Just Above My Head, James Baldwin

North America Project 2022

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the great novelists I’m sure. But for reasons of my own I didn’t read Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) for my matric (year 12), and though I did read many years ago, and still own, Giovanni’s Room (1956) I didn’t like it. They were his first two novels. I’ve now listened to Just Above My Head (1979), his sixth and last and thought it a work of genius.

I wrote that introduction a few weeks ago, so over the last couple of days, on my way down from North Queensland, I’ve listened again, and liked it just as much. The novel is ostensibly the story of a gay Black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, as told by his older brother, Hall.

Hall, himself, at the beginning of the fifth and final ‘book’, says something like “I set out to write a poem of praise for my brother, and inevitably I wrote about myself.” What I think Baldwin wanted, and succeeded in doing, was to spell out to the world the condition of the Black man at this time in America by focusing on two closely connected pairs of siblings – Hall and Arthur, Julia and Jimmy, growing up in Harlem but whose parents have come up from the South – mostly through the eyes of Hall, but sometimes through Arthur’s eyes using the device “he later told me”.

Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Daniel saw the stone that was rolled into Babylon
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Tearing down the kingdom of this world!

As a reader I would have skipped this and gone straight to the beginning of the text, which would have been a mistake. Baldwin has infused the whole novel with driving rhythms, taken from gospel singing and gospel preaching. There is a lot of music in this book, discussed and quoted. Hall says at one point, “Look for the beat. And look for the beat underneath.”

A while ago, I wrote that Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Christina Stead’s Letty Fox (1946) appeared to indicate that there was a New York school of writing in the 1940s and 50s characterised by an unstoppable flow of words. Baldwin appears to be of this school, and to have taken it to a new level. Whole sections of the novel aren’t descriptions of speech and action at all, but bursts of words, reinforced by repetition, setting an atmosphere.

The damn’d blood burst, first through the nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.

And so the book begins, with a hymn and with Arthur’s death, alone in the basement toilet of a pub in London.

Hall is writing from the perspective of a couple of years later. He is settled, with a wife and teenage children. They are visiting Julia, who was once his lover. Jimmy, Julia’s little brother and Arthur’s lover for the 14 years up to his death, walks in and is welcomed home. Julia gets out a photo albumn and so the whole story is told in Book 1, and Books 2,3,4,5 are enhancements, reinforcement, repetition.

I wish, wish, wish I had the book beside me on this truckstop table. It deserves a much more detailed – and loving – treatment than I am able to give it here. As I have implied, it is a mighty work of poetry, 20 hours or so, which is of course a credit to the reader, Kevin Kenerly, who interprets, sustains it over that considerable time, interestingly, playing down the song lyrics quoted and playing up the rhythms and variations in force of Baldwin’s writing.

We go back 30 odd years, to the late 1940s, Hall and Arthur are with their parents at a church service to see Julia, a child prodigy, preach, and Arthur sing. Hall’s father, a pianist, plays accompaniment. Julia’s father, a spiv, reads the lesson.

“Amen”, said Julia. “Now that was David talking. You all know who David was? David wrote these psalms and I believe they was put to music in the olden times and the people just sang and made a joyful noise unto the Lord with the psalms. This is David talking, and you know who David was? Well David went out one day looking for this wicked giant … You all still don’t know who David was? David was a shepherd boy, he fed the hungry sheep! I hear some of you saying, Who was this David? tell me more about this David! Well David was a king …”

The two families go back to the Montana’s apartment for dinner and so we become engrossed in their lives. Julia’s mother dies. Jimmy is sent down south to his grandmother. Julia stays, is her father’s support. Arthur and his friends form a Gospel singing group, tour down south. Hall is called up to fight in Korea. We don’t follow him, all the action remains in New York and in the South.

Julia is beaten senseless by her father. Julia preaches her last service with Arthur once again singing. Julia falls out of the story for a while, living quietly with Jimmy and her grandmother, reappears in New York as a model as Hall gets home from Korea.

Every Black person is described in the degrees and shades of their colour. Until near the end, when Arthur has a white lover in Paris, there are no white people in the story at all, other than Klanners down South.

The terror, the danger, for Black people, Northerners, of even driving through the South is visceral. There are rapes and murders. But all along the focus is on the central four. Arthur tours, sings within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, some of their friends go off to join Malcolm X, but the focus is tight, we are not told about the movement, or about racism. We feel it.

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James Baldwin, Just above my Head, first pub. 1979. Audiobook: Blackstone, 2016, read by Kevin Kenerly. 21 hours

see also these reviews from Emma/Book around the Corner:
Go Tell it on the Mountain (here) “Interesting, but difficult to read”
Giovanni’s Room (here) “Another Baldwin masterpiece”
Going to meet the Man (here) “A Must Read”
If Beale Street Could Talk (here) “A Must Read”
A Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou (here) “An ode to James Baldwin”

Seven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga

North America Project 2022

Seven Fallen Feathers documents the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students living away – a long way in most cases – from home to attend Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay, Ontario (Canada) in the years 2000-2011.

I listened to it a few weeks ago and then again for a few hours yesterday. I can’t pretend to have retained enough for a proper review, but this is a moving and important story and I will attempt to reconstruct it from the considerable resources of the internet.

Tanya Talaga is an experienced journalist and an Ojibwe woman “with roots in Fort William First Nation… Her great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor. Her great-grandfather, Russell Bowen, was an Ojibwe trapper and labourer. Her grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation, and her mother was raised in Raith and Graham, Ontario.” (About Tanya)

The book is divided into seven sections, one for each ‘fallen feather’ plus a couple of chapters to wind up. But throughout Talaga winds in background material. Northern Ontario sounds bleak, forests, snow and innumerable lakes, with small remote First Nations communities accessible only by seaplanes, or by long drives when the roads are open.

