My partner and I, over breakfast, were discussing what a leap year is. The only consensus that we were able to come to was that time is an artificial construct. For this reason, Black History Month and Women’s History Month, etc., are also artificial constructs. It is helpful to bring our respective histories to the forefront.
I explored my family history, overlapping with the labor movement and Philadelphia history in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books). My life with my partner who worked for, now retired from, the U.S. Postal Service is also a big part of Tea Leaves as well as my relationship with my mother, especially as I cared for her in the final months of her life. Close to thirty years ago I went with my partner to her African American co-worker’s church on “men’s day.” As I wrote, the end result was that this co-worker liked me so much “she’d stopped praying for Barbara.” That is how change is made — when we enter each other’s lives.
We all live in a world where the history of the many is larger than the history of the few (that of privileged straight white men). And the fact is that the history of privileged straight white men is also impacted by the history of the many. By many I mean those of us all races, those of who identify as queer, the more than half the population that is female, as well as the rest of the many. All of our lives touch.
When I first heard of Foresaken (NewSouth Books) by Ross Howell, Jr., I was intrigued. The novel is about a sixteen year old black girl who actually lived in Hampton, Virginia, who one day retaliated against her overbearing white woman employer in her home and murdered her. The story is told from the point of view of an eighteen year old white male newspaper reporter. The protagonist, Charlie, has gone through connecting with people on a human level, befriending blacks as well as whites. This historic novel is a compelling read, and as I turned the pages, I found myself drawn into a prism where the reasons for the girl’s crime — pent-up rage — unfolds as the protagonist talks to her elderly lawyer, a former slave who is now blind.
Foresaken is a novel where the toll that societal and institutional racism takes on whites (while less oppressive and vastly different than the effects of institutional racism against black people), specifically on white people who dared to speak up on behalf of the humanity of black people, is taken into account. As the author writes:
“I felt I would never meet another man like Mr. Fields. He had been a slave. Now he was free. He once had sight. Now he was blind. Was I feeling what he felt when he heard the whip on his mother’s back? I flicked the cigarette into the street. I sat down on the curb. I was so angry that it was hard to breathe. Who does Jim Crow leave free?”
Another historical novel explores the true story of a seamstress slave from Norfolk, Virginia. The Treason of Mary Louvestre is written by My Haley (Koehlerbooks), the widow of Alex Haley. My collaborated on his groundbreaking book of African American history, Roots, and the subsequent miniseries released in 1977. As it says on the book jacket, “Now My has returned to her own roots as an author with The Treason of Mary Louvestre.”
My deftly brings the reader into Mary’s world as the plot unfolds and Mary copies the plans for the CSS Virginia (a confederate warship) and enters a world where she must take a long journey and face certain death as a spy.
Mary Louvestre is an important historical figure and a strong woman character, some might say a feminist hero.
Raised like “the daughter” of white slave owners, Mary sees the writing on the wall — if they fall on financial hard times or die, she will be sold as a slave. This is the turning point for her. She can stay and let others decide her fate or she can leave and influence history:
“What a fool she had been! …. Not only had she trusted that someday she was to be free, that she would transcend being a Negro slave, she had convinced herself she’d have financial control over her life, real power over her future.
In reality, she was special only as a special pet of her owners. They didn’t physically beat her. Nor did they board her on slave row. She didn’t eat from a peck of rice and throwaway saltfish. Yet, she still felt insignificant.
Her life testified to other Negroes that, if they worked from dusk to dawn every day of their lives to “serve the South” and “make their master’s proud,” they got to keep on doing it for the rest of their lives. That was their prize. Regarded as second-class no matter how hard they tried was the message that she had received. It was galling — and so unfair.”
We all face turning points in our lives. It might be to accept ourselves or to realize how society perceives us. Sometimes that turning point is the realization that we are all connected. Always, it is powerful.
This review was previously in The Huffington Post.