F I C T I O N
After the goneness
RED AT THE BONE JACQUELINE WOODSON 196pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. £14.99.
AYOUNG BLACK MAN TRIPS and, flailing, grabs the arm of a white woman. He is charged with assault. A white crowd – incendiary as flash-paper – assembles on the courthouse steps. It is Tulsa, Oklahoma, the last day of May, 1921. The city is home to Black Wall Street, the greatest concentration of African American wealth in the United States. By nightfall, the district will be ablaze: black-owned stores and homes not only mob-looted but firebombed by home-rigged explosives tossed from planes – the first aerial bombing in US history. Hundreds will die; thousands will be left homeless; thirty-five city blocks will be razed to cinders.
“They came with intention”, writes Jacqueline Woodson in Red at the Bone, “the only thing they wanted was to see us gone. Our money gone, Our shops and schools and libraries – everything – just good and gone.” Coming face-to-face with such annihilating fury creates a kind of inheritable weight, a “goneness” Woodson calls it. Slipping backwards and forwards in time, her novel traces the dark heirloom of one family’s “goneness” as it passes from mother to daughter, as traumas become lessons, lessons become habits, and habits become folklore.
Woodson’s elegant multigenerational tale, her second novel for adults, begins eighty years to the day after the Black Wall Street Massacre. In a Brooklyn brownstone, the sixteen-year-old Melody – named for her great-grandmother, scarred in the Tulsa fires – readies herself to be introduced to society in a family tradition that has “morphed and morphed again” from its cotillion roots: a grand house party replete with orchestra; a white lace
dress slipped over “some forgotten ancestor’s gartered corset”. The dress has spent a generation waiting for a wearer; Melody’s mother’s teenage pregnancy put an end to her own debutante plans (“her body told a story a celebration never could”). It is a dress “ghosted in another generation’s dreams. A history of fire and ash and loss”. Red at the Bone could so easily have become an elegy for thwarted expectations; that’s the punitive arc we have come to expect from tales of unplanned pregnancy – the tragedy of squandered potential, mitigated only by the redemptive purity of a child’s love. But Woodson – beloved by YA readers for her non-judgemental fiction – has never been interested in such didacticism.
Melody’s birth is a fact, not a catastrophe. But it does bind her affluent mother to her father, Aubrey, a man raised in a household forever in survival mode, living “part-time paycheck to food stamps to part-time paycheck again”. Aubrey and Iris’s conflicting aspirations speak not to differing abilities but to something far more elemental: Iris longs for college freedom because she has always been comfortable; Aubrey delights in quiet domesticity because he has never been. “The first time Aubrey offered [Iris] margarine she laughed”, Woodson writes. “She couldn’t see a future with someone who only knew margarine.”
It is rare to read an American novel that talks so unsqueamishly about class, and the systems – from the well-intentioned to the malignantly racist – that stymie upward mobility in black communities. It is rarer still to read a novel of unpunished maternal reluctance. Iris fights for Melody to be born, but she is repulsed by the “sickening permanence” of motherhood, the ceaseless needing. It is in telling Iris’s story – not as one of callous abandonment but of self-protection and queer desire – that Woodson’s novel shows its red-raw heart.
Red at the Bone is bookended by tragedies – its chronology begins with Tulsa and ends in the aftermath of September 11 – but it is not bound by them. If there is a moment that anchors this novel (and its family), it is that spring afternoon of unfettered celebration – Melody in her white dress – generations of stories rising from the ashes: survival stories, love stories, stories of profound, quotidian kindness. Woodson glides gracefully between them, dancing to the music of time. It is no accident that her novel begins with a joyful orchestra, or that its story is carried by a Melody. “Look how beautifully black we are” she entreats us. “I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.” If there is a remedy to the “goneness”, this is it. n
“It is rare to read a novel that talks so unsqueamishly about class
Beejay Silcox is an Australian writer and critic. She is currently based in Cairo, where she occupies one of the city’s oldest apartment buildings, on an island in the Nile
Fully human, every single one
THE WATER DANCER
TA-NEHISI COATES 432pp. Hamish Hamilton. £16.99.
BY THE MID-2010S, the African American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates had a considerable following as a national correspondent for the Atlantic, contributing pieces on politics, culture and race. Perhaps the most famous of those is “The Case for Reparations”, a detailed argument for measures toward compensating black Americans for slavery. In 2015, the year after that piece appeared, Coates became a seemingly ubiquitous presence in the media with the publication of Between the World and Me. Part memoir, the book peers beneath the rhetoric about America to examine the way it has actually and always functioned. The United States, in Coates’s view, is not merely a country with a race problem but a nation founded on racism. “Race is the child of racism, not the father”, Coates writes – that is, the very distinctions we observe are a way of stratifying society, with the construct of whiteness acting as a label adopted by Americans of different origins to ensure their power over others. Coates addresses the book to his son, whom he tells that, “The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine”. Slavery was not an abstraction, or a history lesson; every single enslaved person was a human being wronged in a fundamental way. “Never forget”, Coates writes, “that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free.”
Not surprisingly, then, slavery, forgetting and memory are at the heart of Coates’s ambitious, compelling first novel. Hiram Walker, the narrator of The Water Dancer, is a slave at Lockless, a failing Virginia plantation; he is also the biological son of the plantation’s owner, who harbours kindly feelings towards him while remaining blind to the evil of the system he represents and perpetuates. Those kindly feelings only increase after the owner’s white legitimate son – the ne’er-do-well heir apparent of Lockless – drowns in an apparent accident during a ride in a carriage driven by Hiram. Part of his charm, in his father’s eyes, involves his singular gifts. Hiram possesses an unusually good memory, which is the secret of the parlour tricks he is made to perform for the entertainment of his father’s friends. Where his memory falls short is in remembering the circumstances of his enslaved mother’s disappearance from his life when he was a small boy.
His mother’s place in his life is partly filled by Thena, a Lockless slave whose gruff, laconic manner masks great stores of emotion and searingly painful memories. The other woman of increasing importance to Hiram is Sophia, a fellow slave for whom he develops romantic feelings. It is with Sophia that he sets out to escape from Lockless.
Hiram’s dash for freedom leads – after a harrowing episode – to his discovery of, and enlistment by, a vast, underground, interracial network aimed
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