I gather most communities have schools up to Year 8, but beyond that it’s either correspondence or living away from home – boarding with families, not residential colleges – to attend DFC. Sadly, it is (or was) a condition of attending DFC that the kids come from a remote community. Hence if a parent set up home in Thunder Bay to support their child then they no longer met the condition for attending the school.

Indigenous education fell, and maybe still falls, under Federal Native Affairs (however it is now named) while the education of settler children was a function of Provincial governments. As is the way with Native Affairs bureaucracies everywhere, even if the spending per student was nominally the same, most of it went on (white) administration, and Indigenous schools were woefully underfunded compared with settler schools.

Talaga’s thesis is that the Canadian government engaged in the systematic elimination of First Nations culture – cultural genocide – and for all their good words/good intentions now, that is ongoing. Treaties, which First Nations leaders entered into under duress, were not honoured; the 1876 Indian Act restricted First Nations people to mostly remote reservations and enforced the attendance of of all children up to 16 years at one of 137 residential schools, run by churches, and now notorious for physical and sexual violence, inadequate food and clothing, and rampant disease, especially TB which might easily have been controlled; even with the closure of the residential schools, Indigenous education has been inadequately funded.

To date, according to conservative estimates from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 4,100 to 6,000 children died amid abuse and neglect while in the residential school system, which ran until 1996.

CTV News, 1 June 2021 (here)

DFC, with 150 students over Years 9-12, was opened by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council on the site of an old residential school in Thunder Bay in 2000. Within weeks of the opening the first of the seven, Jethro Anderson, was reported missing. His body was subsequently found in the Kam River, bruised and with what appeared to be cigarette burns to his face. In what became an unvarying trend, Thunder Bay police reported, prior to any possibility of investigation, that there was no suspicion of foul play.

The other six are –
Curran Strang, 2005, found in the McIntyre River
Paul Panacheese, 2006, collapsed and died at home
Robyn Harper, 2006, died of acute alcohol poisoning
Reggie Bushie, 2007, found in the McIntyre River. He had been drinking on the banks of the river with his brother Ricki, who came to, in the river, with no memory of how he got there
Kyle Morrisseau, 2009, found in the McIntyre River
Jordan Wabasse, 2011, found in the Kam River

Talaga writes sympathetic accounts of each of the seven and their families. She provides instances of Indigenous kids reporting being beaten up by white kids and of being tossed into waterways. She documents ongoing racist harassment; taunts and rubbish thrown from passing cars; one Indigenous woman dying of injuries from a lump of metal thrown at her stomach. Over and over we run into indifferent police and coroners inquiries with all white juries.

There is clearly a problem with children 14-18, too far from parental love and supervision, with too many opportunities for drinking and smoking. As in Australia, concerned elders patrol the streets at night and do what they can. As in Australia, Indigenous kids out after dark are treated by the police with suspicion rather than compassion or understanding.

Provincial police were brought in to redo the investigations. To no effect. An inquest into the seven deaths made open findings about the causes of the deaths and 145 recommendations. Children are now brought home for a week mid-term; and new, more local schools are opening. I was left unsure about whether there were local Provincial high schools that Indigenous kids might attend.

In 2017, two more dead teenagers—Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg—were pulled from different parts of the McIntyre River within two weeks of each other.

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Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2017. Audible, 2018, Read by Michaela Washburn. 9 hours.

Christian Morrisseau, an Ojibwa ‘woodland’ artist, painted Seven Fallen Feathers in about 2016, after the inquest into the deaths of his son Kyle and six other First Nations students in Thunder Bay in the years 2000-2011 (Tanya Talaga, Ojibwa artist paints Seven Fallen Feathers to ease pain, remember seven young lives, Toronto Star)

see also:
Marcie/Buried in Print’s review (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s Indigenous Lit page/Canada and the Americas (here)


I don’t get the impression anyone is attempting to read along with my North America Project. Just as well! Next month (June) my review will be of James Baldwin’s Just Above my Head (1979) which I happened on in the library and have already listened to (yes Emma, it was excellent). July WILL be Their Eyes were watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston. I already have Life Among the Qallunaat, Mini Aodla Freeman, so that leaves me four more to find (I also have Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany, but I think that’s a project for another day).

Also in June, for Naomi’s Literary Wives Club, I have The Sentence (2021) by Louise Erdrich to read – I know! What a waste to read a book for only one challenge when it might easily cover two or three.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (2)

North America Project 2022

Continuing on from Melanie’s essay, Malcolm X was one of those names emblematic of the great revolution occurring in America in the sixties when I went up to university in far away Melbourne, Australia. But my interest was in the anti-Vietnam War movement and I couldn’t have told you anything about Malcolm X the man except maybe the words ‘Black Rights’ and ‘Nation of Islam’.

So basically it has taken me half a century, and a big shove from Melanie, to rectify that, to listen to Malcolm X’s life on Audible (read by Laurence Fishburne).

Although the cover above – I wonder if it is the original – doesn’t say so, the autobiography is an “as told to” compiled by Alex Haley, a decade later the author of Roots, from interviews conducted with Malcolm X in 1963,4. Haley was a journalist and the style of writing reflects that, clear and straightforward with no literary flourishes. Wikipedia (here) gives a very good account of the “as told to” process, and while it is clear Malcolm X maintained control over the content, the construction and writing is all Haley’s.

Malcolm Little was born in 1925, the fourth of seven children, and grew up in Lansing, Michigan. His father, a preacher, had his his house burned down and was subsequently bashed and pushed under a streetcar, officially suicide, but more likely the work of white racists. This was the Depression and without the father’s income the family were in desperate poverty. Under constant harassment by state welfare, the mother had a breakdown and the children were dispersed to orphanages and foster homes.

As an older teenage Malcolm moved to Boston, to his older half-sister Ella who lived in the relatively middle class Black suburb, Roxbury. Malcolm I’m sure appreciated Ella’s support, but throughout the book he is scathing about Blacks with even a little bit of money, who are ‘Tame Negroes’, if I remember the wording correctly, more concerned with integrating into white America than they are with asserting themselves.

