The brownish autumn color of a dying Georgia cotton field was the inspiration for Brownfield Copeland's naming. This character, presented in Alice Walker's novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), is the son of Grange and Margaret Copeland. His life, like his name, symbolizes the decay, death, and violence that often trails behind human resignation to hopelessness.
When Brownfield is fifteen, his father abandons him and his mother commits suicide. The young boy sets out on a journey that leads him to a life of sex and irresponsibility in the juke joint world of his father's lover, Josie, and her daughter, Lorene. After years of scandalous living, Brownfield meets and marries Mem, Josie's niece. Their relationship is a good one, at first. But because of Brownfield's inability to break out of an agricultural system that supports the virtual enslavement of tenant farmers, their relationship sours. Brownfield grows enraged and brutal toward his wife and eventually kills her. Unlike his father, who acknowledges his wrongs and attempts to make amends, Brownfield refuses to accept responsibility for anything he does and pays for that refusal with his life.
Brownfield is a vindictive, cruel, and abusive man. There is no doubt that he is a poor representation of African American manhcod. But contrary to the negative criticism the novel has received, Walker's artistic treatment of this character is revealing. Without overstating her argument, Walker presents the condition of a soul entrapped by racism and self-defeat that is both horrifying and painfully realistic.
Debra Walker King