by Claire Fullerton
Firefly Southern Fiction, April 29, 2020
252 pages, $14.99
It’s been a decade since Celia Wakefield has returned to her childhood home of Memphis, Tennessee or seen her friends Ava and Renny. Now they’re together again for a long weekend at Renny’s lake house, and by circumstance they’re forced to reexamine their relationships—both past and present. Two decades after her life derailed, Celia must finally reckon with the traumatic series of events she experienced as an adolescent, as well as her possible complicity in how they developed.
Little Tea is a book with great ambitions. Its competing story lines—Celia’s present-day story and her childhood on a “farm” in rural Como, Mississippi in the 1980s—unfold together, the past informing the present. Author Claire Fullerton tackles major themes like friendship and aging, but the primary focus of Celia’s childhood story is on racial tension and prejudice in the 1980s Deep South.
Celia’s best friend, Little Tea, is the daughter of the black farmer who works (and lives on) the Wakefield land, and her mother works in the house, cooking and cleaning. Right away we are thrown into these problematic circumstances, circumstances that even the deftest of writers might find difficulty navigating. Unfortunately, Little Tea does not fully rise to the occasion.
While Celia recognizes her sheltered understanding of race relations in her youth, she never examines the power dynamics at play between her white, land-owning family and the black family that lived on and worked their land.
“People look at the past through the scrim of what’s right and wrong according to now, irrespective of the general nature and context of the times as they were back then. The Memphis I knew growing up had a cushioned vantage point from inside a bubble. For me, they were soft times, gentle and synergistic, and much of its code was implied. Black women like Elvita and Beneatha were technically family maids, but they were also respected overseers, and without them my world would have lacked dimension and form” (131).
Young Celia recognizes Elvita’s authority over her and lauds her “dignity in silence and…wisdom in holding [her] tongue” (131). But why does Elvita remain silent? It does not once occur to Celia that Elvita—and her husband Thelonious, and their daughter Little Tea for that matter—are at the mercy of the Wakefield family. Their jobs and their home rest in the palms of the white land-owning family, regardless of how generous the Wakefields may be.
Can a girl really be best friends with someone whose family controls her own family’s livelihood? Friendly with, yes, but true friends?
At its best, this novel pays tribute to a sisterly friendship between a black woman and a white woman in a time and place where their close relationship would have been frowned upon; at its worst, Little Tea is idealist and borders on tokenism.
“Because [Little Tea and I] rarely discussed it among us, our bond was calcified when in the public eye. When in the face of scrutiny, I could literally feel our force field snap to a cohesive, protective circle, and within its boundary we stood up for each other and explained ourselves to no one. It was enough for us to know the line between us and them” (137).
The bond described between Celia and Little Tea is unbreakable, and yet Little Tea is subject to racist abuse that Celia is not. We are told that each stands up for the other, but we do not see it in scene. Little Tea is the strong one, capable of bearing the brunt of society’s antipathy, capable of protecting fragile Celia from the realities of racism, capable of moving away from the South to protect herself, and all the while Celia never asks after her friend, never considers how the rampant racism in Mississippi has made her feel.
Is this friendship? Or is this another example of white privilege?
There are stirring moments in the novel, though, mostly involving Celia’s musings and reflections in her present-day narrative. She ruminates on what it means to be a woman in her forties with no family or children, what it means to be a southern woman who has moved out of the South, who has married out of the South, who feels both confused by and ashamed of the South. In Little Tea, Celia seeks peace with her past, but also peace with her decision to leave the past behind.
“I go through the motions of what I think I should be doing, instead of following the inner guidelines of how I really feel…I knew the world had changed since my mother was alive. It had evolved into a lack of guidelines that tell women what to do. I thought we are now a species so genderless and unencumbered with definition that we are rudderless in a sea of equality. And yet I was aware that my mother still whispered in a Southern accent from the otherworld about pride and comportment and etiquette. Oh, the convenience of all this, were it applicable in this politically correct world, which shies from gender-specific identity” (217).
In some ways, Celia chooses not to think critically about the past. She pines for Little Tea, who has dropped out of her life, but she does not seek her out; instead, Celia drifts through life wondering what went wrong, and ultimately allows herself to feel complacent with her current position in life.
“Resiliency,” she says, “the ability to pick oneself up and reinvent oneself, the creative construction of Plan B, these are the things that define a life” (219). Devising a Plan B can be life-defining, yes, but I’d argue that having the courage to face the mistakes of your past—as well as your everyday mistakes—instead of running away from them will define your character.
Upon reading this novel, my instinct was to shy away from writing this review because of the subject matter and the problematic way in which it was handled. But if current events have taught me anything, it’s that to avoid these conversations is to veil underlying prejudicial attitudes—and to allow them to endure. It’s important to address prejudice in times of unrest and protest—as it is now, but it’s no less important in times of relative quiet and peace.
It appears to me that Fullerton wrote Little Tea in good faith, that her examination of racism in Mississippi came from a genuine desire to understand race relations in America. But the fact remains that Little Tea is problematic.
The most glaring example of this, perhaps, is the story’s climax, hinging on the criminal actions of a radicalized black man whose presence in the book is minor at best. He appears, a deus ex machina, and then is gone. His future is neither pondered nor reproached, and his past is reduced to a single appearance with a baseball bat and a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
If this is meant to be a story about a white woman trying to understand race relations, what does it say that this character—Wilson—is not only used like a pawn, but given the personality of one? If this is a story written by a white woman who means well, what would a story written by a white woman who does not mean well look like?
Narratives of inter-racial friendships are important, as are narratives that explore race relations in the South. But, as we strive for equality for our neighbors, we must strive for equality for our characters. To reduce a character to a token or a deus ex machina counteracts any good dialogue a story may offer. At some point, the writer must ask themselves: is this my story to tell? Am I the right person to tell it?
And if the answer is “no,” as it often is, then we must look for ways to support the writers who have the knowledge and experience that we do not. We must look to them as leaders. And we must follow.