Malcolm got into the fringes of the Black music industry, graduating from a shoeshine stand to marijuana supplier, becoming a notable lindy hop dancer, hooking up white men and black women and vice versa, and ending up with a white (later married) middle class girlfriend of his own, of whom he is completely contemptuous.

When the US enters WWII he manages to dodge the draft, dope dealing becomes difficult, and he forms a burglary gang, with his white girlfriend and her teenage sister scouting for likely targets, until they are finally caught. Malcolm believes that the appropriate sentence would have been two years but because white women were involved he got ten.

In jail he resumes his education, mainly through extensive non-fiction reading, and becomes a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which preaches obedience to Allah with Elijah as his most recent prophet. There’s a lot of sciency stuff about the origins of mankind, Black of course, in Africa, to which I paid little attention. As a religion it seems unexceptional, arguing against Integration for a separation of the races. Socially, it was very conservative, the husband ruled his family, and adulterers and pregnant single women were expelled.

Interestingly, Malcolm and all the preachers, were given the surname X to signify their disowning of the surnames which their slave forbears had taken from their owners.

Malcolm rose through the ranks, setting up new congregations throughout America. Eventually he was made the leader of the Harlem congregation, and there became a prominent spokesman in the national press, while Elijah Muhammad and his sons established The Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago.

Malcolm X’s increasing prominence, and the discovery that Elijah Muhammad had been getting all his secretaries pregnant led to a break, followed by Malcolm making a pilgrimage to Mecca and being taken up there by ‘official’ Islam.

The autobiography ends with him still speaking highly of Nation of Islam but attempting to set up his own organization while living in anticipation of attacks from his former fellows.

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Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first pub. 1965


On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when a man shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.

One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan), was beaten by the crowd before police arrived. Witnesses identified the others as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. These three were convicted and given life sentences. Hayer disputed Butler and Thomas’ involvement and named four others who were never charged. Butler and Johnson were finally pardoned in 2021, well after they had been released on parole. (Wiki) (NYT).

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

North America Project 2022

My friend Melanie at Grab the Lapels is an American, a generation younger than me and was for some years a professor teaching creative writing where she would use Malcolm X’s story “as told to Alex Haley” as a teaching aid. She persuaded me to include it in my reading North American Black and First Nations writers project this year with the promise to write up her own experience. And here it is…


In the U.S. we are incapable of acknowledging our history and healing from it. When the oppressed have had enough, they make a lot of noise, leaving conservatives confounded. After so many years of Confederate soldier statues scattered throughout the country, especially in the South, why are protestors mad now? Does it desecrate the memory of a war leader whom some revere that others see as a symbol of hatred? History belongs in a museum, activists said. And when conservatives did not listen, activists turned to property damage, toppling monuments and leaving them in pieces. Is not a decorated white leader someone to turn to when racism makes a racist feel bad?

I began my education in 1990, and not once during that time can I recall hearing the name Malcolm X. A contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X could not be packaged nicely like the wise Southern pastor who included men and women, black and white, Southern and Northern in his group of supporters. In contrast, Malcolm X felt that African Americans do not want to live where they are not wanted and advocated for reparations in the form of land for the descendants of slaves. Any effort to integrate was a ruse, he thought, a way for “the white man” or “the white devil” to infiltrate black neighborhoods, steal their resources and abuse the residents, and then leave for the white side of town.

The fight over Critical Race Theory raging in the U.S. today appears to lean into the idea that white children will be made to feel bad if they learn that adults who look like they do were also adults who did everything in their physical, legal, and financial power to exploit human beings based on the darker color of their skin. Malcolm X begins his autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, with a story from before he was born. While his father was out of town, the local KKK attacked Malcolm’s mother and older siblings. Only her pregnancy — that was Malcolm — kept them from murdering the family. Later, under suspicious conditions, Malcolm’s father is found beheaded, but because it was set up to look like a suicide by train tracks, the insurance company did not pay out on the father’s life insurance plan. Plummeting into starvation and incessant visits from white social workers who attempted to pit the children against their mother left Malcolm’s mom in a mental health crisis from which she never recovered.

Sometimes life is so awful it’s hard to believe the stories of those who experience blatant discrimination, but Malcolm X writes a convincing narrative explaining how his youth, from his parents being torn apart to teachers discouraging him from learning because he’s just a black kid, led him into a remorseless young adult life of crime. Righteous folks like to claim we always have an option, but a person’s environment has loads to say about his level of education, empathy, and experience. After his time as a numbers runner, drug dealer, and then thief who dared cavort with white women, Malcom X was sent to prison where he learned to read, devoured the well-stocked prison library, and found the Nation of Islam. The NoI, developed by a black African American man from the South, is a form of Islam that Malcolm later realizes Middle Eastern Muslims to not recognize as true Islam.

Between his studies in prison and discovering that the NoI was not what he thought, Malcolm X developed intellectual political, economic, and social theories about how “the white man” is “the devil” harming the black community. Nothing he saw nor experienced proved contrary. Using the rhetorical savvy of a lawyer and supported by ten years of intense study of languages, history, and philosophy while incarcerated, Malcolm X exploded into the media, terrifying white people with his “hateful” statements about white communities. He served as an antithesis to Dr. King, an example of what an “angry black man” looks like when folks should just all get along (and be compliant). For as much as Malcolm X was in the media, to not know his name after I attended public education is baffling until I think back to how Malcolm X supported segregation. He doesn’t fit into a warm and fuzzy narrative about slavery being over, about how the Civil Rights Movement made everything alright and we can now feel good about our white selves.

After Malcolm X took his first trip to Mecca and learned about true Islam, which had worshippers from every country and skin color, he completely changed his mind. The white man is not the devil, he realized. “White” is a state of mind, not a skin color, hence the “Uncle Tom’s” in politics. And so why did I, a white woman in her thirties, teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X for five years, semester after semester? What would compel me to give this book as a gift at high school graduation parties rather than the expected $20? The ability to change with more information.

