R XAVIEREVIEW 38.2, Fall 2018
Xavier Review, a journal of literature and culture, is published twice a year. ÂŠ Xavier University of Louisiana. Ralph Adamo Editor Thomas Bonner Jr and Robin Vander Editors for Issue 38.2 Katheryn Laborde Managing Editor Thomas Bonner, Jr. Editor Emeritus Thomas Bonner, Jr., Biljana Obradovic, James Shade, Oliver Hennessey Robin Vander, Mark Whitaker, Nicole Pepinster Greene Contributing Editors Bill Lavender Graphic Design Editors, Xavier University Studies, 1961-1971 Rainulf A. Stelzman, Hamilton P. Avegno, Leon Baisier Editors, Xavier Review Charles Fort, 1980-1982 Thomas Bonner, Jr., 1982-2002 Richard Collins, 2000-2007 Nicole Pepinster Greene, 2007-2011 Managing Editor Robert Skinner, 1989-2010
Unsolicited manuscripts may be submitted in typescript or by email attachment with a brief letter of submission and a self-addressed envelope for reply to the Editors, Xavier Review, Box 89, Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans, LA 70125. Essays should conform to the MLA Handbook for Writers with parenthetical citations and a list of Works Cited. Manuscripts accepted for publication will be requested as electronic files. Subscriptions are $20 for individuals, $25 for institutions. Editorial inquiries may be addressed to Ralph Adamo at firstname.lastname@example.org. All other inquiries may be addressed to Katheryn Laborde at email@example.com. Xavier Review is indexed in the MLA International Bibliography and the Index of American Periodical Verse, as well as other indices. Xavier Review is supported by the Xavier University Endowment for the Humanities. www.xavierreview.com www.xula.edu/review ISSN 0887-6681
This issue of Xavier Review is the result of the extraordinary dedication to
literature, our region and this university of my colleagues Drs. Thomas Bonner Jr and Robin Vander. Their editorial work also demonstrates something else about this institution and especially about our English Department that I never tire of telling people, and that is an all-hands-on-deck approach to the work we have chosen, a kind of altruism and generosity that impels my colleagues Bonner and Vander, for instance, to pour hours of labor into a project that yields them no material reward. To further illustrate the point: Robin Vander has been doing this work while on sabbatical, and Tom Bonner retired from full-time teaching a number of years ago, as well as having previously retired from twenty years of editing this journal. ‘And,’ to paraphrase out of context, ‘yet they persisted.’ The contents, I trust, will provide other scholars and readers of Jesmyn Ward’s rich fictions with material to grow on, points and counterpoints to add to the estimation of this genius in our midst. I am particularly glad to have Jeremy Tuman’s contribution, as he brings us word of how young people—our Xavier students—have encountered and understood Ward’s writing. When Xavier Review gets back to its usual business in Volume 39, number one, of seeking and publishing the best new poetry, fiction, non-fiction and scholarship we can find, this special issue will remain a point of continuing pride and usefulness, a permanent marker to herald both the important work Jesmyn Ward has begun and the fact that the world is paying close attention, eager to absorb what is here already and to anticipate the books to come.
Xavier Review 38.2, Fall 2018 Editor’s Note — v Thomas Bonner, Jr. Foreword — 8 Jesmyn Ward Prologue to Men We Reaped — 10 Jesmyn Ward Chronology — 16 Brian Railsback Somewhere Over Emerson’s Rainbow: Jesmyn Ward’s Terrifying Environmental Vision — 18 Trudier Harris “Aborted Rituals of Communion: Food as Drugs and Drugs as Food in Jesmyn Ward’s Where the Line Bleeds” — 34 Jessica Doble Hope in the Apocalypse: Narrative Perspective as Negotiation of Structural Crises in Salvage the Bones — 51 Keith Mitchell “Bodies Tell Stories”: Between the Human and the Animal in Salvage the Bones — 62 Sondra Bickham Washington “Who Will Deliver Me?”: Black Girlhood in a Man’s World in Salvage the Bones — 85 Nova Jett Men We Reaped as a Testimonio — 95 Briana Whiteside “He Wanted More for Himself, but He Didn’t Know How to Get It”: Notions of Masculinity in a Maximum-Security Prison — 109
Jeremy Tuman Unforeseeable: Student Engagement with Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones — 124 Rachel Bryan “Sitting There Crying Hungry:” Subsistence Economies in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing — 130 Dolores Flores-Silva and Keith Cartwright The Scaly Bird Sings “Remember Me”: Gulf Fiestas of the Dead and Tribalography in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing — 140 David Robinson-Morris Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Where the Line Bleeds. Agate, 2008. — 155 Robert Rea Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2011 — 159 Cherylon Teel Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. Bloomsbury, 2013 — 161 Marie Liénard-Yeterian Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Scribner, 2017 — 164 James Ryer Review of The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, Edited by Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 2016 — 167 Robin G. Vander Afterword — 170 Contributors — 173
Thomas Bonner, Jr.
In the summer of 2017, when James Ryer, a friend from the first William
Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference (1974) in Oxford, Mississippi, sent me a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time, this issue of Xavier Review was conceived. I had heard of Ward’s books but had been wrapped up in writing about Faulkner and Kate Chopin. When I read Ward’s introduction and her essay “Cracking the Code,” her voice and words, especially “I burn, and I hope,” urged me into reading her novels. I met her in October at Octavia Books in New Orleans, where she was reading from Sing, Unburied, Sing. By then the parameters of a special issue of Xavier Review were taking shape. It was important that a person who had expertise in African American literature, its culture, and the African diaspora should join me in this endeavor. My colleague Robin Vander, who had edited two books on Percival Everett, consented to do so. Ralph Adamo, the editor of Xavier Review, enthusiastically accepted our proposal for an issue of Xavier Review devoted to Ward to be published in the fall of 2018. When Professor Vander sent out a call for proposals, we received many substantial responses, from which we asked writers for full essays and book reviews with a short turn around. Knowing that this was the first journal or book-length collection of studies of Ward’s writings likely encouraged the timely efforts that made this issue possible. The essays examine Ward’s novels and memoir across a variety of critical and theoretical perspectives, from Trudier Harris’ close reading of Where the Line Bleeds to Dolores FloresSilva’s and Keith Cartwright’s examination of rituals and tribalography in Sing, Unburied, Sing. In her fiction and memoir, Ward reaches into the presence of the Gulf Coast’s colonial French past and then westerly across the Mississippi state line to family experiences in New Orleans. The connection between the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans has been a consistent presence in fact and in literature. The great houses along the coast highway from Pass
Christian to Pascagoula reflect the seasonal migrations of wealthy, Euro-New Orleanians during the Yellow Fever epidemics of the nineteenth century and the continued presence of summer vacationers from the city since then. Patricia Friedmann’s 1987 story “Passing at Le Havre” (Xavier Review 7: 47-54) offers insight into this society. Driving along the highway next to the sand beach and the mostly calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, people have seen these homes of the wealthy amid attractive flora, but like the elegant homes along New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue, they mask a different world just a few blocks behind them. It is this world that Ward explores in her three novels and memoir, a world dominated by African Americans separated from the coastal society by their ethnicity, lesser political and social status, incomplete education, and poverty. Hurricanes have a presence in Ward’s fiction and memoir, nearly becoming a character at times. Some exist in distant memory like Camille, but Katrina has an immediacy in her writing. Like Adrienne Rich’s poem “Storm Warnings,” these acts of nature operate literally and symbolically in Ward’s writing, for their destructive nature, for their being agents of change, and for their function as windows on the human condition—well beyond the neighborhoods hidden by the mansions and society of the coast highway in Mississippi. Ward’s “Prologue” to her memoir Men We Reap appears here in this form with the author’s gracious permission and the assistance of Rob McQuilken, Kathryn Belden, Miriam Feuerle, and Kate Lloyd. We hope readers will see the “Prologue” as a discerning lens into Ward’s life, her writings, and the studies published in this issue.
Prologue to Men We Reaped1
Whenever my mother drove us from coastal Mississippi to New Orleans
to visit my father on the weekend, she would say, “Lock the doors.” After my mother and father split for the last time before they divorced, my father moved to New Orleans, while we remained in DeLisle, Mississippi. My father’s first house in the Crescent City was a modest one-bedroom, painted yellow, with bars on the window. It was in Shrewsbury, a small Black neighborhood that spread under and to the north of the causeway overpass. The house was bounded by a fenced industrial yard to the north and by the rushing, plunking sound of the cars on the elevated interstate to the south. I was the oldest of four, and since I was the oldest, I was the one who bossed my one brother, Joshua, and my two sisters, Nerissa and Charine, and my cousin Aldon, who lived with us for years, to arrange my father’s extra sheets and sofa cushion into pallets on the living room floor so we all had enough room to sleep. My parents, who were attempting to reconcile and would fail, slept in the only bedroom. Joshua insisted that there was a ghost in the house, and at night we’d lie on our backs in the TV-less living room, watch the barred shadows slink across the walls, and wait for something to change, for something that wasn’t supposed to be there, to move. “Somebody died here,” Josh said. “How you know?” I said. “Daddy told me,” he said. “You just trying to scare us,” I said. What I didn’t say: It’s working. I was in junior high then, in the late eighties and early nineties, and I attended a majority White, Episcopalian Mississippi private school. I was a small-town girl, and my classmates in Mississippi were as provincial as I was. My classmates called New Orleans the “murder capital.” They told horror stories about White people being shot while unloading groceries from their cars. Gang initiations, they said. What was unspoken in this conversation— 1 Copyright 2013 Jesmyn Ward. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.
and, given the racist proclivities of more than a few of my classmates, I’m surprised that it was unspoken—was that these gangsters, ruthlessly violent and untethered by common human decency, were Black. My school peers would often glance at me when they spoke about Black people. I was a scholarship kid, only attending the school because my mother was a maid for a few wealthy families on the Mississippi coast who sponsored my tuition. For most of my junior high and high school years, I was the only Black girl in the school. Whenever my classmates spoke about Black people or New Orleans and tried to not look at me but inevitably did, I stared back at them and thought about the young men I knew from New Orleans, my father’s half brothers. Uncle Bookie was our favorite of my father’s half brothers. He and his brothers had spent their lives in the neighborhoods my classmates most feared. Uncle Bookie looked the most like the grandfather I’d barely known, who’d died of a stroke at age fifty. He had a chest like a barrel, and his eyes closed when he smiled. On hot days, Uncle Bookie would walk us through Shrewsbury toward the highway in the sky, to a ramshackle shotgun house, maroon in my memory, that stood on the corner. The lady who lived in the house sold ice pops out of the back. They were liquid sugar, and melted too quickly in the heat. On the walk to her yard, he’d crack jokes, gather more kids, lead us over the melting asphalt like a hood pied piper. Once our ice pops melted to syrup in their cardboard cups, once Joshua and I had licked the sugar water from our hands and arms, Uncle Bookie would play games with us in the street: kickball, football, and basketball. He laughed when the football hit one of us in the mouth, leaving it sore and swollen, his eyes slit to the thin side of a penny. On some days he would take us with our father and his pit bull to the park under the highway. There, my father fought his dog against other dogs. The other men who watched or coaxed their dogs to savagery were dark and sweat-glazed as their animals in the heat. My brother and I always stood close to our uncle. We grabbed his forearms, holding tightly, flinching as the cars boomed overhead and the animals ripped at each other. Afterward, the dogs panted and smiled while they bled, and my brother and
I relaxed our grip on our uncle, and were happy to leave the shadowed world and the threat of a dog lunging outside the fighting circle. “Daddy ain’t tell you no story about nobody dying in here,” I said. “Yeah, he did,” Joshua said. “You telling it,” Aldon said. When I was in high school, I could not reconcile the myth of New Orleans to the reality, but I knew that there was truth somewhere. My father and mother sat in the front seat of the car during those early nineties visits, when they were still married but separated, when they still had the easy rapport that years of marriage engenders, and they talked about shootings, about beatings, about murder. They gave the violence of New Orleans many names. We never saw any of that when we visited my father. But we listened to the chain-link fence rattle in the industrial yard next to my father’s house and the night stretched on interminably, and we listened to my brother tell us ghost stories. Yet we knew another New Orleans existed. We saw that when we piled into my mother’s car and rode past the red brick projects scattered through New Orleans, two-story buildings with sagging iron balconies, massive old trees standing like sentinels at each side of the buildings, women gesticulating and scratching their heads, small dark children playing angrily, happily, sulking on the broken sidewalks. I eyed the young men through the car window. Men in sagging pants with their heads bent together, murmuring, ducking into corner stores that sold POBOYS SHRIMP OYSTER. I wondered what the men were talking about. I wondered who they were. I wondered what their lives were like. I wondered if they were murderers. At night on my father’s living room floor, I asked Joshua again. “What Daddy say happen?” I said. “Said somebody got shot,” Joshua said. “What somebody?” “A man,” he said to the ceiling. Charine burrowed into my side. “Shut up,” Nerissa said. Aldon sighed. When we left my father to go home to DeLisle, as we did every Sunday, I was sad. We all were sad, I think, even my mother, who was trying to make their marriage work, despite the distance and the years of infidelity. She’d even been contemplating moving to New Orleans, a city she hated. I missed my father. I didn’t want to return to school in Mississippi on Monday morning, to 12
walk through the glass doors to the large, fluorescent-lit classrooms, the old desks, my classmates perched on the backs of them, wearing collared shirts and khaki shorts, their legs spread, their eyeliner blue. I didn’t want them to look at me after saying something about Black people, didn’t want to have to avert my eyes so they didn’t see me studying them, studying the entitlement they wore like another piece of clothing. Our drive home took us through New Orleans East, across the Isle Sauvage bayou, over the gray murmur of Lake Pontchartrain, through the billboards and strip malls of Slidell into Mississippi. We took I-10 past the pine wall of Stennis Space Center, past Bay St. Louis, past Diamondhead to DeLisle. Once there, we would have exited the long, pitted highway, driven past Du Pont, shielded like Stennis behind its wall of pine trees, past the railroad tracks, past the small wooden houses set in small fields and small sandy yards, trees setting the porches in shade. Here horses stood still in fields, munching grass, seeking cool. Goats chewed fence posts. DeLisle and Pass Christian, the two towns where all of my family hails from, are not New Orleans. Pass Christian squats beside the man-made beach of the Gulf of Mexico alongside Long Beach, the Bay of St. Louis at its back, while DeLisle hugs the back of the Bay of St. Louis before spreading away and thinning further upcountry. The streets of both towns are sleepy through much of the barely bearable summer, and through much of the winter, when temperatures hover near freezing. In DeLisle during the summers, there are sometimes crowds on Sundays at the county park because younger people come out to play basketball and play music from their cars. In the spring, the older people gather at the local baseball field, where Negro leagues from throughout the South come to play. On Halloween, children still walk or ride on the backs of pickup trucks through the neighborhood from house to house to trick-or-treat. On All Saints Day, families gather around loved ones’ graves, bring nylon and canvas folding chairs to sit in after they’ve cleaned head-stones and sandy plots, arranged potted mums, and shared food. They talk into the evening, burn fires, wave away the last of the fall gnats. This is not a murder capital.
Most of the Black families in DeLisle have lived there as far back as they can remember, including mine, in houses many of them built themselves. These houses, small shotguns and A-frames, were built in waves, the oldest in the thirties by our great-grandparents, the next in the fifties by our grandparents, the next in the seventies and eighties by our parents, who used contractors. These modest houses, ours included, had two to three bedrooms with gravel and dirt driveways and rabbit hutches and scupadine vineyards in the back. Poor and working-class, but proud. There is no public housing at all in DeLisle, and the project housing that existed before Hurricane Katrina in Pass Christian consisted of several small redbrick duplexes and a few subdivisions with single-family homes, which housed some Black people, some Vietnamese. Now, seven years after Katrina, developers build twoand three-bedroom houses up on fifteento twenty-foot stilts where this public housing stood, and these houses fill quickly with those still displaced from the storm, or young adults from Pass Christian and DeLisle who want to live in their hometown. Hurricane Katrina made that impossible for several years, since it razed most of the housing in Pass Christian, and decimated what was closest to the bayou in DeLisle. Coming home to DeLisle as an adult has been harder for this reason, a concrete one. And then there are abstract reasons, too. As Joshua said when we were kids hunting down ghosts: Somebody died here. From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C. J. in January 2004. The fourth was Demond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time. To say this is difficult is understatement; telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that. I cannot forget that when I am walking the streets of DeLisle, streets that seem even barer since Katrina. Streets that seem even more empty since all these deaths, where instead of hearing my friends or my brother playing music from their cars at the county park, the only sound I hear is a tortured 14
parrot that one of my cousins owns, a parrot that screams so loudly it sounds through the neighborhood, a scream like a wounded child, from a cage so small the parrot’s crest barely clears the top of the cage while its tail brushes the bottom. Sometimes when that parrot screams, sounding its rage and grief, I wonder at my neighborhood’s silence. I wonder why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief. I decide this is not right, that I must give voice to this story. I’m telling you: there’s a ghost in here, Joshua said. Because this is my story just as it is the story of those lost young men, and because this is my family’s story just as it is my community’s story, it is not straightforward. To tell it, I must tell the story of my town, and the history of my community. And then I must revisit each of the five young black men who died: follow them backward in time, from Rog’s death to Demond’s death to C. J.’s death to Ronald’s death to my brother’s death. At the same time, I must tell this story forward through time, so between those chapters where my friends and my brother live and speak and breathe again for a few paltry pages, I must write about my family and how I grew up. My hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that when I get to the heart, when my marches forward through the past and backward from the present meet in the middle with my brother’s death, I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here. Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.
Jesmyn Ward Chronology 1977 1999 2000 2005 2006 2008 2009
Born in DeLisle, Mississippi Attended Gulf Coast Episcopal School, Long Beach, Mississippi B.A., Stanford University M.A., Stanford, University, where she was a Stegner Fellow MFA, University of Michigan Teaches at the University of New Orleans Where the Line Bleeds (novel, Agate) Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Where the Line Bleeds 2010 Grisham Writer in Residence, University of Mississippi 2011 Salvage the Bones (novel, Bloomsbury) Interviewed by Elizabeth Hoover in the Paris Review Teaches at the University of South Alabama, Mobile, Alabama National Book Award for Fiction for Salvage the Bones 2012 Alex Award for Salvage the Bones 2013 Men We Reaped (memoir, Bloomsbury) 2014 Receives teaching appointment at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana Heartland Prize for nonfiction for Men We Reaped 2015 Salvage the Bones, the common reading for freshman at Xavier University of Louisiana 2016 The Fire This Time (edited anthology, Simon and Schuster) Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters 2017 Sing, Unburied, Sing (novel, Scribner) National Book Award for Fiction for Sing, Unburied, Sing Named MacArthur Fellow Portrait added to the Mississippi Literary Map Xavier University of Louisiana Library collecting works by and about Jesmyn Ward Three excerpts from Sing, Unburied, Sing published in the Oxford 16
American “The Belief in Our Inferiority Persists,” The Atlantic. Martin Luther King Special Issue (Spring) Speaks at Tulane University’s May commencement ceremonies “Introduction,” edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Scribner) “My True South: Why I Decided to Return Home,” Time, Aug 6 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Cleveland Foundation, for Sing, Unburied, Sing Writing two books: one on the slave trade in New Orleans and the other a novel for young adults about an African American girl who has supernatural powers
Somewhere Over Emerson’s Rainbow: Jesmyn Ward’s Terrifying Environmental Vision
he mainstream view of Nature in American Literature, professed by generations of largely White male authors, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Richard Powers, presents the natural environment as a pure entity: a place for refuge, a beneficent teacher, and even when indifferent, a source for hard-won wisdom. Jesmyn Ward’s fiction and non-fiction disrupt this traditional depiction. The environment portrayed in Ward’s work is savage and threatening, a landscape deeply intertwined with the human experience in poor, rural Mississippi--a place wracked by racial hatred, income inequality, and environmental degradation. Place in her work is as tough and tortured as the people who inhabit it, and as such hews closer to the environmental realities of the 21st century. As Ward writes in her memoir, Men We Reaped, home is “this place that birthed me and kills me at once” (240). The implication across her work is that our environment reflects what we have made of it; we enter the Anthropocene spinning on an exhausted planet that would shake us off. More than any other bestselling author writing in the United States, Jesmyn Ward creates an apocalyptic, contemporary vision of Nature that clarifies homo sapiens relationship with an abused and troubled planet: as embodied in Hurricane Katrina, Nature may well be “the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes” (Ward, Bones, 255).
