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A Reader's Guide

The Wind Done Gone

Questions for Discussion

1. The Wind Done Gone is a novel written in the form of a first-person diary. How would you describe Cynara's voice? How does her language evolve over the course of the book?

2. Mammy is a very complex character: a lover, friend, mother, nurse, and possible murderer. To whom does she give life? Who suspects that she is a murderer? Who is she thought to have murdered? What is the nature of her relationship with Lady? How does the relationship change? What is the nature of her relationship with Other? How does this relationship change? What does Garlic mean when he states over her grave that she is the true mistress of the house?

3. Vengeance is an important theme in this novel. The act of writing a parody of another novel can be understood as an act of literary vengeance. Which character achieves the most explicit and sinister act of literal vengeance?

4. In Southern English the word "tata" is used to mean both "thank you" and "you're welcome," particularly between people of unequal status. It is also means "breast." Tata is the name of the plantation house in which Cynara is born. What does the house look like? Who designed it? What does the house Tata suggest about the nature of African-American intellect?

5. The Wind Done Gone makes significant use of a variety of homonyms (words that sound alike but mean different things). In the very first paragraph we have the word "tiers," evoking the word "tears," and the word "peridot," evoking the word "parody." Here Mammy has a first name, Pallas. How does this name enhance our sense that the people of Tata are living in the breast of Mammy?

6. The cakewalk was a plantation dance in which blacks competed against other blacks to ridicule and scorn the way plantation aristocrats danced their quadrilles. With this in mind, how does the fact that R. gives Cynara a cake foreshadow the notion that Other is part black? Where else is the word "cakewalk" mentioned in the novel?

7. What makes the Congressman attractive to Cynara? What vow does she break to be with him? What impact would the relationship with Cynara have on the Congressman's career?

8. Cynara's relationship with R. begins when he purchases her as a teenager. In what sense can she be described as a sexually abused child? What evidence do we have that Cynara is emotionally damaged by the relationship? Why does Cynara contrive for R. to meet Other? How does her competition with Other for R.'s affections parallel her competition with Other for Mammy's affections? In what significant way are the relationships different? Why does she marry R.? Why does she leave him? When does Cynara begin to be aware that R. is old?

9. Beauty and Dreamy Gentleman are both presented as gay characters. They are also two of the few white characters who "stay" white. What does this suggest? In what sense does The Wind Done Gone tend to erase the color line?

10. At the end of The Wind Done Gone, a baby is born. Who is the child's father? How is this known? Who is the child's biological mother? Who raises the child as her own? What story in the Hebrew Bible does this bring to mind?

11. If the novel Gone With the Wind suggests that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, that the proper role of the black mother is to tend a white charge, and that black politicians are inferior, how far does The Wind Done Gone go in rebuking and scorning these claims?

12. Mealy Mouth is presented as a multiple sadistic murderer in The Wind Done Gone. In Gone With the Wind, Melanie is presented as the epitome of a sweet, lily-white lady. How is the portrayal of Mealy Mouth a comment on the complicity of Southern ladies in the evils of slavery?

13. The Congressman is not the only black man in Cynara's life. How does Cynara's changing understanding of Garlic's power influence her attraction to the Congressman? Who is Cynara's first black male suitor? What is his claim on her heart?

14. Cynara is an herb finder, a loan maker, a songwriter, a diarist, a lover, a friend, and finally a mother. In each of these roles she is uniquely vulnerable and uniquely gifted. In which role is she most successful?

15. How does Cynara's experience as a servant influence her dealings with servants and tradespeople?

16. The scope of Cynara's world extends beyond the American South. Atlanta is not the dominant city. To what other cities does Cynara travel? What city influences her most? How is the geographical position of this city significant?

17. Throughout the book runs the theme that things or beings that look the same can be very, very different: Cynara, Other; emeralds, peridots, green glass; killing herbs, curing herbs. In what sense does this theme compel the reader to play close attention?

18. The great political tragedy of Gone With the Wind is the South's loss of the Civil War. The great political tragedy of The Wind Done Gone is the end of what?

19. What does the butterfly on Cynara's cheek signify?

20. If you were told that there is an African-American tradition of coded language, how would you connect this novel to that tradition? What does it mean for a book to talk back to another book?

About the Cakewalk

The cakewalk was originally a plantation dance. But it's more than a dance: it's a sly parody of European quadrilles created by enslaved African Americans. From the very beginning it has black and white in it. Blacks observed whites and created a commentary, with dance, based on their observations. What becomes immediately interesting, complicated, and especially relevant to this discussion is the fact that in many cases, white folks living on great plantations misunderstood the dance to be an imitation of European dance. Many Southern aristocrats perceived the cakewalk to be a gross or vulgar mimicry, which ultimately they found amusing, as an illustration of black inferiority. In truth, the cakewalk was a subtle and critical commentary on the differences between the aesthetics of black and white dance styles. In time, plantation owners began to encourage cakewalk contests or competitions between black dancers. The winning dancer or dance pair were rewarded with a cake, so to win the contest was to "take the cake."

Later, the cakewalk moved from the plantation to the city via vaudeville, where it was performed in minstrel shows, often by white dancers in blackface. Then the dance moved back into the black community, transformed by blacks who further exaggerated the steps, adding an additional layer of commentary (responsive to the white minstrel performances) and another level to the rapidly evolving performance.

Thus, the phrase "That takes the cake" comes from the cakewalk experience and means "That wins." The phrase "a piece of cake" is also thought to derive from this dance. Connoting the expectation of winning in the future, it is a possible reduction of the statement "In the future I will win and get a piece of cake."

But who wins? What is rewarded? Most European social dancing is performed upright, with the body held rigid. Most of the movement is in the feet. In many of these dances, participants are face to face. In contrast, face-to-face dancing is not part of any African tradition, and in West Africa, many dance movements originate in the abdomen and the hips. Thus, the chalk line walk, as the cakewalk was called in its early life, sometimes involved dancers who walked in a straight line while balancing buckets of water on their heads to mimic what they perceived to be the excessive rigidity in their so-called masters. However, subversive additions that transformed the very nature of the dance were added. These included exaggerated bending backwards, dropping the hands at the wrist, and high kicking, all while maintaining an element of rigidity.

In performing this dance, a parody of plantation masters' aristocratic manners that incorporated loose leg movements and abdominal and hip action as well as rigidity, face-to-face elements, and side-by-side elements, early black dancers asserted that "I can do what you do and do it better, maintaining pattern and rigidity"; "I can do something you can't do — achieve a level of looseness"; and (by far the most complex statement embedded in the dance) "I can acknowledge that I both understand and have mastered your aesthetics while baffling you with a coded expression of my own. I can make a fool of you and get you to pay me with pastry. Now don't that take the cake?"

It is worth noting that minstrel shows — shows in which whites put on blackface and danced and sang "like" blacks — are in themselves subversive. With the minstrel show, white dancers assert to black dancers, "I can do what you do and do it better. I can be black better than you can." Whether or not this is judged to be a winning performance, whether it takes the cake, will depend on who's doing the judging.

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