In the U.S. change is a slur we use to shame people we don’t like. We call them wishy-washy, flip-floppy, and even suggest they are lying. We hold a record of change against public figures, especially politicians and how they voted, even if it was twenty years ago. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that with more information comes a need to change. Doubling down on facts from last year, last month, last week, even, could kill us. But looking at the bigger picture, holding fast to outdated information has led Americans to a stubborn place marked by ignorance. And if I can teach change through the narrative of a prolific American leader and thinking like Malcolm X, if only one person at a time, I’ll do it for as long as I can.

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Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X , first pub.1965

Thank you Melanie. I’ll put up my own review in a couple of days, Bill

Kindred, Octavia Butler

North America Project 2022

First, an apology to anyone who took me at my word that my first up read for Project 2022 would be ZNH’s Their Eyes were watching God. I meant it to be. I bought the audiobook. But when I was halfway through January with no work, no driving in sight I gave up on my chances of getting to Their Eyes and instead began reading Kindred which I had on my shelves (with the cover pictured, from Headline, London).

Of course, as soon as I was halfway through Kindred, I got a job, which turned into two jobs, one up the coast and one back, both overwidth so no nighttime travel, a day in between, plenty of time for reading. What did I listen to? Something stupid and an Amanda Lohrey, The Philosopher’s Doll.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an African American woman, brought up by her widowed mother in racially diverse Pasadena, California where her mother cleaned houses for white folks and put up with a lot of shit.

The Octavia Butler site features the quote “I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out it was called science fiction.” But in fact Butler was drawn to SF at an early age, through SF magazines, had her own typewriter at 10, and was soon writing SF of her own. In the late 1960s she worked days to put herself through college at night, graduated, went on to writing courses through UCLA Extension, and from there, recommended by lecturer and SF writer Harlan Ellison, to the Science Fiction writers workshop at Clarion, Pennsylvania where she met and became lifelong friends with (African American) SF writer Samuel R Delany.

The first half of the 1970s Butler describes as “five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs … before I sold another word.” But she had already begun work on the ‘Patternist’ series of novels, and after the publication of Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977) and Survivor (1978) she was able to write full time. You can only imagine how fiercely determined Butler must have been, to start writing, to get through school and college, and then to break into the man’s world, the white man’s world, of Science Fiction.

I have reviewed her later novels, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) but I probably knew her before then for Lilith’s Brood, the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). If these are no longer on my shelves I blame my son whose taste in SF is impeccable.

Kindred (1979) is an exploration of why and how slaves put up with what they did, sparked in the first place by seeing what her mother had to put up with. Interestingly Roots, which of course deals with the same issues, and which I read and wrote about last year, came out as a book in 1976, followed by the immensely popular TV series a year later, so two or three years before Kindred. But I haven’t seen any discussion that this is where Butler got her inspiration.

Despite my great admiration for Butler, I was initially disappointed that she was using SF in Kindred as just the frame for another Historical Fiction account of slavery in early nineteenth century American cotton fields. But of course Butler is cleverer than that. The novel covers a few months in 1976 in the life of Dana, an African American woman and her white husband, Kevin, just another middle class couple in California, both writers, late twenties; or a few years if you count the time, the times, they spend on a Maryland cotton plantation in the years before the Civil War.

The room seemed to blur and darken around me. I stayed on my feet for a moment holding on to a bookcase and wondering what was wrong … I heard [Kevin] move toward me, saw a blur of gray pants and blue shirt. Then, just before he would have touched me, he vanished.
The house, the books, everything vanished. Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees. I was in a green place. I was at the edge of a woods.

There is a child, a white boy of four or five, drowning in a pond. Dana pulls him out, fends off the hysterical mother, begins mouth to mouth. Successfully, luckily. This boy, Rufus, is, or will be, her great great grandfather.

It’s a complex story and Butler uses it well to discuss complex issues. The Sf element is that each time Rufus is in danger he drags Dana back through time (and across the width of the continent) to save him. Each time she is in danger she returns to 1976, to within a few minutes or hours of when she left. If Kevin is touching her he goes with her. And if he’s not he doesn’t, which leaves him one time stranded in the nineteenth century for a ten years, from his point of view.

Dana, works out from her family history her relationship to Rufus, and intuits that his friend, Alice, the daughter of a freed Black family must be her great great grandmother. The thing is to keep saving Rufus until Alice has a child by him. Butler uses Dana’s status as a Black twentieth century feminist to interrogate black-white, and master-slave relationships.

Dana comes to see Rufus’ father in more and more nuanced terms but nevertheless she ends up being whipped by him not once but twice.

As they reach adulthood Alice takes a husband, but Rufus wants her for his mistress. The husband is sold down south, and then Rufus attempts to force Dana to persuade Alice that she has no choice.

We criticize Hist.Fic. authors for writing with modern eyes, but by framing Kindred as SF this is exactly what Butler does, with devastating effect. A wonderful, powerful novel.

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Octavia E Butler, Kindred, first pub. 1979. My edition published by Headline, London, 2018 with Foreword by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. 295pp.

Roots, Alex Haley

Over the past month I’ve been engaged with Liz Dexter and Buried in Print in reading Alex Haley’s seminal, important, groundbreaking 1976 novel of the history of a (his) African American slave family. They will I’m sure put up reviews shortly but having a gap in my schedule so to speak, I’ll put up my initial thoughts now while the main elements of the book – which I listened to while they were reading – are still in my head.

I missed Roots when it was on TV, though of course I didn’t miss the hype, so I’m only now realising why it was so important. And that is that Black Americans were for the first time seeing themselves centre stage, taken seriously, with documentable genealogies.

To start at the end, Haley, a relatively middle-class boy from Tennessee, sat at the feet of his great aunts before WWII and heard the oral history of his mother’s family which began with an ‘African’, Kunta Kinte, captured by slavers as a young man in the late 1760s, transported across the Atlantic, and sold for plantation work on arrival at Annapolis, Maryland.