Emerson’s Omnipresent Rainbow “Nay, I do not oscillate in Emerson’s rainbow,” Herman Melville wrote in a letter to a friend, Evert Duyckinck on March 3, 1849 (Sealts 251). However, as noted by critics Nina Baym and Merton Sealts, the writing and lectures of Emerson were pervasive at the time Melville was composing Moby Dick
(Melville attended a lecture by Emerson in New York on February 5, 1849). Melville wrangled with Emerson while still admiring him, as a February 24, 1849 letter to Duyckinck indicates: “Say what they will, he’s a great man” (Sealts 251). Emerson’s conception of Nature, amplified by Henry David Thoreau, created enduring environmental themes in American literature that writers have propelled or reckoned with long after Melville. Indeed, Emerson’s influence in the literary consciousness of the United States is far too broad to catalogue here. However, a summary of the subsequent mainstream portrait of Nature in American literature is necessary to fully appreciate the startling, contrasting vision in Jesmyn Ward’s books. Emerson’s quintessential first book, Nature, was published in 1836. As examined in Robert D. Richardson, Jr.’s biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Emerson drew inspiration, rhetorical technique, and philosophical grounding from such sources as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Emanuel Swedenborg’s Apocalypse Revealed, Confucius’s Lungnee, the unpublished manuscript of his friend Amos Bronson Alcott’s “Psyche; or the Breath of Childhood,” many texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from his consideration of the Stoics, and the from his conversations with Margaret Fuller. These and other source works were translated to the United States through Emerson. Searching for inspiration in writers and works that were original, “Emerson was in perpetual quest of basic books, books that bore original witness” (Richardson 219). Emerson staked out his first major publication of original witness with Nature. “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Emerson asks at the start of his book, which goes on to examine the ways in which Nature is the source of that relationship (1041). Even for those who have not read Nature, many of its propositions would seem familiar as translated by other authors or artists: Nature enables us to transcend ourselves and the noise of society (Chapter I: “Nature”), exists as the physical foundation of our material existence (Chapter II: “Commodity”), inspires our purest artistic endeavors (Chapter III: “Beauty”), forms the basis of the truest discourse (Chapter IV: “Language”), encourages the pursuit of intellectual knowledge and ultimately a holistic appreciation of the world (Chapter V: “Discipline” 19
and Chapter VI: “Idealism”), invites us to explore transcendent, universal truth (Chapter VII: “Spirit”), and leads us to discover the best in ourselves through the acquisition of the cosmic (Chapter VIII: “Prospects”). In sum, Nature extols us to escape our narrow interests and stifling cities and go to the woods, or under the stars, or some other place in the natural world where we can become whole. Whether a direct influence or not, Nature created a blueprint of the U.S. writer’s attitude toward the environment through the 19th and 20th centuries. Ismael should have been destroyed with all the others in Ahab’s monomaniacal quest, yet Ismael is spared by some beneficence of Nature: the Pequod does not suck him down and for a day and night the sharks swim by “with padlocks on their mouths” while “savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks” (Melville 469). In William Faulkner’s tale, “The Bear,” Young Isaac McCaslin, part of the hunt for “Old Ben,” is forever marked by “the wilderness the old bear ran [that] was his college” and grows up to be a man who understands that the land cannot be owned and the material aims of the typical human being are corrupt and small (199). In Hemingway’s final great work of fiction, The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago engages in a doomed struggle to land a great marlin but his apprentice, Manolin, sees how the old man returns ennobled by the struggle. In mainstream American literature, the transformative power of the environment and its beneficent effects are revered. Even as the mainstream became more diverse in the second half of the 20th century, the virtues of the environment, echoes of Emerson’s book, oscillated throughout literary favorites and bestsellers. The addition of Native American authors buoyed notions of purity and truth of the natural world, often from native cultural beliefs and traditions that Emerson admired. James Welch’s novel, Fools Crow, told from the perspective of the Blackfeet tribe through the character of White Man’s Dog/Fools Crow, shows how the beauty of the natural environment is forever damaged by invading mountain men, soldiers, and settlers. In Louise Erdrich’s novel, Tracks, Fleur Pillager derives her power from the land and a knowledge of old ways; when men come to log the last of her forest, she literally brings the trees down around them. Tayo, the distraught World War II veteran in Ceremony, can only be 20
restored to sanity by ancient and new ceremonies that derive from the land of the Luguna Pueblo. The recognition of Nature’s gifts persists in later mainstream literature. Rick Bass, pining for the healing power of his beloved home in the Yaak Valley in Montana, is anxious to return to its solitude in his 2018 road-trip memoir, The Traveling Feast. Richard Powers meticulously details the secret, ancient communication of trees working to save themselves and humanity in his epic 2018 novel, The Overstory. And while inspired by Japanese Zen Buddhism rather than New England transcendentalism, Peter Matthiessen’s writing echoes Emerson’s or Thoreau’s, as is in this passage from his most famous non-fiction work, The Snow Leopard: “The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist… The mountains have no meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share” (212). Since the mid-twentieth century, acknowledgement of homo sapiens unhealthy relationship with Nature--a record of growing environmental degradation--has blotched the colors of Emerson’s rainbow. The book central to the second wave of environmentalism in the United States is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962, Carson’s warning about the ecological danger of rampant pesticide use became a surprise bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. The famous naturalist, E.O. Wilson, commented that the message of Silent Spring “was blended with other scientific and literary efforts and folded into the growing activist movement, which was drawn from multiple social and political agendas” (361). Among those other “literary efforts” were the works of John Steinbeck and Matthiessen. From The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 to his 1966 work, America and Americans, Steinbeck’s concern for the environment became more focused and strident. Peter Matthiessen, who counted Steinbeck as an inspiration, wrote Wildlife in America in 1959, beginning a lifelong call to protect the world’s damaged ecology. Both writers based their best work on firsthand observation, scientific research, and a powerful writing style. By the end of his career, Steinbeck’s alarm over the destruction of the environment was clear. In America and Americans, he wrote: 21
…our rivers are poisoned by reckless dumping of sewage and toxic industrial wastes, the air of our cities is filthy and dangerous to breathe from the belching of uncontrolled products from combustion of coal, coke, oil, and gasoline. Our towns are girdled with wreckage and the debris of our toys–our automobiles and our packaged pleasures. Through uninhibited spraying against one enemy we have destroyed the natural balances our survival requires. All these evils can and must be overcome if America and Americans are to survive. (127)
A half century later, the evils that Steinbeck describes remain. Thomas Friedman, in his 2016 survey of the global state of affairs in the 21st century, Thank You for Being Late, inventories nine environmental “planetary boundaries” that, if crossed, “could set in motion chain reactions that might flip the planet into a new state that could make it impossible to sustain modern civilization” (169). Many of these boundaries, including climate change, ocean acidification, and overpopulation, are being breached beyond the point of no return. Elizabeth Kolbert, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning assessment of the environment, The Sixth Extinction, catalogues disastrous global changes in the air, on the land, and in the ocean; she presents the rapidly changing state of Nature (the acceleration of mass extinctions) in the epoch of the Anthropocene. Concluding that human tinkering with the environment could transform Nature into something hostile to human life, Kolbert writes, “The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into the dust and giant rats have–or have not--inherited the earth” (269). Emerson’s 19th century view of the environment, in which “Nature never wears a mean appearance,” a view persistent into the literature of the 21st century, is going the way of the human-friendly Holocene epoch (1043). As Emerson called in 1836 for an American literature that would illuminate original relationships to the universe, a radically different conception of Nature is needed to understand our relationship to the environment in 2018.
Jesmyn Ward and the View from the Anthropocene “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone,” Zora Neale Hurston writes in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “Dawn and doom was in the branches” (20). Jesmyn Ward, who has described Hurston and her most famous novel as “very important to me,” writes with the same ambivalence toward Nature and home (Interview/Goodreads). In Ward’s work, we are far from the perspective of Nature and environment of Emerson and so many other authors. Why? Camille T. Dungy provides important answers in her groundbreaking anthology, Black Nature, Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. In her introduction and the brief essays of other writers, the ambivalence of Black writers to Nature, beginning with Phillis Wheatley, stems from a relationship with the natural world in the United States divorced from that of Whites due to racial prejudice and income inequality. The landowner strolling through field and forest for inspiration enjoys a different experience from the sharecropper working the rows or the slave on the run in the woods. A White poet contemplating the beauty of a tree is unlikely to consider the branches used for lynching. While acknowledging that African American writers conform to the White, traditional contemplations of Nature “in limited ways,” Dungy notes that many of the 93 poets featured in the anthology write about “elements of an environment steeped in a legacy of violence, forced labor, torture, and death” (xxi). Regarding a history of slavery or other forms of exploitation, African American poets work less from notions of dominion or the pathetic fallacy in relationship to animals; reading the poem, “White Dog” by Carl Phillips, Dungy explains that a dog released in the snow is not an extension of the speaker but is free to go: “there can be no real dominion because there is no real connection between man and beast, and thus the poem’s speaker is able to cede his control over the animal” (xxiii). Writing of another poem, “Postcard to an Ecologist” by Lenard D. Moore, Dungy notes that the speaker can kill a snake without remorse “because he resists the concept of interdependency that the poet consciously mocks in his title” (xxiii). What
is suggested in these readings is work that sees animals and the environment in general with a view from the ground, acknowledging beauty but also harsh realities. The poems Dungy discusses tend to lack an idealized conception of Nature inspired by a leisurely stroll, a pleasant manse, or a fearless hike in the woods. While writers like John Muir, Matthiessen, or Bass understand the dangers in the beauty of wild places, all of them choose to go there and they are free to leave as necessary. The perspective of the natural environment changes when one is forced into that environment with little chance of escape. The appreciation of farms or wilderness becomes a matter of self-preservation: “Survival in hostile environments depends on understanding the very complexity of these environments” (Dungy xxvi). Survival also depends on people working together: human interaction is as bound up in the land. The plight of people and the plight of the environment becomes entangled. Sometimes, especially in the face of a hostile Nature (or one made to be inhospitable), the emphasis is on the people themselves—the survivors. As Dungy writes of groups of poems in Black Nature, “they take a critical look at the natural world [that] does not equal dismissal but, instead, indicates caution” (xxv). The work of Jesmyn Ward upends the comforting vision of Nature as a sustainer, a beneficent spirit, a source of truth and beauty. Drawing from her own experience and from the perspective of African American literary tradition, Ward writes of the environment in fictitious Bois Sauvage or the real DeLisle, Mississippi, as one that requires caution and demands survival skill; place is as hostile to humans as the humans are to each other. What beauty exists is tentative, evanescent. If Nature never wore a mean appearance in 1836, Ward’s work reveals a different face in rural Mississippi in the 21st century. Where the Line Bleeds, Ward’s first novel, introduces life in fictional Bois Sauvage in Mississippi (modeled on Ward’s home town of DeLisle). In the summer of 2005, twin brothers Joshua and Christophe DeLisle graduate from high school with few career prospects in their racially divided and impoverished part of the state. Joshua lands a job as a stevedore at the docks; 24
Christophe, depressed by his rejected applications, falls into the drug trade. Their mother, Cille, has gone to Atlanta for a better job and their father, a junkie known as the Sandman, is an infrequent but disturbing visitor. The boys are raised by Cille’s mother, Ma-mee. Their grandmother does the best she can, but years of housekeeping have broken her down: she is diabetic and blind. The twins face a life of violence and dead ends. The swampland around Bois Sauvage reflects, if not abets, their plight. Nature provides little refuge. Ward’s stylistic technique in her description of the environment of Bois Sauvage uses verbs and phrases that evoke violence and hostility. Although the people appreciate the wild beauty of the land, “They called Bois Sauvage God’s country,” the place does not love them back (6). Joshua recalls how his grandparents’ generation “struggled to domesticate the low-lying, sandy earth that reeked of rotten eggs in a dry summer and washed away easily in a wet one” (6). The beauty comes from how they wrested a place from a cruel society: “here, they had space and earth” (6). But that space demands much, perhaps more than they can bear. The underlying hostility of the environment exists even in the most innocuous scenes, as when Christophe views the beach (emphasis added in the quote below): “The air was already difficult to breathe. The sun had boiled it dense so that it smelled strongly of salt and tar, and had burned the water of the gulf a dirty brownish blue… [Christophe] could see the barrier islands… appearing like bristling shadows of elongated reeds as they siphoned the current and blocked the clean blue-green wash of the Gulf of Mexico, blocked the water… and impacted the beach that he saw with silt, with mud, with runty, dirty waves… He hated those islands” (34). In Bois Sauvage, the oppressive sun slashes and burns, the humid air chokes, and the insects bear malice and disease, as people are “eyeing the patches of piney woods suspiciously, muttering about the descending summer heat, mosquitoes, and West Nile, which they’d heard about on the news” (50). Interactions with animals are unpleasant; like the insects that suck blood, they want something or they are reflections of human misery. Seagulls snatch at Joshua’s lunch but he does not despise them because he understands “they were just scrabbling and hungry, like everything else” (93). 25
Heat and humidity pulls at Joshua “like a net” and he wonders if “shrimp felt like this, if they struggled against the thick fingers of the current created by the encroaching net in hope of escaping, of moving forward” (71). Like the insects flying around a light at night, caught up in a great circle before death (“intent on racing each other into the bulb and dying”), all living things, the totality of the environment, remind the citizens of Bois Sauvage how little the world offers them—this is no place for the weak (49). The bloody and climactic brawl involving the drug dealer, Javon, Sandman, Christophe, and Joshua, begins and ends with the music of night insects that “ripped” through Christophe’s head (224). The twins’ reconciliation, their fishing trip at the end of the novel, happens in an environment that portends death. There has been vague talk of a hurricane forming somewhere east of Cuba (likely Dennis, a hurricane that weakened to a tropical depression as it moved into the Mississippi River Valley in mid-July of 2005--Katrina would arrive a month later). Feeling a puff of wind and looking up at the pink sky, Christophe muses about their situation: “’Bad luck everywhere’” (235). The novel concludes with Joshua’s grim imagining of dead fish in deep water: “Out and out through the spread of the bay until their carcasses, still dense with the memory of the closed, rich bayou in the marrow of the bones, settled to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and turned to black silt on the ancient floor of the sea” (238-239). The future, ever dim, is becoming darker. Salvage the Bones, narrated by pregnant, 15-year-old Esch Batiste, chronicles twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. The Batistes are a poor Black family who own land in Bois Sauvage. The Batiste acreage has been destroyed, the good soil sold off to white developers. What remains is a land of bare clay, and a deep pool of toxic run-off that the children swim in. “The Pit,” as the family calls their land, is perfect for flooding, ripe for the destruction Hurricane Katrina has in store for it. In a shallow ditch next to the Pit, the Batistes burn their garbage so the land around “smells like burnt plastic” (15). The latently hostile environment described in Bleeds becomes more overtly destructive to humans in Salvage the Bones; the natural disaster that 26
nearly destroys the Batistes is Katrina, as described by Ward (who was in it herself), a storm that “unmade the world, tree by water by house by person” (“National Book Award Winner… ” 262). As a novel about Katrina, Salvage the Bones is a book associated with climate change. Critic Raymond Malewitz, in his study of the impact of climate change on contemporary regional fiction, notes “The rapid and often catastrophic results of weather linked to climate change play a prominent role in contemporary regional fiction” and turns immediately to Salvage the Bones as an example (716). Katrina destroys Mississippi and Louisiana, Bois Sauvage, floods the Pit and demolishes the Batiste home, and finally comes after the family as they flee, described in a frightening 348-word sentence that ends in a single, wailing note: “NO” (236). Even before the hurricane, as she considers her pregnancy, Esch understands that her options have narrowed “to none” (103). After Katrina, little changes. Although she likely will keep the baby, the novel ends with Esch hoping her most powerful role model—the missing pit bull, China— might return from the flood; what matters to her in the last line of the book is that China “will know that I am a mother” (258). The dog, lovingly trained by her master, Skeetah, to be a killer for profit, ultimately is as used and abused as the land the Batistes call home. China, almost killed when Skeetah improvises a toxic remedy for worms, deliriously chews up one of her healthiest puppies. Thinking of another murderer she learned about from school, another woman betrayed, Esch looks upon China, “bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea,” and she wonders: “Is this what motherhood is?” (130). And if in the common vernacular, Nature is a mother, what will she do as humanity uses her, abuses her, and fills her with toxins? Squatting in the detritus left by the storm, Esch considers Katrina: “She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember… ” (255). Esch imagines the next storm that will come, a concluding image as chilling as the vision of the bottom of the Gulf that ends Where the Line Bleeds. In Jesmyn Ward’s work, the toxicity of the environment is intertwined with the social poisons that the people of rural Mississippi must endure. The only hope they have is their ability to fight. As Ward explained in a Paris Review interview, hope resides in “your hands, your feet, your head, your resolve to 27
fight, you do the only thing you can: you survive” (264). But is that enough? In her memoir, Men We Reaped, she describes an epidemic of death in a span of just four years that killed five young Black men close to her, including her brother, Joshua; she hopes by writing the book she can understand “why this epidemic happened… how the history of racism and income inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and soured and spread here. Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story” (8). If she felt that Salvage the Bones “wasn’t political enough,” Reaped makes the politics of her novels clear (Paris Review 266). Ward’s anger is directed toward a “lapsed public” that has forsaken her family and community. Considering C.J., one of the dead, Ward writes: “Maybe he looked at those who still lived and those who’d died, and didn’t see much difference between the two; pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism, we were all dying inside… he saw no American dream, no fairy-tale ending, no hope” (121). The general spiraling down of her community under so many stressors, from drugs to apocalyptic storms, is something that Ward has lived. Men We Reaped shows how clearly her novels are mapped from bitter firsthand experience. After her brother was killed on October 2, 2000, by a drunk White driver who would later be sentenced to only five years, Ward reasons: “By the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing” (237). In a tough environment that becomes tougher each year, there is only one sure reality: “We survive; we are savages” (250). Having established the horrific realities of life in Mississippi in her memoir and first two novels, Ward obliterates notions of spiritual refuge in Nature with her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her characters will not find Emerson’s Over-Soul in Bois Sauvage. Sing features characters, living and dead, on an odyssey to find a home, a place of temporal or everlasting comfort. Few of them succeed. They face the same daunting environment depicted in her earlier works, though Sing extends the toxicity into body and soul. The toxins come in many forms: poisoned food, poisonous plants, meth, and hatred. The environment is full of traps. Jojo introduces us to his world 28
at his grandparents’ ramshackle house in the woods: the ground is full of parasites, the air full of disease-spreading flies and mosquitoes, and the house reeks of death as Grandma Mam dies of cancer: “the chemo done dried her up and hallowed her out the way the sun and the air do water oaks” (1). Even meals are bad, often heated by an aged microwave that Pop says is “leaking cancer in our food” (59). Jojo understands the struggle beyond his family, extending to the creatures outside, because he has inherited the ability to hear the thoughts of the animals around him; listening to them one day, he steps on the jagged lid of a can, splitting his bare foot open. The animals understand his pain, exclaiming, “Let me go, great tooth! Spare me!” (15). Jojo lives in a poisoned, dog-eat-dog world. Leonie, Jojo’s mother, introduces us to the chemistry that keeps her and her friends, like Misty, numb to that world: “Lortab, Oxycontin, coke, Ecstasy, meth” (32). Jojo sees what she has done to her hair to color it: “Leonie stood over the sink and rinsed and hissed as the water ran over her scalp, over the chemical burns… little scabs like dimes on her scalp, her hair looked like it didn’t belong to her” (63). When Leonie cannot recall a natural remedy in the woods for her sick daughter, she understands that the world is not a “right place” (104): This is the kind of world it is. The kind of world that gives you a blackberry plant, a doughy memory, and a child that can’t keep nothing down. I kneel by the side of the road, grab the thorny stems as close to the earth as I can get them, and pull, and the vine pricks my hand, tears at the skin, draws blood in tiny points that smear. My palms burn. This is the kind of world, Mama told me when I got my period when I was twelve, that makes fools of the living and saints of them once they dead. And devils them throughout. (105)
Sing, Unburied, Sing, like Salvage the Bones, shows that a world not right reaches everyone. Michael, Leonie’s White boyfriend and Jojo’s father, suffers from the trauma of his jail time and his work for the oil industry. He is haunted by his experience as a rig welder on the Deepwater Horizon, surviving its explosion though “he came home with his severance money and nightmares” (92). Working in the drug trade, Michael spent time in jail,
which Leonie describes as a place of “dark corners and locked rooms” (95). Michael once wrote to her about it: “This ain’t no place for no man. Black or White. Don’t make no difference. This is a place for the dead.” (96). While working on the rig, Michael admired the life in the sea. But now he knows the Deepwater oil spill has killed off everything, animals “oil burnt, sick with lesions, hollowed out from the insides” (226). The description is reminiscent of Grandma Mam. He sees how it all ties together; when a scientist explains the animal die-off from the spill, Michael considers: “I thought about humans. Because humans is animals” (226). And all the animals are sick: Michael’s father, Big Joseph, is too engorged with racial hatred to accept his son or his grandchildren; Al, a down-on-his-luck White lawyer, literally rots from the drugs he consumes; even Pop, the healthiest character in the novel, is ever-vigilant against the threat of environmental contamination, from parasites in the ground to microwaves in the air. As Leonie exclaims, “We are all drowning” (195). Sing, Unburied, Sing extends the grim view of the environment into the spiritual nature of things. Transcendence is hard to come by, the afterlife vision as unsettling as the depiction of life before death. Richie, a boy brutally murdered trying to escape the infamous Parchman prison, narrates what life after death means. In death, Richie is still trapped at Parchman but is offered to be taken to some other place by a white snake that becomes a horned vulture. Wanting to learn how he died, Richie decides not to go. Given, Leonie’s brother who was murdered by Michael’s cousin in an act of racial hatred, also wanders this limbo; he tries, often in vain, to reach out to his living family members. The horned vulture offers Richie the possibility of a kind of paradise, which Richie can see. It is a beautiful place, verdant and inclusive (featuring homes from many cultures). Still, the place is strange: rivers run backward, its citizens sing incessantly (“They are never silent”), and a multitude of architectures are heaped upon each other: “buildings bearing minarets and hip and gable roofs and crouching beasts and massive skyscrapers that look as if they should collapse, so weirdly they flower into the sky” (241). Though the skyscrapers will not fall and the music the people sing is beautiful, the 30
vision remains across waters that Richie cannot cross. He tries to intervene in the passage of the dying Grandma Mam to the other place, to steal the moment away from Given (as her son, the rightful guide), but he fails and remains left behind. Jojo, who can see and hear Richie, witnesses the dead boy’s fate. Unable to cross, Richie slithers up the branches of a tree “like the white snake” (282). That tree becomes the most startling image in Sing, Unburied, Sing: a place for the dead, with branches full of abused and murdered men, women, and children, all with eyes reflecting the horrible ways they died in an unjust world. In a novel that evokes several lynchings (Richie escaped torture and lynching only because Pop/River killed him in a gesture of mercy), the image of the yearning dead in the tree disturbs; there is little comfort in its branches. Although Jojo can take some refuge in his love for Pop and Kayla, he is a young man with one foot in the strife of this world and the other in the frightening limbo of the next. “Now you understand life,” Richie tells him. “Now you know. Death” (282). Jesmyn Ward’s presentation of Nature and the nature of things bends far from the mainstream beneficence of Emerson’s rainbow. For the dominant White class (not a slave, not an Indian fighting genocide), the positive, transcendent vision of Nature reflected pre-industrial, agrarian life in the United States. Ward’s depictions of a dangerous, frightening environment reflect the 21st century, an Age of Anxiety in the USA rife with social division and scientific predictions of environmental collapse. Ward’s books suggest that as we continue to abuse each other, or as we poison ourselves, or as we continue to destroy the land, sea, and air, Nature turns away from us. Far from never wearing a mean appearance, Nature may well regard us with hostility and vengeance, the Mother in Salvage the Bones that comes looking for blood and destruction. Ward’s shocking vision of environments in this life and the next illuminate the not right world of today. While there is some hope in our ability to survive and the slim possibility that we can come together, Jesmyn Ward’s work, culminating in the tree of death in Sing, Unburied, Sing, suggests that in the 21st century we might well find ourselves all hanging together, lost, moaning broken songs in the circling wind. 31
Works Cited Alcott, Amos Bronson. “Psyche; or the Breath of Childhood,” Houghton Library ms. 59M—306(8), Harvard University. Unpublished manuscript. Bass, Rick. The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes. Little, Brown and Company, 2018. Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Everyman’s Library. Orion Publishing Group, 1997. Confucius. The Lun-yu (“Lun-gnee”). In The Analects of Confucius. Penguin Classics, 1998. 220-233. Dungy, Camille T. Black Nature, Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. University of Georgia Press, 2009. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. In Anthology of American Literature, Volume I: Colonial Through Romantic. 4th Edition. George McMichael, General Editor. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989. 1041-67. Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. New York: Perennial Library, 1989. Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” In Go Down, Moses. Vintage International Edition, 1994. 179-316. —. “Review of The Old Man and the Sea.” In Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters by William Faulkner. James B. Meriwether, ed. 2nd. Edition. Modern Library, 2004. 193. Friedman, Thomas. Thank You for Being Late, An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. University of Illinois Press, 1978. Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. Viking, 1978. —. Wildlife in America. Penguin, 1987. Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Wordsworth Editions, 2002. Moore, Lenard D. “Postcard to an Ecologist.” In Black Nature, Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Camille T. Dungy, ed. University of Georgia Press, 2009. 126. Phillips, Carl. “White Dog.” In Black Nature, Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Camille T. Dungy, ed. University of Georgia Press, 2009. 41. Powers, Richard. The Overstory. Norton, 2018. Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California Press, 1995. Sealts, Merton M., Jr. “Melville and Emerson’s Rainbow.” Pursuing Melville, 1940-80. University of Wisconsin Press, 1982. 250-277.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Penguin Classics, 2006. Steinbeck, John. America and Americans. Viking, 1966. —. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin, 1992. Swedenborg, Emmanuel. Apocalypse Revealed. Swedenborg Foundation, 1981. Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped. Bloomsbury, 2013. —. Interview by Goodreads. Goodreads. September 2017. www.goodreads. com/interviews. —. Interview by Elizabeth Hoover. Paris Review. 30 August 2011. Rpt. in Salvage the Bones. Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury, 2011. 263-66. —. “National Book Award Winner Tells Tale of Katrina.” Narr. Jesmyn Ward. All Things Considered. Natl. Public Radio. 17 Nov. 2011. Rpt. in Salvage the Bones as “Living Through a Category Five Hurricane.” Bloomsbury, 2011. 261-62. —. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2011. —. Sing, Unburied, Sing. Scribner, 2017. —. Where the Line Bleeds. Agate Publishing, 2008. Welch, James. Fools Crow. Penguin Classics, 2011. Wilson, E.O. “Afterword.” Silent Spring. Rachel Carson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. 357-363.
