The number of books I read in December surprised me and consequently, I’ve procrastinated about writing up this post. In honor of author Carleen Brice’s project, White Readers Meet Black Authors, I have a number of discoveries to share.
The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate follows the complex relationship between three characters at an exclusive boys’ school in Connecticut. Jerome Washington, the school’s only Latin teacher and only black teacher is a reserved, complex character. He keeps to himself and his views about society and race are so conservative that I couldn’t help thinking about Clarence Thomas as I read. As the faculty’s only minority, he is called upon to help recruit a more diverse student body, and he does so out of loyalty to the school, but he is clearly uncomfortable in this role. He is not an advocate of anything that resembles affirmative action, and his attitude toward the tiny number of minority students in the school nears contempt. He’s worked hard to get to the respected position he holds and is loathe to see anyone that he views as undeserving getting special treatment. One gets the impression that he’d prefer that the color of his skin would go unnoticed and he appears to resent the young black students who embrace popular black music and culture – as if it reflects negatively on him.
Jana Hansen is a new teacher who has left an urban public school to join the faculty. Middle aged, white and recently divorced, she finds Jerome Washington enigmatic and attractive. Unlike Mr. Washington, she is anxious to help bring a more diverse blend of students to the school.
Rashid is new to the school. A black student from Brooklyn, Rashid has worked hard to gain entrance and earn a scholarship to an elite school as his older brother did before him, but Rashid’s brother is tragically killed just prior to Rashid’s enrollment, and his family is shell shocked. His parents don’t want to call attention to the tragedy and the assumptions people might make about it and they don’t tell the faculty about the senseless killing of their son. Lost in their own grief, they are unable to provide Rashid with emotional support and Rashid is left alone in a challenging academic environment, struggling to keep up and dealing with the loss of his brother in isolation. Rashid finds some companionship in his roommate, who is also black, but who hails from a wealthy, accomplished family and is academically and socially comfortable in the upscale prep school.
Mr. Washington lost a brother too and on the surface, would appear to be an ideal mentor for Rashid; however, Jerome Washington views the death of his brother during the commission of a crime as a source of shame and this emotion extends out to the black scholarship students who he cannot seem to view without painting them with the same brush with which he viewed his brother.
“After I returned east and took up my duties at Chelsea, I put Isaiah’s death out of my mind. I never think about it anymore. That is as my mother would have it. That is, I’ve come to believe, how it should be. I can’t bring him back. I couldn’t save him. Neither could she. Why he couldn’t fight harder to save himself, I will never know. That was why I feared Jana’s faith in young Mr. Bryson might be misplaced, save for his talent as a runner. As the season wore on, it was becoming more and more apparent that he was the kind of athlete a coach might see once in a lifetime. He had almost no awareness of his gift, which made it even more impressive. While I was not wholly in agreement with Jana about his chances, I thought we should work to save him if only to encourage that ability. It would only wither and die at some squalid city school. And if, by some happy chance, Jana was right about the rest, that his work could be brought along…well, so much the better. I guess I should say, too, that though I thought it unwise to indicate so, I was somewhat impressed by the way he confronted me about calling on him in class. I had been overlooking him, simply out of my belief that he would not be with us long. I also felt it particularly important that our Negro students realize that the world would give them no quarter. Why should I?”
The intersection of these characters leads ultimately to disgrace and shame for one of them and salvation for another. Martha Southgate is a gifted writer and this novel is an important one. It illustrates how deeply our issues with race go. It’s complex and the issues are not black and white, but extend into shades of gray that reflect generational and socio-economic differences between and within our races. This is a must read for anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the evolving complexities of race in America.
The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard was one of my favorite novels this year. I wrote an extended review of it last month and you can find it here .