In the final chapters, Haley describes how some of the names of places and objects, indeed the Kinte name itself, which had been passed down for nearly 200 years, could be identified as from the Mandinka nation of The Gambia, a literate, Muslim people. That this history is now, and was almost immediately, challenged does not affect my reading of the novel.

Roots is a long book, a family saga covering the stories of one or two people over four generations, from before the War of Independence to the period following the Civil War. There are 120 chapters, so we read and discussed between ourselves 30 chapters each week. Which suited me as I could listen to my 7-8 hours each weekend while I was driving, then write it up when I got home.

Haley spends a long time, the first quarter of the book, establishing Kunta as a boy and then young man, learning to read and count, memorizing the Koran, being taught his responsibilities, taken on journeys, meeting people from other tribes with other customs (and languages). He is aware that white men, with the assistance of Africans, are taking people away, overseas, possibly to eat them, but he is not particularly cautious and at about age 18 he is captured.

The voyage to America is horrific, chained in pairs, lying damp and stinking on shelves below decks, frequently whipped, badly fed, a thirty percent death rate. Haley I think does a good job not just of telling the story but of imagining what Kunta must have been thinking and feeling.

In the US Kunta is sold onto a plantation, he is a frequent runaway, and just as frequently recaptured until at last he attacks one of his captors and his foot is chopped off. We then have a long period – 20 years – where Kunta comes to terms with being a slave, living with people who have been slaves for some generations already. Finally he marries, a cook, Bell, and they have one child, a daughter Kizzy.

At 18 Kizzy helps her boyfriend escape. He’s recaptured. She’s sold as a field hand to a small plantation further south (we hear no more of Kunta), is raped by the owner and has a son, George. Unfortunately for us, the new owner makes his money cockfighting, George grows to become his principal trainer, and we learn far too much about ‘chickens’ and the sport/industry surrounding them.

George in turn marries Matilda who is a much better woman than he deserves and they have a whole host of kids. No. 3 (I think) is Tom who apprentices as a blacksmith and grows to become a responsible man and father and head of his family.

This brings us up to the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. The family is largely unaffected by the War but soon afterwards, George who has been away, returns and on his word of a ‘promised land’ in Tennessee, 17 Black families (and one white couple) make their way there in a wagon train, and take up 30 or 40 acre plots on rich soil just opened up for settlement. Tom, despite opposition from the local whites, opens up for business as a blacksmith. And the families settle down to prosper.

That, more or less is the end of the saga. In the space of a chapter or so, Tom’s youngest daughter marries a Haley, who has a lumber business, and so in a couple of generations more we have young Alex.

The prose is undistinguished, just words enough to propel us through the story. We are forever being updated on ‘background’, ie. US history, by slaves telling each other what they had overheard or glimpsed in newspapers, which the other two found less intrusive than I did.

I think Haley’s intention was to do with being Black and proud. The survival of ‘the African’ in his family’s history. What I got out of it was firstly the centrality of the matriarch in each generation, holding the family together, despite the stories mostly revolving around the men; and secondly, once Kunta had been beaten down, the slaves mostly just got on with life, rather as you would with a tedious job you were never able to leave.

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Alex Haley, Roots, first pub. 1976. Audiobook read by Avery Brooks, 2011. 30 hours

see also:
Adventures in reading, running and working from home (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print, Slavery: Past and Present #280898 Reasons (3.5 of 4)
The Australian Legend, Project 2022 – Reading North American Black & Native American Lit.

The Ripping Tree, Nikki Gemmell

Nikki Gemmell (1966- ) is an author I really admire. If I had more time (and energy) I would have made her my feature author for a year as I did with David Ireland a couple of years ago. I have written about her previously so if you want to know more start with my review of After (2017), Gemmell’s memoir of dealing with the death of her mother by her own hand, pre-Assisted Dying laws.

An author I admire, but the rest of the world, not so much. She gets “International Bestselling Author” for The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) but where’s the hype for this, her first novel in eight years, or for that matter, for After, which was a really powerful work, but which attracted just one commenter, as did my previous Gemmell review (thank you, respectively, Sue and Lisa).

I picked up The Ripping Tree as an MP3 CD at my latest library, which means I listened to it a week ago, took no notes and there is almost no textual material online to provide me with reminders.

First up, it’s Historical Fiction. How do I deal with that? It’s not a re-telling of an historical event, but rather an imagined story set in maybe the 1840s on an island or coastal community on the east coast of Australia. I read it as a sermon using an alternative reality to posit a world where a powerless young woman, bereft of everything, down to her own clothing, nevertheless stood up to power both for herself and for the local Aborigines whom the settlers were massacring.

Australian history must be re-written to include the Indigenous massacres, oppression and deaths in custody which from 1788 till today, and no doubt well into the future, enable us to live on this land. Gemmell no doubt is an advocate of this re-writing. But I think that by doing it through Historical Fiction she runs into the old #NotAllMen problem, or in this case #NotAllWhites.

No doubt there were ‘good’ Germans, and there are ‘good’ men, but the Germans have shown that the way forward for them is to accept responsibility for the Holocaust; the South Africans that Truth precedes Reconciliation; women are asking all men to acknowledge their privilege; I am saying ALL non-Indigenous Australians must acknowledge that our prosperity derives from theft and murder. The problem with this book is that it will leave readers with the option of saying ‘well, we weren’t all bad’ when the truth is that right up to today we either participated or looked the other way.

[Does the sensible thing, rings the library, goes and picks up a paper copy].

The novel is framed as a story told by a grandmother to her grandchildren who have been up the coast to visit the ‘stately home’ Willowbrae. “The turrets, the crenellations, the magnificent library, the avenue of elms, the circular flower beds”. But that is just two or three pages, of no consequence.

The novel otherwise, is divided into seven consecutive days and the days into chapters of just a few pages. On day one Thomasina Trelora, 16 years old, from Knockleby, Dorset wakes to find herself in a strange bed, in a girl’s bedroom.