“Aborted Rituals of Communion: Food as Drugs and Drugs as Food in Jesmyn Ward’s Where the Line Bleeds”
otential disaster hangs over Jesmyn Ward’s Where the Line Bleeds (2008) like impending slaughter hangs over a herd of hogs destined to become pork chops and bacon. The somber tone of the novel, combined with the relentlessly plodding narration, weighs upon readers in the same way that a sense of doom defines the characters. Just as Christophe and Joshua DeLisle,1 fraternal twin brothers who are the focus characters in the novel, have tremendous difficulty carving out futures for themselves once they graduate from high school, so readers are thrust into a fictional world that drags them down emotionally even as they recognize the undergirding truths of the events Ward presents. Sensitive readers fear for Chris and Joshua, wondering if their alcohol and drug-encrusted lives will yield a future of death and/or imprisonment, while the characters know that their futures loom as ponderously and as uninvitingly as the hurricane nearing their hometown at the close of the novel. Though the narrative is awash in sunshine, that brightness does not portend any happiness or any positive future; indeed, the sun beats down unceasingly and its heat seems to inter everyone. The constancy that weather, geography, lack of opportunity, and general inertia create in the text leads to desperate quests for outlets, whether those outlets are physical/ sexual, mental/musical, or drugs/entertainment. The world-weariness that pervades the text leads to a round of repeatedly routine rituals that barely offer temporary escape from it, if they offer any at all. Instead of talking to each other, characters eat. Instead of discussing their problems, they use drugs. In the places where verbal communication usually serves to tie human beings into relational communities, characters use food and drugs to attempt to serve 1 Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, thus the name reflects another claiming of her smalltown background as literary inspiration.
those purposes. While there are some successes, these rituals of interaction are mostly failures, thus making silence loom large in the novel. Readers who come to Where the Line Bleeds aware of Ward’s other fictional works will be predisposed not to expect any upbeat, exuberant characters and occurrences. Set in 1999 during the few months following Christophe and Joshua’s graduation from high school, the novel focuses initially on their job searches. Since their home town, Bois Sauvage, has little commerce, they drive to small towns nearby and put in applications at places such as Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and the local dock. They punctuate their jobhunting with the drug use—smoking marijuana—that they have cultivated in high school. Hoping to acquire employment so that they can relieve their legally blind grandmother, Ma-mee, from using her meagre resources to sustain the household, they move around constantly without really moving anywhere. Having been abandoned by their mother, Cille, when she moved to Atlanta from Mississippi, and having never interacted in any serious way with their drug-addict father Charles (Sandman), the young men (referred to as “boys” throughout the text) have an assortment of relatives (including their cousin Dunny) and friends with whom they party, drink, smoke “blunts” (marijuana stuffed into cigar wrappings), and generally exist in a hole where their options for moving forward are low-paying jobs, drug-dealing, jail, and/ or death. The novel chronicles their cycles of job searches (Joshua eventually finds one on the docks), partying, smoking, interacting with Ma-Mee, riding around with their friends and smoking some more, playing basketball, and generally showcasing the outsider status of their existence and the lack of possibility that it will change significantly. Chris starts dealing drugs, Sandman returns, and Cille comes for a visit; the novel climaxes with a fight between Sandman and his sons that lands Chris in the hospital. A life-threatening injury seems to be on its way to healing as Chris, Joshua (who has had both hands injured on the dock), and their cousin Dunny go fishing. A pause— rather than an ending—therefore brings the novel to its stop. It has been an extended and belabored performance of sexual foreplay that has not been consistently pleasurable and that has ultimately brought little, if any, release. At the end of the text, it is questionable if Chris will stop drug-dealing, though 35
the narrative does hint that he and Joshua are reconciled from their previous breach (primarily Chris’s jealousy that Joshua found a “real” job). As is true with many twins historically, the brothers have a more-thanverbal connection. This would make it understandable if language were not their primary means of communication. In this text, however, the verbal and oftentimes the non-verbal fail. Ward favors minutely detailed descriptions and narration over dialogue, a preference that is reflected in two significant forms of communication in the novel. When there are no words or when words fail, characters often try to communicate through food. At other times, when words and food fail, they attempt to communicate through drugs. Certainly, there are documented literary instances in which food plays critical roles, as in Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying (1991); in that novel, the incarcerated Jefferson signals his willingness to listen to his teacher, Grant Wiggins, by eating the food his godmother has prepared instead of strewing it around his jail cell. Food serves to convey that Jefferson rejects the definition of “hog” that the District Attorney had assigned to him when Jefferson was convicted of a murder he did not commit. The humanizing effect of the food serves to establish community, to cement relationships, and to convey that Jefferson is moving forward in his bid to walk instead of crawl to his destiny with the electric chair.2 In Where the Line Bleeds, food serves as expressions of love between the twins and their nearly blind grandmother. Again and again, Ma-mee works lovingly, tenderly to prepare food for the twins. For a woman whose sight is impaired, any meal she prepares is somewhat of a miracle, and she makes miracles every day. Usually planning her cooking for early morning to escape the heat of the day, Ma-Mee is initially just taking care of her grandsons, as she has done for the thirteen years since Cille left. We see the tenderness of food interactions between them on the day that they graduate from high school. At the family picnic feast at his Aunt Rita’s house, where barbecued drumsticks, meatballs, potato salad, and shrimp abound, Joshua 2 See Courtney Ramsey, “Louisiana Foodways in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying,” Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 10 (1995): 46-58.
lovingly attends to his grandmother’s plate: “Joshua… picked up a boiled shrimp from his plate and began to peel it.… Joshua placed the naked, pink shrimp on Ma-mee’s plate, and she smiled and reached for his hand before he could remove it and squeezed; the pads of her fingers, even after all those years of scrubbing and washing, were still soft and full on his wrist. He squeezed in return and then began peeling another shrimp.”3 That tender and successful communion with food gives way quickly to failed such attempts. As the days pass after graduation and the twins cannot find jobs, tension in the small house increases exponentially. Food transforms from being offering, consolation, and communion to becoming a site of conflict (as Joshua finds a job and Chris cannot, Chris starts to feel guilty about consuming what he has not provided). Food also becomes interrogator and even peace maker as Ma-Mee makes special dishes for the young men as well as for their mother Cille when she comes to visit. For Ma-Mee, food is the ritual around which she plans her days. From shopping with her daughter Rita, to washing and cooking greens, to peeling shrimp, she is always in an offering mode—offering food for sustenance, offering it to contain Chris’s actions, or offering it to evoke in Cille a tie to her childhood and to the community of Bois Sauvage. When Chris’s search for a job turns into weeks and then months without success, Ma-mee is reluctant to keep asking Chris about his success or lack thereof. She tries to ease his frustration by requesting that he assist her in food preparation, which she uses as a prelude to her inquiries about his job searches. If she can affect a semblance of normality in what is fast becoming a less than normal situation, then perhaps, she believes, Chris’s frustration will evaporate—or at least be contained. She claims and contains Chris in a familiar way, using food to remind him that he has always been her helpful little grandson. For example, on one occasion, as job possibilities become increasingly non-existent for Chris and he becomes more distant and erratic in his behavior, Ma-mee enlists his help in 3 Jesmyn Ward, Where the Line Bleeds (New York: Scribner, 2008), 24. I will indicate additional references to the novel in parentheses in the text.
shelling ten pounds of shrimp. After initially resisting, Chris acquiesces and joins Ma-mee in a ritual that covers over what the real conversation is about: She reached for a shrimp, for the grayish-silvery pile before her, the quivering mass of glistening sea-bodies, and peeled. The shell came away easily in her fingers; it was hard like plastic in some segments and gummy in others. Christophe grabbed a shrimp and followed suit. Ma-mee let the room settle, let the morning sounds gather around them. Christophe peeled the shrimp slowly and carefully: that was his way around her, and it was the exact opposite of his usual demeanor. She knew it for what it was: love. (67-68)
Ward depicts the division between Ma-mee’s thoughts about Chris’s personality and her hands as the pile of cleaned shrimp grows. Chris’s current situation is uppermost in Ma-mee’s mind, but Ma-mee does not mention it until a substantial portion of the work is done; instead, she basks in the love of Chris’s helpfulness. For Ma-mee, the silent ritual of shelling shrimp is a reclaiming effort, a desire to return to the months before when Chris and Joshua were legitimately dependent upon her (although they did make money from odd jobs and both had a hidden cash “stash”). As the pile of uncleaned shrimp between them disappears into cleaned shrimp in the awaiting bucket, Ma-mee and Chris can experience a time-out, a pausing place. She can, at least for a few moments, not worry about his whereabouts or his joblessness, and he can, also for a few moments, not concentrate so heavily on his depressing lack of success in job hunting. This ritual of communion—of talking without talking, of touching without touching, of understanding the significance of food without its cost value being foremost (Ma-mee’s son Paul has provided the shrimp) allows grandmother and grandson a brief respite before reality comes crashing in upon them. Both are soothed into brief forgetfulness, not unlike the effect that some of the drugs in the novel produce. As with those drugs, however, the soothing effect will eventually wear off. Despite the communing, Ma-mee brings up the job situation briefly to assure Chris that Joshua’s getting a job just means that Chris has “a little bit more time to look. This way you’ll find something that suits you real good,” and Chris
acquiesces with her conclusion, after which she “closed her eyes as she picked and peeled, picked and peeled” (70). At this point in the novel, Chris has not made the decision to begin selling drugs, but his frustration level at not being able to find a job is high. Later, when Ma-mee learns that Chris is spending his days in a drug dealer’s house (and she probably knows explicitly—but will not admit consciously or verbally—that he is selling drugs), she never confronts him with that knowledge. Instead, to contain his restlessness and hold him close to her, she continues to attempt to use food to tighten the bonds of parental connection that are being stretched almost to the breaking point. No matter what time of night Chris gets home, there is always food waiting for him—even when he begins to feel guilty about partaking of resources to which he has not contributed. Readers can imagine what Chris is feeling by noting Joshua’s comments about food: He was glad he’d gotten the job. It would be good to be able to buy food for the house and not have to ration soda, to abstain from eating too much shrimp because he was trying to save some for Ma-mee, for his brother, for later; it would be good to not have to eat oatmeal in the morning. He was so damned tired of eating oatmeal and sugar, of parsing out the teaspoon of condensed milk on top. He hated condensed milk…. Ma-mee maintained that she had kept them fed and fat when they were little: she was proud of the fact, and she would brag about it to her friends, to her daughters, that the twins had never wanted for food. Joshua remembered otherwise. He remembered eating handfuls of corn flakes and watery powdered milk, of eating tuna for weeks at a time, of dreaming of pizza as an eight-year-old. He remembered being perpetually hungry, regardless of how much he ate. (72)
Joshua’s recollections make even clearer the desperate need that Mamee has to commune with her grandsons through food. The recollections simultaneously emphasize how desperate Chris is to find a job and how badly he feels because he cannot, at that point in the narrative, contribute to the family’s finances. Consider Chris’s reaction to a full refrigerator at the
DeLisle house later in the novel as he heads out to sell drugs: “The food-laden refrigerator shamed him; Joshua drank and ate the food their money bought and every time Christophe sat down to a meal, he felt like choking” (205). Food is one of the centers around which familial relations get established and maintained—or disrupted—and it is a measure of the extent to which fruitful conversation and emotional satisfaction can occur among family members. As with Chris, Ma-mee also uses food as a way to commune with her daughter Cille. A strikingly beautiful young woman who left home when the twins were five years old, Cille has made periodic appearances in their lives but not sufficient for either son to consider her his mother—though Joshua misses her more than Chris. Having traded Bois Sauvage for Atlanta, or a dot on the landscape for a star on the map, Cille is so engaged in that transformed existence that her hometown has no definitive hold on her; she is content to visit, say “Hey” to old friends, party in New Orleans, and go back to Atlanta. In an effort to combat Cille’s desire to wipe her feet of everything that reeks of Bois Sauvage, Ma-mee uses food to remind Cille of her origins. She recalls how Cille would eat dirt and grass as a small child until Ma-mee started making special biscuits for her. It is those special biscuits, along with red beans and rice, on which Ma-mee focuses to evoke Cille’s memories of home upon Cille’s return to Bois Sauvage. The bean preparation is another site on which attempted communion, food, and job searches collide. Ma-mee had made red beans and rice. The day before, Christophe had come home directly from dropping Joshua off and had helped glean the small hard pale beans from the pot that were gray or dense as stones, to find those that could not be cooked. She could only tell so much by feeling them with her hands. She had asked Christophe if he’d had any luck with putting in applications, and after he’d told her no, he hadn’t spoken as he helped. He’d left soon after they were done. She’s felt concurrently guilty and justified about her nagging while she’d ladled spices into the pot along with the beans: garlic, Vidalia onion, bell pepper, green onion, bay leaf, and thyme. (17273)
Once the twins arrive from the airport with their mother, eating begins immediately, and, despite Ma-mee’s two days of cooking, there is very little communion over the food. Cille greets her mother, and Ma-mee immediately hands her a bowl of beans and rice. Food is merely functional, as Cille comments, “I was hoping you’da made something?” (174). Without ceremony, Ma-mee fills bowls, points to the stove and states, “They got biscuits in the oven,” and yells to the twins to come and eat. Though the four sit at the table, and though Cille offers grace, any possibility for communion is disrupted when Cille asks Chris about job prospects. “‘What about you, Christophe? You been looking, right?’” She then proceeds to lecture him on the proper protocols for job hunting, telling him that he must follow up his applications with phone calls, because she, as a manager of a beauty supply store in Atlanta, never hires anyone without their clear indications of follow-up interest. It is no wonder, then, that the twins eat little, that the beans and rice are spicier than Ma-mee usually makes them, that Ma-mee herself is not really hungry, or that the twins make quick exits to their room after strained “good nights” to their mother. The magic beans and rice and biscuits, like the shrimp, can only have a temporary and severely limited effect. Cille is resistant to anything that would tie her to her family or to Bois Sauvage. She is awkward in showing affection toward her sons (she “freezes” when she sees Joshua at the airport—169) and her mother, and she feels no remorse about visiting her old friends, going to New Orleans, and indeed staying out all night while she is at her mother’s house. Bois Sauvage is a way-station for Cille, and she has come only because of the music festival in New Orleans. Ma-mee’s food, therefore, cannot reach far enough into Cille’s memories for her to feel a sense of appreciation for what her mother has done or for her to consider—even remotely—returning to Bois Sauvage. Indeed, it is remarkable that, when Chris is injured (Sandman stabs him, though Joshua asserts that Chris fell on a bottle on the beach, and Chris supports that lie once he awakens in the hospital) and the injury is considered life-threatening, Cille’s mothering instincts do not come substantially to the forefront. Within days, Cille returns to Atlanta. The memory-evoking power of food that might have been effective at some point in the family’s history 41
has absolutely no impact upon Cille at this stage. She accepts the biscuits and red beans and rice as something her mother ought to have prepared for her. These food items and their labor-intensive preparation have no permanent claim on Cille, and she prefers to return to Atlanta and her job there, where, by working overtime, she can sustain herself fairly well, well enough to have sent money home to Ma-mee over the years; Joshua and Chris even benefit with a car she purchased for them for their graduation. The car, however, might be compared to Ma-mee’s pile of shrimp; it is the space into which Cille places an expression of love that she cannot otherwise verbalize. After all, how can one possibly get five-year-olds, then eighteen-year-olds, to understand the reasons their mother abandoned them? Instead of communicating, the DeLisles live in a house of pregnant silences, where attempts to break the silences with food ultimately do not prove sufficiently long-lasting. Lack of verbalizing also defines the relationship between Chris and Joshua after Joshua gets the job on the dock and Chris uses their gift car from Cille to drive Joshua the several miles to and from work every day. Once Joshua learns that Chris is selling drugs, the silences increase, with Joshua usually sleeping in the car in what becomes a designed pattern to avoid conversation with his brother. Interactions between them become especially strained and reach a breaking point when Joshua realizes that, in addition to selling drugs, Chris has experimented with cocaine. That knowledge leads to an inattentiveness at work and an accident in which Joshua cuts both of his hands deeply enough to warrant twelve stitches in each palm. Chris comes to pick him up, intuits what has caused Joshua’s accident, and stops “at a burger place, order[s] for Joshua without asking what he want[s], and set[s] the meal on the seat between them without speaking” (213). From Joshua’s perspective, the “soda was bitter, and the fries left a waxy coating in his mouth. At the house, he left his drink on the seat,” which leads Christophe to pick it up, walk into the house, and throw it away. Joshua’s actions indicate that this peace offering will not close the rift between him and his getting-deeperinto-the-drug-trade brother. There can be no communion where there is no communication, either verbal or otherwise.
