I’ve read Their Eyes Were Watching God almost every year since I was a sophomore in high school. Each experience grounds me deeper into my self, revealing new truths even after I left the last reading assured I learned all there was to know. This time around, I found the life of Janie Crawford drawing me closer to another woman in my life, my great-grandmother. The woman’s life hangs over my family like a legend. Much like Janie, my great-grandmother ran away from home at a young age in search of, I believe, that same pear tree that awakened Janie in her grandmother’s front yard. And like Janie, my great-grandmother paid a price for such curiosity, such fearlessness, such hope.
When Janie’s grandmother sees her granddaughter begin to blossom with the same curiosity, fearlessness and hope that ignited my great-grandmother, she cuts the young girl down with the reality that the negro woman is the mule of the world. I’m not sure if my great-grandmother had gotten that talk from her mother before she ran off, but I can imagine that life sure did to my great-grandmother what Janie’s grandmother did to her: “[take] the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon,…and [pinch] it in to such a little bit of a thing that she [Janie’s grandmother] could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.”
I wonder often about the woman I’ve never met, but whose life story I can recite as if it were my own. I wonder what pieces of herself she had to hide, like Janie, in order to stay outwardly alive. What had fallen off her internal shelf and did she ever pick it up? Did she ever get to experience what Janie witnessed the bees and the buds of flowers did in that pear tree? Did she ever get time to pull in her horizon and look over what was caught in its meshes? How many of our great-grandmothers lived like Janie, or longed to? These are questions that sparked Alice Walker’s collection, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and it is one that I think about each time I try to understand my own life. The freedoms, however little they sometimes seem to be, were paid for in gold by women like Janie, like my great-grandmother, who dared to follow their heart.
Their Eyes Were Watching God has, in some magical way, brought me closer to my great-grandmother as I find myself capable of looking at her story as something more than a larger than life legend and something tangible, tactile, like the textures of my own life that change with each new life experience. Though I imagine that a lot of my great-grandmother’s naive dreams were crushed after she ran away from home, I admire her the same way I do Janie Crawford; they were women who were not satisfied being anyone’s mule, women who believed that there was joy and pleasure and sweetness to be had from this life and were relentless in their search for it. They are both women I aspire to be.
Another reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel has left me eternally grateful for her own relentless truth telling. She has, yet again, brought me closer to myself. Closer to a self I was almost a century ago in Columbus, Mississippi who snuck away from the well and ran from home in search of that pear tree. Today, I am still searching, as I believe all black women are and should be.
At sixteen I thought I knew what romantic love was. Head over heels for a boy who turned my world completely upside down there was never a doubt in my mind that what we had was real. And what was real was meant to be held onto, no matter how painful the grip. The idea of “meant to be,” began to feel more like duty than destiny and that is the conflict that ties An American Marriage by Tayari Jonestogether. Celestine and Roy are two individuals who think they have this love and marriage thing figured out, but life has a way of showing the both of them that they don’t know the first thing about anything. Both their love and notions of duty are tested by an unforeseen circumstance that, while unfair to both parties, reveal truths that were bound to come to light regardless.
I will admit I struggled with the story at first, but the more I kept reading, the more I saw myself in both Celestine and Roy. I understood the duty that Roy and the other men in the novel tried to impose on Celestine, knew it because I felt a sense of duty to stick by the man I had committed myself to at sixteen even when I wasn’t sure he was worth it anymore. And I understood the need for liberation and autonomy Celestine was trying to explain to everyone in the novel who seemed to ignore her voice—it’s what ultimately led me to realize what I was holding onto wasn’t worth the sacrificing of my own life. What I love most about Jones’ novel is how it gripped me in a way I was not prepared for. She has a way of crafting a mirror that so clearly reflects truths people often hide from.
At twenty-five I learned how to let go. Just as Roy realized that what he was fighting for was a phantom of a dream, something that was worthless if it had to be forced. I looked into the eyes of a man I swore I loved and realized I didn’t know him at all. I realized that what I was fighting tooth and nail for was something that did not exist between us anymore, and maybe it never did, but I knew that regardless it was not worth holding onto. I do not imagine that he and I will ever get to the point of where Celestine and Roy find themselves at the end of An American Marriage,but I can say, confidently, that I have learned something about love: it boils down to acceptance.