Her father has died. Her half brother has sold the estate to pay his own debts and has brought Thomasina to his home in Australia where she is to marry a clergyman sight unseen. But their ship has missed the harbour entrance in a storm, has smashed on the rocks, and she, the only survivor has washed up onshore, barely conscious, has been rescued by an Aboriginal man

Black. I took the hand in mine and turned it over, held the rescuing fingers close. The hand was darker at the knuckles and ghostly pale underneath, as if the sun had never reached into it, or use had rubbed it light, and there was a paleness under the nails and near them and, no, actually, the skin wasn’t uniformly black at all: the fingernails were yellowed and ridged and strongly thick as if from something else. The ocean perhaps, shells or sea creatures …

who deposits her in the night on the steps of Willowbrae. She determines to keep her name to herself, to avoid the unwanted marriage, and the youngest son of the house, Mouse, names her Poss, for the “opossum that comes in the night and scrambles things up and is really cheeky with lovely big eyes”.

The family in whose house she finds herself, the Craws, consist of mother, father, two adult sons, Tobyn and Virgil, a dead sister in whose bed she is lying, and young Mouse. The two elements of the story are Poss’s refusal to be tied down to a proper feminine role, let alone take the place of the dead sister; and her discovery of a dead Aboriginal mother and baby – and subsequently the dead woman’s young English-speaking daughter – and her determination to have the death investigated, when it’s clear that a) it’s part of a wider policy of ‘dispersing the natives’, and b) that the baby was Virgil’s. The second element is made worse by her further discovery that Mr Craw is sending Aboriginal bones back to England for ‘research’.

A strange Vicar is introduced into the story, a shy, awkward man who offers Poss friendship. But the local townspeople want her gone, and by day seven Poss is facing the very real possibility of life-long incarceration in an institution for unmanageable women.

Mr Craw’s fists smash upon the desk. ‘You’re mad, child. Seeing things. It’s a sign of hysteria – and that ridiculous insistence on men’s clothes was only the start. There’s no “black man” here or anywhere near Willowbrae. You had a blow to the head and need medical help.’ Is he right? No, surely. ‘You need a doctor. Immediately.’

Gemmell is a fine writer and this is a powerful story, full of tension, about an imagined past in which heroic young women fought back against the murder of the original inhabitants. Despite my reservations I enjoyed it. I hope you read it for yourselves.

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Nikki Gemmell, The Ripping Tree, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2001. 340pp. (sorry, I returned the CD without noting the reader. I imagine the running time was about 9 hours).

Nikki Gemmell website (here)

The ‘ripping tree’ is a tree from which the bark may be ripped in sheets. Gemmell says paperbark but (IMO) they are a relatively small tree and the bark comes off in flakes. Perhaps it’s different on the NSW north coast (I’m wrong, see Lisa’s comment below)

Born in to This, Adam Thompson

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

A number of bloggers have got before me to this short story collection by new (43 year old) Indigenous writer Adam Thompson, a Pakana man from northern Tasmania. Not helped by me leaving it at home on my last trip and so missing Lisa’s ANZLL Indig. Lit. Week.

Brona/This Reading Life aka Brona’s Books writes (here): there are powerful and promising things going on here. Some of his stories pack a serious punch, others creep in quietly under your skin. Either way, it is the diversity of characters, settings and tone that is truly impressive.

Kimbofo/Reading Matters’ take is similar (here): Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it… But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos.

And what does Sue/Whispering Gums, who thought to send me this book, say? (here): … these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian.

I, as Sue knows, am not a short story person. Was giving me this book punishment for something I said or did? Am I going to like all or some of these stories? Am I going to be able to say something different? Great questions. Well done Bill. (That’s an Angus Taylor joke. Angus Taylor is an Angus Taylor joke.).

Ok, the first story, The Old Tin Mine was good. An older Indigenous man taking a group of townie Indigenous boys on a survival camp in country he knows, or thinks he knows, comes unstuck.

The second story is better. What’s going on here? A white guy with a Black employee boasts to him about destroying Aboriginal stone implements, “Hope I’m not offending ya.” And he comes unstuck.

The third is more like it, female protagonist/male author, I’m sure not to like it. Kara is a receptionist with a shitty boss and a shitty job. She goes for a quiet walk in the bush on her afternoon off. Both the people she encounters, and the bush are closely observed

The strangers passed, oblivious to her presence. A middle-aged couple, slim and fit. The man had an odd-shaped but well-clipped beard. The woman wore a designer hiking outfit in retro pastel colours. Kara could tell they weren’t from round here. They held themselves – as did all white mainlanders – with that peculiar, assured air. It made them seem taller and more upright than the locals.

Interestingly, the story harks back to the previous story’s stone tools. As a girl she would go out with her uncle, looking for stone tools, photographing them and recording their location.

The walk turns out to have a destination and a purpose. To take a small revenge on the forestry companies replacing native bush with plantation pines. Oh well, perhaps I’ll dislike the next one.

And I did. Well, I thought it – Invasion Day – an awkward evocation of what it is like to be up the front at a protest march.

We go on .. A man alone on an island off the north coast. His uncle who was staying with him, no longer is. A flash cruiser with five police on board brings him a letter. Which he burns. That’s it.

A very good story, a young couple going camping. Is he her trophy Black boyfriend? He certainly thinks she’s his trophy summer girlfriend

‘I’m so sorry’, you blurt out before I can react…
‘For what?’ …
‘For what my people did to yours.’ Your eyes well up again. ‘You owned all this land and now you have to struggle – like now, just to get a camp on the beach.’ Breaking into a sob, you collapse into me…
If you could see my eyes right now, it would kill you to witness them roll in irritation…
‘It’s not your fault,’ I say.
‘You’re so kind,’ you whisper.