Absence of communication over food also occurs when Cille announces that, because of an issue with the beauty supply company at which she works in Atlanta, she will spend an additional few days at Ma-mee’s house. Recognition that her decision is purely self-centered and not remotely related to anything Ma-mee might want causes a “stilted Sunday dinner” (201) for the family, which leads directly to an intensification in Chris’s drug use as well as his continued use of Javon’s house as his drug-selling office. The swiftness with which the narrative passes over that family dinner gathering shows how un-communal it was. Similarly, after Joshua’s accident, another very un-communal dinner occurs in Ma-mee’s house. Cille said she was tired and went to her room without eating. Christophe shoveled food into his mouth, and Joshua fumbled with his spoon, dropping it into the beans. Each time, his brother would pick up the utensil and wedge it between the wrapping on his fingers. Joshua laughed at it, shallowly, the first time, but then he was quiet. Ma-mee wanted to talk to them, to say something that would make her feel like she wasn’t chewing and swallowing small pebbles, but she could not think of anything. (217)
Meal time for the DeLisles has become a physical as well as a psychological ordeal. No healing or comforting can take place when the matriarch has lost completely the voice she barely had earlier and when laughter dissolves into silence. By this time, Ma-mee knows that Chris is spending his days at Javon’s house, that he is “busy for no good reason, still ain’t got a job yet” (200), that Cille has no romantic attachment to her or to the boys, and that Joshua’s injury might have a long-term impact upon the full refrigerator that will serve as such a source of shame to Chris. Still, there is a small attempt to reclaim the function that food could potentially serve in camaraderie and healthy family relationships. After Chris comes home from the hospital, Ma-mee’s daughter Rita prepares food for the entire family (232). While there is no extended description of her departure, it is worthy of note that the gathering occurs the evening after Cille leaves. The account of her leaving is striking in its implication of her having been a negative influence: “And with a shivering of gold and magenta
and silky black, she shimmered like a mirage in the room, turned, and was gone” (232). Illusory. That is what Cille has been—illusory to her sons, her mother, and the town in which she was born. The friendly family gathering after her leave-taking serves as a benediction of sorts as well as a kind of restoration of some of the family peace that was disrupted by her presence. Over dinner, the brothers can discuss the confrontation with their father and talk, to some extent, about Chris’s “accident.” The lack of full disclosure (for they are mutually sworn not to reveal what truly happened) means that full communion is not achieved completely, but at least there is conversation during the course of the meal. Food in Where the Line Bleeds is many things: the measure of a man and his ability to provide for his family, the site of confrontation and conflict, the potential peacemaker in difficult situations, the concrete indication of failure, and the potential for communion. The consumption of food indicates acceptance whereas the refusal to consume points to dissatisfaction and possible lack of acceptance. Eating can serve as a substitute for conversation or it can be conversation, for silences during and surrounding meals can speak just as loudly as words. Ultimately, food is an indicator of economic stability, a source of pride that pushes the potential for shame into the background, or—in its absence—brings it to the fore. For portions of the text, food fails as a ritual of interaction, and its consumption is more perfunctory than communal or communicative. For Ward’s primary characters, “the line bleeds” across the purchase and consumption of food, and food binds or severs relationships throughout the text. If food is the temporary drug that cannot sustain permanent connections, then drugs are the sustenance that substitutes for food. In noteworthy revelations, it becomes clear that Joshua and Chris have been beer drinkers and marijuana smokers for years. Readers meet them on graduation day, drinking beer and jumping off a ledge into a nearby river. Shortly, they will be smoking blunts as they move from party to party over the course of the narrative. Alcohol and drugs in Bois Sauvage are as common as the sun that beats down so unrelentingly upon all the inhabitants. Young people get introduced to drugs early, and there is apparently little sanction against 44
dabbling in junior high and high school. Adults obviously turn a blind eye to the rampant alcohol and drug use that penetrates Bois Sauvage like a dense fog. How, for example, can Aunt Rita not know that her son Dunny is smoking and selling weed when he is stashing it in her home and is high almost every day? How can Ma-mee, even with her impaired sight, not know that Joshua and Chris smoke marijuana regularly? After all, Ma-mee has a keen sense of smell, can tell when the twins have been drinking, and senses later in the novel when Chris is not adhering to good hygiene. The community, therefore, through its silence, gives tacit approval to these activities, for every young man in the novel is selling drugs or is using drugs. There are no exceptions. Drugs are posited as an economic necessity, and that is the trap into which Chris inevitably falls. Consider the limited options for employment available to newly-minted high school graduates in Bois Sauvage: “Their list was a dull litany of choices: McDonald’s, Burger King, Sonic, Dairy Queen, Piggly Wiggly, Circle K, Chevron, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, the dockyard and the shipyard. None of their options were in Bois Sauvage” (30—my emphasis). Forced to drive long distances to neighboring towns to work at minimum-wage jobs that provide little possibility for advancement, the brothers are nonetheless most appreciative of the car their mother purchased as their graduation present. However, the competition for these minimum-wage jobs, combined with the curtailed futures they portend, means that most young people in the area are hemmed in economically and geographically. Ward provides an acute sense of that hemming in by focusing on these young brothers. As mediocre students who have barely graduated from high school, Joshua and Chris join countless others whose futures are dimmed by poverty, illiteracy, geography, and the racism that undergirds all three. Drugs, then, become a form of communion among these dispossessed young people. Joshua and Chris share peaceful interludes through drinking and smoking. When they are at one with each other, as in the beginning of the novel, then their drinking and smoking signal harmonious links between then. However, as the novel progresses, drugs become just as much a measure of lack of communion as food does. When Joshua is the first to get a job, Chris signals his perceived outcast status by going for a long ride with his cousin 45
Dunny and proceeding to get ridiculously high by smoking blunt after blunt. The job rift prevents him from communing with his brother, so drugs become an indicator of that disruption. Drugs, like food, can connect or separate; in this instance, they separate Chris from Joshua. Instead of verbalizing his frustration to Joshua—or even to Dunny—Chris drinks and smokes instead of conversing. Drugs become a language punctuated by a basketball game to which Dunny challenges Chris. Intuiting that Chris is stressed because Joshua got a job and he did not, Dunny evokes this response in Chris: “‘What you know about it, Dunny? You got a job. You got a hustle. You got a mama and a stepdaddy to help you out’” (54). The door is thus opened for Dunny to offer to supply Chris with drugs: “‘You really think I’m going to let your dumb, ungrateful ass struggle out here when I can put you onto my hustle? When I can front you a quarter pound of weed and have you out here doubling your money?’” (55). Absence of conversation with Joshua or Ma-mee about the job situation leads to Chris’s having the wrong conversation with Dunny. Although Chris will hesitate before lurching into the drug trade, he nevertheless lurches. Drugs, with their multiplicity of functions in the novel, led to a broken communion with Joshua and a new, negative, communion with Dunny. Within thirty pages of learning about Joshua’s good fortune, Chris drinks and smokes himself into the decision to sell drugs. With Dunny, smoking becomes a ritual of incorporation with Chris just as it had previously reflected a harmonious relationship with Joshua. Chris briefly substitutes his relationship with Joshua in order to commune with Dunny and others in the drug trade; indeed, he believes that, because Joshua is developing a relationship with Laila, a girl he has known since childhood, that “it didn’t look like Joshua needed his apology, or his company” (79). Through the haze of drugs as well as the fact that he is “stone-drunk,” Chris can attempt to shape a reality to suit his drug and alcohol-induced mood. The starts and stops of communion through drugs and rejection of communion through drugs continue throughout the narrative. When Joshua and Chris see their father Sandman at the local basketball court, they pass a blunt between them (140) in their mutual uniting against the intrusion of their 46
father, though they are simultaneously showing kinship to him by using the very method of escape from reality that defines Sandman. On the other hand, Chris refuses a blunt (149) when he is in a car with Joshua and Laila, who are passing it back and forth between them. As far as Chris is concerned, the “conversation” is between Joshua and Laila, and he is left out. His refusal of the blunt is his temporary refusal of communion. And the pattern continues. Joshua resorts to smoking after Cille tries to embarrass Laila (197). When Chris learns that Cille is planning to extend her stay, the tension is sufficient for Chris to smoke as he is driving Joshua to work (202), which is something that he is not accustomed to doing. In every instance, relational ties are either affirmed or disrupted through the use of drugs. Even among drug dealers, smoking serves such purposes. To show his manliness, his lack of fear, Chris accepts the challenge of experimenting with cocaine at Javon’s house. He cuts his tongue on the razor that he uses to scoop the drug (207), and that is “where the line bleeds” for both brothers. Joshua ends up being so concerned for Chris that he ends up having the accident at work, and Chris is deteriorating before Joshua’s and Ma-mee’s eyes. The fact that Ma-mee senses Chris’s deterioration is another indication that she probably knows what Chris is doing. “He smells like yesterday” (209), she observes to Joshua after the cocaine incident and follows up with the comment that she is “worried about him.” Ma-mee’s worry is indeed justified, for Chris is fast becoming lost to himself, to her, and to Joshua. Drugs become his food, his infinite satiation, and they push personal hygiene into the background. They also highlight his precarious financial position. He did not want to eat unless he was starving, and he did not see the sense in taking a bath when he was living so grimily, when he was only waking and bathing and eating and getting dressed to go to Javon’s and make money. Joshua’s accident had scared him: What if his brother’s hands had been crushed? What if he had to support the family? (219)
Drugs thus provide a sense of communion—or not—among drug users as well as within drug users. Chris is torn between legitimate responsibility
and genuine desire to be helpful and the illegitimacy of the very activity that could provide that help. He is constantly at war with himself, for he knows that he is going against the grain of everything that Ma-mee has taught him. He has moved beyond being a sometimes consumer of drugs and has become a persistent user and supplier of drugs. Whatever conscience he has has permanently lost its sense of peace. Chris had started drug dealing with a vivid sense of what it means to sell, but he had not been able to resist the economic lure. The description of the path down which he is traveling is revealed from his perspective, and it illustrates the impact of forces beyond such small communities as Bois Sauvage upon the lives of persons confined to those communities: Christophe had dismissed dealing because he saw where it led: a brief, brilliant blaze of glory where most drug dealers bought cars, the bar at the club, women, paid bills for their mamas, and if they were really lucky, houses. That lasted around two years. Then the inevitable occurred. The coast was too small for anyone to remain anonymous for long. The county police hounded the local dealers, who depended on bigger dealers in Houston, Atlanta, and New Orleans for their cocaine. The cops saw the local dealers at the park, in the neighborhood, making runs for dope, put two and two together, and that was it. The dealers fell, then. They were running, hiding, haunted. They scraped together large sums of money and tried to put them away to support their families and their girlfriends and their kids and instead found themselves using the money to post bail, because the police picked most boys up three times a year, if not more. For most drug dealers, jail and hustling became a job and going home became a vacation. One or two weeks out, and they were back in again for violating probation for smoking a little weed. (56)
Still, economics trump fear of incarceration, and short-term gains trump constant poverty. It is worthy of reiterating that drug dealing, as noted, is a job. It cannot demand more ingenuity than a professional job would demandâ€”if these young men had had the option of pursuing professions. The energy expended in drug hustling, therefore, negates any sense of considering these young men â€œlazy.â€? It is constant work, constant exercise, constant vigilance.
Young men who decide to commune with purveyors of such wares usually end up forfeiting their freedom—if not their lives. Although recent high school graduates might make the decisions to deal drugs, selling drugs is a grow-up, BIG man affair. It is striking, then, that Ward refers to Chris and Joshua as “boys” throughout the text. It is also Ma-mee’s constant reference to them, and relatives and neighbors often follow suit. The implications of “boys” doing men’s work that threatens them without relief are perhaps a way of hinting at the racism underlying the creation of spaces such as Bois Sauvage as well as the siphoning off of economic opportunities that would enable young people to make a decent living. “Boys” also serves to convey a certain lack of guilt for their activities. From one perspective, these young men can be viewed as playfully innocent. They are carefree and gay in high school and, when we first meet them, seem to have hope for the future. As economic and geographical realities impinge upon their abilities to make a living, Joshua and Chris become innocents buffeted about by forces beyond their control. Chris would not have broken the law if he had viable legal options of making a decent living. Neither brother might have experimented with drugs if they did not live in a community where drugs are as common as eating. An aura of innocence, therefore, creeps into readers’ assessments of the characters even as readers recognize the complex moral and legal issues involved. In this contemplation of communion, morality, and legality, it is important to consider to whom Chris peddles his drugs. He is not sneaking into dorms at a local white university or driving to an upper-middle class white area near Bois Sauvage. He is selling drugs to his black friends and neighbors, and perhaps to his relatives. He witnesses an instance in which one of those neighbors, a woman named Tilda, arrives at Javon’s house short of funds needed to buy drugs and ends up offering her body to Javon in exchange for what she needs. From Javon’s perspective, the exchange is routine. Javon is therefore, as Chris is in a less physically intimate way, exploiting the very people and community that look like him. By aspiring to be another Javon, Chris is inadvertently helping to keep his community in the same backward state in which it currently exists, thus a vicious and destructive cycle continues. Chris joins other drug 49
dealers in violating any sense of communion or community as they pursue what they presume to be the higher objective of economic survival. Sadly, in this fictional world—and comparable ones—drug dealers such as Chris and Javon create a new form of enslavement. Black bodies are sexually available to them and black bodies labor for them in ways comparable to black bodies being sexually available to and laboring for plantation owners during slavery and for white farm/plantation owners during the era of sharecropping. The only differences are that these black, drug-enslaved bodies receive immediate gratification through their drug-induced highs and are recycled rather than sold. This destruction of communion with the very people who look like them is horrific enough—but it also re-instates communion through drugs at a level that is despicably nauseating. Ultimately, despite their frequently labeled “boyhood” status, and no matter how much Ma-mee still views them to some extent as children, Joshua and Chris live in an adult world, one in which they are responsible for the choices they make. The fact that Chris cannot make better choices is also “where the line bleeds”—all over poverty-stricken black communities without the resources to sustain themselves or to encourage their youngsters onto alternative paths. Instead, their lives are bleak, as is the atmosphere around them. Even when they take respites through satiated bellies or drug-induced hazes, gloom reigns. While both brothers are alive—and fishing—at the stop of the text, the in medias res quality of the stopping emphasizes again that this is a pause, not an ending, a brief respite before re-commitment to drugs and/ or to a minimum-wage existence that is just as somber to contemplate as are the lives of hundreds of thousands of young African American men in small southern towns who, by virtue of history, geography, illiteracy, economics, poverty, and racism, are locked out of the often-touted American democratic promise of success.
Hope in the Apocalypse: Narrative Perspective as Negotiation of Structural Crises in Salvage the Bones
n the wake of the disaster, the media, politicians, writers, and social media posters created and shared narratives that depicted the events of Hurricane Katrina; among these is Jesmyn Ward, the author of Salvage the Bones, set in the small fictional town of Bois Sauvage, the Batistes prepare for a category-five hurricane that will ravage the environment in which they live. Katrina narratives often share similar traits depending upon the geographical region: Mississippi or New Orleans, Louisiana. The narratives focusing on Mississippi tend to feature white, middle-class people who live in rural areas and underscore American values like individualism and neoliberalism. After disaster, rural Mississippians do not need government assistance and can pull themselves up through hard work and self-reliance. In contrast, narratives about New Orleans tend to depict poor people of color who depend upon government assistance for survival and participate in criminal behavior such as looting. Salvage the Bones demonstrates an awareness of these narratives by deconstructing these typical Katrina narratives. Salvage the Bones is a story of Hurricane Katrina, but not a Katrina narrative. Ward’s novel depicts the Batistes, a poor black family in rural Mississippi, as they prepare for Hurricane Katrina. Although the novel represents the storm, Salvage the Bones is not a Katrina narrative since it does not participate in the recognizably established forms of narratives about Katrina; instead, the structure of Salvage the Bones is an apocalyptic text. An additional divergence from standard Katrina narratives is the deconstruction of stereotypes based on class, race, and sex. By contradicting stereotypes, Ward’s text participates in what Jim Miller terms “feminist estrangement,” a way of alienating the reader to create something anew. Katrina narratives typically celebrate American individualism, pulling oneself up, and indicting
those who could not demonstrate the same results. Ward breaks the bounds of Katrina narrative genre through unique focalization. While typical Katrina narratives are focalized through white, middle-class rural Mississippians or poor, people of color in New Orleans, Ward’s story is focalized through Esch, a protagonist of color from rural Mississippi from a poor family. In fact, Ward’s text is better classified as an apocalypse story. Ward combines apocalyptic textual structure with feminist estrangement creating a new genre of Katrina narrative. This new form enables Ward to both focalize her narrative through it, and use it to reveal, the experiences of individuals silenced in typical Katrina narratives. In Sarah Dillon’s essay on Maggie Gee’s The Flood, Dillon establishes the structure of apocalyptic fiction. According to Dillon, the apocalypse story features three characteristics: “remainderless destruction,” beginning in an end, and recursivity. Through her criticism of Maggie Gee’s 9/11-based apocalypse fiction, Dillon provides a framework through which we can evaluate Salvage the Bones as a work of apocalyptic fiction. We will also use what Jim Miller calls “feminist estrangement.” Through his analysis of Octavia Butler’s work, Miller explains feminist estrangement alienates the reader to challenge the hierarchical nature of society (337). The defamiliarization central to feminist estrangement reveals the oppression of the present to alienate and point the reader to the future. The Katrina story in Salvage the Bones produces estrangement because it depicts a narrative that both deconstructs the available Katrina narratives and is based in a feminist approach because of the novel’s perspective of focalization through Esch. By employing Esch as the focus and the mediating perspective, Ward points to a future of survival and renewal, resulting in a feminist apocalypse fiction that represents the future in the context of disaster. In order to define Salvage the Bones as an apocalyptic text, we follow Sarah Dillon’s assessment of Maggie Gee’s The Flood in which she argues that apocalyptic texts represent both event and discourse and provide a “strategy for confronting and deferring the threat of remainderless destruction,” based on Derrida’s discussion of apocalyptic discourse (376). The end of the text reveals the “remainderless destruction” inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. The 52
Batistes have nothing after the storm and the town’s destruction is total: “every house had faced the hurricane, and every house had lost” (Ward 242). Upon seeing the landscape of St. Catherine, the neighboring town, stripped of many of its trees, the youngest Batiste, Junior marvels at the absence, asking “Where are the trees?” and Esch repeats twice that “there is too much sky,” emphasizing the emptiness in the wake of the hurricane (249). As Randall, the eldest Batiste brother observes, “‘It’s all gone’” (251); Big Henry later rephrases this sentiment: “Ain’t nothin’ left” (253). As Esch strains to locate once familiar landmarks while driving through the wreckage, and recalls events in the days preceding the storm, she notes the chasm between preand postKatrina: “...suddenly there is a great split between now and then, and I wonder where the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it” (251). The “remainderless destruction” is not only physical, but also encompasses the total obliteration of reality as she once knew it, which is reminiscent of Ward’s description of the world unmade. In that nothingness, the characters feel estranged from their environment. The familiar landscape is no longer familiar and the family is displaced within it. As Hayden writes about the aftermath of the storm, “Historical landmarks, including ones that survived Camille, were wiped away; leaving a site without markers, a placelessness that left many people unable even to locate where things used to be” (194-195). Esch, Randall, and Junior are unnerved as they take in the destruction, which overwhelms the landscape with too much sky. While the completeness of the devastation of the environment is a pivotal aspect of apocalyptic fiction, and while that is certainly present in Salvage the Bones, Ward’s most important contribution to the genre is the survival after the devastation. As Dillon argues, apocalyptic texts not only represent the end, but also end as beginning, the continuance after the end (378-80). With the utter destruction of the apocalypse comes a beginning. While the town of St. Catherine is washed away, the people of Bois Sauvage remain, even if they are badly damaged. The community remains to pick up the pieces, literally and figuratively. “And just as the houses clustered, there were people in the street, barefoot, half naked, walking around felled trees, crumpled trampolines, 53
talking with each other, shaking their heads, repeating one word over and over again: alive alive alive alive” (242). In the immediate wake after the storm, the urge to validate one another’s survival, to speak the word aloud in order to believe its truth, suggests the possibility of continuance: we are here, and therefore, we can begin again. The characters become refugees in place, but the very fact of their existence after cataclysmic destruction requires a way forward: a new beginning. In a small framing device that brackets the story by repeating at the beginning and end of the text, Ward uses watching and caring to draw a structural connection between “before Katrina” and “after Katrina.” As the novel opens, Esch watches Skeet take care of China, a caring that continues throughout the book (2-3). Esch emphasizes watching, looking after, a way of caring for each other that imbues the novel with a strong sense of community and bonding. At the end of the novel, this series of watchers is repeated, but with added watchers: Big Henry will watch Esch and the baby as she continues to watch Skeet who cares for China. By closing the frame of watching, Ward allows for the continuance of the community through the apocalypse of Katrina, but the expansion to include Big Henry demonstrates the network’s extension held within the family to include the community the Batistes have built within Bois Sauvage. Together, as interdependent community members, they survive the hurricane and maintain even stronger connections through the struggle to survive. The slight revision to the end frame imbues it with positive change. Esch’s burgeoning motherhood represents a new beginning as well, and the presence of her unborn child permeates the text. Despite the danger, the flood is purifying for Esch. “Tomorrow, I think, everything will be washed clean. What I carry in my stomach is relentless; like each unbearable day, it will dawn” (205). Tomorrow is not romanticized, but inevitable. Instead of being hopeful or joyous, Esch is firmly resolute in her motherhood, in recognizing that her pregnancy will eventually come to light, the genesis of new life. This beginning, however, is not the dawning of a new age, free of the problems of the apocalyptic society and environment. It is the continuation of the previous age with the addition of knowledge required to change the 54
future. Again, although the world is relentless and unbearable, it is washed clean and ready to begin again; the world must be unmade and then remade, and motherhood provides a personal experience of that for Esch. Since the Batistes cannot leave Bois Sauvage--they have nowhere to go and no funds to get there--they must salvage the means of protection from the hurricane, as well as the life from the wreckage, following the storm. The concept and practice of salvaging in the text works on two fronts to differentiate Salvage the Bones as an apocalypse story. The first way in which Ward uses “salvage” is to deconstruct traditional Katrina narratives that limit the activities of poor people of color to “looting” and the second is to establish the continuation of story from beginning in the end as inherited knowledge, which provides the people remaining after the storm with the ability to salvage aid. In preparation for the storm, Daddy pulls used bottles to fill for fresh water and salvages wood from the nearby abandoned house to board up the windows while the children try to accumulate enough food to last them through the storm and the resulting aftermath, which includes hunting for eggs. After Katrina, the children go into town to get Daddy something for the pain of losing his fingers and they find bottles of alcohol as a replacement of pain reliever. The Batistes do not salvage because they are pulling themselves up as a realization of the neoliberalist American dream and individualism; they do so out of necessity and survival. However, this ability to depend on the environment is born through intergenerational knowledge of the land, eroded by the destructive changes to the environment over time. The dominant Katrina narratives of looting are a contrast between New Orleans and Mississippian narratives. Instead of “looting,” which criminalizes the “looters,” salvage suggests rescue, preservation of the vulnerable or prevention of loss in the face of potential wreckage. Salvaging is necessary because the people who live there have nowhere else to go, not to mention the dangers of evacuation itself in the face of torrential rain and wind and the resources necessary to do so. By emphasizing salvage as an alternative, and truer representation of reality for the Batistes, Ward deconstructs the narratives that characterize poor, people of color as looters instead of survivors in an oppressive environment.
