- Quite Contrary:The Cultivation of Self in Mary Mebane's Autobiography
The constraints, the restraints, the hidden threats that we lived under, that were the conditions of our lives, inevitably produced mutations in the natural human flowering. To me we were like plants that were meant to grow upright but became bent and twisted, stunted, sometimes stretching out and running along the ground, because the conditions of our environment forbade our developing upward naturally.—Mary Mebane, Mary
Mary,1 the first of Mary Mebane's two autobiographies, begins with the one-sentence paragraph, "My name is Mary" (3). This single line evokes one of the other seminal first lines of American literature—"Call me Ishmael." Similar to the Moby-Dick narrator, Mebane seems simply to be declaring her own presence and individuality. However, by avoiding the subject pronoun "I," Mebane begins her narrative by creating a distance between herself as object, "Mary," and herself as subject, "I," emphasizing the difference between name and being—between object and subject. Mebane, by avoiding the subject position, destabilizes the subjectivity of her narrator just as Melville, by avoiding declarative statements, destabilizes the reliability of his narrator. While Mebane originally resists the subject position, she eventually enters the scopic economy and seizes the role of observer. By declaring her control of the gaze, Mary announces that she is indeed a subject and an individual.2 Describing her [End Page 92] birth as when she "opened her eyes to the world," Mebane begins half of the sentences in the second paragraph with "I."
In the second paragraph of the work, Mebane embraces and enjoys her subjectivity. Describing an innocent childhood paradise (Weyler 45, Hobson "Loneliness" 181), Mebane states, "the world was a green Eden—and it was magic" (3). Sitting on a rock in the center of the yard—a representative tree of knowledge—Mebane "could see everything" (3). According to Mebane, she "liked to look" (3). Although the second paragraph begins with Mebane developing as a subject in the Garden of Eden, it ends with a tragedy—Nonnie Mebane, Mary's mother, brings death into the space.3 Mebane writes, "Mama must have told me several thousand times that I was going to die with my eyes open, looking" (3). Portrayed by her daughter as both an oppressed African American woman and an oppressive matriarchal force, Nonnie asserts her own subjectivity and gaze to supplant the "I" subject and force her daughter back into an object position.
The primary conflict of the narrative emerges in the next paragraph, as Mebane attempts to reassert her subjectivity. Indicating a resistance to domestic pressure and limitations, Mebane states, "I sat on the rock with my back to the house" (3). Acknowledging the existing domestic community, Mebane writes, "behind me I could overhear voices coming from the back porch and kitchen" (3). However, refusing to heed those (authoritative?) voices, Mebane uses the gaze to insist on her own subjectivity and to struggle for the ability to define her own identity.
By asserting her own selfhood, Mebane finds herself in the metaphorical yard—the liminal space between the domain of the house and the wider communities. As an academically gifted African American female growing up in a rural North Carolina town,4 Mebane constantly finds herself having to negotiate the demands of various communities as she attempts to reconcile/unify different aspects of her identity. Living in the Wildwood community of Durham County, North Carolina during the middle of the twentieth century, Mebane must reconcile the various demands and pressures placed upon her as a southern African American female. The domestic battles between mother and daughter represent the battles Mebane must wage with other communities as she attempts to cultivate an individual identity against class, gender, race, and color pressures. As Karen Weyler states, "Mebane's mother eventually stands in as a synecdoche for the rest of the community, and Mebane's conflicts with her mother embody her conflicts with the environment" (46). The narrative of Mebane's development becomes the story of her attempt to [End Page 93] understand and establish her own identity while simultaneously navigating the demands and norms of multiple communities...