Naylor’s image of ‘Man’ is symbolized by all her developed male characters. Invariably, they are the doers and accomplishers in the story — and they always destroy what is around them. Thus for Mattie we have her father, the leader of the family, who also beats his daughter (almost to death, when she won’t tell him who the father of her unborn child is) and who loves his religion more than his family (“[Mattie] thought of the unbending old man who would sit with his Bible clenched in his fist and watch [Basil, his bastard grandchild] grow up. ‘I can’t put you through that,’ she whispered” ).
There’s also Mattie’s lover, Butch Fuller, who says with brutal honesty before he abandons her, “Mattie, I don’t run after a lot of women, I just don’t stay long enough to let the good times turn sour” (16). Finally, there is Mattie’s son, Basil, who casually destroys the work of her entire lifetime, so that he will not be inconvenienced.
Ciel’s man also victimizes her. The story starts with his return from an extended departure. In a futile effort to keep him she has an abortion, and when her other child dies he abandons her yet again. He does not even come to the child’s funeral — his desire to show kinship with his gender (“…a man’s gotta be a man” ) is stronger than his feelings (if any) for Ciel.
Cora Lee’s men are the most abstract — to her a man is merely a “shadow” (127), giving her what she wants (six babies, each by different fathers, and another pregnancy on the way) and then disappearing from her life as smoothly as a dream leaves her mind upon waking. To Lorraine (the lesbian) the men in the story are most brutal: although she wants nothing to do with them, they perceive her as a threat and destroy her:
C.C. Baker [the initiator of the gang rape] was greatly disturbed by a Lorraine … he knew how to please or punish or extract favors from [women] by the execution of what lay curled behind his fly. It was his lifeline to that part of his being that sheltered his self-respect. And the thought of any woman who lay beyond the length of its power was a threat (161-2).
Kiswana and Ben highlight the distinctions between man as doer and woman as victim. When Kiswana attempts to be a doer, her efforts prove futile: her family supports her financially, her attempt to push Cora Lee out of apathy fail, and the street itself is destroyed rather than bettered by Kiswana’s efforts to organize the inhabitants. Kiswana is an anomaly — a woman trying to act like a man. In Gloria Naylor’s stories, women ultimately fail, and so Kiswana must also.
In the case of the alcoholic street bum Ben, it is Ben’s wife who acts in a “manly” fashion: he recalls her in memory, metaphorically emasculating him by taking control due to his lack of decision, shoving him into the “woman’s” place. His own subsequent ineffectiveness and self-victimization is compounded by his knowledge that as a consequence of his earlier inability to act he prostituted his daughter. This leads to his drinking habit in an attempt to wipe out that ugly truth. Ultimately he is murdered by an insane, raped woman — an ugly piece of symbolism in its own right.
These two extended examples of symbolism in Naylor’s book seem to show that only one framework for male-female relationships may exist. It is not clear whether Naylor’s symbolism is deliberate or not, but either way it portrays destruction and despair as the norm for relationships between men and women. The effect of this symbolism is subtle, pervasive, and poisonous. Ben Okri, from The Joys of Story-Telling, says:
To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the story-tellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the psychic destruction of their people.
The Women of Brewster Place is an elaborate Trojan horse of attempted social commentary on racism, hiding within it an ugly and insidious message of hopelessness, sexism, and hatred.