I recently blogged about how disorienting it can be to lose an architectural structure that has provided something to stop our eyes and send back a familiar message–an echo. Now I want to speak to another kind of echo that enlivens me because it suggests a future that can hold something new but that reminds me of older things. By this I mean a literary echo, a new piece of writing that keeps sending me back to an earlier piece of writing, a new writer who speaks in ways and on subjects that connect me back to an older writer. Jesmyn Ward is a black Mississippian with several titles to her credit, two of which have won substantial awards. Two of her novels–Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing–won National Book Awards in 2011 and 2017. Her trenchant memoir, Men We Reaped, was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.
Though I haven’t yet read Salvage the Bones, a story framed around the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on various populations in New Orleans, I have recently read the memoir and her most recent novel about a black family coping with personal and institutional violence and with the power of story and memory to keep the tangibly dead importantly alive. Why do I hear echoes of Morrison in Ward? Both women think deeply about the effects of decades of slavery on descendants of the enslaved yet both present their “theories” about this through stories of people we come to care deeply about and about people whose actions we may condemn (Cholie in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Leonie in Sing, Unburied, Sing) but whose own pain we are forced to see and reckon with before we pass easy judgments. Both women did not come to the public’s attention until they were in their thirties (Morrison was 39 whenThe Bluest Eye was published and Ward was 34 when Salvage the Bones appeared). Both authors say they write stories about people not often found in mainstream fiction.
For me, as a person who is never satisfied by contemporary minimalist literature, the strongest echo I hear in Ward’s work is her obvious passion for finding the precise word or metaphor, the most germane descriptive detail, or the finest emotional nuance with which to embody whatever broader idea or mood she wants to convey. Because both care so deeply about language, I feel trusted by each to employ my best honed reading abilities. I can’t just “pick up” a Ward book; she deserves my full attention just as Morrison has for decades. So, knowing that Jesmyn Ward is at work right now on her next novel enlivens my imagination as I look forward to what she will gift me with next. She has said that the new novel is set in New Orleans in the 18th century, just as the trans-atlantic slave trade was fading, a cruel fact that necessitated a worsening of conditions for enslaved Africans and their progeny, more and more of whom were products of thoughtless rapes of black women by white slavers. I know I can depend on Ward to write about the horrors of the domestic slave trade in this country with precision and grace, just as I’ve always awaited Morrison’s next book with similar certainties.
So, while I wait for the new novel, I’ll dig into Salvage the Bones. And, if this new book takes longer than I might wish, I’ll return to Sing, Unburied, Sing, knowing that I will find all sorts of things I missed on first reading. Because the tight plot line will have remained in my consciousness, I can pay closer attention to particulars. I can look for more instances in which Ward forces me to feel kindly toward Leonie who tells us late in the story that she loves her children but has no idea how to tell or show them that,and that this emotional lacuna pains her terribly. Or I’ll read all Pop’s italicized stories he tells to Jojo to help him grow from boyhood to manhood without succumbing to despair or destructive anger. Or I’ll listen to the whisperings from Given and Richie, who deserve to have their stories and endings embodied in the world of the still living. Or I’ll weep again as I rejoice that Kayla is going to have the “gift” to see and hear from those no longer breathing but just as surely not yet completely dead. And, what more cogent echo could I ask for than Morrison’s amazing story of eponymous character in her novel, Beloved. Just as there is the unavoidable echo when we learn that Ward’s character, Pop, killed Richie as an act of love, just as Sethe killed Beloved to save her from re-enslavement and as Eva killed her boy Plum in order to spare him a slow death from heroin addiction.
And so, as I continue to find ways to resist what the president and his minions are doing to destroy the America I value, I will cling to Ward as a positive echo of a woman whose body of work (11 novels, numerous essays/speeches, several children’s books) helps me understand the legacy of slavery and white supremacy and whose characters urge me to feel empathy for characters who do not always act exactly as I might want them to. Upon the publication Between the World and Me, Morrison said she had feared that, upon James Baldwin’s death, she would not have anyone to tell her what it’s like to live as a black man in America, but that Ta Nahisi Coates was emerging as that person. So I feel that with a continuing publication of new work, Jesmyn Ward may be the woman who can carry on Morrison’s legacy for a new generation of readers, both black and white.
