BOOK REVIEW: The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970)

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Alice Walker, author of The Third Life of Grange Copeland

Just a note:

In my final year of university, I looked into slave narratives and the black identity (predominantly by female authors) in literature. I’ve plucked a short excerpt from some of my notes on one of my favourite novels, one that is often overshadowed by the likes of The Colour Purple, scribbled down before a conference paper examination I did towards the end of my degree. This is just a brief deconstruction as to some of the ideas within the novel, but I thought to share as it might be of interest to those looking for some new reads as an ally to BLM or as an individual who wants broaden their understanding/appreciation for black lives, voices and experiences. Please do let me know your thoughts on this book, as I’ve not come into contact with many people who’ve given it a read before and I’m desperate to have a chat about it!

alice walker
In my opinion, this novel eclipses The Colour Purple!

The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) explores the repercussions of slavery in Southern America as opposed to the first-hand account of the slave experience.

In terms of a rough plot overview, Grange Copeland is the protagonist, a failing share-cropper who resents the world and in particular, the white people who govern it for him. His ‘first life’ is miserable. The South is synonymous with stasis and the North is represented as the idyllic escape. With a promiscuous wife, a raging alcohol problem and no prospects in terms of building a life that is truly his own in the South, Grange takes off for the North to start his ‘second life’, shedding his family like old snake skin.

His son Brownfield sets off to find his father only to wind up essentially morphing into him, violent and angry at a world he feels he cannot change. As Brownfield descends further into madness, Grange decides to return home, dissatisfied with the offerings of the North. However, he must face the consequences of his actions.

Walker sets the novel in a world where slavery has already been abolished: she draws attention to systemic racism and how this is bequeathed from one generation to another, an awful legacy that is difficult, if at all possible, to escape. Though legislation should empower the black lives in this narrative, the characters still find themselves bound to the prejudiced power dichotomy which sees white folk as superior and black people as their inferior subjects.

The novel evaluates the relationship between the past, present and future. Walker dissects the trauma bequeathed from generation to generation in a familial context: for example, Grange’s hatred trickles down to his son Brownfield, who then in turn inflicts his wrath upon his wife Mem and his children, Daphne, Ornette and Ruth. The novel offers an authentic insight into the tensions within black communities and for this reason I would argue that it serves as a significant milestone in the contemporary female canon, preceding notable works such as Beloved, Roots and The Colour Purple.

Another powerful element of this novel is Walker’s portrayal of the female struggle as the doubly oppressed. I use this term to describe the female struggle because I feel it represents two levels of oppression: race & gender. Female protagonists continue to be bound to violence and subordination, often taking the literal and metaphorical blows from both the emasculated black men within their local communities and the white fellows who continue to dictate so much of their “free” lives.

Of the motivations behind violence, E.L Birch suggests that, ‘In father and son, hatred of white oppression had been internalised to find expression in violence against the women they feel unable to protect.’ (Birch, E.L, 1994: p. 198). The crushing ideals of masculinity bind the men to lives of misery and rage and thus, their families are inevitably dragged to these depths too. We see this in Grange. Grange is resigned to his fate: after years of persecution at the hands of white people, including Shipley (who overlooked the cotton fields at which he worked), Grange resolves to remove himself from interaction with white people altogether. In a world in which he is powerless, Grange must reclaim his sense of power and manhood by belittling those within his own community.

Thematically, the notion of metamorphosis is recurrent in that many characters undergo significant changes. Titular character Grange evolves from a figure overcome with hatred to a dishevelled old man seeking redemption whilst his son Brownfield, initially determined to live a different life to his father, winds up filling the very same shoes.

In terms of salvation, Ruth’s existence in itself serves as a symbol of hope both for Grange and for the local community. The violence embedded in her past is the fuel for her ambition to destroy the divide between whites and blacks in the South.

Ruth Copeland is the youngest of three children. The reader comes to understand that from a young age, Ruth and her siblings are completely dehumanised. Collectively, they grow up in fear. After watching their mother being beaten half-to-death, Walker describes the children as falling asleep, ‘dreaming in chilly exactness of killing that would set them free.’ (Walker, A, 1985: p. 92).