The beginning of the first Corinthians scripture about love are probably the most popular, but the line that sticks with me the most is, “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” I have come to understand that love is not possible without accepting the truth of who someone is just as it is not possible without revealing the truth of who you are. When Celestine and Roy are able to finally see each other for who they are—not who they want the other to be—they are able to accept one another and unlock a freedom that wasn’t possible before then. I have experienced this in my own life and I don’t believe it would have been possible without my foolish first attempt at love, just as Celestine and Roy would not have been able to arrive at their final destination without going through the journey we watch them navigate throughout the novel. The brilliance of Jones’ book is so unassuming it sneaks up on you toward the end, instantly making you want to start from the beginning again. It’s a feat so astounding I see why Oprah chose it for her book club.
If you want a light read that packs a meaningful punch, I highly recommend An American Marriage. It will stir some dormant questions in you and make you look at love, destiny, and duty in a different light.
It’s nothing short of a blessing when you can devote an entire day to reading a book, or when a book is so compelling it requires your undivided attention until completed. That was my experience with Gayl Jones’ CoRregidora. Not since I was in high school had I experienced the giddy feeling of curling up and fervently turning the next page, needing to know what happened next. CoRregidora isn’t as suspenseful as it is spellbinding. Jones’ quick pacing, perfect dialogue, and gothic themes transfixes you until you’ve realized you reached the end. And what an impactful ending it is.
There is no one that explores the sexual, emotional, social, and physical trauma of slavery on their descendants like Jones. She perfectly melds the past and present showing how we are a single thread on the spool of time, merely continuing what has already transpired before our existence. It’s dark and uncomfortable, but it’s the truth of Jones’ work that will resonate with you and shake you to your core.
I’ve been a huge admirer of Jones’ work, and CoRregidora, edited by the great Toni Morrison,is a necessary staple that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.
Reading Toni Morrison is always a transformative experience, rereading her is even more so.
I had the pleasure of re-reading Beloved; a work I once found so impenetrable I was now, as an adult, able to enter with a steadier grasp that turned into profound appreciation. From the language to the characters, Morrison takes the horrifically triumphant tale of Margaret Garner and creates a world magnificent with complexity, sorrow, and healing. It was the latter that I newly discovered, which absolutely spellbound me by the time I reached the end.
This reading of Beloved gave me a deeper appreciation for Morrison’s emphasis on safe spaces. Beloved is full of them from Sethe’s keeping room where she does her introspection, to Denver’s secret garden, to Baby Sugg’s clearing space in the woods. Each of these women have a place that offer brief respites from the horror surrounding them. It reminded me that in the midst of turmoil, survival of the self is essential. These safe spaces allowed room for these women to be, to breathe, so that they could continue forth in a world rife with oppression, violence, and emotional trauma.
As equally important, Morrison also makes the case for the necessity of self-love. Baby Suggs is perhaps the best vehicle through which Morrison delivers this sermon. In that clearing space in the woods Baby Suggs urges for the black townspeople to love their heart, for “more than the lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your live-giving private parts…love your heart. For this is the prize.” Such declaration to former slaves and descendants of slaves is revolutionary as not only are they “legally” property and thought of to not be fully human, but they lived in an environment that did not breed neither love, nor joy, nor peace. And despite all of that, Baby Suggs tell all of these individuals to resists the temptation to be consumed by such trauma and, instead, rise in love.
Sethe and Denver both have to understand this in the face of their Beloved for whom they sacrifice themselves for. Denver’s discovery of her own self and the fight to preserve that self is what allows her to experience the most dynamic evolution of all the characters. It is also what helps keep her mother and sister alive. It’s a truth we’re reminded of by every flight attendant whosever demonstrated to you how to ensure the survival of yourself and loved one should the flight go awry—place the oxygen on yourself first, for without the preservation of yourself there is no hope for the survival of those who come after you.
In a novel filled with trauma, calls for self-love are laden throughout. It is what I believe to be Morrison’s call to action. Her definition of resistance is self-preservation. I’m reminded of such especially toward the end of the novel when, after Sethe has given almost life, limb, and sanity for her child who she defines as her “best thing,” Paul D reminds Sethe that it is her own self that is her “best thing.”
