The Secret Life of Bees demonstrates the irrationality of racism by not only portraying black and white characters with dignity and humanity but by also demonstrating how Lily struggles with—and ultimately overcomes—her own racism. Kidd moves beyond stereotypes to portray whites and blacks with the multifaceted personalities that we find in real life. Lily is not a racist in the same way that the group of men that harass Rosaleen are racist, but she does evidence some prejudice and stereotypes at the start of the novel. She assumes that all African Americans are like Rosaleen, an uneducated laborer-turned-housekeeper. Lily imagines that all African Americans are likewise coarse and uneducated. But when Lily encounters unique, educated, thoughtful August Boatwright, she must change her assumptions and combat her prejudice. At first, Lily feels shocked that a black person could be as smart, sensitive, and creative as August. Recognizing and combating her shock allows Lily to realize the truth about the arbitrariness and irrationality of racism. Like Lily, June must also learn to overcome racial stereotypes. As individuals, humans can display a complex array of personality traits and characteristics, regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
Later, when she begins to develop romantic feelings for Zach, Lily once again encounters her own subtle prejudice. Zach is a charming, handsome, African American young man. As a child in Sylvan, Lily learned racism from other schoolchildren: she was taught that black boys could not possibly be handsome, because the features of their faces were so different from those of white boys. When she realizes that this is not the case with Zach, she feels self-righteous, as if she has discovered something that the ignorant kids at her old school had missed. But she also realizes that her thought processes had been irrational and racist. As if to combat these tendencies, Lily naively ignores the social problems that her love for Zach might cause, even as Zach realizes that they probably can never be together in the racist South of that time. For different reasons, both Lily and Zach understand that racism, while irrational, has actual harmful effects. Nevertheless, both will work together to combat the irrationality of racism through feelings and deeds.
Motherless Lily finds at the Boatwright house several surrogate mothers and learns the power of female community. At the beginning of The Secret Life of Bees, Lily longs for her mother and cherishes the few possessions Deborah left behind. She demonstrates an awareness of her femininity and laments that she has missed out on certain female lessons because her mother is dead. For example, she clings to a pair of white gloves that used to belong to Deborah. But although Lily lacks a mother, she does have female companionship. Rosaleen has raised Lily, and Lily looks to Rosaleen for love and support. Rosaleen’s arrest serves as a catalyst for Lily’s journey toward a much larger and more fulfilling female community: the one she finds at the Boatwright house. There, Lily sees how strong women support, tend to, comfort, encourage, and love one another by witnessing the bonds between the Daughters of Mary. Through their examples, and by being included in their group, Lily begins to feel empowered as a woman.
Lily loves to read, and she recognizes the importance of storytelling as a way to escape or transcend one’s circumstances. Early in the novel, Lily recounts two memories relating to reading: in one, T. Ray makes fun of her for reading, calling her “Julius Shakespeare.” In another, a teacher praises Lily for being so intelligent and lends her books. Lily recalls books that have meant something to her during times of stress, as when she compares herself to Thoreau’s experiences at Walden Pond on her way to Tiburon. She rightly recognizes that books allow readers to escape into a fantasy world, and she makes up stories about why she and Rosaleen have come to Tiburon. More abstractly, Lily’s adventure with Rosaleen echoes Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: like Huck, Lily sneaks off with an African American friend into nature and to unknown worlds. Lily longs to someday become a writer, and, to this end, Zach gives Lily a notebook in which she can record her thoughts and stories. August tells Lily stories to help her learn to love and trust. Through books and stories, Lily sees the possibilities for her own life.