A curate’s egg of a story, Mean Girls, aided by teachers, picking on smart Black girl. An awkward story of a white guy at his black mate’s funeral. Another awkward story, awkward in that the writing is stilted, a man waiting on an island for his mate at sea in a tinny in a storm. A not very convincing story about a man and a gun. A silly story about a doctor being shamed into signing his posh house over to a young Aboriginal woman.

“What’s with these acknowledgement of country speeches that kick off every public event these days? It’s all just words! Where is the action? If you acknowledge that this is Aboriginal land, then bloody well give it back, Don’t just say it, do it!”

Then a clever story about a new (Conservative) government policy – every (white) taxpayer gets a letter from one (Black) person on the dole whom they are “sponsoring”. A touching story about … climate change, fathers and sons, a dead child.

A story that points to a missed opportunity – in my eyes only probably – a Black guy at the beach on Invasion Day, flying an Aboriginal flag kite amongst all the whities in their Australia flag picnic chairs, when the Invasion Day story above has already caused a stir.

And finally, “It all started when I discovered my brother was sleeping with my wife …”

How would I describe Born to This? Not so bitsy as some collections. But still a missed opportunity to write something more cohesive, stories which point back to each other, which are connected not just by a shared geography but by recurring characters and families. With a bit more effort Thompson may have turned out, if not Olive Kitteridge, which revolves around one person, then at least The Turning, which involves an extended community seen from multiple viewpoints (and times).

My other problem is my problem – I don’t like authors who step outside their own POV. But, for all you (strange) readers who don’t mind that, who actually like short stories, what can I say? What they said, ” punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia.

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Adam Thompson, Born in to This, UQP, Brisbane, 2021. 206pp, Cover painting and artwork between stories, Judith-Rose Thomas

Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

Dark Emu (2018) has been well reviewed over the past two or three years, and as Lisa/ANZLL sent me my copy more or less at the beginning of that period I have been remiss in not reviewing it earlier. Pascoe, a man of Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage, of course uses this book to argue that the Indigenous people of Australia were much more than ‘just’ hunter-gatherers, but were in fact custodians of the land who built houses, sowed grain and had a pan-continental system of governance that allowed the various language groups to live largely in harmony.

The advantage of my review being late is that I will be able to incorporate some recent papers which argue that Pascoe has overstated his case. At the base of these arguments is a new book by “eminent Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and respected field archaeologist Keryn Walshe”, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021). No, I’m not going to read it, but the book has led to spirited reviews in The Conversation and in the daily newspapers. Pascoe has responded that he welcomes this debate.

ANU senior lecturer Christine Nicholls in her review in The Conversation of 15 June 2021 says that Sutton & Walsh demonstrate that Pascoe was selective in the way he used sources – the journals of early explorers – to imply that “all along Aboriginal people were farmers and/or aquaculturalists”, and that he deliberately failed to interview the few remaining people who have led or are leading, traditional lives [see for instance Two Sisters]. Though the two books are sometimes in agreement –

[Sutton & Walsh] portray classical Australian Aboriginal people as highly successful hunter-gatherers and fishers. They strongly repudiate racist notions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers as living in a primitive state. In their book, they assert there was and is nothing “simple” or “primitive” about hunter-gatherer-fishers’ labour practices. This complexity was, and in many cases, still is, underpinned by high levels of spiritual/cultural belief.

Nicholls

Right at the beginning of Dark Emu, Pascoe makes clear that his concern is the system 18th and 19th century anthropologists used to rank societies – with hunter-gatherers at the bottom, then primitive agriculturalists, then traders and so on. By ranking them at the very lowest rung, the British were able to argue that Indigenous Australians had made no attempt to take possession of the land and therefore it was technically unoccupied, terra nullius. The concept of living in harmony with the land, which is the basis of Sutton & Walsh’s argument, was ignored, or to be kind, not understood. Pascoe, understandably perhaps, attempts to make his argument on his opponents’ terms, attempts to show that his people were above that lowest rung.

Hunter-gatherer and farmer are both settler/colonial labels, and the long prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (as a justification for terra nullius)

Pascoe, The Age, 12 June 2021

Michael Westaway, an archeologist, also in The Conversation (18 June 2021), is open to Pascoe’s views and is testing them at the site of known village and Indigenous stone quarry in the Channel Country in central Australia

We have been working in a landscape that provides an important test of the Dark Emu hypothesis. In partnership with the Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation, who occupy the Channel Country in Central Australia, we have begun investigating Aboriginal settlement sites, pit dwelling huts (known as gunyahs) and quarries.

Our landscape study, published in the journal Antiquity, has found over 140 quarry sites, where rock was excavated to produce seed grinding stones. We have also developed a method to locate traces of long-lost village sites.

Were First Australians farmers or hunter-gatherers? Contemporary archaeological research suggests it’s not such a simple dichotomy. Understanding the Mithaka food production system may well tell us whether such terms are a good fit for defining socio-economic networks in Aboriginal Australia.

Westaway

Stuart Rintoul in The Age, in a “review” which illustrates perfectly why I can’t be bothered with mainstream media’s focus on personalities over books and ideas, discusses the background to the Sutton & Walsh book, and also the racist response of the right to Dark Emu.

And that is as far as I got before I left Perth last week to come to Melbourne. Now, the following Thursday night I’m sitting have tea waiting till it’s time to leave (due to boring logbook stuff) to go back home. If I don’t post this tonight then my next opportunity will be next Wednesday. I’m a big fan of Lisa’s Indig. Lit. Week and I’d be sorry not to contribute. I’m already sorry about not commenting, not to Lisa’s daily posts, nor to BIP’s prolific #ReadIndigenous series. I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do. Yes, I know we all do what we can, but I’m still sorry (sad).

As it happens, my current audiobook is Archie Roach’s memoir Tell Me Why. If you don’t know, Archie Roach is one of the great singer songwriters – I last saw him at Perth’s Quarry Amphitheatre, a wonderful venue and a great night – Indigenous, and of course, one of the Stolen Generation (here’s They took the Children Away). I’ll try and remember enough to review it when I get home.

