By Cindy Lyles
Margaret Walker’s central figure in her poem "Kissie Lee" often gains notoriety for her “likker”-holding, knife-stabbing, gun-shooting ways. The legendary bad woman is well known in the ballad for being the “Meanest mama you ever seen.” Yet, the poem’s narrative voice reveals that Kissie Lee “warn't always tough.” So who was Kissie Lee prior to her bad woman transformation, and what sparked her change?
Before choosing to radically morph into a woman who would instinctively harm a person for “crossing” her, Kissie Lee was “Allus gettin' beat by a no-good shine / An' allus quick to cry and whine.” These lines expose the other side of Kissie Lee, the side who was a victim of abuse, a recipient of violence. Whether for lack of courage or a lack of “know how,” she remained defenseless until her grandmother shared her own tales of self-defense. Only after this pivotal moment does the rebel bad woman that the poem chronicles emerge.
The grandmother’s discourse that prompts Kissie Lee’s behavioral shift indeed inspires a grandchild to defend herself, but her “talk” does so much more. The latter’s autobiographical reflections also function as a passing of oral history from one generation to the next, thus calling to mind and preserving the African and African diasporic tradition of storytelling and familial legacies. With this in mind, perhaps, it is not solely Grammaw being tired of Kissie Lee’s whining or a weary Kissie that motivates her change. Instead, by sharing her story about confronting wrongdoers, Grammaw empowers Kissie Lee to take on a tough demeanor.
With her poem “Kissie Lee,” – a tale of men, liquor, violence, and a strong, renegade woman – Walker relies on and extends African and African American oral traditions.
Related: Margaret Walker Week