The setting of Mississippi in the Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love suggests the themes of
absurdity and the grotesque subjects present in the fiction of O’Connor and Faulkner. It could
bring to mind the mental pictures of lynchings and good ol’ boys swigging beer and beating their wives. The book could have discussed the dark history of slavery and sexism peculiar to the Southern United States. Instead, it allows the ridiculous element existent in all human relationships and cultures to be examined with humor and candor.
Most would find the manner in which the narrator speaks raunchy, but it is actually no different from the conversations one could hear in a beauty shop or family kitchen full of female relations and friends. Women tend to say and share things with each other that would never be brought up in mixed company. The book’s bawdy dialogues are probably meant to be helpful to all within a reading distance.
There was a part of the pageant tradition that the Queens liked, such as being on display and admired, but they did not like being graded and ranked by someone else, much like sweet potatoes. On the other hand, sweet potatoes are perennials; once they are planted in the ground, they come back every year. Sweet potatoes are also filling and nutritious, very much like the Sweet Potato Queens aimed to be to their selves, friends and families.
The Queens wanted to also be desired like Tammy in the 1957 movie Tammy and the Bachelor. Tammy was from Mississippi and she brought forth desire in an educated, well paid bachelor. The Queens never forgot Tammy and even as they became older they desired the crowning achievement accomplished and given to beauty queens for being erotically appealing. The Queens’ knew they had the power and ability to crown themselves and so they did. Envy of established Queens’ by the “Wannabees” was understood to mean that the envious had good sense because they wanted to be loved and honored too. I think Tammy may have appreciated the admiration of women more than men and the love in the title is for women.
Many of the men in Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love fit the stereotype of men as brainless animals who are led by their sexual urges. According to Tammy, males could be controlled by manipulation and an exaggerated “three magic words.” Still men were expected to satisfy physical and financial needs of women as best they could. It is possible that the “Redheaded Man,” whose hair corresponded with the color of earth in Mississippi, was possibly not knowledgeable in sexual matters, and expected Tammy to show him how to please a woman. If so, he was probably very disappointed and disappointing.