So, back to Bruce. Dark Emu concludes with

The start of that journey [to equality] is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Stirring words. My impression is that Pascoe has put the advocate’s case, his people’s case, and has done it well, though probably with some understandable hype. He has certainly made the impression he wished and has in particular had some influence on how Aboriginal history is now taught. More power to his elbow.

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Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala, Broome, first pub. 2014. New edition 2018. 229pp.
Christine Nicholls, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, The Conversation, 15 June 2021 (here)
Michael Westaway, How our archeological research investigates Dark Emu’s idea of Aboriginal ‘Agriculture’ and Villages, The Conversation, 18 June 2021 (here)
Stuart Rintoul, Has Dark Emu been debunked?, The Age, 12 June 2021 (here)
Mark McKenna, Bruce Pascoe has welcomed the Dark Emu debate, The Guardian, 25 June 2021 (here)

Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston

I’m sure you know, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an influential Black American woman writer and anthropologist whose most famous novel is Their Eyes were watching God (1937). Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) was her first. I have been aware of her for some time – three or four years – as she comes up pretty regularly on Melanie’s blog, Grab the Lapels.

“The novel is semi-autobiographical, describing the migration of characters, similar to her parents, from Notasulga, Alabama to her long-time home of Eatonville, Florida” (Wiki). That’s an interesting statement, as the beginning of the novel feels as if it is in the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War (1861-65), compared with Hurston’s birth year 1891.

When Old Massa wuz drivin’ you in de rain and in de col’ – he wasn’t don’ it tuh he’p you ‘long. He wuz lookin’ out for hisself. Course Ah was twelve years old when Lee made de big surrender ..

John’s mother talking to his father (p. 5)

John Buddy is 16 here and his mother was probably 16 when she had him, so we’re talking 1885, which until I “did the math”, is later than I expected. Don’t you love how she dates the abolition of slavery from “de big surrender”. Ned, John’s father, drives his children “in de rain and in de col'”, sharecropping for poor white landholders in backwoods Alabama, who inevitably steal his share of the crop. In these opening pages we learn that John is Ned’s stepson, that his father is white, and that he is physically big. When Ned takes a whip to his wife, John knocks him down and leaves to seek his fortune on the other side of Big Creek, at the Pearson property where his mother was from.

Although you might think that other characters – friends, neighbours, family – might play a part, they soon drop off, this is entirely John’s story – fictionalised biography, not autobiography. Hurston never speculates about John’s parentage, but on his arrival at the Pearson estate, we see that he is about Pearson’s build, he is warmly welcomed, and he takes Pearson as his surname. There, he begins attending school, sees a railway train for the first time, learns slowly to read and write, works his way up into positions of responsibility, joins the choir to be near very smart twelve year old Lucy Potts whose father is an independent landowner, and is set upon by all the buxom teenage girls.

He has to go away for a while to help out his stepfather. He exchanges notes with Lucy, is soon back and they are walking out under the strict supervision of Mrs Potts who has promised her to another old farmer. And when Lucy turns 16 they are married.

They start having children, John is forever giving into the buxom girls and women who continue to beset him (Zora doesn’t apportion much blame to her father). He is obliged to leave the Pearson place and with a considerable gift from old Pearson, John makes his way to Florida where he becomes a powerful gospel preacher. Now, that’s enough of the story. If you really want to know, when John is old he drives his new Cadillac in front of a freight train, and that’s the end of him.

The importance of this work is of course the first hand account of the post-slavery years in the South, but more than that, it is the beauty and originality of the language. This is not some heavy handed Peter Carey reconstruction (Ned Kelly, Jack Maggs), but a poet writing as she and the people around her speak.

The rhythms of John’s preaching, the rhythms of their partying and dancing are the rhythms of Africa –

Furious music of the little drum whose body was still in Africa, but whose soul sung around a fire in Alabama. Flourish. Break.

Ole cow died in Tennessee
Send her jawbone back to me
Jawbone Walk, Jawbone Talk
Jawbone eat wid uh knife and fork.
Aint Ah right?

CHORUS: Yeah!
Ain’t I right? Yeah!

Hollow-hand clapping for the bass notes. Heel and toe stomping for the little one. Ibo tune corrupted with Nango. Congo gods talking in Alabama.

As it happens, the book I read and wrote up before this one was Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel (to be posted in January). Stead’s protagonist is a German-Swiss, the guests are English, French, Swiss, Italian and the maids have their own language from whichever region of Italy they are from. So I’ve been thinking a lot about rendering language into English, which of course is a problem here too in Australia.

I love Hurston’s approach: This is the way we speak, suck it up!

It is very easy – and far too common – to dismiss non-received English as Pidgin. But Hurston demonstrates that yes, poor Black Americans must speak some English to communicate with their masters/employers, but also that they have language histories of their own, to which they will not let go.

Before he is made to leave Alabama, John often leads the prayers –

John never made a balk at prayer. Some new figure, some new praise-giving name for God, every time he knelt in church. He rolled his African drum up to the altar, and called his Congo Gods by Christian names. One night at the altar-call he cried out his barbaric poetry to his ‘Wonder-workin’ God so effectively that three converts came thru religion under the sound of his voice.

But in the end, John is a weak vessel, not worthy of Lucy, boastful and heedless of Lucy’s greater wisdom. Lucy, in fact would have been a much more interesting subject. And I hope a least one of Hurston’s other novels has a female protagonist. Eatonville, Florida was an all-Black town, indeed Pearson was for a while mayor, and Hurston was able to grow up as her mother intended, away from prejudice. John and Lucy’s children play such a small part in the story that I didn’t take the time to work out which one of them she was.

This is a fascinating story, of a flawed man, written with great poetry. There is an Introduction, written by someone I don’t know, about the influence Hurston had on that person, so I skipped it. But I will be looking for more.

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Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, first pub. 1934. This edition Virago, London, 2020. 215pp.