The testament of a truly remarkable piece of writing is when you can return to it at various moments in your life and extract different lessons along the way. It is also true that the right book will always find you at the right moment. Beloved did that for me and Morrison reminded me how important the self is and how, as Audre Lorde also says, self-preservation is the very act of political warfare.
Reading Challenge update: This is the second book I’ve completed in my challenge. I began with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
How long has it been? Ages, I know! Well, I’ve been off in my writer’s cave…writing (more on that to come soon), but for now I’m delivering one of the fruits from such arduous labor!
It’s no secret that I loved Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? I didn’t just write a book review, I got the pleasure to interview her daughter! And since I just can’t leave these stories alone I’ve returned with an analysis of Collins’ use of the tragic mulatto trope.
I work in marketing. I enjoy it, but it’s not exactly what I see myself doing for the rest of my life. In fact, there are often times when I’m stricken, at my desk, with a paralyzing fear that I’ve somehow become one of those people. You know, those people who talk about the grand dreams they once had for themselves but are now living out something disappointingly opposite? It’s been a fear since I was a young girl, to be given all this life and somehow waste it on something I never intended to do. I fear that the dreams I have for myself and my life will somehow become a shell of a memory and I, too, will be speaking about what I once hoped for. I’m afraid that I’ll become like the narrator of Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, the no-name brown girl who deffered her dreams and life for the sake of managing someone else’s.
Swing Time is described as “a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them.” It’s a novel wide in scope touching so many bases, but underneath the plethora of themes, tangents, and subplots, what I found most compelling is Smith’s exploration of dreams, success, and the affect time has on both.
We meet the unnamed protagonist and her friend, Tracey, when they are ten years old. Both girls are joining Miss. Isabel’s dance class, both are brown, and both have a deep love for dance. These three things become the building blocks upon which a shaky friendship is built. Though they both are mixed-race, live in estates, and have a passion for dancing, they come from two different worlds. The unnamed friend’s parents are “reversed” in their pairing; the father is white and the mother is a Jamaican feminist with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and mobility. Tracey’s world is the inverse; her Jamaican father is frequently absent and her white mother has an insatiable love for musicals and Michael Jackson.
It’s these two worlds that are always threatening the girls’ friendship. Where the unnamed protagonist’s mother wants her to steer clear of Tracey, the unnamed girl only grows more infatuated with Tracey’s “freedom,” charm, and talent. But despite their opposing worlds (read: mothers), the two girls hold onto their love and dream of dancing until that singular dream is split into two roads: one which the talented Tracey travels confidently toward and the other which the flat-footed—thus, ill-fitted for dance—unnamed protagonist painfully avoids. This divergence of paths is not singularly the physical mechanics making one girl best suited for dance over the other; while Tracey’s mother supports her daughter auditioning and attending the full-time dance school, the unnamed protagonist’s mother forbids her daughter, instead, demanding that she focus on the only important thing in life, which are the things that can be written down. This mother’s dreams of intelligence, dreams of choices, dreams of opportunity for her daughter—the opportunity to disrupt the cycle of poverty, teenage pregnancy, and illiteracy—overshadows whatever dream the daughter has of dancing. We continue to watch this, however inadvertent, deferment of a dream dry up in the girl’s heart festering a rebellion, a bitterness, a jealousy instead.
Swing Time is Smith’s usual epic of ideas and observations about race, gender, class, family, identity, and London. We follow the unnamed protagonist from London to New York to West Africa and learn of globalization, white privilege, matriarchal societies, and–of course–dance. And while readers are required to do their usual sifting through long-winded prose, and some anti-climatic dramas, continuing forth leads to the heart of the story: time, dreams, success, and how the former informs everything.
Ten plus years since meeting Tracey, and developing that dream of dancing, the unnamed protagonist has chosen a shadow of a life where she is a single blade on the propeller of someone else’s dream. She lives in the enclaves of someone else’s life, reducing her own purpose to making someone else’s dreams possible. Her entire reason for being in West Africa is lay down the blueprint and monitor the success of someone else’s vision. It’s an act, a relationship that is no different from the one the unnamed protagonist engaged with Tracey and her own mother. She is consistently surrounded by headstrong women with desires that cannot be extinguished by any outside influences. They railroad the world, and people like the unnamed protagonist, with their tenacious pursuit of their vision. The success of the unnamed protagonist’s relationship with these women is the deferment of her own dreams. And she does so, willingly, exchanging her own happiness for the envy of others living theirs and relishing at the joy of any one’s failure, specifically Tracey’s.