Similar to the ways in which salvage deconstructs accusations of criminality in Katrina narratives, Ward’s play with the linguistic similarities between the words “savage” and “salvage” also upturns the policing of people of color. In an interview with NPR included in the back of the 2011 edition of Salvage, Ward redefines savage and describes it as thus: “come hell or high water, Katrina or oil spill, hunger or heat, you are strong, you are fierce, and you possess hope” (264). She reclaims a term formerly used by conquerors and colonizers to disparage cultures different from their own in the service of white supremacy and instead, asserts the value of “savage,” of “survivor.” As Skeetah proudly declares to Manny, “We savages up here on the pit” (95). Skeet’s declaration of pride in being savage is a sense of survival in adversity and oppression and repurposes the ways in which black bodies are defined through animalistic discourse. The word-play of nature, wildness, and renewal stems from Bois Sauvage, the name of the town to which the Batistes belong. Translated from the French, Bois Sauvage is “wild” or “savage wood.” The wildness of the wood of Bois Sauvage is a reinforcement of Esch’s observation of the woods surrounding the park: “the wild things of Bois Sauvage ignore them [convicts who cut back the woods]; we are left to seed another year” (117). For the town, the inability to tame the land works as a metaphor for the people who cannot be tamed or cut back permanently. They continue to prevail after clearing them away. Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina’s apocalyptic devastation the community returns. Esch’s “we” and “seed” encompass her, the baby, and her community; they survive because of their “wildness” through connection to their land and heritage attached to the land. Essential to salvaging in the text is the preservation of story, which is accomplished on both the levels of individual and community through the use of inherited knowledge housed within the stories. This inherited knowledge enables Esch and her family to salvage a future from the wreckage of the storm, satisfying the beginning and end structure of apocalyptic fiction. After the storm, when Esch, Big Henry, Randall and Junior go to St. Catherine to survey the damage, Esch pockets the shards of glass in order to hang them above her bed so they will “flash in the dark,” and so she can pass on the story 56
of the storm to her unborn child and Skeetah. Randall speaks within the text to the other characters about what happened to them, and Esch remains silent. But within narration, she wants to tell them, to “finish [her] story,” and the narrative provides that throughout the text (243). Salvage the Bones is Esch’s story and places her in the context of rural Mississippi in a community based on segregation, slavery, and oppression. Internally, Esch owns her story in the family as the tradition bearer; she says, “I will have to tell Skeetah as clearly as I can, and he will have to...listen as I tell him the story of Katrina and what she did to the coast” (254). The construction of this sentence, Esch as storyteller and Skeet as listener, demonstrates the dialectical relationship among Esch, community, and story--the building of story as the building of relationships. Esch is the representative storyteller of the community, the woman voice speaking of the experience of the hurricane. The recursiveness of the apocalypse is based on the communal knowledge shared through storytelling. A beginning in an end does not mean that the new age will be free from the oppressions of the past, but the awareness of recursive time through storytelling enables the Batistes, and by extension the community, to move forward with the knowledge of the past toward a possibly different future. As Hurricane Katrina begins, Esch remembers spending Hurricane Elaine with her mother and the stories her mother told her “about the big storm...the legend: Camille” (217-9). As the floodwater rises in the house, Randall only needs to say a few words (“There was a family”) for his father to interrupt him (“We know”) and Esch to finish the story, passed down (presumably from their mother), in her head: a family of fourteen drowned in their attic during Camille (229). This story, this communal knowledge, spurs Randall to drive a chainsaw through the roof to escape; as Esch puts it, when she hears the banging, “He is making a way” (230). These memories are infused in the storytelling surrounding hurricanes, the knowledge of place and community. Knowledge of the last hurricane saves the Batistes from drowning in the attic, which allows them a future. Esch and her mother are paralleled here as mothers and storytellers, bridging the gap between hurricanes and recursive time, a time when the community survives after each disaster. This continuance of storytelling demonstrates 57
that women are the repositories of knowledge and story, the knowledge held within story. The main character, Esch, the teenaged girl in the family, is a unique perspectival choice for a book about Hurricane Katrina. Her narrative dismantles Katrina narratives as it seeks to represent not only the event, but the impact of class and racial oppression, which deems her family as disposable to the social structures. Esch’s positioning in the novel illuminates both the catastrophic impacts of systemic oppression while refraining from a bleak and one-dimensional outlook on the future, instead pointing at the strength of self-reliant communities while revising racist and classist narratives about Katrina. This memory of Mama telling about the hurricane contrasts the way Daddy handles the hurricane’s approach. Randall and friends repeatedly doubt the veracity of Daddy’s predictions about the strength of Katrina as they do not hold the communal memories to register their own impending doom. Daddy does not share stories with them of previous hurricanes but sets about preparing for it without further explanation other than his own assertions and what he’s received from the news. Daddy is not the intergenerational link between Camille and Katrina that Mama is. Ward’s choice to focalize her narrative in Esch as a poor, person of color who is also young and pregnant, creates feminist estrangement for the reader by taking one of the most marginalized figures in society, a teenage mom of color. While teen mothers are often conceived of as irresponsible, Esch parents Junior throughout his childhood and often takes care of the rest of the family, including Daddy after he loses his fingers. Instead of draining her community of resources, as is so often said of young mothers, Esch seems to fortify her community. When Manny says that Skeetah’s dog is not as strong postpartum as she was before, calling it “the price of being female,” Skeetah counters that after giving birth is when “they come into they strength” because “they have something to protect” and argues that those stakes equal power (96). While Manny is not entirely wrong (the price of being female, per se, is the burden of living under the patriarchy), Esch is strengthened by how “motherhood is put forth as an ambivalent and compromised form of power that combats the relegation of the maternal body to that of literal...or discursive...waste” (Moynihan 561). Instead of participating in “discursive 58
waste” of an expendable body, a vessel for children. Esch is a focal point of the community and upends “the contemporaneous discourse in which African American single mothers are consigned to the category of waste because of their ‘improper’ conduct as neoliberal subjects” (563). Evacuation, without assistance, was not an option for many Gulf Coast residents in the days leading up to the storm, leaving those already vulnerable even more so. Esch’s observation about animals implicitly points to a hierarchical structure based on societal power. Those with more resources can choose to leave when threatened; whereas those without are dependent on social structures, without which they are left completely alone. In addition to this characterization of mother as power, the novel expands biological motherhood in its depiction of Junior, the youngest Batiste who is most often cared for by Esch and secondarily Randall. They’re the primary caregivers of Junior once Daddy realizes that they can take care of him. Their raising Junior emphasizes the importance of memory “when [Junior] was a baby, Randall held him the most, and I did the rest of the time. Daddy fed him until he figured out me and Randall could do it” (91). Esch’s and Randall’s assumption of the motherly duties for Junior demonstrates her nurturing unrelated to biological motherhood and expands the teen pregnancy narrative to encompass people as caregivers. This narrative move does not limit the actions and ripple effect of mothering but highlights its expansiveness. The expanse of motherhood can be seen in the way the Batiste children embody their mother in the ways in which they care for each other, a way that Esch notes is handed down through the memory of their mother. When Randall injures his knee, he blows on his bad knee, as Mama did and Esch remembers that “if the scrapes were on the front of our knees she would put our dirty feet in the middle of her chest to clean the wound, and we would feel her heart beating, strong as the thud of the ground she walked, through our soles” (209). This passage describes caring as strength and a deep connection, one as “strong as the thud of the ground she walked.” The thumping of the ground is reminiscent of a giant, who is formidable and larger than life. When Ward uses soles to describe the way Mama reaches the children, the homophone souls is a language choice that draws the nurturing connection even deeper. 59
The ways in which Mama--and therefore the Batiste children--care for each other provides a spiritual and bodily support network. By situating Salvage in Esch’s perspective, Ward participates in what Pfaelzer describes as “communities forged through dependence, conflicted though it may be” (96). When Big Henry asks Esch who the father of her child is, Esch says the baby “don’t have a daddy,” to which Big Henry responds that she is wrong, that her baby “got plenty daddies” and that he will always be there for Esch (Ward 255). The dependence is one of community. Even though Esch can’t tell Big Henry that she wishes that he had been there during the storm, she longs to, and she specifically mentions his “legs like tree trunks sunk into the earth” (255). She is appreciative of his roots, of the community that grounds her. Esch is in a web of dependence, but it is not the weakness of dependence but a strength through togetherness that will bring them through the apocalypse to the other side. The dependence upon community and family for survival in the face of devastation breaks down the resurgence of American individualism in the wake of Katrina as a fabric of Katrina narratives. In white-focused narratives in Mississippi, the narrative of Katrina centers on the ways in which people were able to independently recover from the devastation. As a story about Katrina, Salvage the Bones demonstrates through its emphasis on interdependence through caring and on salvaging from the environment that which sustains them. Salvage the Bones is an apocalyptic text that demonstrates a way forward through an apocalyptic event: in this case Hurricane Katrina. Esch’s centering in the narrative breaks down Katrina narratives that seek to disempower people like herself: person of color, poor, young, woman, and pregnant. Through recursiveness and the beginning in the end that are both characteristic of apocalyptic narratives, Ward represents a way toward the future that does not romanticize the past or future. Rather it demonstrates that by destabilizing assumptions and causing feminist estrangement, change comes in small steps that require the people within an apocalyptic event to salvage lives that are based on community and self-reliance, interwoven with valuing motherhood and the women who bear stories of the past as knowledge of how to survive the present. 60
Works Cited Dillon, Sarah. “Imagining Apocalypse: Maggie Gee’s The Flood.” Contemporary Literature. vol. 48. no. 3. Fall 2007. 374-97. Hayden, Bridget. “The Hand of God: Capitalism, Inequality, and Moral Geographies in Mississippi After Hurricane Katrina.” Anthropological Quarterly. vol. 83. no. 1. Winter 2010, pp. 171-203. Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies. vol. 25. no. 2. July 1998, pp. 226-360. Moynihan, Sinéad. “From Disposability to Recycling: WIlliam Faulkner and the New Politics of Rewriting in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.” Studies in the Novel. vol. 47. no. 4. Winter 2015. pp. 550-567. Pfaelzer, Jane. “Subjectivity as Feminist Utopia.” Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference. Edited by Jane L. Donavert and Carol A. Kalmerten. Syracuse UP, 1994. 93-106. Railsback, Brian. “A Twenty-First-Century Grapes of Wrath: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.” Steinbeck Review. vol 13. no. 2. 2016. pp. 179-95. Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2011.
“Bodies Tell Stories”: Between the Human and the Animal in Salvage the Bones
Early on in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011), Esch, the novel’s
young, African American female protagonist, recalls: “After my ninth-grade year, we read [Faulkner’s] As I Lay Dying, and I made an A because I answered the hardest question right: Why does the young boy think his mother is a fish?” (7). Although Esch doesn’t provide an answer, many critics contend that the young boy, Vardaman Bundren, intimately associates the dead fish (and water) with his mother’s traumatic death because his still undeveloped mind is unable to cognitively disassociate the two events: in short, he cannot distinguish the animal from the human, cause from effect. This small but significant intertextual detail from Faulkner’s novel provides an important window into Ward’s foregrounding “protean relationships between humans and animals” in her novel, Salvage (The Companion Species Manifesto 12). In Salvage, Ward explores the intimacies of interspecies relationships as powerful commentary on the fraught relationships among her human characters. As well, the novel’s radical quality is visible in the way Ward deploys the Greek myth of Medea and Jason, a story of motherhood, betrayal, and violence, as an archetypal narrative frame that effectively maps Esch’s psychological development from girlhood to womanhood after her mother’s death during childbirth and her own subsequent discovery that she is pregnant. In a tale of debilitating poverty, brutality, and survival, Ward existentially situates Esch and the novel’s other characters at the juncture between the Human and the non-Human in a radical rethinking of what has been posited throughout Western philosophy and culture as “determining distinction[s] between the animal and the human” (Higgs n.p.). In doing so, Ward positions bio-political power relations among her human characters as symbolic extensions of interspecies relations.
Salvage, which takes place over the course of twelve days in August 2005 just prior to Hurricane Katrina’s Mississippi Gulf landing, is a story of motherhood, poverty, brutality, and human degradation that plague the lives of the Batiste family: siblings Randall, age 17; Skeetah, age 16; Esch, age 15; Junior, age 7; and their father, Daddy, a controlling and abusive alcoholic. The bayou town of Bois Sauvage, (which translates to Savage Woods in English) is victimized by de facto segregation; and due to economic inequities and structural racism and discrimination, blacks in the community are left largely to fend for themselves. The bayou town’s designation, Bois Sauvage, and the specific neighborhood where the Batiste family lives, called the Pit, are apt: the novel depicts African Americans teetering precariously on the edges of destruction long before the catastrophe wrought by Hurricane Katrina. In Salvage, Ward offers up what literary critic Wilderson calls “a grammar of suffering” (11) that exposes the daily struggles of impoverished African Americans who are simply trying to survive. In this regard, Ward’s novel has much in common with the fiction of one of her literary forebears, Richard Wright, in which, “the environment supplies the instrumentalities through which the organism expresses itself….” (Freeburg 59).1 Ward’s novel is dark. Indeed, the opening chapter entitled “Birth in a Bare-Bulb Place,” accurately describes the family’s day-to-day, hardscrabble existence brought on by economic deprivation and political and social disenfranchisement. In this sense, the title, I would argue, leads us to philosopher Michel Foucault’s theorizations of bio-political forces as “disciplinary form[s] of power” (Cisney and Morar 4) that work to regulate and oppress human beings. In History of Sexuality, Foucault asserts that with the advent of bio-power, the sovereign state no longer saw human beings as “fundamentally” “political animals,” as Aristotle once asserted (4). Instead, beginning in the eighteenth century, man becomes “an animal whose politics places his existence as a 1 A number of critics have compared Jesmyn Ward’s writing to William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. It is clear, however, that another of her literary ancestors is Richard Wright, himself a native of Mississippi.
human being in question” (Foucault 188).2 Under bio-political regiments of power, Foucault says, “The human body comes to be seen as a machine, complete with functions and utilities, inputs and outputs, predictability and precisions” (Cisney and Morar 4). Later in the eighteenth century, according to Foucault, bio-power focused not on the immediate disciplining of “the individual living body” but instead on global disciplinary power “writ large” and “on the species-body” (5). Further, bio-political discourse produced “codes of normalization” which disciplined bodies and “regulate[d] mechanisms of the population” through such measures as “birthrates, death rates, fertility rates, economic and poverty statistics,” among other occurrences that speak to the overall “health” of a community (5). In Salvage, Ward expresses her concerns about “the fragility of black subjectivity” and survival (Schreiber 30) through an indirect examination of Foucauldian notions of bio-power via interspecies relationships of power and domination among the novel’s characters. Foucault argues in the History of Sexuality that sovereign power encompasses the idea that before the eighteenth century, a person, usually a monarch or some other political leader, had the absolute authority to grant life or death, of “killing or letting live” (143). Modern expressions of biopower may be more civilized, but they are still destructive, he contends, either “foster[ing] life or disallow[ing] it” (143). Modern expressions of bio-power are “necessarily dissimulated and masked” (Cisney and Morar 1) through knowledge-discourse that fosters normalization of behavior. Importantly, he asserts, these structures of power are not simply manifest in relationships between sovereign and subject—but are found “in all relations of life” (3). He goes on to point out that “for millennia man remained… a living animal with additional capacity for a political existence; [however] modern man is 2 Foucault rarely addresses race directly in his work; however, it interests me that he claims that modern day bio-politics emerges in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment Period, in which numerous European thinkers embraced and promoted scientific racism in which race and species became synonymous. Europeans viewed blacks not only as a wholly different race but significantly as an altogether different species—separate and unequal.
an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (HS 143). Furthermore, I would argue, Ward radically interrogates racist “regime[s] of truth” that question black people’s humanity in light of white America’s continued marginalization of blacks from the ontological and epistemological position of the fully human. Ward highlights commensurate pain and suffering in Salvage, closing the gap in western formulations of the human which heretofore positioned non-westerners and animals as wholly Other. Early in the novel, Ward destabilizes interspecies differences when Esch symbolically and psychologically merges two traumatic events involving pregnancy and birth. In the scene, Esch stands watching her brother, Skeetah, as he attentively observes his ferocious pit bull, China, giving birth to her first litter of puppies. The scene is bloody and violent. Esch thinks, “China’s turned on herself. If I didn’t know, I would think that she was trying to eat her paws. I would think that she was crazy. Which she is, in a way. Won’t let nobody touch her but Skeetah” (1).3 Upon observing China in the violent throes of giving birth, Esch’s thoughts immediately turn to her own mother who died birthing her youngest brother, Junior. Esch recalls: “Mama gave birth in the house she bore us all in, here in the gap in the woods… we now call the Pit…. Mama had us all in her bed under her own bare burning bulb, so when it was time for Junior, she thought she could do the same” (2). Similar to China’s “bestowing” upon the world a litter of puppies in a dirty, ramshackle shed on the Batiste property, Esch’s mother gives birth to Junior beneath the “bare burning light” (2) in a dark and dank bedroom inside the family’s dilapidated home. Standing outside the birthing room, Esch hears her mother scream in pain as “Junior came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama’s last flower” (2). After much suffering during the birthing 3 Skeetah’s name conjures up the image of a mosquito, an insect that is not thought of as “bestowing” life but rather taking blood. His name could possibly refer to his obsession with taking care of his fighting pit bull, China, often at the expense of his and his own family’s wellbeing. Skeetah is portrayed as being very selfish towards everyone except China, and he often sees her as being closer to him as a kind of “blood relation” than his family.
process, Mama is afraid to touch him for fear of “knock[ing] the pollen from him, spoil[ing] the bloom” (2). Significantly, Esch describes Junior as, “Mama’s last flower,” a “hydrangea.” In Greek, hydor means water and angos means jar or vessel; hydrangea means “water vessel.” Thus, in this instance, Ward presents the female body simply as a womb (a water vessel) that holds within it the precarious promise of life or death. Esch’s mother does not survive the complications of her home-birth and dies on the way to the local hospital. As many healthcare officials have noted, impoverished African Americans are often very reluctant to seek out medical treatment. In her investigation of poor black women and reproductive rights, Dorothy Roberts found that in southern conservative states such as Mississippi where Ward’s story takes place, poor black women are often denied sufficient access to healthcare information and services and that “this stifling of medical information endanger[s] the lives of low-income women” (232). The hospital is an exemplary site of Foucauldian bio-power at the macro level. Perhaps poverty, mistrust, fear, and embarrassment prompt Esch’s parent’s decision to risk having the baby at home.4 Equally important, though, Ward intimates that the personal relationship between Esch’s parents also rests on regimes of patriarchal power, domination, and discipline. Daddy Batiste’s reaction to his wife’s bleeding, broken body is not one of tenderness or concern; instead, he reacts with violence. Esch recalls: “Daddy dragged her from the bed to his truck, trailing her blood, and we never saw her again” (2). Images of birth, death, and rebirth thrive in Salvage. Ward’s deployment of the image of the hydrangea carries over in the subsequent scene when China struggles to give birth to her first litter of puppies. Esch observes: “China tenses… and then she seems to be turning 4 Given the abominable history of scientific experimentations on the black body, it is no wonder that Esch’s mother is reluctant to seek medical treatment at the local hospital. For Foucault, the hospital/clinic is the site of regimented bio-political power par excellence. The Birth of the Clinic (1976) illustrates the power of medical discourse and how a doctor’s dehumanizing medical gaze creates a situation where a human being is no longer viewed as such but simply as a body through which “truth” can be discovered.
herself inside out. At her opening, I see a purplish red bulb. China is blooming” (4). China’s first puppy, however, is stillborn; thus, in a complex web of identification, Esch psychologically merges the drama of her mother’s difficult pregnancy with China’s. In Salvage, motherhood is tainted by death. Esch’s mother’s death and the death of China’s first puppy foreshadow more unexpected death and destruction to come from “[Hurricane] Katrina, the mother who swept through the Gulf and slaughtered” (255). Given Esch’s association of motherhood with death, it is no wonder that Esch so strongly identifies with the Medea. Esch’s thoughts and actions distinctly recall Medea and “the story of Jason and the Argonauts” (7). Since the death of her mother, Esch has greatly emotionally suffered. The trauma of her mother’s death propels her to seek comfort and validation through sex with the young men in the community. However, she makes it clear that she never develops any real emotional attachment to any of them: except Manny her brother Randall’s best friend. Her feelings for him are unlike anything she has experienced before, and he knows it. He uses her attraction to him purely for sex; yet, for her, “He was the sun” (16). Esch’s desire cannot be contained and she “wonder[s] if Medea felt this way before she walked out to meet Jason for the first time, like a hard wind come through her and set her to shaking” (7).5 Throughout the novel, Medea’s story is not far from Esch’s thoughts as she compares her own unrequited love for Manny to the story of Jason and Medea. The tale is worth recounting. In the myth, we learn that Medea is a princess from the ancient Mediterranean island of Colchis. According to the Greeks, the people of Colchis were uncivilized barbarians. During his search for the Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts land on the island, and Medea instantly and passionately falls in love with him. Believing his promise that he would take her with him to Corinth, she betrays her family and country by helping him steal the Golden Fleece from her father, King Aeëtes. Once in Corinth, however, the Corinthians do not accept her; instead, they view her
5 It is no coincidence that Manny’s name is a cognate of Varda/man Bundren.
as a mongrel savage.6 Soon, Jason also starts to think she is not worthy of his love. He subsequently betrays Medea and abandons her in favor of the King of Creon’s daughter, Glauce. Medea takes revenge on King Creon and his daughter by murdering them, and upon Jason, by murdering their children. At the end, Medea, who is the granddaughter of the sun god Helios, flies away to Athens on a chariot pulled by dragons, leaving Jason angered and bereaved. Medea’s defiance of Jason frames the relationships, regardless of species, between males and females in the novel. Ontological and epistemological interspecies demarcations break down: Couples Esch and Manny, Skeetah and China, and China and Kilo, mirror, to greater and lesser degrees, Jason and Medea’s fraught relationship. The dysfunctional, volatile relationships between Esch and Manny and China and Kilo play out in the section of the novel appropriately titled “The Seventh Day: Game Dogs and Game Men.” The title refers not only to the characters’ emotionally brutal games of love, but also to the physical pain they inflict upon each other. Through evocative, often erotic, language, Ward portrays the relationship between China and Skeetah as more akin to lovers rather than dog and master. Esch notes: “Skeetah… is focused on China like a man focuses on a woman when he feels that she is his, which she is” (3). As well, Medea’s tragic tale symbolically parallels Skeetah and China’s relationship in a scene that echoes Medea’s act of infanticide as revenge against Jason. As one of China’s puppies, “the most well-fed, the bully,” “the dirt-red [one] rounding her bowl,” “turgid with the promise of living” (128-129), stealthily makes its way towards China to suckle, Esch watches as “China snaps forward, closes her jaws around the puppy’s neck…. She is all white eyes. She is chewing. She is whipping him through the air like a tire eaten too short for Skeetah to grab” (129). Skeetah looks in horror at the “pulpy puppy in China’s mouth” (129) and screams, “Why did you?” (130).7 6 Today, Colchis would be located in the western part of Russian Georgia. 7 In Medea, a distraught Jason cries out in disbelief and anguish when Medea informs him that in revenge for his cruel infidelity she has murdered their children and calls her “a lioness not a woman with a temper” (line 1342) highlighting her view of her as an animal rather than a wife and mother.
