Girlhood in Delores Phillips’s The Darkest Child

The big-hearted, self-sacrificing, eternally benevolent African American mother is a universally accepted (if not expected) archetype in American literature. Despite the circumstances—whether she is confined to slavery like Aunt Chloe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) or Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1936), working as a nanny or domestic servant in postbellum and Jim Crow conditions like Fannie Hamilton in The Sport of the Gods (1902) or Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (1959), or enduring similar classifications and mistreatments in contemporary literature and film—society often expects black mothers to accommodate and support others to the detriment of their personal needs and dreams. But, Rozelle “Rosie” Quinn in Delores Phillips’s The Darkest Child (2004) is not that type of mother. She is calculating but impulsive, sinisterly brutal, and deadly, and she terrifies her ten fatherless children, particularly her daughters, who must depend solely on each other to survive her wrath. Rosie’s daughters are “bred to obedience,” and she beats, brands, stabs, sells, and even kills them at will.

Still, Rosie is only one of many threats facing black girls in Phillips’s novel, which is set in 1950s Georgia. From a very young age, black female children and adolescents in the novel realize their tenuous position on the lowest rung of Jim Crow society. They attempt to avoid physical and emotional danger, and even when it can not be avoided in their own lives—after racists discriminate against them and when sexual predators brutally assault them—they try to prevent their sisters and friends from experiencing similar circumstances, although they often fail in these efforts.

Overall, Phillips’s young, teenaged narrator offers an unsettling glimpse into the mind of a traumatized child who contemplates the trajectory of her life and its intersections with domestic abuse, societal hierarchies, romantic interests, early civil rights efforts, colorism, and heightening racial violence. It is absolutely a must-read novel.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “We all begin to move, fetching water, tearing bandages, pouring our love onto a wound that will never heal. We work as a silent, defeated army, beaten down by our mother, tending our wounded. We do not retaliate for our victory is inconceivable.”
  • “God, look down on us. I am in a room where your daughters are weary. They are moaning, and it is a most wretched sound. Can you hear it, Lord? Do something! I never want to shed another tear as long as I live.”
  • “She took pleasure in categorizing her children by race. Mushy, Harvey, Sam, and Martha Jean were her white children. Tarabelle, Wallace, and Laura were Indians—Cherokee, no less. Edna and I were Negroes.”
  • “Fear was a thing I understood all too well. It was a malignancy that had spread throughout my body until my mother, in her godly wisdom had diagnosed and cauterized it.”
  • “From the straw basket beside Martha Jean, little Judy pledged her solidarity by issuing a cry of her own, and in midnight darkness, I swam the stream of tears that connected me to my sisters, my ears ringing from the first cry I had ever heard from either.”
  • “I thought a daddy would offer love instead of anger. A daddy would soothe me and tell me that everything is going to be alright. A daddy would understand that I am just a child in a grownups’ world, trying to do what I am told, trying to survive.”

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