White Doves at Morning: The Rise Above Repression in Reconstruction America
[(This essay dated June 16, 2009) In this essay, MW analyses the oppression of blacks during Reconstruction and the attempts by the oppressed to rise above as seen in White Doves at Morning by James Lee Burke.]


The Civil War and its effects on American society in terms of slavery are not uncommon to most Americans, but few realize the struggle for freedom that blacks during the Reconstruction Era. Blacks had to fight for the freedom that was supposed to be bestowed upon them. In White Doves at Morning, Burke analyses this through an historical fiction, through the characters of Flower Jamison, a beautiful, young slave girl; and those that try to help the oppressed, such as Willie Burke, a young man against slavery, and Abigail Downing, a young Northern abolitionist. Through these characters, Burke portrays American society through the eyes of the inferior during this time period using his own family history and other historical references.

In this novel, Burke portrays the slaves through the character of Flower Jamison. Flower is the illegitimate slave daughter of a rich plantation owner who has denied all relationship to the girl. She is a strong independent young woman, but due to her race, she is abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by the whites. Flower is abandoned by the father who denies that Flower is in anyway related to him. Flower is attacked and raped by the Knights of the White Camellia. Flower embodies the slave who defies the rules of their society and uses the emancipation to their self-empowering. Flower uses her newly gained freedom to raise herself up and to help other blacks around her. This passage from the novel demonstrates Flower's inquisitiveness as to the standings of slaves:

“St. Paul wrote down that slaves is s'pposed to do what the master say?” she asked.
“He's telling us to put our faith in the Lord. Sometime the Lord's voice comes to us through those who know more aboutthe world than a simple servant such as myself,” he replied, bowing slightly.
“How come we cain't learn from the Bible ourself? How come it got to be read to us”
“I guess I'm not really qualified to talk about that,” he said.
“I guess you ain't,” she said (67).

As this passage shows, Flower wonders why she is not allowed to read the Bible herself. But really, she is wondering the reason for blacks being told what whites want them to hear. In her argument with the homilist, who is a slave-owning, free man of color, she explains that he is no better than the whites by owning slaves. The tone of this passage shows her contempt for any slave-owning person. It also shows her desire to figure out the reasons for her oppression. Flower symbolizes the true free black. She is a symbol for the freedom that many blacks only dream of, but do not have the initiative or courage to obtain.

Flower also shows maturity in her character as the novel progresses. As the war begins to devastate the social standings of America, Flower learns that she has more control over her own life than she believes.

“Instead, she had simply come to realize that the worst in her life was probably behind her, and adversity and struggle and powerlessness were about to become the lot of the plantation owners who had seemed anointed at birth and placed beyond the reach of the laws of mortality and chance and accident” (216)

Flower becomes more confident in herself and in her own strength. She no longer follows the path that others lay before her, but begins to make her own path. She begins to rise above the oppression that she faces. Flower shows her desire to improve herself throughout the novel, such as in the following quote: “I'm fixing to be anything I want, do anything I want, go anywhere I want and I mean in the whole wide world. How many people can say that about themselves?” (221). The tone of this line again shows her contempt towards those who believe she cannot make anything of herself.

No matter how hard Flower tries to overcome her inferiority, there is always one thing that holds her back, and that is her father. Ira Jamison, the owner of a large plantation, and later the warden of the convict labor, is the only one that holds Flower down. Flower tries to ignore him and hate him for all the bad things he has done, but cannot bring herself to do it, and when he begs for her forgiveness, she asks herself why now, only to answer her own question, “Because legally he can't own you anymore. This way he can, a voice answered (365). This internal conflict is a driving force for many of Flower's actions. Flower tries to gain the love and respect of her father, and yet when he comes to her, she realizes that it is for his own self-gain and has no positive influence on her life.

Also, Flower is a role-model for others around her, and helps to raise others out of the oppression. Flower helps to open a school for ex-slaves and succeeds in teaching hundreds of blacks to read and write. Not only is she directly teaching them, but she is teaching them to follow in her path, a path of goodness and self-empowerment to make themselves superior to their current status. Flower is said to have continued teaching until the age of 79, affecting the lives of hundreds and this shows how a determined young woman can go on to become influential in the lives of many.

However, Flower is not the only character to fight for the freedom of blacks. Burke also uses a white Abolitionist to portray the struggle for slave/black rights. Abigail Downing is a Northern white woman who struggles to fight for the abolishment of slavery and for the establishment of slave rights after emancipation. Abigail puts aside her own well-being and safety in order to help those she feels are more deserving than she is. In one instance, she is almost caught, along with Flower and a gentleman who helps them smuggle escaped slaves down the river. “Don't you people do this again” (182). This is the only thing the sergeant in charge has to say to them as they pass. It is assumed that he understands what they are really doing, but he is kind enough to overlook the fact. Abigail also faces attacks by White Leaguers, who intend to attack her at her home, only to find that she is not home. They also attempt to attack her reputation through the newspaper, yet none of these do anything to hurt her. Abigail is another strong woman who stands by her causes and is not easily swayed by threats and personal attacks. Abigail is said to have continued her work in fighting for other's rights through Native Americans and later the Women's Rights Movement of the 1890s before dying fighting with the striking miners of Ludlow, Colorado.