The implication, of course, is that China, like Medea, had retaliated against Skeetah’s (male) mistreatment of her. In this way, Ward provides a window into China’s actions through her exploration of interspecies relationships in the novel. To adequately unpack this scene, one must closely examine interspecies confluences that Ward threads throughout. This scene between China, her puppy, and Skeetah took place contemporaneously as another similarly bloody event occurs outside of the confines of the dirty shed which is used as makeshift kennel for China and her litter. In advancing these cross-species assemblages, Ward elides differentiations between the human and the animal. In the chapter “The Sixth Day: A Steady Hand,” Skeetah is very worried about China to whom he has force-fed Ivomec, (98) a medication he has stolen in order to protect her and her puppies from the deadly parvo disease. On the one hand, Skeetah loves China whom he regularly refers to as “my girl” (110).and risks his life stealing the Ivomec to keep her and her puppies from getting sick. On the other hand, he sees China and her puppies as economic investments, through breeding, that will aid in temporarily mitigating the family’s poverty. As he administers the medication he says, “That’s my bitch…. Always my bitch” (101). He “pulls China to him by her haunches and pries open her jaws, sniffing at her tongue” (98). Watching them, Esch notes: “He has turned from lover to father. She, his doting daughter” (98). This scene demonstrates that Skeetah’s love for China is also tainted by his need to control her. All her life Esch has witnessed similar behavior towards women by the men of Bois Sauvage. Put another way, based on her own experiences, Esch is aware that Skeetah handles China the same way men generally treat women; the same way that Manny treats her.. Skeetah’s rough-handling of China replicates Daddy Batiste’s treatment of her mother and Jason’s treatment of Medea: sometimes lover, more often master. Instead of treating China with tenderness and caring after her difficult pregnancy, he betrays her trust by force-feeding her medicine that makes her sick, irritable, and angry. Moreover, rather than lovingly ministering to her, he drags her from the shed and forces her to
“walk it out” (117) to exhaustion, hoping that the hard exercise will mitigate the medicine’s bad side-effects: Skeetah yanks her leash, again, and begins walking. She drags herself into motion, pads after him. The chain pulls at her ears, circles her head like a garrote. Skeetah walks forward and doesn’t look back… both running now, both sucking dark and blazing bright under the setting sun and the scudding clouds, all the way home. (115 and 123)8
The power dynamic between Skeetah and China continually shifts throughout the rest of the novel as he attempts to regain mastery over his “lover”/“daughter.” China’s growing disobedience makes him worry that she has forgotten “who [he] was yesterday” (138) before his betrayal of her. Esch sees how badly Skeetah begins to treat China and empathizes with her suffering. She wonders how long Skeetah will keep her chained up for her insubordination. He defiantly exclaims, “Long as it takes …. As long as it takes” (138). Furthermore, her description of Skeetah’s actions as abusive, “yank[ing] and pull[ing] the chain that “circles [China’s] head like a garrote,” undermines his supposed love for her and points to his need to regain control of her. In an interview with Ward, critic Michel Martin makes an acute observation regarding the complex symbolic interspecies connections between China and Esch as females: Martin: I don’t know if you mind my drawing this analogy. In a way, China, who is the dog, and Esch have parallel lives because they are both loved in their way, but they are used each in their own way. And that’s one of the things that I think many people might find puzzling. I mean, Skeetah loves the dog, but he doesn’t mind using her to fight. But Esch—one of the very disturbing aspects of the novel is that she is used sexually by many of the young men around her and she describes this in this very detached way.
8 Skeetah’s violently coercive behavior towards China echoes Esch’s father’s dragging her mother out of the house when she begins to hemorrhage after having given birth to Junior.
Ward: When I was growing up, I knew girls like Esch, who approached sex in that way…. I saw it a lot when I was growing up. You know sex was something that you did and from a very young age, you know… at the beginning of the book, she finds that she’s pregnant [and] she is so detached from what’s happening that I don’t think she’s thinking about… the ramifications of her pregnancy on her life and her future. (“Salvage the Bones, Family’s Story of Survival” n.p.)
Martin’s observation about the cruel ways that males treat China and Esch is critical to understanding how Ward fuses and amplifies Esch’s identification with China. However, I want to go a bit further than Martin’s analysis and emphasize that in Salvage Ward demonstrates how males, regardless of species, are compelled towards domination and the mistreatment of females. Esch’s psychological detachment from “the ramifications of her pregnancy on her life and future” could just as easily apply to China. Her detachment parallels China’s uninterest in being a mother to her puppies. It is as if she instinctively knows that Skeetah is using her body for breeding purposes. Ward further goes on to describe the relationship between Skeetah and China as similar to Jason and Medea’s. Esch informs us that “there are other dogs, in the woods, near the house, on the other side of the Pit… bark[ing] with [China]” and that their sounds “ring her like a chorus” (136). The other dogs function as a chorus; they “speak back” to China as commentary on Skeetah’s and the other men’s inhumane treatment of her and them. In the woods far from the house, Esch senses “Skeetah in the middle of these dogs, pulling them to him. He is the hand on the leash. He is the palm. He flexes and they come, he loses his grip and they spread to the red dirt…. They howl. They hack. They come” (136). Skeetah’s mastery over China and the other dogs demonstrates his power and her loyalty to him alone. Her fighting prowess is a way for him to prove his manhood and masculinity to the other Bois Sauvage boys. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with—as powerful as the incoming storm—and he views her offspring as a symbolic extension of his own sexual prowess.
Skeetah mates China with Kilo, Bois Sauvage’s champion male pit bull. Thus, his control of China’s body, in the Foucauldian sense, is an example of corporeal discipline. She is Skeetah’s companion-animal, yet he also relegates her to the status of fighting and breeding machine in “the [interspecies] making and the unmaking [of] the play between kin and kind” (When Species Meet 134). While she mitigates his feelings of loneliness and alienation, he also uses her body as an economic resource.9 He has no plans to keep her puppies, for they are “worth too much” because their “bloodline is good” (Salvage 12). My reading is confirmed in the symbolic import of the dogs’ names, China and Kilo. China refers to “China White,” a euphemism for cocaine. Later in the novel, Skeetah explicitly makes the metaphorical connection between China’s gleaming white fur and the drug. He “breaths in China’s ear,” exclaiming, “Look at you, shining…. Cocaine white” (158).10 Further, Kilo is the standard unit of measurement and pricing for large quantities of the narcotic on the open market. By comparison, we might view Esch’s promiscuity as akin to an “addiction.” Esch has learned to use sex as a substitute for love and selfvalidation, albeit a poor one. Ward suggests that for many impoverished, young black women, the cycle of unwanted pregnancies becomes habitualized and very difficult to break.11 She also points out that a lack of adequate 9 Interestingly, Haraway reveals that in the United States it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term companion animal came into the English lexicon, specifically in the fields of medical and psychosocial work, where it was discovered that “having a dog lowers one’s blood pressure and ups one’s chances of surviving childhood, surgery and divorce” (The Companion Species Manifesto 12). In Salvage, China helps Skeetah maintain some semblance of psychological and emotional stability. 10 Throughout the novel, Ward underscores Skeetah’s obsession over, his “addiction,” to China. He sleeps next to her in the shed, he eats with her, he runs with her, and he bathes her. In fact, he takes care of her far more than he does himself or his family. 11 As Dorothy Roberts asserts, it is important to recognize misperceptions and negative stereotypes of black women and poverty that the white majority harbor. Statistics confirm there are far more white people on government assistance than black people. However, most white Americans believe that impoverished black single mothers are nothing more than “welfare queens” who “deliberately becom[e] pregnant in order to increase the amount of [their] monthly [welfare] check. Esch, however, belies this assumption. She does not
family planning services, coupled with structural racism and discrimination, prevent impoverished, young black women from changing the conditions of their circumstances. Esch cannot afford birth control, and Mississippi, where she lives, has the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Thus, impoverished black women like Esch are left with very few choices: risk having a dangerous “back alley” abortion or keep the baby, further advancing the cycle of economic deprivation. Subconsciously, Esch is aware of what happens to young girls like her. In a scene that echoes China’s vicious killing of one of her puppies, Esch attempts to abort her child: “In the bathroom, I bend over standing and knead my stomach, knead the melon to pulp, but it just keeps springing back: ripe” (102). When this method doesn’t work, she thinks of smashing her stomach on her “Daddy’s dump truck hood, Daddy’s tractor, one of the old washing machines out in the yard” (102). She then thinks of using “bleach” (102) as an abortive—anything to get rid of her baby. Because she is young and frightened, she has yet to fully develop maternal instincts towards her unborn child; instead, she views her pregnancy more as a nuisance. Moreover, she is concerned by the effect the pregnancy will have on her lithe body, the thing about her that the men most value. China’s fatigue after her pregnancy echoes Esch’s growing fatigue as her own as yet undetected pregnancy begins to take a physical and emotional toll on her: “I [Esch] look back to China to make sure she is asleep, make sure that her puppies aren’t straying too far away, make sure that my shirt is still pulled away from my stomach. I am tired again” (114). She laments, “I want to sleep like China, lie down on the cool dirt of the shed” (112). At deliberately become pregnant. Rather, her pregnancy comes about as a result of her lack of education regarding preventative measures and her inability to afford birth control as a direct result of her family’s poverty. Moreover, while the Batiste family is very poor, they, up until the mother’s unexpected death while giving birth to Junior, form a traditional nuclear family unit: a father, a mother, and three children. Finally, despite their staggering poverty, they remain, although barely, self-sufficient from government aid. In fact, throughout the novel, Ward expressly demonstrates how the Batiste family, especially in times of economic deficiencies, is very resourceful and lives off the land: gardening, hunting, and fishing.
this point in the novel, Esch negatively regards her own pregnancy; however, gradually through her observations of China, she begins to understand the salient potential of motherhood to make her feel a part of something greater than herself. Esch intuitively recognizes the kinship she shares with China. They are both females whose bodies are being exploited by men. She reflects upon one of the many sexual encounters she has had with boys in Bois Sauvage.: Marquise “winks at me, his tongue white at the edges, bits of cigar paper flaking off sticking like food. I know that wink, that grin. He smiled like that when he was done when we had sex for the last time about a year ago, when he was wiping himself, turned away from me; he threw that smile like salt over the shoulder. (139)
In this passage, salt is a significant symbol that indicates how Esch’s sexual partners really feel about her. In ancient times, salt was considered an expensive commodity that was not to be wasted. That Esch imagines Marquise tossing salt over his shoulder after he had sex with her implies the event had little value, that he thought of her like the detritus that litters the Pit—not worth much of anything. Casual sex does not provide her with a sense of self-worth and acceptance. Indeed, earlier in the novel, Esch looks in the mirror and concludes, “I have no glory. I have nothing” (123). Due to her sexual promiscuity, most of the boys in Bois Sauvage come to view her as just another “bitch” to be bred. Still, her love for Manny remains unwavering. On the day of the dogfight, four days before Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, Esch returns to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and the story of Medea and Jason. Although she “tries to read the whole mythology book,” she gets “stuck in the middle,” fixated on Medea’s tragic tale (154). Esch “read[s] it over and over again. It is like she [Medea] is under the covers with me, both of us sweating to water. To get away from her, from the smell of Manny, I get up” (154). Medea’s tragedy powerfully resonates with Esch because of Medea’s unwavering love for Jason, the father of her two children; and she identifies with Medea’s rage and desire for revenge when he spurns her for another woman. Further, Esch entwines her awareness of China’s mistreatment by
males with hers and Medea’s when, shortly after giving birth, Skeetah forces China to fight Kilo, the father of her litter. China and Kilo’s dogfight takes places in “the clearing… a wide oval bowl, which must be a dried up pond that grows wide and deep when it rains… and trees grow in a circle around it” (159). Water imagery flows throughout the novel and symbolically links Esch, China, and Medea. Water is a symbol often associated with pregnancy and female abundance, but it can also be a deadly medium. Gaston Bachelard tells us, “Water, the substance of life, is also the substance of death” (Water and Dreams 72). While in the clearing, Esch notes: My stomach feels full of water, hurts with it…” (159). Circling the death-pit, Esch’s thoughts turn to Medea: Medea’s journey took her to the water, which was the highway of the ancient world, where death was close as the waves, the sun, the wind. Where death was as many as the fish waiting in the water, fanning fins, watching the surface, shadowing the bottom dark. China barks, as if she is answering the [other] dog.12 (159)
Examining various prominent tropes in the novel, given the devastation and near-inexpressible sense of loss that Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon the Mississippi Gulf States, one cannot help but be aware of water as a multivalent, organizing symbolic principle in Salvage. Not only is water the primary component of blood, but as Bachelard asserts, “In its violence, water takes on a characteristic wrath. In other words, it is easily given all the psychological features of a form of anger… the flux and reflux of a form of an anger that rumbles and reverberates” (15). As Esch furtively observes “Skeetah and China stand[ing] at the edge” of “the dead circle,” surrounding the pond (163), she imagines Medea, “standing on the deck of that ship like I stand in this clearing, womanly ripe and weav[ing] spells for rain to cloak their [the Argonauts’] departure” [from
12 This image of fish associated with death recalls the opening of the novel in which Esch expounds upon Vardaman Bundren’s association of fish with the death of his mother, Addie Bundren, in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
Colchis]. Had Jason told her he loved her?; “Manny holds Kilo’s leash and stares at China” (163). As she does throughout the novel, Ward sets up interspecies confluences that speak to and comment upon relationships between all the characters, human and animal. The “dead circle” of young men looking down upon the desiccated pit where the dogs will fight symbolizes the close proximity of life and death in Bois Sauvage. For its black residents, daily survival is literally a fight to the death. Poverty and degradation is an unwanted legacy, bequeathed to them through systemic racism, antiblack violence, and denied opportunities. The image of Medea standing on the deck of the Argonaut, using her magic to create a storm to save not only herself and her unborn child but also her lover, Jason, comes to symbolize, for Esch, the desire for a safe, viable future for herself and her own child and presages the coming of Hurricane Katrina. She recognizes, however, that she cannot count on Manny to declare fealty to her any more than Medea could depend upon Jason not to betray her trust. Likewise, China’s trust in Skeetah is also once again betrayed when he decides that China should fight Kilo. Ward presents multivalent focalization as she symbolically merges the human with the nonhuman: China/Medea/ Esch and Kilo/Jason/Manny Randall tries to dissuade Skeetah from endangering China, asking, “How you going to fight her? … She a mother” (169). Skeetah replies, referring to Kilo: “And he’s a father… and what fucking difference does it make… Now leave me the fuck alone so I can talk to my dog” (169, original italics). For Skeetah, China and Kilo’s battle is about honor and pride. He wants to brag to the other males in Bois Sauvage that “my bitch did it” (160)—that China/ Medea/Esch defeated the great Kilo/Jason/Manny.13 Moreover, by pitting Esch against Kilo, Skeetah demonstrates his control over females: that China has not forgotten who is master. 13 In the First Stasimon of Euripides’s Medea, the Chorus proclaims: Backward flow streams of holy rivers and justice / and all things are being turned back. / For men’s counsels are deceitful and the pledge taken / in the god’s name is no longer firmly fixed. New tales will give glory to my life; / Honor is coming to the female species; discordant rumors will let women go” (lines 409-420).
A close examination of interspecies relationships allows Ward to explore posthumanism in African American literature in a way that heretofore has not been widely addressed. In her work on intimate relationships between canines and human beings, Donna Haraway asserts, “There cannot be one companion species; there has to be at least two to make one…. Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships—constitutive relationships in which none of the partners preexist the relating and the relating is never done once and for all” (The Companion Species Manifesto 12). Skeetah’s bond with China is clear when, before her fight with Kilo, he softly whispers in her ear a litany of love, encouragement, trust, and power. He tells her: China White… my China. Like bleach, China, hitting and turning them red and white…. Leave them shaking, China, make them love you, China, make them need you, China, make them know even though they want to they can’t live without you, China. My China… make them know, make them know, make them know. (171, original italics)
Words of possessive love and authority are coupled with images of death and destruction: addiction, sterility, blood, and violence.14 Disciplined to carry out her master’s every whim, China “make[s] them know”; she “raises her head to the sun and barks once, twice.15 It is a laugh. She digs her feet into the straw and jumps to a sprint,” attacking Kilo with unrestrained fury (173). Esch describes Kilo as “a whirlpool,” inflicting pain and catastrophic damage on China; however, finally, in an explosion of fiery rage, China gleefully sinks her teeth into Kilo’s neck, “spins, [and] takes away part of [his] throat” (176). China is victorious.16 At the end of the blood-soaked fight, Esch observes, 14 The image of the bleach references back to the earlier scene in the novel when Esch contemplates imbibing bleach in order to abort her pregnancy. 15 As in the novel Ward symbolically links Esch to Medea, so too does she symbolically link China to Medea. In the Greek myth, Medea’s grandfather is the sun god, Helios. In another passage, the narrator describes China as “fire” and that “fire evaporates water,” foreshadowing China’s/Medea’s/Esch’s defeat of Kilo/Jason/Manny (175). 16 One of the most narratively interesting moments in this scene occurs when Ward, through Esch’s narration, gives voice to China as she is attacking Kilo: Hello, father, she says,
“Manny kneels, takes in me, Skeetah, and China in one glance, and looks like he hates us all. I wish it wouldn’t hurt, but it does (176). Manny’s contempt for Esch becomes even more evident when he finally discovers she is pregnant. At Randall’s basketball game, he secretly follows her into the girl’s restroom where she is sitting on the toilet; dispassionately, he announces, “I’ve been thinking about you” (145), and quickly moves towards her. However, he is only interested in sex, and Ward describes their coupling in the manner of two animals breeding. “Then he… pushed me back into the stall, closed it behind us, grabbed my arms, and turned us so that he is sitting on the toilet,” remarks Esch (145). As they are having sex, Manny refuses to look at her: His hands are on my ass, and he tries to look down, to see, but it brings us face-to-face. Sweat gathers at the hairline, catches on the red grooves left by the clippers, like an ant trail across the top of his forehead. He grimaces, looking down, away, over my shoulders, up to the ceiling. (145)
In short, he refuses to recognize her as anything but another one of his sexual conquests, his “bitches.” The imagery of red ants points to the instinctual animality of the sexual act, in a sweltering, stinking privy, no less, that “smells like the salt of marsh mud, like tadpoles dying in their shrinking shallows” (146).17 Esch tries to ward off feelings of degradation but nevertheless is forced to acknowledge them.18 She grabs his face and tonguing Kilo. I don’t have milk for you. China blazes. Kilo snaps at her breasts again, but she shoulders him away. But I do have this. Her jaw is a mousetrap snapped shut around the mousetrap of Kilo’s neck” (176, original italics). The melding of sex and violence also speaks to the relationships between Jason and Medea and Manny and Esch. 17 The smell of rot is another image that links Manny, Skeetah, and the desiccated pond where the dogfights take place with death and destruction. In the family bathroom, where Esch confronts Skeetah about his abuse of China, she notes: “He peels his socks away like banana peels, and the smell of them is rotten. My stomach shutters” (138). 18 The most prominently symbolic color in the novel is red, which holds various meanings depending upon the scene. Through the symbolic deployment of the color red, Ward underscores the brutal day-to-day existence of the people who live in Bois Sauvage and the Pit: desire, violence, blood, rage, and death.
