Sunday, February 24, 2013

For Black History Month

I want to say a few words about two books I read this month. It was pure coincidence that I read them during Black History Month but it is fitting to comment.

One was The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. This book has received unusual attention for a first novel by an unknown author. It was selected as an Oprah's Book Club 2.0 pick, which guarantees sales. And well, I've got to say, Ms. Winfrey hit this one out of the ballpark. This is a seriously good book. One of those that likely augurs a seriously important future for its author.

The book is about the lives and struggles of a woman and her family from the time she arrives in Philadelphia from Georgia in the early 1920s on through the next 50 and more years. What a generic description for such a specific set of stories, but since I'm almost never about recounting plot here--it seems a pointless waste of time--instead let me say that these stories are etched in pain and suffering. There is hardship. There is bitterness. There is, shot through it all, love. And there is, ultimately, just a smidgen of hope, tenuous, tentative.

I attended an event at the Schomburg Center in Harlem last month where Ayana Mathis read from and discussed her book. She declined to characterize Hattie as a political novel, insisting on the particularity of its characters and their travails as she imagined them into being. Indeed, the characters live, I mean feel really alive, on the page. This is an exceedingly accomplished piece of literary art, written with the lightest hand yet imbued with considerable depth of feeling and meaning. Yet I, with greatest respect for the writer, do see this as a political work, for it takes on a large, important historic topic: the Great Migration. Yes of course the story is a particular one, imagined as only this author could imagine it, and the characters are people, individual people, not some sort of symbol or contrivance meant to stand for more than each individual character with her/his individual story. But there is a context, a serious political context, in which these imagined lives are lived.

The author of the other book I want to mention most assuredly saw the novel as political, indeed as didactic. Oh horrors--didactic fiction, story told in the service of teaching something, didactic that worst of curse words for the bourgeois literary establishment. It is no curse word to me, in fact is something to be aspired to, and I daresay the great Howard Fast felt the same way when he was writing Freedom Road, first published in 1944.

I thought hard about whether to include a book by a white writer in this post for Black History Month. But the foreword to the edition of Freedom Road currently in print was written by W.E.B. Du Bois. If the greatest historian of Reconstruction and the counter-revolution that overturned it, the author of Black Reconstruction in America, The Souls of Black Folk and so many other vitally important works, the founder of the NAACP, and a great communist to boot--if W.E.B. Du Bois, himself a towering figure in African-American history, commends this book to us, and he does in his foreword, I can do no less than commend it to you.

The story tells of Gideon Jackson, a man of African descent who was enslaved in South Carolina, who left the plantation where he'd been held in servitude and fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, and who, from 1868 to 1877, plays a pivotal role in the grand effort to bring democracy and equality to the South. This effort includes wresting the right to vote, writing a new state constitution, working to build a system of free public education, claiming land ownership and building homes and community with Black and poor white working together in common cause for the good of all. Jackson eventually serves in the U.S. House of Representatives; his son travels to Scotland to train as a doctor; he and his whole family learn to read and write, build a house, hold personal possessions; all these gains hard won but possible through unity and with the backing of the Union army of occupation holding back the forces of the old slaveocracy. Until it all comes crashing down when the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, looked to at that time as the safeguard of freedom, makes a deal, withdraws the troops that had been the safeguard of liberty and looks the other way while racist reaction organizes a terrorist armed force, the Ku Klux Klan, to wage war against Jackson, his family and community, and communities like them throughout the South, bringing on a bloody counter-revolution to end Reconstruction, shut down equal education, voting rights, land rights, and replace them with sharecropping, bitter poverty, no rights--the era of Jim Crow that would last nearly another hundred years.

All this is true. All this happened. Fast made it his job to tell the story, a story that was little known in the mid-20th century and is still little known today, the story of the war of racist terror that came after the brief flourishing of freedom after the Civil War. Jackson's character was based on one or several Black men who did indeed serve as leaders in the Reconstruction period, who accomplished much and would have accomplished much more had they not been sabotaged and left to the forces of murder and mayhem. Fast doesn't sugarcoat it. The final scene is a bitter battle, Jackson and his small community holed up in the old plantation house with guns and rifles, waging a furious defensive battle against an all-out assault by the Klan marauders who outnumber the freedom fighters and ultimately kill them all.

There are many lessons to this story, and the story itself, so true, so little known, bears telling and re-telling, and so for this alone Freedom Road is a book that matters. But please don't misunderstand: I recommend this book not merely for its political virtues. This is a fine work of literature. There are beautiful passages, stirring, touching; there is, as Du Bois noted, "profound psychological insight" and "lyrical charm"; there is above all the protagonist, Gideon Jackson, as finely wrought a character as I can remember ever encountering. It's a book to make you feel deeply, think hard--and rededicate yourself to the struggle.

Finally, I want to point anyone interested in resources for Black literature from African-American sources to a list we've posted at Politerature, the lefty lit site I collaborate on. And to add to it this from Saeed Jones at Buzzfeed on the Best Black Queer Books, Plays and Films. Lots to read, lots to learn.