I just got to be patient and he’ll come along all right'” (79). Florence believes that she can change Frank for the better, that she can guide him towards a more virtuous life. But at the same time she realizes he would never change, and recalls a time when Frank refused to stop his sexual advances even when she asked him not to. Florence is a character consistently dealing with the oppressive behaviors of men, but also a character who is trying to find power where she can.
Florence is more human to me than Bessie or Mary because she actively struggles against the norms of society, even though she still falls prey to them at times. She is not merely a prop, but a narrator of her own story and actor within it. She questions the common attitudes towards gender and religion, while still dealing with internal need to conform when she attempts to bleach her skin and make Frank into something he is not.