“he snorts” like an animal (146).19 She notes that his skin “feels like a cat’s tongue” (145) as she tries to force him to acknowledge her love for him.20 Finally, “he looks down and back up, eye to eye” (146), and Esch sees within them the entirety of her world. The coupling ends, however, almost as soon as it began once he “feel[s] the honeydew curve, the swell that is more than a swell… his eyes… are all black… a night without stars” (146). Here, Ward inverts and Gothicizes tropes generally associated with romantic love. Instead of romantic love, Manny bases his relationship with Esch on erotic love: “sexual pleasure for its own sake and not a means of procreation” (Rougemont 6). Esch, on the other hand, views Manny as the object of her “amorous passion… [an] infinite desire which takes as its object or pretext a finite individual” (6).21 Theirs is a one-sided, primal affair of the heart in which Esch has placed all her hopes and her future on Manny. Her ineffable pain and deepest fears come to fruition once he notices “the swell” and instinctively rejects outright any kind of future relationship with her. He angrily questions the child’s paternity.22 19 In the chapter titled “The Eighth Day: Let Them Know,” from inside of the house, Esch observes Skeetah lovingly washing and rubbing down China before her big fight with Kilo. He is thinking about his recent fight with Rico and Rico’s claim to China’s puppies, when “Skeetah snorts, glances at the window where I’m [Esch] sitting, but the sun is too bright outside. He can’t see me… he laughs once, a bitter loud bark” (157, original italics). Ward confronts issues of female sexual exploitation by presenting interspecies relationships that parallel one another. Skeetah, Manny, and Jason manipulate and abuse their “beloveds,” China, Esch, and Medea, respectively, through patriarchal control (156). Although Esch exclaims that Skeetah “can’t see me,” he actually does see her; through his involvement with China’s pregnancy, he instinctively knows she is pregnant with Manny’s baby. 20 Again, this scene highlights the animality of their sexual encounter; they are like two dogs in heat. 21 I would make the same assertion concerning the relationship between Skeetah and China and Medea and Jason. 22 I repeat the phrase and scene here as cliché not to denigrate and dismiss this powerful encounter between Esch and Manny as hackneyed but to examine the scene as cliché in the manner in which Anton C. Zijderveld sociologically unpacks the term when he concludes that “stereotyped pictures [sociological images] may have lost meaning and aura” over time, but “they have definitely gained functionality” (8). I would argue that in Salvage
In the immediate aftermath of his repudiation, Esch experiences what Aristotle calls anagnorisis, a slow, psychological transformation from ignorance to knowledge. Similar to when China turns on her own puppies to spite Skeetah or when Medea comes into consciousness when Jason rejects her for Princess Glauce, Esch is hit with the realization that Manny never loved her and never will. Like Jason, he has no intention of taking responsibility for his actions regardless of the fact that he is the father of Esch’s child. Ward crystalizes symbolic connections between China, Esch, and Medea when Esch finally confronts Manny. Esch musters up the courage to fight him to make [him] know the pain he has caused her. Two days before Katrina hits, he stops by the Batiste home to talk with Randall who is unaware of Esch’s pregnancy. He has no intention of seeing her; and as far as he is concerned, her pregnancy is her problem alone. He tells her, “I ain’t got nothing here…. Nothing” (203). In one breath, Manny repudiates both Esch and their child; to him, they are inconsequential. Indeed, his callousness reinforces her doubts about her own safety and self-worth—that she has “no glory” and “nothing” and no one upon which to depend (123). Manny’s disavowal enrages her.
the Bones, Ward sometimes uses clichés not to undermine and dismiss the seriousness of the characters’ predicament but rather to show the negative socio-economic pressure that poverty places on relationships like Esch and Manny’s and that perpetuate these so-called clichés in the real world. Their relationship supersedes stereotypes and points to what Calvin L. Warren calls the “ontological terror” of black Being in America, where blacks have to face “the terror of inhabiting existence outside the precincts of humanity and its humanism” (4). In Ontological Terror (2018), Warren posits a radical theory of black nihilism in which he advances the position that the lives of African Americans are not “getting better” despite so-called “evidence” of African American social and economic progress that many humanists tout. Rather than acknowledging contemporary uplift narratives, he puts a spotlight on the absurdity of such narratives: “People began to respond that things are getting better, despite the increasing death toll, the unchecked power of the police state, the lack of conviction rates for police murdering blacks, the prison industrial complex, and the modern reenslavement of an entire generation, the unbelievable black infant mortality rate, the lack of jobs for black youth, and debilitating poverty” (4). I argue that Esch and Manny’s relationship emblematizes just one manifestation of the structural racism upon which the U.S.’s racist economic, social, and justice system is built.
She becomes as “fierce as China” (150) and releases her pent-up anger and frustration on him: For some reason I see Skeetah when I blink, Skeetah kneeling next to China, always kneeling, always stroking and loving and knowing her. Skeetah’s face when he stood across from Rico, when he told China, Make them know. I am on him [Manny] like China. (203)
Her desire to “make [him] know” encompasses a range of emotions that she has heretofore been unable to express. Like China and Medea, Esch makes Manny “know” her through physical violence. She “beat[s] the shit out of him” (244). In a symbolic “articulat[ion] of bodies to other bodies” (When Species Meet 92), Esch not only identifies China’s triumph over Kilo but also Medea’s besting Jason during their final confrontation: “I loved you!,” she screams during the fight while simultaneously thinking, “This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting. I rake my fingernails across his face, leave pink scratches that turn red, filled with blood” (204).23 Manny’s only response is to call her “crazy” and a “stupid bitch” as he retreats from her, becoming “smaller and smaller” in the distance (205). Manny’s disappearance from her life marks the tipping point at which Esch finally begins to realize her self-worth. Although she is visibly shaken when Manny leaves her, she does not allow her emotions to destroy her. Randall finds her “sitting in the ditch. My legs are over the side, and the blackberry vines are scratching them, and there are ants crawling on my toes, but I don’t care” (205). Instead of dwelling on Manny’s abandonment, her thoughts return to her mother’s abiding love for her and her siblings. Although her “mama didn’t 23 Ward foreshadows Esch and Manny’s violent confrontation earlier in the scene when she writes: He [Manny] stops in profile. His nose is like a knife.” In doubt about the child’s paternity, “Manny shakes his head. The knife cuts” (203). The knife as a symbol of violence points both to the affective violence that Manny has inflicted upon Esch in his rejection of her and his love for his girlfriend, Shaliyah, as well as the subsequent physical violence to come that Esch and Manny mete upon one another. In short, Manny’s emotional abuse of Esch is just as devastating as his physical violence towards her.
make it” to see her grow into womanhood (223, original italics), even without Manny, Esch begins to envision a future that will present many difficulties for her and her child but one that she will meet head on with the aid of her community. When word gets out that she is pregnant with Manny’s baby, the men in the community pledge their allegiance to help her to raise her unborn child. Big Henry, as close to Esch as her own brothers, tells her, “This baby gotta a daddy, Esch …. This baby got plenty daddies …. [and] don’t forget you always got me” (255).24 At the end of the novel, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s unprecedented destruction, Bois Sauvage is decimated, China is missing and presumed dead, and Skeetah is inconsolably crushed with grief. “What could be salvaged?” (252), Esch wonders. Tellingly, her final thoughts are of China: China. She will return standing tall and straight, the milk burned out of her. She will look down on the circle of light we have made in the Pit, and she will know that I have kept watch, that I have fought. China will bark and call me sister. In the star-suffocated sky, there is a great waiting silence.
She will know that I am her mother. (258) Salvage ends on a note which symbolically reinforces interspecies intersubjectivity: Esch, China, and Medea. Ward imagines through Esch’s character a mythical time and place of being-in-the-world where bio-political disciplines undergirded by “patriarchal domination and control” (King 73) are effectively challenged and resisted. Esch, China, and Medea were all used and then summarily disposed of by the men who were supposed to love and protect them. Jason betrays Medea when he marries Glauce; Manny rejects Esch when he learns of her pregnancy; and Skeetah sacrifices China when he releases her to the raging waters brought on by Hurricane Katrina, naively thinking that later, somehow, they will be reunited.
24 Big Henry’s pledge communicates just the opposite of patriarchal sexist attitudes towards women held by Manny, Jason, and symbolically, by Kilo.
When China disappears, the loss profoundly resonates with Esch, intermingling with thoughts of Jason’s betrayal of Medea: she contemplates how she and the remaining Bois Sauvage community will move forward after Katrina. Gazing at “the star-suffocated sky” in phantasmatic revelry, she embraces a new knowingness. Her words take on the tone and import of classical mythology as she moves from solipsistic individuality and isolation to the communal, embracing China and Medea in her sisterhood of survival. Like them, she has found honor in having fought and endured all of life’s vicissitudes. And finally, in this moment of deep reflection, she begins to understand her place in the world as a lover, sister, daughter, mother, and most importantly: survivor.
Works Cited Bachelard, Gaston. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, translated by Edith R. Farrell, The Dallas Institute of the Humanities and Culture, 2006. Biopower: Foucault and Beyond. edited by Vernon Cisney and Nicolae Morar The U of Chicago P, 2016. —.. “Introduction: Why Biopower? Why Now?” Biopower: Foucault and Beyond, 1-25. “Euripides’ Medea,” translated by C. A. E. Luschnig, The Stoa Consortium, 16 Apr. 2006, http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/EuripidesMedeaLuschnig. pdf. Accessed 10 Jul 2018. Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality, Vol I, translated by A. M. Sheridan, Vintage, 1980. Freeburg, Christopher. Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life. U Virginia P, 2017. Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto. Prickly Paradigm P, 2003. —. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 2008. Higgs, Christopher. “Notes on Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am.” 26 Feb. 2010. http://htmlgiant.com/random/notes-on-derridas-the-animal-thattherefore-i-am/ Accessed 15 June 2018. King, Debra Walker. African Americans and the Culture of Pain. U Virginia P, 2008. Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Vintage, 2017. Rougemont, Denis de. Love in the Western World. Princeton UP, 1983. Schreiber, Evelyn Jaffe. Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Louisiana State UP, 2010. Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2011. Warren, Calvin L. Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Duke UP, 2018. Wilderson III, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structures of US Antagonisms. Duke UP, 2010.
Sondra Bickham Washington
“Who Will Deliver Me?”: Black Girlhood in a Man’s World in Salvage the Bones
With little effort, literary scholars can locate countless allusions to
African American girls in fiction; yet, these portrayals tend to exist solely as context for more centralized characters—women, men, and boys—rather than as meaningful depictions of the lives and experiences of black female children and adolescents. Long before the coinage of #BlackGirlMagic and #1000BlackGirlBooks, many scholars credited Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) with altering this literary tradition especially since she explained her authorial aspiration to share the stories of the “most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls [who] had never existed seriously in literature” (Gross). Jesmyn Ward continues in this vein of correcting the omission or glossed over representations of black girls in literature with Salvage the Bones (2011) through her portrayal of 15-yearold narrator Esch Batiste, a black girl-woman who exists in a liminal state of development throughout most of the narrative. I define black girl-women as females of various ages whose mental development is or has been interrupted or stagnated by traumatic experiences suffered during their formative years. Whereas many people seek to preserve and protect white childhood at all costs, they at times overlook, minimize, or limit opportunities for young African American females to experience similar safeguards as children1. Instead, society and families allow, and often force, black girls into an expedited maturity in which they must behave as or perform 1 In My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass stated, “SLAVE-children are children” (30). More than 150 years later in a 2014 article entitled “In America, Black Children Don’t Get to Be Children,” Morgan State University professor Stacey Patton stated, “America does not extend the fundamental elements of childhood to black boys and girls. Black childhood is considered innately inferior, dangerous and indistinguishable from black adulthood. Black children are not afforded the same presumption of innocence as white children, especially in life-or-death situations.”
various duties associated with womanhood, especially when a mother figure is detached or absent. Since whiteness and maleness are generally privileged, history and heritage require these black girls to grow up faster, endure more hardship, and recover from trauma more expeditiously and with less residual evidence of that damage than a white child might 2. Consequently, these African American girls become black girl-women while onlookers and even family members misinterpret or misidentify symptoms of the post-traumatic conditions they exhibit as bad attitudes, misbehavior, and “fast” living3. In their 2017 report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake, and Thalia Gonzalez document this tendency, finding that people perceive that black girls require less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort; are more independent; and know more about adult topics and sex as compared to white girls of the same age (1). Except in some cases where highly publicized instances of extreme brutality befall black girl-women4, such perceptions still commonly lead members of both the African American and white communities to ignore or assume the worst of these unnurtured, unprotected black girls while disregarding or conceding a myriad of excuses for their abusers. Without assistance or the opportunity to come to terms with their past traumas, black girl-womanhood can produce a type of arrested development that extends well into adulthood since it is 2 A 2015 study entitled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” conducted by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw for the African American Policy Forum and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies found that African American girls experience “gendered consequences of disciplinary and push-out policies,” and in schools, they were “on the receiving end of punitive, zero-tolerance policies that subjected them to violence, arrest, suspension and/or expulsion” (3). Further, the study revealed that “black girls receive more severe sentences when they enter the juvenile justice system than do members of any other group of girls, and they are also the fastest growing population in the system” (6). 3 In the African American community, “fast” or “forward” are euphemisms often used to criticize sexually active underage females. 4 Consider the McKinney, Texas police officer who slammed 15-year-old Dajerria Becton to the ground at a pool party or the South Carolina officer who flipped a young female student from her desk and dragged her from an algebra classroom.
not measured by one’s physical age but by their emotional and psychological state and capabilities. In this manner, Esch Batiste is a quintessential black girl-woman. Poverty, loss, neglect, and lack of female companionship plague Esch, who is pregnant and devoid of support. These misfortunes render her voiceless, impotent, and drifting in a world filled with boys and men. Although she lives with her father and three brothers and must rely on her siblings and their male friends for social interaction, the family consistently overlooks her, leaving her to contemplate her position and value in their world without the benefit of guidance or reassurance. Neither a child nor a woman, Esch’s psychological childhood effectively ends at age eight when her mother dies in a hospital after delivering her fourth child in the family home and nearly bleeding to death in front of her children. As Esch struggles to survive and find her place in fictional Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, her father battles alcoholism and is either unwilling or unable to adequately care for his children. Consequently, his failure to do so thrusts Esch and her oldest brother, Randall, into caretaker roles for their family, and she is interchangeably unsexed by her family and oversexualized by the young men who visit them. Reminiscent of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Esch is the only daughter in a motherless, impoverished African American family living in a remote, debris-filled area called the Pit (rather than the Bathtub). Like Wink and Hushpuppy’s homes, the Batiste house is old and dilapidated with “walls, thin and uninsulated, peeling from each other at the seams” (7). However, unlike Hushpuppy’s mother who abandons her child, Esch’s mother’s absence is caused by her tragic death after delivering Junior, her “last flower” (2). This loss leaves Esch solely surrounded by men and boys since she has no other female friends. The loss of their mother affects all of the Batiste children, but the boys in the family seem to cope with her death more successfully. Randall becomes a substitute father to Junior, a rambunctious little boy who everyone in the family indulges; yet, Randall still freely pursues his dream of joining a summer basketball league. Skeetah remembers his mother and her last words, which suggests a level of comfort in his bereavement, and he excels in taking care of China, his beloved pit bull, and her puppies and preparing 87
her for dog fights. Furthermore, all of the Batiste sons regularly spend time with other male friends both at home and at various events, and they appear relatively well adjusted despite their strained relationships with their father. Unlike her brothers, Esch suffers a crippling loss upon the death of her mother, who normally would serve as the nurturing presence and example of womanhood in a daughter’s life. Having no older woman to guide her through life expedites Esch’s mental maturity from an eight-year-old to that of an adult, especially since her father emotionally disconnects from his children, leaving them to fend for themselves. He brings Junior home from the hospital, announces their mother’s death, relinquishes the baby to Esch and Randall to raise, and enters a perpetual drunken stupor. While she is still a child, Esch becomes a surrogate mother to her baby brother despite experiencing so few years with her own mother as a guide. While the Batiste boys have many other male figures to emulate and consult if necessary, Esch knows no women except those she observes in the community at a distance or the mythological women like Medea that she discovers in literature. Likewise, Esch knows other girls from school and at the local basketball court and gymnasium; yet, she refuses to interact with them, choosing to merely watch them from afar, studying their actions and interactions with boys and mulling over their names and physical features. Further distinguishing her situation from that of her brothers, Esch’s mothering extends to caring for the rest of the family. At times, she cooks for them and performs other motherly duties around the family home all while sharing a room with the child she is raising. Her recently discovered pregnancy threatens to increase these responsibilities and inconveniences in the home. At one point, while reflecting on ways to end her pregnancy, she thinks that her father forgets she is a girl at times (102). Although this thought suggests her father has forgotten that she is a teenaged female who has an entirely separate set of personal needs from her brothers, it also implies that he has forgotten that she is not an adult. At times, the heaviness of her thoughts suggests that she too has forgotten her youthfulness. To navigate this complicated liminal space and to compensate for her parental deficiencies, Esch commonly recalls and utilizes her mother’s words and actions. She remembers the way her 88
mother treated a wound by pressing and blowing on it (12), located chickens’ eggs in the forest (22), and referred to her younger brother’s stubbornness by saying “orner” instead of “ornery” (24). Esch attempts to preserve her mother’s memory so sharply that she can still hear her mother’s voice, a skill her brothers do not possess. Yet, the voice does little to remedy her anxieties about her complicated life, and while she attempts to imitate her mother and act like a woman, she also realizes her limitations as a girl. Esch’s black girl-womanhood also negatively affects her self-esteem. Since she rarely speaks and her family seldom addresses her personally or expresses interest in her ideas and experiences, much of the narrative is revealed through Esch’s thoughts and recollections. She has only two memories of being noticed and complimented, and both occur prior to her mother’s death. Early in the narrative, she recalls one endorsement of her strength when she and Randall fight over a pork chop, and her father tells her mother, “She can hold her own. Told you she was going to be a little scrappy scrawny thing—built just like you” (6). That memory immediately prompts one of her mother admiring her hair, which Esch initially believes is “her one good thing” (7) but later refuses to see as a positive quality. But once her mother dies, Esch forgets the strength her father predicts and the beauty her mother observes. Instead, without her mother’s nurturing presence and sufficient time during childhood to cultivate her identity, she views herself as “small, dark [and] invisible” (28), which causes her to remain silent even when she desperately wants to speak and be noticed. Esch no longer recognizes her beauty and remarks, “I looked in the mirror and knew the rest of me wasn’t so remarkable: wide nose, dark skin, Mama’s slim, short frame with all the curves folded in so that I looked square” (7). Without her mother’s presence and reassurance, Esch’s discomfort in her liminality only allows her to see beauty and positive traits in others. Esch’s father’s disconnection from his children also prematurely ages her by exposing her vulnerability and defenselessness to her brothers’ male friends who frequent the Pit. Since Esch has no female friends and few, if any, restrictions, she spends time with her brothers and their male friends. But, without her father’s concern or protection, these young men begin 89
brazenly sexually exploiting Esch at age twelve—in her father’s dump truck with her brother nearby (22), behind the house while her family and some of their friends are gathered “out front” (15), and in a bathroom stall of a gymnasium while one brother plays in a basketball game and the other two sit in the bleachers near the boy’s girlfriend (144). By age fifteen, Esch is so oversexualized that she believes sex is a skill she possesses simply because young men consistently approach her for it (27). At times, she feels powerful during sex, as she states of her encounters with Manny, a nineteen-year-old young man whom she appears to love: “I was bold as a Greek [goddess]; I was making him hot with love” (17). Although she wants him to kiss her and touch her everywhere, she settles for the kiss of his body against hers, which is no kiss at all. Still, she feels a level of control and connection in that relationship. But, more often, she realizes, but still accepts, her impotence when she gives boys sex “because they wanted it, and not because [she] wanted to give it” (16). By many standards, these encounters might be considered date rape or at least some level of sexual assault, but Esch’s juvenile understanding of relationships and her right to refuse these young men, is due to the abrupt change in her maturity level without proper guidance from her mother, father, or brothers. Despite her liminal positionality, Esch does not want to be viewed as “a weak, sorry girl” (11), but she feels powerless and voiceless especially with her sexual partners, and she allows a number of them to touch and have sex with her, believing it to be “easier to keep quiet and take it” than to be asked “why not” and have to “give [them] an answer” (23). Particularly, Esch yearns for Manny’s love and attention, but she settles for quickies with him, which occur at random and upon his bidding, since she is too afraid to ask for more. Esch also admits similar resignations in sexual encounters with the other boys; however, her attraction to Manny is a decision. She relates, “Even though I knew all the other boys, I knew him and his body best: I love him best” (16). Still, her lack of confidence causes her to settle for a solely sexual relationship with Manny, and she shows him her feelings about him with her hips since she cannot force herself to speak her feelings as a fully developed woman might. 90
Strangely, while Esch participates in a great deal of sexual activity, whether of her own volition or as a result of coercion, and although she becomes pregnant, her family members often unsex her throughout the novel. Despite her advanced feminine development, Esch has no privacy in the home. She must share clothing with her brothers which requires her to wear “mostly men’s T-shirts [and] loose jeans and cotton shorts” (88), and when her brothers and their male friends go skinny-dipping, she joins them. As she explains, “Where my brothers go, I follow” (53). But, Esch is not one of the boys. Physically, she is a budding young woman even though her mental development may seem less advanced to her father and brothers. Moreover, although these activities and living arrangements might be acceptable for much younger children, and they are likely due to the family’s financial constraints and the close quarters they are accustomed to sharing in the home, it seems that some thought and adjustments should be devoted to accommodating her feminine needs. Still, her father, and brothers at times, treat her as if she is a tomboy. Skeetah runs with her at full speed through open fields and forest to a nearby family’s home, and her father commands her to “let [her] brother climb up on [her]” to remove wood from the roof of their grandparents’ home (62). In this way, they all seemingly fail to even acknowledge her femininity. Once Skeetah reveals her pregnancy and her family can no longer ignore her physical development, her father initially rejects her development. Esch details her family’s experiences prior to, during, and after Hurricane Katrina batters their Gulf Coast Mississippi town, the devastation caused by the storm coincides with the increasingly destructive forces at work in Esch’s life in the Pit. In one of the most harrowing scenes of the novel, Esch describes her family’s desperate escape from their quickly flooding home, as they squeeze through a small, jagged hole cut in the attic roof and scramble from branch to branch in a large oak tree to reach her late maternal grandparents’ vacant and “rotting house” (10). At one point, her father, who exhibits no previous desire to protect his daughter, grabs her elbow to prevent her from attempting an action he feels is too dangerous for her small frame. Then, when Skeetah, Esch’s brother, exposes her pregnancy, which she has only recently discovered and believes she has hidden from her family, her father 91
almost instinctively reacts by pushing her from the tree into the floodwater. As she quickly sinks, her sole thought is “Who will deliver me?” Although Esch witnesses her oldest brother, Randall, comforting and protecting their youngest brother, Junior, and she watches Skeetah lovingly care for his pit bulldog, China, and her puppies, she feels unnoticed and unprotected. Consequently, her question not only reflects her concern for her physical situation, as she is drowning in a hurricane-related flash flood; it demonstrates the loneliness and neglect she feels in her everyday life, impotent and adrift, trapped somewhere between child and woman in a world filled with men and boys and no female companionship. Esch immediately notices her father’s expression of regret after his initial reaction, but his inability to cope with trauma, or his desire to rid himself of disappointments, further damages her psyche and almost causes her death. His instinctive reaction portends more trauma and dysfunction for Esch and her baby, if it has survived the physical damage she suffers as a result of the hurricane. Yet, later, her father’s apology and statement about visiting a doctor to make sure the baby is well forecasts some improvements in the family dynamics. It also provides Esch with the concern and protection she has desired since her mother’s death, and it might assist her in transitioning from this girl-woman stage of development. Originally, Esch expects no such treatment, and she is so starved for love and affection that she offers young men the two things she feels she has to give them—her service and her body. As she contemplates the phantom pains her father might experience after a tragic accident causes him to lose several fingers on one hand (247), one might wonder if she is considering or experiencing the phantom pains of her lost childhood. Esch has been drowning long before her father pushes her into the hurricane floodwaters, and her life reflects the disadvantaged, depressing pit in which she lives. Instead of the scavenged, stolen, and abandoned detritus of her family’s land, her thoughts are littered with snippets of memories and conflicting ideas of motherhood, love, and desire. She is trapped in psychological, emotional, and relational pits. For years, her family has been scavenging her grandparents’ home for survival, but the only way to improve their lives and remedy the damage 92
caused by Esch’s lost childhood is to revisit the past and have the difficult discussions which should have occurred after her mother’s death. Though the journey back is traumatic, Esch seems to begin the process of valuing herself, locating her voice, and reclaiming her agency after the storm, and her future seems a bit brighter than her past. Still, she could not begin this process until the men in her life save her—Skeetah pulls her from the floodwaters and her father begins the difficult conversation which might have prevented her premature development in the first place. Like many black girl-women in literature and the real world, Esch’s allmale family ignores and harshly judges her instead of focusing more acutely on the consequences of her expedited maturity. They misread her unsuccessful attempts to cope with the loss of her mother, the only other female in the family and community to which she has had any significant connection. Since they all experience the same loss, they overlook the specificity of her bereavement and the deficiency and isolation she faces with no long-term female role model, expecting her to fill in the gap as replacement mother despite her unpreparedness to do so.
