You Know Better by Tina McElroy Ansa

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise
— Maya Angelou

There is a terrific scene in the film, As Good As It Gets in which Jack Nicholson turns to his love interest, Helen Hunt, and quietly mutters: “You make me want to be a better man.” With this simple, understated line, he delivers the very words every woman wants to hear: that a man she loves reveres and respects her to such a degree that he wishes to better himself for her sake.

The respect (and self-respect) in question, which is the necessary glue for most relationships -— romantic and familial -— is the root of most ties that bind. Often, though, ties can blind.

In the early hours of the morning, a worried grandmother, Lily Pines, drives around the small town of Mulberry, Georgia, in search of her teenage granddaughter, LaShawndra, worried that the girl, lost and confused in her own world (and the world at large) is in serious trouble -— and so begins Tina McElroy Ansa’s novel of a family in search of itself and those who love them in You Know Better.

Lily, the rebellious, educated woman who was raised with ’60s sensibilities is the cornerstone of the Pines family. However, on this particular night, she fears that her family is falling apart at the seams. Her “hoochie mama” granddaughter whose sole desire is to dance in music videos and sleep around with any “homey” who pays her attention is nowhere to be found, and Lily’s daughter (LaShawndra’s mother) Sandra, a successful realtor, has more important things to worry about.

In an Dickensonian fashion, the Pines women dissect their feelings to three spirits—the ghosts of troubles present -— who accompany them on their soul-searching journeys.

Ansa has often emphasized the significance of family in her writing. At a recent panel discussion in Washington DC, she spoke of her infinite interest in family relationships, and claimed: “Folks, we’re in trouble. Our children are in huge trouble. We let our children go.” You Know Better was written with the intention of addressing the current “lost generation” of African–American youths.

Addressing a population of mainly African-American women, Ansa went on to claim that: “We went from a generation that thought we could do anything to having children who don’t think they have a future.”

Lily Pines may have gotten pregnant early, but she managed to marry the father of her child, and provide a healthy, stable environment for her daughter Sandra, while establishing herself as a significant member of the community. Sandra, who in turn also became pregnant (with LaShawndra), never married. Shawn, LaShawndra’s father, refused to even acknowledge the fact that he was the father, leaving Sandra (who had named her daughter in honor of Shawn), not only to resent him, but also her own daughter, for burdening her with the pain of single-motherhood.

Success, therefore, is defined in monetary terms. Sandra drives a Mercedes, dresses fashionably, and makes a respectable income, and is currently being courted by the local pastor who “is a fine man.” Embittered by her past relationship with Shawn and LaShawndra’s wayward ways, she seeks financial independence and respect, which she is slowly but surely attaining as a result of the pastor’s courtship, while trying to distance herself from LaShawndra, who she ashamedly admits, wants to be nothing but “a little coochie.”

LaShawndra, the “hoochie mama”, meanwhile, is trying to get as far away from Mulberry as possible. She is dressed to the nines, and trying to hitch a ride to Atlanta to join in “Freaknik” (a sex-and-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll bash), when she receives a lift from the spirit of Miss Elizabeth Dryer, a former hoochie mama herself, and unravels her latest troubles and her need to escape as far away as possible from the scene of the crime. Referring to herself as a “ho,” and “freak,” she offends her guardian angel, who reprimands her: “You call everybody and yourself a ‘ho’ or ‘nigga’ or ‘bitch’ like it’s nothing . . . it is something and I can’t stand it.” Ansa cleverly weaves dialogue in such a manner that represents the different vernaculars of the times. Lily speaks as one expects from an upstanding pillar of community; Sandra prefers a polished, potatoes-in-your-mouth English with a dash of French expressions tossed in the mixed for effect; and LaShawndra, as with her generation, intentionally confuses verbs and tenses, and uses street-smart expressions which serve only to shock. Though the book is largely devoted to the Pines women, the men in their lives loom large in the distance. Ansa’s writing often reflects the generation of African-American women who, as she states, “put getting a man ahead of their children.” Sandra is representative of the post-baby boomers, many of whom had children out of wedlock, and decided to fill the void by succeeding in their careers, and finding men who often qualify more as boyfriends rather than potential step-fathers to their children.

However, their need for the love of men is unquestionable. Lily constantly moons over her ex-husband Charles whom she divorced twice but still misses. As she wanders around town in the middle of the night looking for her granddaughter, asking “What kind of trouble is my granddaughter in? . . . Can I save her?” she remembers Charles fondly, and can’t wait to get home to phone him.

Sandra has finally placed her feet on solid ground by falling in love with a pastor whom she wants to marry. And LaShawndra, who has been “kicking it”(having sex) since she was twelve, has seen her share of flings and decided to live up to the title of “ho”. Having had no solid relationship as a role model (her grandmother is divorced; her mother never married and had a slew of men come and go), she doesn’t know better. Yet, she hopes “that I might get me one special man of my own one day.”

Though definitely Southern in tone, You Know Better delves into core problems currently plaguing the African-American community across the country. Never mind that Mulberry is a small-town; the issues addressed are rampant from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles.

A few questions are important to ask: Ansa doesn’t fully engage us in the reasons that these women are having children at such a young age. Why are children having children? Abortion is briefly introduced but not fully explained. What about the men and the young boys? Ansa recently spoke about her wish to organize an “army of women to start saving our children.” Don’t these children need fathers, and isn’t the frequent absence of the father a major reason that these youths have become so lost?

Ansa’s prose is clever, funny, and touching, all at once. The spiritual aspect of her writing is more an incident of her love of folklore and tradition rather than religion. However, the role of God, and her unshakable faith in God, is clearly apparent. She has cleverly carved a niche for herself as a strong and respected voice of the African American community, earning a place among literary greats such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Her popularity, however, has also crossed racial barriers and it’s safe to say that You Know Better should enjoy a devoted following as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club has.

The bottom line, and there’s always a bottom line with Ansa’s stories, “Do the right thing.”