Like Trees, Walking, by Ravi Howard. When the phone rings at the home of Paul and Roy Deacon, sons of the family owned Deacon Memorial Funeral Home in the early morning hours of March 21, 1981 it is not a routine call. Nineteen year old Michael Donald, a close friend of Paul had been found hanging in a tree in downtown Mobile, Alabama. This fictional tale of an actual event that happened in Alabama is a painful journey for two brothers who are otherwise leading a normal teenage life. It has fallen onto Roy, the main character to take over his father’s business. Deacon Memorial Funeral Home has buried the loved ones of Mobile’s black families for over one hundred years and Paul has already rebelled and made his intent clear that he will not be going into the family business. Roy, who has been working with his father since his early teenage years, brings an unusual, intimate perspective to the deaths that are a natural part of life, but Michael Donald’s brutal murder tests Roy’s ability to continue on in the business he doesn’t want to be in, but feels obligated to continue, for his father’s sake. The response to the murder is inept and devastating, the police focusing on the possibility that the lynching was the result of a drug deal that had gone wrong.
“’I assure you, the Mobile Police Department is going to do all we can to figure this out.’ The sad part was that he probably meant it. He stood tall, as though his posture made the assurance that much stronger. It didn’t matter what he said, because the truth of it was playing out behind him, the Mobile police milling about the block in slow and steady chaos. The only crime scenes I’d seen were on the news and on cop shows. There was always a slew of police officers knocking on doors, canvassing the area, and pursuing the guilty parties with prime-time tenacity. Nothing of the like seemed to be happening on Herndon Avenue. The gathered authorities were taking their turns looking at Mobile’s first lynching in sixty years. Before we left Detective Wilcox, my father made one request. ‘Cut that boy down before his mother gets here.’”
There are many poignant passages throughout this novel. Roy and Paul's grandfather, although he'd been retired ten years shows up to help prepare the body of the dead boy:
"My grandfather had been stifled by the shaking in his hands and a memory that sometimes failed him. We worried that he wouldn't be able to live alone much longer, but as he worked around Michael's head, stitching the ruptured skin and reshaping his face, his hands were steady and his memory was sound.
He remembered things we had never known. How to dress rope-burned skin. How to wire a neck, broken and distended, to make the bones straight again. Arrange the high, starched collar and necktie so they hid the marks that makeup could not conceal. I watched him as he worked, cradling Michael's head in his hands. He held it like he held mine in the waters along the bay, on the summer afternoon he tried to teach me to float. I floated for a while, but when I opened my eyes and realized his hands were gone, and what I felt along my neck and back was just a memory of his fingers, I sank like a rock."
The story follows the activity that ensues in the aftermath of the murder and the mark that a tragedy such as this leaves on everyone it touches. It illuminates how much and how little had changed in the American South in 1981 and shows the impossibility of healing when it seems that there will be no justice.
Push, by Sapphire was an uncomfortable, painful reading experience. Claireece “Precious” Jones is an overweight, illiterate black sixteen year old girl who is pregnant with her second child. She delivered her first at twelve and her father is the father of both of her children. Her mother is an abusive, jealous, reclusive figure who offers Precious neither protection nor love and she abuses Precious verbally, sexually and physically. This first novel is by the poet and performance artist, Sapphire. Sapphire spent time teaching literacy in Harlem, which makes this story with all of its broken characters all the more heartbreaking. Through the intervention of her school’s principal, Precious is sent to attend a literacy program and encounters a teacher who finally helps Precious to learn to read and to understand that she has value and a future. When Precious first goes to the alternative school, she’s given a test to determine if she should be in the G.E.D. class, which requires reading at the eighth grade level. She does not qualify.
“For me this nuffin’ new. There has always been something wrong wif the tesses. The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an’ my muver – my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible. One time I seen us on TV. It was a show of spooky shit, an’ castles, you know shit be all haunted. And the peoples, well some of them was peoples and some of them was vampire peoples. But the real peoples did not know it till it was party time. You know crackers eating roast turkey and champagne and shit. So it’s five of ‘em sitting on the couch; and one of ‘em git up and take a picture. Got it? When picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples did not exist. They vampires. They eats, drinks, wear clothes, talks, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist. I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am – vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.” I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV, movie, LOUD. I see the pink faces in suits look over top of my head. I watch myself disappear in their eyes, their tesses. I talk loud but still I don’t exist.”
