Strength as Disease Bordering on Evil

  • Trudier Harris


If any strong black female character in African American literature lives up to the stereotype of being destructive and domineering, then that character is Cleo Jericho Judson in Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy (1948). Not only does Cleo dominate, silence, and emasculate her husband, but she turns her daughter into a mousy, obedient drudge and destroys the marriages of two of her three sisters; the third sister’s husband ends up in a mental institution. Throughout all her destructive and psychologically damaging behavior, however, Cleo is never effectively challenged in her position of authority. Her husband, her daughter, and her sisters understand, accept, welcome, and/or tolerate her will to power and her will to be first and foremost in their lives. Her refusal to consider their wishes, combined with her absolute refusal to allow any opposition, makes clearer than any other portrait in the literature the pathological nature of the strength of some strong black women characters. The strength that may be excused or understood in some instances has, with Cleo, metamorphosed into a disease that feeds on the perceived weakness or lack of decision-making ability of those around her. Cleo is an insatiable cancer, and those around her keep willingly giving her new cells on which to feed. She feeds ravenously and is consistently effective in suppressing any tinges of guilt or other expressions of conscience. She masks her emotions by taming down within herself any urge to show sustained affection.


Black Woman American Literature Christmas Tree African American Literature Piano Lesson 
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  1. 1.
    Dorothy West, The Living Is Easy (1948; Rpt. New York: The Feminist Press, 1982), p. 4. Subsequent references to the novel appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar

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© Trudier Harris 2001

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  • Trudier Harris

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