If you’ve been in an echo chamber, you’ll surely recall the impulse to shout or speak quietly into that magic space and then wait for the reverberation to send back your words or sounds. Echoes are not always sonic–they can be architectural. During the Blitz, Virginia and Leonard Woolf did not seek safety from London by fleeing to a southern county like Essex. Friends urged them to do so, but they stayed because they were running an important small press in their basement–The Hogarth Press, that still publishes books. It seems that Virginia often began her day by walking from their Bloomsbury flat to a local market for milk and baked goods, passing by the same buildings every morning. But bombs could change that with frightening ease, and she often wrote about new devastation wrought by German planes. In a powerful entry, she said “All the walls, the protecting and reflecting walls, wear so terribly thin in this war. There’s no standard to write for: no public to echo back…. They [enemy planes] came very close….We walked around back. Stood by Jane Harrison’s house. The house was still smoldering…. Scraps of cloth hanging to the bare walls at the side still standing. A looking glass I think swinging. Like a tooth knocked out–a clean cut.”
What Woolf is working out is just how valuable seeing familiar structures can be to provide us with an end point for our eyes. They travel along some vector to building X, are stopped by it and then it’s as if the arc of our vision returns to assure us all is well. Losing these architectural limits clearly caused Virginia emotional discomfort. Since she was also losing good friends who served to mirror her and offer assurances that she was “seen,” I believe the shock caused by the erasure or destructive alteration in her physical environment frayed her nerves in serious ways.
Though I intend no comparison with the effects of nightly bombing, I am experiencing a similar fraying brought on by the destruction of a landmark building in my own neighborhood. Ever since I moved to Minneapolis in 1964, I’ve been shopping for groceries at a store named Lunds. Right across the street from it has always stood a large and graceful sandstone public building housing things like banks and law offices and real estate establishments. In fact, when natives heard where I lived, they urged me to go visit this building and I did. About five stories high, it boasted a beautiful frieze border at its top: SONS OF NORWAY was inscribed onto a background of lovely multi-colored flowers–all true blues and bright yellows embedded in primary green. Not being familiar with the name, I inquired and discovered that the building had originally served the Norwegian community settling Minneapolis. In particular, offices in the space helped new immigrants secure housing, jobs, and–importantly to the Norwegian sense of family responsibility–solid life insurance policies. These new citizens often worked dangerous construction jobs and so wanted to be sure their families were “covered” in case of their unexpected death. So the building spoke to providing unrooted people with a visible “echo” of sorts, a place where their words requesting help and information were heard and heeded, helping them begin to feel secure in their adopted country.
A new generation of city council members in Minneapolis is pushing all sorts of plans to increase “density” and discourage people from driving individual cars. So they forced through a mammoth proposal for the city block that had been peacefully occupied by the Sons of Norway building and its generous parking lots. They will erect three six-story buildings that include features like a skating rink and high-end boutiques. Within less than a week, gargantuan cranes, trucks, pile-drivers, and wrecking tractors ate away that lovely building. I tried not to look as I went into and out of Lunds for fresh vegetables, Norwegian salmon, or flowers for my dining room table. I took to arking on the side of the store with no view of the sandstone façade being reduced to mountains of ugly twisted metal and rubble. But today, I made myself look at the giant gaping hole. Doing so brought Woolf’s frightening and frightened words to mind. And, like her as she coped with no place for her eyes to “land,” I felt disoriented and not a little lost. My eyes just kept going until I forced myself to look into the sky that had not changed. But clouds are by definition diaphanous, not like sandstone and glass. So my vision had no familiar echo and I felt sad and scared.
I’m just home from a pilgrimage to Washington D.C. with a good friend. We went to have the better part of two days at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and then part of a single day at the National Museum of the American Indian. My heart is full of sorrow and gratitude while my mind is full of new harrowing knowledge. So I’m planning several blogs over the next period of time. It feels important or “right” to begin with the single piece of information that has staggered me both for its content and for the fact that I did not know about that content until this very late-in-life moment.
It seems that in 1807 President Jefferson convinced the federal government to pass a bill that went into effect in 1808. This bill forbade the importation of any “new” African people to become slaves in this country. Had the world into which this bill landed been different, the institution of slavery would have gradually dwindled and eventually disappeared as the population of the enslaved shrank. But the world in this new country was seeing the cotton industry grow exponentially and quickly into an import trading business which would make “America” into a viable international commercial player. That means that we moved from engaging in the incredibly violent transatlantic slave trade to what has come to be known as the domestic slave trade. What I learned from trenchant videos, photographs, and other powerful displays is that slavery became focused on black Africans rather than the conglomerate of groups including indigenous peoples living here and individuals from various European countries who were enslaved in the Americas for stipulated periods of time to grow and harvest sugar cane and then tobacco. I remembered reading Toni Morrison’s A Mercy about this time in our history, set in the region known as the Chesapeake until it became Maryland. In discussing why she did the research and writing about this phenomenon, she said she wanted to understand the differences between this form of slavery and what came to be the systemic and inhumane treatment of specifically African people by the white majority.
