In The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, a wooden sculpture the novel’s characters call “black Mary” lives in the family’s house and figures prominently in the story. This is the introductory description of black Mary by the narrator in the story.
In the corner was a carving of a woman nearly three feet tall. She was one of those figures that had been leaned out from the front of a ship in olden times…
She was black as she could be, twisted like driftwood from being out in the weather, her face a map of all the storms and journeys she’d been through. Her right arm was raised, as if she was pointing the way, except her fingers were closed in a fist. It gave her a serious look, like she could straighten you out if necessary.
…She had a faded red heart painted on her breast… She was a mix of mighty and mild all in one…
Later in the novel, the story of black Mary is told by the matriarch of the family.
Laying her Bible in her chair, August said, “It’s been a while since we’ve told the story of Our Lady of Chains, and since we have visitors who’ve never heard the story of our statue, I thought we’d tell it again.”
…“Really, it’s good for all of us to hear it again,” she said. “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
…August pulled her chair close to the statue of black Mary and sat facing us. When she began, it didn’t sound like August talking at all but like somebody talking through her, someone from another time and place…
“Well,” she said, “back in the times of slaves, when the people were beaten down and treated like property, they prayed every night and every day for deliverance.
“On the islands near Charleston they would go to the praise house and sing and pray, and every single time someone would ask the Lord to send them rescue. To send them consolation. To send them freedom.”
…”One day a slave named Obadiah was loading bricks onto a boat that would sail down the Ashley River, when he saw something washed up on the bank. Coming closer he saw it was a wooden figure of a woman. Her body was growing out of a block of wood, a black woman with her arm lifted up and her fist balled up.”
…“Obadiah pulled that figure out of the water and struggled to get her upright. Then he remembered how they’d asked the Lord to send them rescue. To send them consolation. To send them freedom. Obadiah knew that the Lord had sent this figure, but he didn’t know who she was.
“He knelt down in the marsh mud before her and heard her voice speak plain as day in his heart. She said, ‘It’s all right. I’m here. I’ll be taking care of you now.’”
…“Obadiah tried to pick up the waterlogged woman who God had sent to take care of them, but she was too heavy, so he went and got two more slaves, and between them they carried her to the praise house and set her on the hearth.
“By the time the next Sunday came, everyone had heard about the statue washing up from the river, how it had spoken to Obadiah. The praise house was full of people spilling out the door and sitting on the window ledges. Obadiah told them he knew the Lord God had sent her, but he didn’t know who she was.”
…“Now, the oldest of the slaves was a woman named Pearl. She walked with a stick and when she spoke, everyone listened. She got to her feet and said, ‘This here is the mother of Jesus.’
“Everyone knew the mother of Jesus was named Mary, and that she’d seen suffering of every kind. That she was strong and constant and had a mother’s heart. And there she was, sent to them on the same waters that had brought them here in chains. It seemed to them she knew everything they suffered.”
…“And so,” August said, “the people cried and danced and clapped their hands. They went one at a time and touched their hands to her chest, wanting to grab on to the solace in her heart.
“They did this every Sunday in the praise house, dancing and touching her chest, and eventually they painted a red heart on her breast so people would have a heart to touch.
“Our Lady filled their hearts with fearlessness and whispered to them plans of escape. The bold ones fled, finding their way north, and those who didn’t lived with a raised fist in their hearts. And if it ever grew weak, they would only have to touch her heart again.
“She grew so powerful she became known even to the master. One day he hauled her off on a wagon and chained her in the carriage house. But then, without any human help, she escaped during the night and made her way back to the praise house. The master chained her in the barn fifty times, and fifty times she loosed the chains and went home. Finally he gave up and let her stay there.”
…“The people called her Our Lady of Chains. They called her that not because she wore chains…
…”They called her Our Lady of Chains because she broke them.”