Through traveling their respective roads, Tracey and the unnamed protagonist again become paralleled as adults when each looks upon the other at Tracey’s dining room table only to find that neither are who they imagined themselves to be. Amidst that air of unspoken tension and pain is the question of success: which woman was successful, which one beat the odds…the b-list dancer who never left the estates or the no-name assistant forced to return? Were they both doomed to end up here despite whatever path they jumped on in hopes of escaping? Tracey doesn’t necessarily become the biggest star in the dance world, but is it better than spending half one’s life as the stagehand to someone else’s? Such is the same with the protagonist’s mother; she may not have been able to save the world, and her people, in the way that she thought she could, but nonetheless she tried. We are not in control of where our dreams lead us, but the bravery and the triumph is not in the destination but the journey.
But we’ve heard their stories before. We’ve read of the people who fight against the odds to make their dreams come true. We’ve seen the Traceys in Marilyn, Dorothy, and even Nella Larsen’s Clare Kendry. Very rarely do we hear from the other side–the Ethels, the Irenes, the Cindy Lou’s–the people running the well oiled machine of dreams, and the people who get hurt at the expense of the dream chasers. The unnamed protagonist gives us a thorough glimpse in Swing Time, a novel that I can only think of as an extension of Langston Hughes’ question of what happens to a deferred dream:
In the introduction to her 1983 collection of interviews with black women writers, Claudia Tate explained the difference between the black hero’s and the black heroine’s quest for self-affirmation and identity. While both the black hero and the black heroine are in search of “increasingly higher levels of emotional and intellectual awareness of the self and the outside world,” the process by which they journey to such a destination differs. The black hero’s journey is often an external exploration requiring his physical departure from his home/community of origin. The black heroine’s journey is internal requiring physical isolation or restriction. She is not detached from responsibilities as often times these heroines are mothers, wives, etc. Therefore the black heroine’s destination is not a place, but rather, a state of mind. Writer and Filmmaker Kathleen Collins employs this dynamic exploration of the internal journey throughout her posthumous collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? But Collins’ doesn’t make that internal journey exclusive to her black heroines; she extends it to her black hero’s as she delves into the murky mist of self-reckoning. But by expanding Tate’s theory of isolation to her black hero’s, Collins, inadvertently, examines the ways in which such physical isolation affect both her male and female characters. Where the isolation is a therapeutic experience for her heroines it is a crushing life-threatening experience for her heroes. This curious examination reveals Collins deep interest not with the physical outcome of her characters, but rather, their interior resolution of their lives and place in the world. Whatever results from such resolution is purely circumstantial.
The first couplet of stories appropriately titled “Exteriors” and “Interiors” set the tone for which the following fourteen stories will take. We begin with the external voyeuristic view of a couple whose marriage is unhinging in “Exteriors”. The husband goes off on a whimsical excursion while the wife is left in isolation. Or rather, the wife chooses isolation. In “Interiors” the wife is not lamenting the reasons why her husband left, instead she voluntarily enters a “benevolent solitude” where she steps into herself and explores her horizon. She plays the violin, she starts a home garden, she takes on lovers–however inept–she creates art. All of these are attempts to understand herself while also resolving an independent identity in the face of her broken marriage.
Collins presents isolation as a choice, a reprieve from the external world, an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole falling experience where one discovers the depths of one’s own soul, when it comes to her female characters. But a reprieve it is not for her male characters. Where the wife in “Interiors” emerges with her life and some sort of hope for the future, the Uncle in “The Uncle” isn’t as fortunate. His external circumstances have forced him no other option but isolation and in those confines he is never able to emerge with his life or any such hope for his future. Such is the same for the young man in “Only Once.” Isolation, for these men, is instead a cocoon, a Plato’s cave of manipulated images from their external reality are reflected in their internal resolutions preventing them from ever rising to the light. This dichotomy continues to play throughout Collins’ stories and characters: a disenchanted young woman who finds solace in a dark closet, an ill-fated lover and his gun, a playwright in suburbia, another abandoned wife who retreats into a new home. Many of these characters are faced with the external challenges of race, gender, class, and unfulfilled relationships, but Collin does not focus on the external. Instead she takes us into each character’s interior challenge of reconciling a self-image despite, or perhaps in spite of their outside circumstances.