So, although someone may be put down by others who have been named superior, they can fight for themselves and others to help make their society more of an egalitarian society. Flower Jamison became her own independent woman by being confident in herself and not letting anyone tell her otherwise. Abigail Downing fought for the freedom of others and was able to make a difference in the lives of those she fought for. By being determined and strong, these two made their differences in the world and rose above the oppression of Reconstruction Era America.

(MW 2009)


To The Bright and Shining Sun: From Darkness to Light

[(Essay dated June 16, 2009) In this essay, MW analyses the power of oneself to rise above low social standings such as those in the poverty-stricken 1960s Cumberland range as explored by James Lee Burke in To the Bright and Shining Sun)


“The hollow was the type of place the state tourist bureau would have photographed and put on the cover of a vacation brochure to advertise the scenic loveliness of the Cumberland Mountains and the simple life of the mountain people except that long streams of garbage were strewn down from the front of the cabins into the creek, wrecked carssome upside down and gutted by fire–lay in front yards...” (13).

Imagine living a life in complete filth, without the everyday essentials that we are so accustomed to. Imagine a life in which you, a 17 year old, are working full time to bring in the bulk of your family's food. Imagine having the same meal every night because you cannot afford to buy anything else. This is the life of Perry Woodson Hatfield James., a young man growing up in the poverty-stricken area of the Cumberland range in the 1960s. Perry is one of the many coal miners in his community that are out of work due to the operators' association fighting against the actions of the United Mine Workers. Perry has the choice between bettering himself or being stuck in this town that is not going to ever get better. This journey of self-improvement is the main conflict of the entire novel, much larger than the physical conflicts that occur throughout.

Perry James is a young illiterate man who lives his childhood in bliss. As a young man, Perry begins to become disillusioned by the life that he and his family are forced to live. He begins to question whether the coal mining life will survive much longer and whether there is another way that he could better provide for his family. His journey out of the darkness of the poor Cumberland Mountains to the light of the post-industrial world of Cincinnati allows the reader to gain much respect and yet sympathy towards him as they watch how he struggles to fight back against the lifestyle that keeps trying to drag him down.

“Because it was Saturday and the men were in town to drink up all the money they had, their women sat with children in junker cars parked along the curb, and they would remain there all day and into the night, breast feeding, changing diapers, and rocking the infants to sleep until the men walked unsteadily back to the cars, telling how Jake McGoffin or Wilson Pruitt was cut up in the pool room; and then they would drive the fifteen or twenty miles back into the mountains” (26).

This passage clearly shows the destructive and senseless lifestyle in which Perry lives. The men waste the money that could be spent on food on alcohol and their wives are put in the cars to stay there and watch the children while they get drunk. This society is one of self-destruction and Perry realizes that this is the lifestyle he will be living one day if he doesn’t get out of this area. But Perry faces problems such as the striking of the coal miners, his father’s death, and his vengeance for those who killed his father.

The coal miners strike has a devastating effect on Perry and his family. The union will not allow workers to return to work, causing them to be without pay and to struggle to live. Since Perry provides the greatest income to his family, his being out of work causes the family to lose their credit at the store and to be without food until he finds a job. The Job Corps implemented by President Lyndon B. Johnson seems to be the only chance Perry has to improve himself. As the woman at the employment office put it, “You just give yourself a chance for a little better opportunity than your parents had” (33). This is exactly what Perry had hoped for. The Job Corps provided him the opportunity to improve himself, and he does by learning to read and write, and is close to earning an apprenticeship, when his father nearly killed in an attack on the union meeting.


The United Mine Workers meeting is bombed by three men, killing several people and fatally wounded many more, including Perry’s father. This event draws Perry back into the darkness of his old life. Perry returns home in order to help his family, while ruining his own chances at getting out for good. This return to his origins is the climax of the internal conflict between Perry’s past and his future. As he states before leaving the Job Corps, “I told you this is the best chance I ever had at anything, but I got no choice” (84), meaning that he realizes he is leaving the only thing that could help him improve his situation and he regrets it.

His father’s death also had negative effects on his personality. Perry becomes bitter and resentful towards the mine operators and anyone working for them. Perry wants revenge for what they have done to his family and will stop at nothing to achieve it. This vengeful Perry allows the reader to understand how his environment has transformed him. The reader can see that his raising in the hollow has allowed him to see everything through eyes of violence and hatred. Yet, when presented with the chance to take his revenge, he realizes that this will not help him. This scene helps us to see how Perry rises above his past and looks toward a brighter future. By taking revenge he knows he will be stuck in the same life he is living now, but by turning the gun on the J.W.s and Bee, he has allowed for himself to escape from following in their tracks and has ensure that the path to the light is still there for him

So, in conclusion, one has the chance to improve their situation no matter what the circumstances might be. Perry is a great example of this as he struggles to rise above the darkness and destruction of the lifestyle he lives and makes his journey towards the “bright and shining sun” of Cincinnati and self-improvement.
(MW 2009)