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31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 29: “Peach Cobbler” by Deesha Philyaw

From The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

The opening paragraph of Wallace Thurman’s 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel The Blacker the Berry … sets out the dilemma faced by the young protagonist Emma Lou, who will spend the entirety of the text struggling with her dark complexion and the reactions it elicits not just from whites, but also from lighter-skinned Blacks in her own community:

Not that she minded being Black, being a Negro necessitated having a coloured skin, but she did mind being too Black. She couldn’t understand why such should be the case, couldn’t completely comprehend the cruelty of the natal attenders who had allowed her to be dipped, as it were, in indigo ink when there were so many more pleasing colours on nature’s palette. … Why had her mother married a Black man? Surely there had been some eligible Brown-skin men around. She didn’t particularly desire to have had a “high yaller” father, but for her sake certainly some more happy medium could have been found.

Thurman’s novel, which includes an epigraph from Countee Cullen – “My colour shrouds me in” – is about the various prejudices that attend skin colour in the U.S., most specifically, and controversially, those within the Black community itself.

It’s a theme that Nella Larsen would take up in the same year that Thurman’s novel appeared. Larson’s short novella, Passing, focuses on a light-skinned Black woman who makes her way in the world by passing as white. In the introduction to the single-volume edition, The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen, Charles R. Larson writes, “No passing novel can be regarded as anything other than a strong indictment of American life; people are driven to such drastic measures because of American racism and the need for economic survival.”

While Deesha Philyaw’s story “Peach Cobbler,” from her PEN/Faulkner Award–winning debut collection, is not precisely a passing story, aspects of Larson’s critique and Thurman’s central character are evident, most especially in the family of Pastor Neely, the local reverend who is married to a much lighter-skinned woman. Mrs. Marilyn Neely is so light in skin tone, in fact, that the child Olivia, who acts as the story’s first-person narrator, mistakes her for a white woman from a distance at Sunday services.

Then again, she also mistakes Pastor Neely for God. This is because her mother is having an affair with the reverend and the child becomes confused when she hears her mother’s voice from behind her closed bedroom door (where she and the pastor have secreted themselves) moaning, ”Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” The error, which elicits a bleat of laughter in context, clarifies the story’s opening line: “My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife.” We come to learn that most Mondays, the pastor attends the home of Olivia and her mother, where he polishes off an entire tray of peach cobbler before retreating to the bedroom to have sex.

There are many layers at work here. First among them is the girl’s naivete, which accentuates the psychic distance between her and the implied reader, who is able to see through her incomprehension to understand what is going on behind the closed bedroom door. As a romantic partner for Olivia’s mother, Pastor Neely is doubly illicit for being both a man of the cloth and married. The reason the affair persists for more than a decade recalls Larson’s comment about economic need; it is clear early on that Olivia and her mother are not well off: they share a bedroom and the mother works long hours waiting tables at a local diner. Pastor Neely offers financial help in return for dessert and the ministrations of Olivia’s mother.

When Olivia is invited to a birthday party at the home of a wealthier family, her mother refuses to let the girl attend, prompting Pastor Neely to intercede on Olivia’s behalf. The mother’s stated reason for denying her child is key to her attitude in trying to prepare the child for what she expects life to be like:

They can raise their child however they see fit. But I’m not going to raise mine to go through life expecting it to be sweet, when for her, it ain’t going to be. The sooner she learns to accept what is and what ain’t, the better. She get a taste of that sweetness, she’s going to want it so bad, she’ll grow up and settle for crumbs of it.

This hardened worldview, which we come to understand is based less on the mother’s expectations for what life holds in store for her daughter and more on her own experience, extends to her peach cobbler. Every Monday, she bakes a pan for the corpulent reverend; on weeks he fails to show up at the house, instead of allowing Olivia to partake in the uneaten dessert, she tosses the whole thing in the trash. Better to deprive the girl of a sweet confection, she thinks, than to give her a taste of it and have her desire more. If she is kept unaware of the sweetness life has to offer, she won’t know what she is missing when she doesn’t get it.

The mother’s parsimonious attitude extends to matters of the flesh; when Olivia gets her period at age ten – “You’re too young, you’re too young …” – she worries about the implications of her daughter’s sexual maturity, concern that only increases when Olivia develops 36D-sized breasts. By the time she reaches Grade 11 and is “tired of fighting off boys,” instead allowing them to fondle her her in fleeting encounters, she is sent to Pastor Neely’s to tutor his son in math. The son, Trevor, behaves like a typical adolescent male, staring at Olivia’s chest; her response is direct and frank: ”I have bit tits. Huge boobs. Giant hooters. Enormous knockers. And yes, you’re cute, but your eyes don’t work on me. Now cut the bullshit, and let’s get to work.”

Of course, the pull of Olivia’s desire – of all the things life has to offer that her mother has systematically denied her – proves too strong and soon she and Trevor are sleeping together. “My father would say that what we just did is plain wrong, a sin,” he tells her. “Fornication.” This highlights Pastor Neely’s hypocrisy, especially given that Olivia has seen the man of God and his mother going at it through the bedroom window, his “huge, bare ass” exposed and him “standing and thrusting against [her] mother, crushing her against [the] dresser.” It is immediately after this that Olivia gets her period; the pad her mother shoves inside her panties feels like “punishment” to the young girl.

Olivia’s desire for Trevor is intermingled with feelings of betrayal and anxiety that are expressed in the language of sickness: “I felt sick at the thought, this time in the pit of my stomach. Sick with desire. The words took shape in my mind, black and slick like oil, rising from the page of a trashy novel I’d gotten from the grocery store the week before.” This language is recapitulated a little later, when Olivia tells her mother about her first session as tutor and her mistaking the reverend’s wife for a white woman:

“You thought she was white?” My mother laughed, loud and throaty. ”No, she’s just high yellow. As Black as he is, he likes a high-yellow woman, of course.” My mother was only a shade or two darker than Miz Marilyn. I was darker than my mother, but not as dark as Pastor Neely. A sick feeling came over me, for the third time that day: could Pastor Neely be my father? My mother only ever said he was someone I wouldn’t want to know.

Olivia’s mother lives at the confluence of racial and economic disparity, and her attempts to gird her daughter for a similarly straitened life are a large part of the “sick” feelings the young woman endures as she comes of age. Like Thruman’s Emma Lou, Olivia eventually realizes that her dark skin makes her a less desirable catch for certain Black men, though unlike her mother, Olivia reacts to this with defiance rather than bitter acceptance.

“Peach Cobbler” is, at its heart, a story about the corrosive nature of secrets and institutional duplicity. Olivia and her mother represent two different approaches to the world and its evils; while her mother is full of good intentions in denying her daughter the pleasures of a full life, Olivia’s rebelliousness and final confrontational act hold out the possibility of a different destiny for her – though one that, in the story’s final line, must be deferred, at least temporarily.

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