Liberation in this context is only imagined with the death of patriarchal dominance. The role of Master/Slave is clearly established within the Copeland home and whilst Ruth’s older siblings are apprehensive in their approach to their father, the primary oppressor, Ruth is resistant. She stands up against her bully brother from an infantile age, one such incident is outlined: ‘She was the youngest, barely four. “You ain’t nothing but a sonnabit,” she said, and quickly covered herself with her blanket so she wouldn’t feel the first really hard blows Brownfield ever gave her.’ (Walker, A, 1985: p. 108). Ruth mimics the profanity she’s heard from her father since birth and arms herself with it. The expectation is for Ruth to accept a status of passivity but she challenges this from the outset, and represents a break in the status quo, becoming a beacon of hope for future generations.

Grange’s ‘third life’ is his return to the South. He seeks to protect Ruth from the very oppressive forces which have threatened him and considers this to be the fundamental purpose of his ‘third life’, his redemption. This implies that the hostility and hatred is cyclical, that the same fundamental narrative will be perpetuated. Yet, it’s Ruth’s inherently childlike attributes of sensitivity and innocence which provokes in Grange a sense of epiphany, he learns through Ruth, ‘an invaluable lesson about hate; he could only teach hate by inspiring it.’ (Walker, A, 1985: p. 137) and it’s this notion, that he may destroy any chance of Ruth’s future liberation, that Grange adapts.

However, the union between Grange and Ruth is not without its difficulties and this is evident when a discussion is had about Ruth’s ambitions for the future. Whilst Grange envisions her taking over his farm, she dreams of travelling up North. Ruth insists that, “I’d be bored stiff waiting for black folks to rise up so I could join them. Since I’m already ready to rise up and they ain’t, it seems to me I should rise up first and let them follow me.” (Walker, A, 1985: p. 196). Ruth still has the ability to dream and she is outspoken in her efforts to make a change whilst Grange is passive, tethered too much to the pain of the past. Birch implies that Ruth’s ability to foresee change is a direct result of developments such as televised marches, a generational shift in overcoming prejudice and claiming black rights. She states that, ‘Ruth can anticipate a political as well as an emotional liberation.’ (Birch, E.L, 1994: p. 202) and this is the very emancipation she seeks.

Alice Walker encourages the audience to consider the implications of oppression and prejudice upon all those affected, including the perpetrators themselves. She challenges the reader to partake in a complicated dialogue about accountability, activism and “real” change. As readers in the present day, with the momentum of the George Floyd catalyst behind us, it is worth considering that though much has changed, and we can plead ourselves products of a more “liberated” and “progressive” world, there is so much more to be done. For a book that was written in 1970, much of the thematic content and commentary on society is still as applicable in the present day, which is a disturbing reality-check for those who believe lynching, apartheid and racial prejudice are but memories of a distant past.

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Bibliography

Walker, A. (1985). The Third Life of Grange Copeland. London: The Women’s Press Ltd.

Birch, E.L. (1994). Black American Women’s Writing (A Quilt of Many Colours). Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

World Mental Health Day

TW: Mental health issues, suicide, self-harm, substance abuse.

It’s World Mental Health Day. World Mental Health Day takes place on October 10th every year, ‘with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.’ (WHO, 2019)

I’m glad there are social media campaigns advocating mental health causes because the circulation and impact of these campaigns is widespread. The amount of people engaging with these events and sharing their experiences with mental health problems demonstrate that attitudes are shifting. I have two responses to this: 1) It’s about time. 2) We still have a long way to go.

It doesn’t matter what religious beliefs you ascribe to; what political party you support, what ethnicity you are, how old you are, what sexual orientation you prefer, what gender you are or what income you earn. Despite our differences, from one individual to another, one thing that ought to unite us is mental health, for we all have minds and are all therefore susceptible to periods of mental illness, whether brought on by stress, genetic predisposition or trauma.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. That’s why it’s so important that we cultivate an open dialogue about mental health. Be that as it may, there are barriers for those who suffer with mental illness, factors which affect an individual’s ability to speak out openly and seek help. Effective treatment and support for mental illness is hard to access due to the prevalence of stigmatisation, ignorance and services/resources that are crippled financially, due to government cuts.