The Museum told me that slavery changed at this time in our history from being a stipulated period of servitude to a permanent condition from which it was impossible ever to be freed unless one’s owner did so at his death. More painfully, I was told that the treatment of black enslaved women and men became markedly more violent and violating, i.e., the routine and continuous rape of African women in order to produce the next generations of enslaved workers in the cotton fields of the South, the brutal whippings and near starvation of African men (and women) for no reason other than to strike terror into their hearts so as to reduce the likelihood of escape efforts, and, significantly enough, the collusion by Northerners in capturing and returning to Southern slavers the brave and resilient Africans who naively thought the “North” would treat them differently.
So what I’m left with now that this new knowledge is seared into me is this: Slavery might well have died an inevitable death had the cotton industry not been moving into high gear. That is to say, inhumane and barbaric treatment of innocent captives could have been weakened and then perhaps discontinued entirely if commerce and money not been the driving forces behind the perceived need for that treatment. And it remains true that a capitalist framework has seen the aborted end of Reconstruction, the legal support for Jim Crow laws, and the prolonged and continuing mass incarceration of black people, especially black men. We don’t have slaves picking cotton until their hands became blistered and shredded, but we do have black prisoners working both inside and outside their cells in order to provide white commercial and agricultural ventures with essentially free labor. And a bill that may well have come from good intentions on the government’s part never got even to be put into play with any energy or hopes for a positive outcome.
My sadness stems from grasping this unnecessary prolongation of pain and abuse; my anger stems from having no one ever teach me anything about this travesty.
- The little six-year old girl crying plaintively and asking for help to call her tia with her memorized phone number.
- The little boy’s repeated cries of “papa,” “no papa,” “papa, “no papa.”
- Charles Blow, Opinion Columnist for the New York Times, unwilling to temper his fury at what the administration and Congress are doing to Central American families who made the fatal error of thinking of the United States as a haven from violence.
- Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon of CNN unable to hide their increasing sense of being beside themselves with existential puzzlement at having to be speaking yet one more night about the savage separation of babies and children from their mothers and fathers.
- Pediatricians and psychologists telling us in no uncertain terms about the permanent damage being inflicted on thousands of traumatized children for no acceptable reason.
- National Public Radio’s playing back comments from people recently interviewed about what’s happening at our southern border, including “Well, they’re getting food and water, so….” and “They’re getting what they deserve.”
- Interviews with people in Texas who are having trouble reporting on the lack of any coherent (or even incoherent) plan to reunite those families already wrenched apart in the name of security.
So where am I at this point, someone who considers herself a wordsmith who refuses to dumb down her vocabulary even more strenuously now than in the past because I see the slide into cruder and cruder language all around me? I feel at a loss, quite literally, for words to express how I feel about what the president and his minions are doing and about what the Congress is not doing. A serious Buddhist who attends a 12-step program I am part of asked me yesterday what I was doing to deal with the heartless separation of fleeing families. My response was incredibly feeble–I muttered about smiling at women I pass on the streets with babies or young children, or speaking to little children in line at the grocery store, or praying that some agency or subset of Congress people will step in and facilitate reunions for the several thousands of families scattered across this country.
So here I am, unable to sleep because of all the voices in my head, hoping maybe by putting some of what’s there down on virtual paper, I may find momentary calm. And whose words come back to me are Bryan Stevenson’s found near the end of his powerful memoir, Just Mercy. He recounts a telephone conversation with a man about to be killed by lethal injection. Stevenson realizes that tears are working their way down his face and knowing he doesn’t want to let the condemned man know he is crying since that person is trying to be positive as he thanks Stevenson for all his help. Stevenson falls into despair, thinking “I can’t keep doing this work.” But then he begins thinking about the dying man’s life, how broken it has been from early childhood, both by individuals and institutions. Suddenly Stevenson realizes that HE is broken, too, that we all are. And from that profound epiphany, he is able to posit that it is precisely from naming our own brokenness that mercy comes. If I get in touch with my own broken parts, I may have the courage to see yours and extend mercy to you. He is able, from that moment, to return to his vital work with prisoners on death row or serving life sentences with no chance for parole.
Maybe I need to sink deeper into my own broken places and then ask myself what actions can proceed. One simple course any of us painfully affected by senseless acts of dismemberment within families to follow is to work tirelessly in the up-coming election cycles to elect women and men who will refuse to roll over or turn away or pretend all will magically come out right in the end. The only way atrocities like the one at our border will stop is for us to put people into all levels of public office who feel the way we feel. Meanwhile, may I have the stamina to keep listening to the tiny voices crying out for help.