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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy
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Guilt and the Search for Justice

The protagonist in “Tomorrow Is Too Far” felt guilt not only for bringing about the death of her brother, but also for sowing the seed of enmity between the two elder women in her life: her mother and her grandmother. The Chambers Dictionary defines guilt as “the state of having done wrong: sin, sinfulness, or consciousness of it; the painful or uncomfortable emotion or state of mind caused by the awareness or feeling of having done wrong; the state of having broken a law; liability to a penalty (legal).” The operative idea in this definition is the awareness of having done wrong and feeling pain as a result. This pain creates a state of isolation from community, the feeling of no longer being an active member who contributes to the common good. P.S. Greenspan argues that “guilt ascribes something negative to the self and is itself a negative state of feeling. It is not itself a virtue—nor is feeling it or having a tendency to feel

it-but rather a requirement of imperfect virtue and a goad to future

virtuous action.”54 By imperfect virtue, Greenspan means one that allows subjects to admit room for improvement in their lives. Imperfect virtue has its own moral merit; it is a necessary condition for virtue. The necessity of the feeling of guilt is an ideal, not a practical matter.

In “Tomorrow Is Too Far,” the protagonist’s voice of conscience recalls for her the absence of moral ideals in her life; it recalls how she lied to her mother when she said that it was Grandmama who urged Nonso to climb “to the highest branch of the avocado tree to show her how much of a man he was. Then she frightened him—it was a joke, you assured your mother - by telling him that there was a snake.”55 The immediate effect of the lie was that her mother accused Grandmama of killing Nonso, calling her a “stupid fetish African woman.”56 The protagonist, it might be argued, avenged herself on the “fetish African” tradition that did not consider her body worthy of being taken seriously. Through her own mother—the African American woman—she condemns Grandmama, the guardian of the African tradition that failed to accord her rights. But her action symbolizes the lack of solidarity between these generations of women. She ultimately acted against her own self-interest by destroying the possibility of solidarity between them. The appreciation of the seriousness of her moral lapse is, in line with Greenspan’s thinking, an imperfect virtue; it might lead to a better life. More importantly, it reveals the nobility of her character as Greenspan argues about guilt:

The notion of a noble character seems to include a kind of heightened sensitivity to one’s own moral wrongs. We sometimes think of this as a nobler ideal than moral purity, for that matter—so that imperfect comes out as better in a way than perfect virtue.57

The protagonist’s recognition of guilt is at the same time a recognition of her failure to pursue a perfect life. Guilt plays an important role in our selfestimation. Guilt reveals our concerns about people, society, and the common good; it is a compass that seeks to redirect us to our sense of community and fairness, and it reveals our scale of values. According to William Neblett:

our capacity to feel guilt is also intimately tied, not only to respect for others, but also to self-respect: Self-respect, in the presence of moral transgression, yields self-disapprobation [and] self-disapprobation, as a feeling, is felt as guilt. In other words, the feeling of guilt is genuinely moral to the extent to which it is self-reflexive.58

Given that the awareness of guilt reveals the degree to which we think about ourselves especially in relation to others, it is arguably correlative to our feelings of empathy for others and our responsibility to our world. We reflexively put ourselves in the position of others and imagine the pain that our action might have caused them. For Neblett:

morality makes it incumbent upon us to feel guilt, and morality provides warranted ways for our feelings of guilt to be “discharged,” i.e., provides for and permits us to redeem ourselves. Moreover, it not only provides for redemption, it demands it.59

In “Tomorrow Is Too Far,” the guilt felt by the protagonist leads her toward self-reflexivity and ultimately to seek redemption by making a visit to the place of her transgression in Nigeria. She seeks to realign her relationship to society and thus redeem herself. Although her brother’s death makes her direct appeal to him impossible, we understand that she can still make amends by forgiving herself, and she does so because she has adopted the position of others; she has understood the anger and disappointment and pain they would likely feel, and has implicitly asked for forgiveness. The self-reflexive nature of guilt makes it possible for us to forgive ourselves. We do so on behalf of society, and we feel that our fractured relationship with society has been realigned. The idea of fairness asks us to be self-reflexive, to think about ourselves in relation to others, or others in relation to us. The protagonist shows us the lead in this regard; she shows society the way to fairness and human flourishing.

 
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