About the Author
Sue Monk Kidd
• Birth—August 12, 1948
• Where—Sylvester, Georgia, USA
• Education—B.S., Texas Christian University
• Awards—Poets and Writers Award; Katherine Anne Porter Award
• Currently—lives in Charleston, South Carolina
As a little girl in the little town of Sylvester, Georgia, Kidd thrilled to listen to her father tell stories about “mules who went through cafeteria lines and a petulant boy named Chewing Gum Bum,” as she says on her web site. Inspired by her dad’s tall tales, Kidd began keeping a journal that chronicled her everyday experiences.
Such self-scrutiny surely gave her the tools she needed to pen such keenly insightful memoirs asWhen the Hearts Waits and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, both tracking her development as both a Christian and a woman. “I think when you have an impulse to write memoir you are having an opportunity to create meaning of your life,” she told Barnes & Noble.com, “to articulate your experience; to understand it in deeper ways… And after a while, it does free you from yourself, of having to write about yourself, which it eventually did for me.”
Once Kidd had worked the need to write about herself out of her system, she decided to get back to the kind of storytelling that inspired her to become a writer in the first place. Her debut novel The Secret Life of Bees showed just how powerfully the gift of storytelling charges through Kidd’s veins. The novel has sold more than 4.5 million copies, been published in over twenty languages, and spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list.
Official Movie Trailer
Teacher’s Guide accompanying the release of the motion picture [12 page printable PDF]
THEMES in the Book
Civil Rights Timeline 1948-2013
Our Lady of Chains
The old blackened ship’s masthead in the parlor of the Boatwright house has the shape of a woman with her fist raised. She is thought to be a Black Madonna. According to legend, she was worshipped as the Virgin Mary by slaves. When taken away by the master and chained up, she miraculously returned to her people each time. She has a sacred heart painted on her chest that is touched during religious services held by the Daughters of Mary. The worship of the statue was passed down by August’s grandmother, Big Mama. August, reading about the tradition of Black Mary, used the picture of the Black Madonna of Breznichar, the Bohemian portrait of the Black Virgin, on the honey jars that she sells. She is the Madonna who can release one from bondage, as she gave the slaves hope for freedom and, with her fist raised, represented redress of injustice.
BRIDGING FEMINISM AND THEOLOGY ON THE BACK OF THE BLACK MADONNA
The train slowed as it approached the heart of the slum. An African-American woman was weeping on the porch of a rundown home. A white woman saw her from the train window and told her, “I will come back for you.” Then the train moved on.
In the world of Sue Monk Kidd, author of the popular novel, The Secret Life of Bees , this dream – and archetypes, myths and goddesses — have the importance of oxygen. The dream would breathe life into Kidd’s quest to recapture the Black Madonna – a symbol of feminine divinity that, she said, imbues “deep self, authority, and deep creativity” in people, but that has “sunk deep into the unconscious.”
“I knew it was Mary,” said Kidd of the African-American woman in her dream.
Kidd was giving a keynote address at a Spiritual Formation Conference, held by Trinity Church Wall Street and Spirituality & Health magazine , at Kanuga Conference Center, North Carolina, May 12-16. Her theme was: “Encountering the Black Madonna: Icon of the Divine Feminine.”
What is the Black Madonna? The Black Madonna is a symbol and myth whose earthy promise, according to Kidd, offers “glimpses of the divine feminine,” and a point of access for women who feel the pantheon of chaste saints offer no such right of way. Kidd’s quest is a complicated one, brought about by the intersection of longing, feminism, and historical scholarship.
For centuries the influence of the Madonnas steadily declined. In western Europe, only 400 to 500 paintings and sculptures of the Black Madonna remain, often in the crypts of gothic cathedrals in France. Now, however, Black Madonnas are making a slight comeback in popular culture. This is thanks to works as diverse as Kidd’s novel, which draws heavily on Black Madonna mythology, and a recent best-selling thriller by Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code , which references the pre-Christian goddesses which Kidd and many scholars claim as the source of the Black Madonna.
Citing a majority belief among scholars, she believed the Black Madonna came from black pre-Christian goddesses such as Isis. “This is the Black Madonna’s family tree,” said Kidd. These are the “ancient earth mothers,” who were “very powerful, very independent…they were bold, connected to the earth and to cycles of fertility. They were all-embracing mother creators.”
Kidd contended that as Christianity spread, clergy “simply renamed” many of these images and statues of the pre-Christian symbols as “the Virgin Mary.” The Virgin Mary, or White Mary, over time absorbed many of the roles of the black goddesses, carrying “a set of energies” more placid than those associated with the Black Madonna. “[The Virgin Mary] became the female face of God,” said Kidd, and became “tamed….Her grit went underground.”
A New and Ancient Icon
In Kidd’s novel, she explained, the Black Madonna was a kind of protagonist in the form of a ship’s masthead that washed ashore in Charleston, South Carolina, during the era of slavery. “The image is so apt to me…here she is, washing up. As [Joseph] Campbell said,” Kidd paraphrased, “what’s gone down, must come back up.” The masthead contained three symbols that Kidd felt represented the Black Madonna nicely. A fist, a red heart, and a moon.