There is a rebellious undertone in Collins’ work threading itself through each story. From the daughter who commits the “unforgivable sin of (“Negro”) girlhood” by cutting her hair and therefore turning herself into “any other Negro,” to the man who takes his own life, to the black middle-class girl from New Jersey agrees to marry her white lover in 1963 as they both naively confront the south and racial segregation, Collins presents unconventional resolutions that are not tidy, but instead a form of rebellion from what each of these characters are expected to be from the outside looking in. Each character is trying to find themselves and it’s a journey that requires the painful task of rejecting the external labels which have been arbitrarily placed on them from white-supremacy ideas of blackness to their own black bourgeois community’s. In these rebellious internal resolutions Collins is calling for a deep introspection of us all. Her work reminds us that we are humans first and our journeys toward seeking higher levels of emotional and intellectual awareness begin with our individual selves first.
That confrontation of self is often brutal and not all of her characters make it out alive, but the point is not to make it out alive, the point is to go through the process of delving deep into one’s self. That alone is one of the bravest things any human can do.
I thoroughly enjoyed Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Collins’s critical but sympathetic gaze on the black bourgeois is a perspective reminiscent of Nella Larsen, Lorraine Hansberry, and Dorothy West. Her insistence on the human spirit and internal self first allows her voice to be dynamic, idiosyncratic, and refreshing. I only wish that there was more.
Animism is the “idea that souls inhabit all objects, living things, and even phenomena.” This idea is what shapes Bernice McFadden’s novel about Money, Mississippi and one of its first families. Gathering of Waters is the meaning of the name Mississippi, a name given to the southern state by Choctaw Native Americans. While the European may have loved the name, he did not bestow that affection for the name givers and so they were violently exterminated. Mississippi’s evil past is, inadvertently, exhumed in order to build the town of Money, who serves as the narrator of Gathering of Waters.
It is Money who introduces readers to animism and how what is deemed as “bizarre,” and “absurd” are nothing more than “memories of previous existences.” Those previous existences are the souls that inhabit all things and if there is one thing to remember it is that “souls never, ever die.” That fact is displayed in the family Money has followed with a “desperate infatuation” for decades. A haunting history is revealed, ripe with tragedy and Bernice L. McFadden grips you from the very beginning with her stunning prose that is both succinct and poignant, commanding every inch of your attention.
Gathering of Waters is framed by three tragic events that take place in Money, Mississippi. It does not begin with the violent murder of Emmett Till in 1955; the story works itself backwards unfolding a cycle of evil beginning with the first problem to enter Money, “carrying a pink parasol in one hand and a Bible in the other.” In the 78 year existence of Money, Mississippi we not only follow a family’s inception, but the presence of a soul, a memory, a previous existence, that is not bound by the manmade boundaries of prejudices. Its presence shifts across color lines perpetuating an evil that devastates and destroys: young lovers are separated, lives are lost, families are torn apart. Gathering of Waters is an examination of the past and its active role in the present. McFadden brilliantly offers a deeper insight of the ways in which generations are linked; her use of the omniscient spirit of Money as a narrator allows her to interweave the material world and the spiritual world in a way that is neither surprising nor upsetting. McFadden sets both worlds on equal footing.
McFadden succeeds in not only adding to the rich tradition of southern African-American gothic literature, she delivers a body of work whose soul will stick with readers forever. It has been such a long time since I’ve read a novel that I sacrificed sleep for on an account of not being able to bare putting it down. Gathering of Waters left me with the same sensation Song of Solomon introduced me to–I can never un-see what McFadden opened me up to, there are themes that will continue to unravel and amaze me for the rest of my life. This is a novel that I know I will turn to again and again. I am now going to devour everything McFadden has previously written.