Sadly, despite the tremendous progress Precious makes in learning to read and finally being able to leave her mother’s apartment to care for one of her two babies (the first has Downs Sydrome and has been with her grandmother since she was born), Precious begins to “age out” of the system and the social workers involved in her case are more motivated to see her get into the workplace as a home worker, taking care of the elderly than they are in seeing her achieve her G.E.D. or something better. Precious learns that she’s H.I.V. positive, the final legacy from her abusive father. Despite all this, the book ends on a hopeful note.
It comes as no surprise that Sapphire became the center of some degree of controversy over the work. As a result of her well-publicized half-million-dollar advance from an "establishment" publisher, there were some subtle political connotations since her work seems to portray the black male, and urban blacks in general, in a negative light.
Coincidentally, this book was recommended to me when I expressed an interest in reading Erasure, by Percival Everett. Read Push first and Erasure will make more sense to you. Erasure is about a black writer who writes purely literary fiction touching on themes about art and theology, but he can’t get a break. His would-be publishers complain that the work isn’t “black enough”. From reviewer Bernard W. Bell:
“Because his own most recent experimental novel has been rejected by publishers as not black enough, Monk is outraged at the national success of Juanita Mae Jenkins, an amateur black middle-class writer with little knowledge and less actual experience of living in an urban black community, and at her exploitative first novel in the neo-realistic vernacular tradition of the ghetto pulp fiction of Robert ‘Iceberg Slim’ Beck and Donald Goines, We's Lives in Da Ghetto. With self-righteous indignation, Monk, under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh and with little or no intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical distance between himself and the implied author of Erasure, writes MyPafology, an outrageously scurrilous parody in eye dialects, and its authenticity and authority are acclaimed by white editors and critics as well as a popular black TV talk-show hostess as a commercial and critical prize-winning success. In contrast to Monk's judgment that the parody, whose title Leigh has blatantly insisted that the publishers change to Fuck, is ‘offensive, poorly written, racist and mindless,’ the white judges on the Book Award Committee consider it ‘the truest novel’ that they have ever read. ‘It could only have been written by someone who has done hard time. It's the real thing.’ Ultimately, the huge commercial success of the parody and pseudonymous Stagg R. Leigh, engineered by a multi-million-dollar movie contract and the Book Club of Kenya Dunston, the nationally popular TV talk-show hostess, results in Monk's complicity with the media in the erasure of his integrity and individuality.”I’ll make no judgment about the quality of the story or the writing as they're both so unconventional I have no basis for comparison. I will say that once I started reading, I couldn't put the book down. At times, the intentionally terrible grammar and spelling were a challenge.
From a social consciousness perspective, it brought me to the very crux of the tension that we feel all across the country right now. I’ve pondered the opposing points of view and I believe it comes down to the ideological differences in our answers to the simple question: Am I my brother’s keeper? The protagonist in Push and both of her children, the products of incestuous rape are completely unequipped to function as productive and self-supporting members of society, through no fault of their own. Some of us believe that our society owes something to these children. Some of us don’t.
The second thing Push brought to the forefront of my consciousness was the question of what this type of novel says to and about black authors. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Sapphire should muzzle her art because it shows a side of urban life that isn’t flattering to black Americans and that may indeed further perpetuate stereotypes. The story represents the truth of thousands of people of all races. On the other hand, I can understand that the literary writer, who happens to be black would feel frustrated with the publishing business and a seeming unwillingness to publish or promote serious black authors. I can’t say, although I imagine it’s not unlike the struggle any literary writer faces in our market driven economy where popular fiction brings in all the revenue. I’d love to hear thoughts on this book and on this question.
I’ll continue reviewing my December reads in the next post…