How do we address this? We look upon the statistics and we inform ourselves, then educate others to abolish ignorance and misunderstanding. We sign petitions and we fight for more mental health initiatives in schools and workplaces, in an effort to normalise mental health the same way we normalise debilitating physical ailments such as broken bones. We support our peers, who may or may not be struggling openly, by being conscientious and approachable. We invite dialogue instead of closing it down. We embrace our vulnerabilities and take the time to deal with our mental health, as opposed to neglecting our right to self-care. We accept the notion that mental illness is not a weakness, nor something to be ashamed of.

The dangers of not speaking up are serious. Struggling to cope, individuals may turn to substance abuse, self-harm, isolation and in many cases, suicide.

As a person who has experienced the unexpected bereavement of a family member due to suicide, as well as my own history of depression-fuelled suicidal thoughts, I can vouch for the devastation that loss causes. It’s frustrating because you can’t help but harbour regrets and question whether there were signs that ought to have been spotted. It’s frustrating because if we had known at the time, we could have had that one conversation and that could have been enough to stop anything from happening at all. It’s frustrating because, despite that experience, people still cling to secrecy and bury their struggles below the surface, as though those struggles won’t bubble up and have some sort of negative consequence.

Seeing the impact on my family and all of my uncle’s friends, who queued up at the funeral to pay their respects, I realised that the way I was dealing with my own mental health had to change. The one thing I took away from the shock of that bereavement is that conversations are worth having, no matter how difficult they may seem. Since, I have lived by that philosophy and that’s one thing I’m consistently proud of. Being candid about my experiences allows me to access my support group, who have hauled my struggling body through many a crisis. Were it not for others and their strength, their faith and their vigilance, I would have succumbed to the darkest mental state, long ago. Speaking up has helped me accept, embrace and process the way I feel. Speaking up has made me visible to a large community of other people who also struggle in similar ways and this has allowed me to feel less alone. Speaking up gave me a chance of survival and meant that the events of the past were learned from.

I hope we all keep at it and find ways to make the world a bit kinder, one day at a time. It is also important to remember that World Mental Health Day is just a day, yet the overall quest to end mental health stigmatisation is 24/7, year-round. So let’s keep the conversations going, long after the hashtag and publicity this day brings dissipates.

As a final note, here are some things that have helped me along my mental health journey, particularly in the last year:

  • The Samaritans helpline and CBT/psychotherapy treatment.
  • Making an active effort to communicate when I’m struggling to people I care about.
  • Guided meditations (sleep or otherwise).
  • The Headspace app, for finding moments of calm.
  • Yoga and daily exercise. I love Alo Moves (app) and Yoga with Adrienne (YouTube).
  • Hugging loved ones tight at every given opportunity.
  • Expressing my gratitude, on the good days and the bad.
  • Trying not to compare my journey to other people’s journeys: we’re all on our own paths!
  • Perceiving mental self-care with the same importance that I do a healthy diet and doctor-ordained exercise regimens.
  • Keeping a daily journal, to monitor achievements (no matter how small they may seem) so that I can reflect at the end of the week at all of the positives. Also, my dream journal has really entertained/scared me recently (trust me, for SSRI’s it really is worth it).

Depression and anxiety makes for a roller-coaster ride of a life. I just want to take this opportunity to say a massive thanks to all of my family, who have supported me in ways I could never have imagined over the last few months. You’ve all taken the time to listen and to research and to be patient and to hug me and to drive me to appointments everywhere, I’m very grateful and I literally think about you all every morning, when I count my blessings. I also want to say thanks to the Ladies of Chancery Lane/Lockwood Massive and Tom who have collectively put up with me, through all the states I’ve been in. You lot are solid and I don’t know where I’d be without you.

Useful info links:

World Health Organisation’s Definition of World Mental Health Day

Suicide Prevention Objective 2019

Samaritans Site