The Humanity of Florence

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.

3 thoughts on “The Humanity of Florence”

  1. I agree with you that women definitely have more agency here than in Native Son and I believe that is a result of how Baldwin structures part 2 of his novel. The stories we see from Deborah, Florence, Elizabeth, and Esther all take place within the indirect discourse occurring while a sermon is being given at church. Their stories arise out of the silence imposed on them by an institution which is predominantly male, and I think that’s why all of these stories are so meaningful. They are breaking through the barriers imposed on them by the church through the thoughts during their prayers, which usually cannot be heard, but when put in the form of a novel are clearly visible.

  2. This was an interesting read. I agree that the women in Baldwin’s piece value themselves more than the women in Wright’s piece. Florence respects herself enough to leave when she feels undervalued and Esther does the same. On page 61, Florence says that “she would rather die… than bow before His altar” referring to Gabriel as God’s anointed. Florence refuses to surrender to a man who disrespects her. Bessy, however, does not see leaving as an option and does not respect herself enough to try. Before Bigger rapes Bessie, she sighs a “[…] sigh of resignation, a giving up, a surrender of something more than her body” (Baldwin 233). Bessie surrenders while the women in Baldwin’s piece does not. Your blogpost has certainly opened my eyes to this comparison.

    I also agree that Florence seems more human than Mary and Bessie, but I think it’s because of the information we get from Florence. Wright barely provides any information on the women in Native Son leaving them distant. Like you were explaining, Baldwin allows the audience into the head of Florence which helps us relate to her more. Wright never provides us with this. We seem to get more information about women in one section of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” than we do in all of “Native Son”.

  3. Margaret, your analysis is really astute and helped me understand Florence better. One point especially stood out to me: the fact that Florence, as you say, is the narrator of her own story. Baldwin gives Florence tremendous agency by shifting the narratorial voice away from the male perspective of John and towards the lived realities of Florence. This is something that Wright never did. Wright actually further “othered” characters like Bessie by portraying them only through Bigger’s eyes instead of through their own eyes or, at the very least, through the eyes of an unbiased omniscient narrator. I also really like that we get to see Florence’s relationship not only to men but also to women, such as Frank’s new girlfriend, Deborah, and Elizabeth.

    One line that stands out in my mind is when Gabriel tells Florence, “I done told you before…that I didn’t want you coming in here and using that gutter language in front of my children” (42). Florence is quick to retort, “‘Don’t you worry about my language, brother,’ she said with spirit, ‘you better start worrying about your life” (42). Florence’s ability to rebuke her brother is important. Above all, the scene emphasizes how despicable Gabriel is as a person. He is only able to use elevated language because he was schooled, a privilege that was specifically robbed of Florence for him. He has no awareness of his own privileges and how those privileges were taken from Florence.

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