Ugly Ways by Tina McElroy Ansa is a 1993 novel that follows the three Lovejoy sisters, Betty, Emily, and Annie Ruth, as they reunite in their hometown of Mulberry, Georgia for their mother’s funeral. Set contemporaneously, most of the novel is narrated in third person omniscient, which allows us readers insight into the daughters’ complicated relationships with their late mother, Esther “Mudear” Lovejoy. Ansa also uses a rare and effective narrative technique in writing occasional chapters from the first-person perspective of Esther, who observes her family from her coffin and refuses to let them have the final word about her.
The witty, self-centred, and vulnerable spirit of Esther Lovejoy grounds the entire novel. Much of the narrative centres on her journey towards freedom and self-definition, or “the change,” as her family refers to it. Esther’s change occurred early in her daughters’ childhoods; she withdrew from family life and the Mulberry community and committed her life to fulfilling her desires and enjoying her leisure. Betty aptly summarizes Esther’s “trifling” behaviour when she reflects that her late mother was a woman
who spent most of her days lying in her throne of a bed or in a reclining chair or lounging on a chaise longue dressed in pretty nightclothes or a pastel housecoat. Doing nothing with her time but looking at television, directing the running of her household, making sure her girls did all the work to her specifications. Then, if she felt like it, some gardening at night. (Ansa 13)
Conversely, Esther views herself as “a woman in [her] own shoes” (Ansa 39). She has no regrets about the way she chose to live her life and firmly believes that her lack of nurturing and “cuddling,” along with her critical eye and exacting personality, are what made her daughters the accomplished, resilient, and independent women they turned out to be.
From Betty, Esther, and Esther’s husband Ernest we learn about the state of the Lovejoys’ marriage before the change. Ernest abused Esther physically, verbally, and emotionally throughout the first twelve years of their marriage, while Esther remained timid and subservient and acquiesced to his every demand. Esther hints at the particular event that precipitated her self-imposed physical and emotional isolation, referring at times to “that cold, no-heat-and-no-lights-in-that-freezing-assed-house day” (Ansa 39), but it is Ernest’s painful admission to Annie Ruth that reveals the details of the event. In the Lovejoys’ twelfth year of marriage, Ernest received his first promotion, which came with a bonus of $250. In a moment of pride and boastfulness, he agreed to lend the money to a member of Esther’s family, against her advice. When the winter came and Ernest still hadn’t been repaid, he realized his mistake. The family’s gas and electricity were cut off and Emily and Annie Ruth almost died from whooping cough and meningitis. Esther saved her family when she managed to pay the bill with the spare change she had been collecting over several years (Ansa 171-73).
I interpret Esther’s change as an act of empowerment. Paying the gas bill during the cold winter was an emancipatory move; in that moment Esther realized she had agency and needed no longer tolerate her husband’s abuse and disregard. When Ernest returns home drunk and belligerent one night after the incident, she tells him that “I didn’t give a damn what he did as long as I could live my life the way I wanted to and not have to clean up that house or cook dinner myself or stop taking care of my flowers” (Ansa 106). With these words, Esther frees herself from the roles of dutiful wife and nurturing mother, which she had never found rewarding. She ceases to leave her house, finally enjoying her space fully rather than waiting in trepidation for Ernest’s next outburst. She finds her passion and joy in gardening, where her efforts are always rewarded. For his part, Ernest shrinks at the sight of her empowerment and becomes a meek, silent shell of himself.
Psychic trauma is another explanation for Esther’s change. The cold winter is a traumatic event for her: her marriage breaks down, she is plunged into financial insecurity, and two of her children nearly die. She never fully recovers from these experiences. Her insistence on leisure and material comforts are a form of emotional avoidance, a symptom of trauma where a person acts to prevent an uncomfortable emotion from reoccurring (Brown 100). Esther does everything she can to avoid feeling the fear she associates with poverty and scarcity. Furthermore, Esther carries obvious marks of emotional numbing. Her perspective reveals that she is proud of her daughters and is concerned for their welfare, yet she remains emotionally detached from them and finds it almost impossible to express any emotion towards them, positive or negative.
There is a preponderance of evidence that Esther suffers from trauma due to the events in her marriage leading up to that cold day. And yet, it is this trauma that sets her free to live life exactly as she wishes. There appears, then, to be a compelling connection between the empowerment and trauma interpretations; far from being competing, they are actually complementary. It is trauma that enables Esther to live the life of her choosing, a life of ease, agency, and spiritual freedom. This freedom is typically denied African American female characters and African American women, who are conventionally depicted as strong in all circumstances.
Melissa Harris-Perry writes that black women created the image of the strong black woman to counter negative stereotypes of the Jezebel, Sapphire, and Mammy, and celebrate black women as “motivated, hardworking breadwinners who suppress their emotional needs while anticipating those of others” (184). Black women drew encouragement from an icon who persevered over the great obstacles of “oppression, poverty, and rejection” (184). The suprahuman (or superwoman) archetype in African American literature is based on this idealized strong black woman construction (Harris; Harris-Perry 184). In her book, Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Black Women in African American Literature, Trudier Harris writes,
These suprahuman women have been denied the ‘luxuries’ of failure, nervous breakdowns, leisured existences, or anything that would suggest that they are complex, multidimensional characters. They must swallow their pain, gird their loins against trouble (the masculine image coincides with the denial of traditional femininity to them), and persist in spite of adversity. (12)
In Esther Lovejoy, Ansa creates a character that contravenes almost every convention of the black superwoman: Esther basks unabashedly in her middle-class leisure. While at times she acknowledges her shortcomings as a mother, she takes them in stride, never haranguing herself over her failures. She experiences deep emotional pain and far from swallowing it, changes her entire life to relieve it. And a close look at her past and inner-life reveals a deeply complex character whose motivations are varied and sometimes even contradictory.
It is very important that Ansa acknowledges the the full humanity of her African American female characters, and that she explores how quotidian events can indeed be traumatizing in the lives of African American women. Demonstrating that black American women, too, have emotional and mental limits, challenges a society that burdens black women with unrealistic expectations of invulnerability (Harris-Perry 185). While Esther is an extreme example, her character is right to insist that black women have the right to practice self-care. And the practice of self-care on a population level requires economic and political resources to which black American women as a group do not have access (Harris-Perry 189). Inequality in both in the private and public spheres—and the immense suffering it causes—should not be accepted as a fact of life for African American women, but challenged at every turn.
Ansa, Tina McElroy. Ugly Ways. San Diego: Harcourt, 1993. Print.
Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.
Harris, Trudier. Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Print.
Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Print.