The raised fist symbolized “feminine authority, dignity, power.” The Black Madonna of myth had a “subversive streak” and was “notorious for aiding and abetting” rebels of the Church. In mythology, the Black Madonna brought dead infants back to life for baptism, was midwife to nuns and the “Madonna of heretics.” She was “particularly connected to oppressed peoples.”
The heart symbolized “a newly evolving wisdom…deep, feeling-toned relational energy…” that exposed “that we are always in relationship, even in solitude.” The heart’s wisdom spelled out the language of empathy.
The moon symbol provided a strong connection of bodies as part of the earth. Understanding the Black Madonna “may have something to do with coming into our bodies and coming into an understanding that divinity swims in the cells of our bodies,” said Kidd.
She has taken seriously such natural rhythms as she interpreted the Black Madonna. At her home, on a salt marsh in South Carolina, she will work for only six hours at a stretch, matching the ebb and flow of the tides in their work.
Kidd told the conference that if God was only spoken of as male, it suggested there was only one metaphor for God in Christian community. She believed God’s gender was, in the words of theologian Sally McFague, “He, she, and neither.”
However, “the fuss,” as she put it, was that “without the divine feminine in our God-talk, we have an imbalance. Until we can visualize the sacred feminine, society cannot be whole.” Nor can individuals. Ultimately, for Kidd, “a woman who has been severed from the divine feminine has been severed from what keeps her grounded.” The Black Madonna helped to fill in the dream of divinity the Virgin Mary left blank.
Tales from the Hive
A honeybee hive is far more than just a buzz of activity. In fact, the social organization inside a nest rivals that in the best-run corporations, with each bee and each cell possessing a rigidly specific function. If you’re unfamiliar with them, some of those functions, such as the “waggle dance,” might leave you scratching your head in amazement at their sheer sophistication.
Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees , is a coming-of-age story about feminine spirituality, racial tension, and maneuvering through love, loss and change. The Secret Life of Bees is a great choice for women’s book clubs, and has the potential to promote lively discussions. Use these book club discussion questions to guide your group through Sue Monk Kidd’s touching tale.
1. Were you surprised to learn that T. Ray used to be different, that once he truly loved Deborah? How do you think Deborah’s leaving affected him? Did it shed any light on why T. Ray was so cruel and abusive to Lily?
2. Had you ever heard of “kneeling on grits”? What qualities did Lily have that allowed her to survive, endure, and eventually thrive, despite T. Ray?
3. Who is the queen bee in this story?
4. Lily’s relationship to her dead mother was complex, ranging from guilt to idealization, to hatred, to acceptance. What happens to a daughter when she discovers her mother once abandoned her? Is Lily right-would people generally rather die than forgive? Was it harder for Lily to forgive her mother or herself?
5. Lily grew up without her mother, but in the end she finds a house full of them. Have you ever had a mother figure in your life who wasn’t your true mother? Have you ever had to leave home to find home?
6. What compelled Rosaleen to spit on the three men’s shoes? What does it take for a person to stand up with conviction against brutalizing injustice? What did you like best about Rosaleen?
7. Had you ever heard of the Black Madonna? What do you think of the story surrounding the Black Madonna in the novel? How would the story be different if it had been a picture of a white Virgin Mary? Do you know women whose lives have been deepened or enriched by a connection to an empowering Divine Mother?
8. Why is it important that women come together? What did you think of the “Calendar Sisters” and the Daughters of Mary? How did being in the company of this circle of females transform Lily?
9. May built a wailing wall to help her come to terms with the pain she felt. Even though we don’t have May’s condition, do we also need “rituals,” like wailing walls, to help us deal with our grief and suffering?
10. How would you describe Lily and Zach’s relationship? What drew them together? Did you root for them to be together?
11. Project into the future. Does Lily ever see her father again? Does she become a beekeeper? A writer? What happens to Rosaleen? What happens to Lily and Zach? Who would Zach be today?
More Discussion Questions
- How would you describe Lily’s feelings about her mother? Did they change throughout the novel? How did hearing that her mother left her affect her perception of her mother?
- Do you believe T-Ray’s account of what happened when Lily’s mother died?
- Did your opinion of T-Ray change when August told Lily about how much he used to love her mother? Does Deborah’s abandonment explain or excuse T-Ray?
- Do you agree with Lily that people would rather die than forgive? Does she forgive her mother? T-Ray? Herself?
- What do the bees mean to the story? What is “the secret life of bees?”
- Do you think race was portrayed realistically in The Secret Life of Bees? What do you think Sue Monk Kidd was saying about race in this novel?
- Why did Rosaleen spit on the men’s shoes? What are the ways the characters in the novel confront injustice? How do you think we should deal with injustice? Do these kinds of prejudices still exist today?
- What was your reaction to Lily’s relationship with Zach? What do you think happened to them in the future?
- Talk about the sisters. Who was your favorite? Do we all need a wailing wall, like May? Why do you think June was cold toward Lily? How would you describe August?
- What role did the Black Madonna play in their community? What do you think about the legend of the Black Madonna?
- Rate The Secret Life of Bees on a scale of 1 to 5.