Works Cited Beasts of the Southern Wild. Directed by Benh Zeitlin, performances by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, Fox Searchlight, 2012. Crenshaw, Kimberle, Jyoti Nanda, and Priscilla Ocen. “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.” African American Policy Forum and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, https://static1. squarespace.com/static/53f20d90e4b0b80451158d8c/t/54d2d37ce4b024b414 43b0ba/1423102844010/BlackGirlsMatterReport.pdf Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Miller, Orton and Company, 1857. Epstein, Rebecca, Jamilia Blake, and Thalia González. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” Center on Poverty and Inequality, Georgetown Law, http://www.law.georgetown.edu/academics/centersinstitutes/poverty-inequality/upload/girlhood-interrupted.pdf. Gross, Rebecca. “Interview with Toni Morrison: Write, Erase, Do It Over.” National Endowments for the Arts, issue 2014, no. 4, arts.gov/ NEARTS/2014v4-art-failure-importance-risk-and-experimentation/tonimorrison Patton, Stacey. “In America, Black Children Don’t Get to Be Children.” The Washington Post, 26 Nov. 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/ opinions/in-america-black-children-dont-get-to-be-children/2014/11/26/ a9e24756-74ee-11e4-a755-e32227229e7b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_ term=.8eb5b5e7c284. Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2011.
Men We Reaped as a Testimonio
On December 23, 2014, The Washington Post published a brief article
about two books “providing penetrating insight into the sentiments that animate the grief and protest that characterized so much of 2014” (Rosenburg 2014). One of those books, Men We Reaped, “is more of an indictment than a memoir, a bill of charges against a system that claimed a generation before its author’s eyes” (Nance 45). These articles, along with a few more, mention a crucial parallel between Ward’s memoir and the events affecting people of color in 2014. Reading Men We Reaped as a testimonio allows readers to see the clear parallels between Black Lives Matter concerns and Jesmyn Ward’s experiences, placing a call on its readers to support the Movement against the microaggressions, harmful stereotypes, gentrification and poverty, misogyny, and death caused by systemic racism. The mingling of both personal and communal perspectives causes Men We Reaped to serve as both a memoir and a testimonio. The book, according to an interview with Ward and Maddie Oatman, is undeniably a “personal account of loss and grief” that intimately shares her reactions and struggles with racism, sexism, classism, death, fear, and depression. Although Ward “wept at the keyboard almost every day” while writing her book, she felt the strong “imperative to deal honestly, even bluntly, with the plain, often ugly facts of life and death in…a place where racism, poverty, and economic inequality” harmed her community and to “tell the stories of the dead, of course, but also of the living” (Nance 44). Her imperative aligns perfectly with the requirements of the testimonio since “the objective of the testimonio is to bring to light a wrong, a point of view, or an urgent call for action” (Reyes et al. 525). Additionally, the “main feature of the testimonial text,” unlike the memoir, “is the construction of a discourse of solidarity,” and Ward builds a communal sense of suffering and trauma throughout her account of events (Reyes et al. 526). The reactions of Ward’s friends show a community’s need for expression and representation usually seen in testimonios. They express
excitement because “she writing about real shit,” and Ward notices that “most of the men…thought their stories, whether they were drug dealers or straight-laced, were worthy of being written about” (Ward 69). She initially dismisses their opinions, but as she reflects on the deaths of the men in her life, she understands “the truth in their claims” (Ward 69). These objectives are strikingly similar to those seen in I, Rigoberta Menchú, one of the most well-known testimonios featuring a survivor of and activist against the horrific oppression taking place in Guatemala during the 1970’s and onward. In her introduction to the book, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray notes that “the voice of Rigoberta Menchú allows the defeated to speak” and “issu[es] a manifesto on behalf of an ethnic group” because “she has survived the genocide that destroyed her family and community and is stubbornly determined to break the silence” (xi, xiii). The urgency with which Ward writes her memoir, the communal suffering she expresses, and the need for representation, all qualify Men We Reaped to act as a testimonio like I, Rigoberta Menchú. Ward, like authors and subjects of classic testimonio texts, advocates for change through depicting the traumas and deaths of systemic oppression, pointing to personal and communal pain as motivations for speaking out, and stressing the need for change. She devotes a chapter to each of the deaths that she and her community were devastated by: the heart attack of Roger Eric Daniels, the murder of Demond Cook, the train collision that CJ Martin was in, the death of Ronald (Wayne) Lizana, and the hit-and-run that killed her brother, Joshua Adam Dedeaux. Ward and others believe that “all five deaths were at least indirectly the result of a society that regards African Americans, in particular young African Americans, as disposable--a condition that leads to neglect that manifests itself in various ways” (Nance 45). Ward wishes she could stop the things that continue to traumatize her and the community, the things that killed us one after the other. Senseless, I thought. This is never going to end, I thought. Never…I…felt the acute sense that life had promised me something when I was younger, that it wouldn’t be this hard, perhaps, that my people wouldn’t keep dying without end. I’m only 26, I thought. I’m tired of this shit (79).
The trauma haunts Ward’s words all throughout her book, and her despair shows readers that the treatment of American people of color urgently needs to change. These strategies and attitudes undeniably parallel those seen in I, Rigoberta Menchú: Rigoberta describes in vivid detail the atrocities committed against Indian people in Guatemala, the gruesome murders of her family members and friends at the hands of the ladinos, and her efforts to lead the resistance. In one of the most gruesome murders in the book, the entire community is forced to watch the torture and burning of Rigoberta’s brother Petrocinio and several prisoners, and his family members were so traumatized that they “couldn’t bear to watch…couldn’t bear to keep looking at the dead,” not “through cowardice, rather that it filled [them] with rage” (Menchú and Burgos-Debray 211). When the family returns home, they feel “as though [they] were drunk or struck dumb; none of [them] uttered a word” as his mother “was half dead with grief” (Menchú and Burgos-Debray 211). The pain that they suffered compelled them to fight against their oppressors: Rigoberta’s father decides to join the guerillas to “avenge [his] son with arms,” her mother wants to “abandon everything” because she believed that it wasn’t “possible that other mothers should suffer as [she had] suffered,” and Rigoberta herself left “keener than ever to work” against Guatemalan powers (Menchú and Burgos-Debray 211). Both Menchú and Ward describe traumatic events to demonstrate the severity of their oppression and to explain the need for action, whether that action is through writing, consciousnessraising, or, in Menchú’s case, guerilla forces. Activists amplified and still amplify Ward’s testimony by resisting the oppression of American people of color. Two months before Men We Reaped was published, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded the Black Lives Matter movement to protest the violence of anti-black racism, and that violence also surfaces in Ward’s book. The mainstream media has mainly shown the Black Lives Matter Movement’s protests and actions against police brutality, but the Movement’s focus “also encompasses various, and often less blatant, forms of violence that are commonly state sanctioned,” such as “compromises” to the “integrity of Black families” that “put AfricanAmerican children at risk of various emotional and behavioral outcomes,” 97
“the system of racialized punishment (the “school to prison” pipeline)… the gentrification of low-income minority communities and displacement of residents…and the impact of racism and discrimination on the mental health of Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities” (Esposito and Romano 161). Men We Reaped calls for the objectives that Black Lives Matter strive for. This connection is crucial to understand, especially considering the correlation of topics and the breadth of time between the book’s publication and BLM’s beginning. In a 2014 interview for the Mother Theresa magazine, Maddie Oatman comments, “I’ve been struck by how the Black Lives Matter movement echoes themes that you first wrote about in Men We Reaped,” and Ward confirms the connection: It feels like a validation. When I wrote this personal account of loss and grief and of black lives being devalued over generations, it was very difficult because I didn’t yet have the language. I felt like a crazy person. I am grateful to the women who created the Black Lives Matter movement because I feel like they let me know I wasn’t crazy.
Ward’s sense of affirmation and the simultaneous production of the book and Black Lives Matter amplifies the importance of finding pieces of Men We Reaped that serve as a testimony for the case that Black Lives Matter presents. Considering the deaths that Men We Reaped focuses on, the racial bullying and painful insults that Ward experiences may not appear as impactful, but the emotional degradation that she feels is indicative of various and seemingly subtle results of racism. On one occasion, a fellow student asks Ward for “n****r braids,” and Ward “couldn’t believe she’d said the word, used it so casually, so denigratingly, and then been so proud of what she’d done” (Ward 185). In another incident, Ward also forces herself not to take action against Topher, a white boy in her class, when he sees her, sits on her desk, smiles, and harasses her with “n****r jokes” (Ward 192). These encounters take a toll: Ward writes, “I was so depressed by the subtext I felt, so depressed I was silenced, because the message was always the same: You’re Black. You’re less than White. And then, at the heart of it: You’re less than human” (Ward 195).
The incidents that Ward describes are good examples of racial microaggressions, and she shows how they exhaust and discourage people in marginalized communities. Microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative…slights and insults” towards individuals in marginalized groups (Edwards 11). These “minor, subtle, accretive happenings…multiply and aggregate” until the “effects…have built up like fluid in the bones of the political,” but they are often dismissed (Chu 304). There are three types of microaggressions: microinsults, which are usually unconscious yet “insensitive or demeaning,” microinvalidations, which unconsciously invalidate the experiences of people in marginalized communities, and microassaults, which are often deliberate derogatory statements that are meant to hurt (Edwards 11). Topher’s harassment and the girl asking Ward for “n****r [author emendation] braids” are both incidents of microassaults since they both want to hurt her. Whether the person using them is aware of it or not, such microaggressions have their roots in racism itself, and the harm that they inflict on the mental health of people of color is a serious concern. To help counter the racial microaggressions that many white people are guilty of, the Black Lives Matter website offers articles about current events and a tool kit specifically for white people to “get more white people…to take action toward racial justice—and to change the hearts and minds of those white people who are not yet with us” (Black Lives Matter 2017). In addition to microaggressions, Ward watches the harm that racist stereotypes inflict on her friends. She describes how the school administration would move from “benign neglect” to something more “malignant” and “would involve illegal strip searches of middle schoolers accused of drug dealing, typing these same students as troublemakers” (Ward 111). After forcing these stereotypes onto their black students, the administration would succeed in “kicking out the students who endangered the blue-ribbon rating with lackluster grades and test scores” by “laying a thick paper trail of imagined or real discipline offenses” (Ward 111). Ward also observes the effect that police officers’ racial stereotyping has on her community: 99
Most of the parents who didn’t mind company minded if company came over too often, if there were lots of cars parked in the yard, because that attracted something we called heat: police attention. While that might not matter in neighborhoods that were mostly White and working-class, in our Black working-class community, it mattered. (106)
The consequences of maintaining such stereotypes is detrimental at the best and deadly at the worst; one only has to look at police brutality stories to know how serious the stakes are. Because they know of these dangers, activists have long combatted the racial stereotypes that Ward notices. They have not stopped “engaging in processes of framing and counter-framing as they attempt to challenge, delegitimize, and redefine the myths, assumptions, and versions of reality that support a prevailing system of White supremacy” (Esposito and Romano 164). Luigi Esposito and Victor Romano share three of the most common forms of racism that have perpetuated White supremacy in America: Laissez-Faire Racism, which places an emphasis on free competition, meritocracy, and apolitical outcomes of a free market and “neutral” system; Symbolic Racism, which relies on moral imperatives and social learning of racial stereotypes, (i.e., black people are too demanding and pushy); and Color-Blind Racism, which teaches that race is irrelevant and that inequality comes from cultural habits or lifestyle choices (Esposito 161). Black Lives Matter continues the work of their predecessors and “promote[s] an anti-racist praxis that actively confronts systematic racism, including patterns of racial inequity and the devaluation of Black lives” through protests, testimony, and events (Esposito and Romano 164). In Men We Reaped, the safety and success of black people is devalued not just through stereotypes, but also through gentrification, poverty, and neglect. Because of the lack of jobs and educational opportunities, CJ is deprived of the opportunity to succeed in his life, and Ward realizes that “he hated sitting on that tree, that he wanted more for himself, but he didn’t know how to get it” (Ward 110). The community also experiences the ways in which poverty diminishes livelihood: Ward learns the incredibly sobering and depressing
fact that “the land that the community park is built on…is designated to be used as burial sites so the graveyard can expand as we die; one day our graves will swallow up our playground” (Ward 127). Perhaps the most sickening example of economic neglect is demonstrated in CJ’s fatal collision with an oncoming train. Ward explains that “there were flashing lights and bells that should have warned of the passing train, but they didn’t consistently work, and because it was located at a crossing out in the county in a mainly Black area, no one really cared about fixing them or installing a reflective gate arm” (Ward 125). If the government had allocated enough funds to keep train crossings safe, then CJ’s death could have been avoided. The costs of systemic racism and poverty prove to be high, claiming the opportunities, spirit, and lives of the community that Ward writes for. Countless studies confirm the gentrification, poverty, and economic neglect that Ward both experiences and witnesses. Justin Smith, a Central Michigan University professor and social and criminal justice expert, lists “three explanations of residential segregation” and gentrification: “unequal economic status, group prejudice, and housing discrimination” (475). More than enough evidence has proven that “African Americans are compensated at lower levels than Whites, notwithstanding similar levels of education and work experience” (Hudson et al. 224). As a result, “many African Americans are socially and economically disadvantaged” and “must engage in an arduous process of upward social mobility to improve their socioeconomic status” (Hudson et al. 222). Even if the meager 58% of African Americans born in the bottom 10th of income distribution are able to achieve a higher income bracket, they will more than likely experience “increased exposure to racial discrimination” since they are “more likely to work and live in integrated settings compared with poorer African Americans” (Hudson et al. 223). Additionally, the “African Americans who do possess greater levels of socioeconomic status have had to overcome substantial odds to gain higher levels of education and gain entry into more prestigious, higher paying occupations” (Hudson et al. 222). Those statistics don’t even cover all the difficulties that are caused by “racial discrimination, such as job loss…being passed over for promotion,” wage gaps, “racial residential segregation, diminished returns for investments in 101
social and cultural capital, and limited advancement in occupational settings due to ‘racialized’ glass ceilings” (Hudson et al. 222, 223). Black Lives Matter fights against gentrification, poverty, and despair by continuing to raise awareness, keep programs available, and encourage their activists to look after one another and their respective communities. Considering all the emotional and economical obstacles that plague black communities, it is no wonder that Ward and her friends cannot maintain their mental health: they all experience extreme depression, hopelessness, and anger. Ward shares, “for me, [depression] was a cellar in the woods, a wide, deep living grave” (Ward 181). She also relates to the pain that she knows Ronald felt when she writes, “I know what it feels like. I know that sense of despair. I know that…he…thought it would be better if he were dead, because then all of it, every bit of it, would stop” (Ward 175). As her friends continue to die, Ward remembered that she “curled in on myself. All I wanted in the world was for it to go dark, to not exist. I wanted to black out again” (Ward 74). Towards the end of his life, C.J. snaps from the pressure of his anger, angrily throwing the beers, kicking the cooler, and frightening Ward and other observers (Ward 118). He also “lived as if he believed [that he was going to die young]. He never talked like the rest of us, never laid claim to a dream job…Maybe in his low moments, when he was coming down off the coke, he saw no American dream, no fairy tale ending, no hope. Maybe in his high moments, he didn’t either” (Ward 120, 121). Studies have found that “racial discrimination is a potent stressor, related to both increased levels of depressive symptoms as well as increased odds of depression (Hudson et al. 222). Additionally, high-effort coping may be a ‘mental health cost’ paid by African Americans such as Ward “who maintain greater levels of sustained effort and energy expenditures to cope with stress” (Hudson et al. 222). Studies have indicated that “the development of depressive symptoms such as fatigue and pessimism is a plausible reaction in the face of failed attempts to reach personal goals or when personal goals are unattainable,” and all the characters in Men We Reaped experience these feelings (Hudson et al. 225). Black Lives Matter also knows the pain and makes statements on their websites in response: 102
We affirm our existence. We affirm our right to not only live, but to thrive—to exist in a world where our humanity is seen and honored. We organize to realize a world in which our faiths are held in esteem, our identities are respected, and our families are prioritized. We deserve a world in which our children are protected, our Earth is sacred, and we are given a fair chance to decide our fates.
If Ward, C.J., and other people documented in the book had experienced a community promoting those values, then perhaps they would have felt less despair. Mental health concerns trickle into families and reduce individuals’ ability to maintain healthy relationships with family members. Ward particularly focuses on the fathers that cheat on their wives or even abandon their families. Daughters in DeLisle including Ward, “did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us,” and she believes that “this tradition of men leaving their families here seems systemic, fostered by endemic poverty…sometimes color seems an accidental factor, but then it doesn’t, especially when one thinks of the forced fracturing of families that the earliest African Americans endured under the yoke of slavery” (Ward 169, 131). Her father’s infidelity only adds to the emotional burdens that she already carries: her mother has to focus so intently on keeping the family alive that she is unable to spend quality time with Ward and her siblings, and Ward wonders if she is to blame for her father’s actions. Ward has recognized the strain that racism places on fatherhood and family structures, and numerous studies confirm her observations of her family and others in the DeLisle community. Although “research on fathers is rare and findings are mixed,” several studies have found that “depression in fathers is also related to greater marital conflict and risk of maternal depression” (Bamishigbin 70). Marital conflict often leads to fathers reducing their interactions with their families or even leaving, so mothers like Ward’s are left to bear the financial and emotional burdens for keeping the family together. Black Lives Matter recognizes and counters these stressors, stating: We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal 103
practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” …We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable. (Black Lives Matter 2017)
These resolutions can hopefully ease some of the tension and stress imposed by poverty, strenuous jobs that take time away from mothers and fathers, and provide a safe space in which black families can come together. Some of the stress seen on family structures in Men We Reaped stems from the misogyny that Ward endures. Because she and other women “trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless” (Ward 169). In fact, Ward’s brother has more freedom than she does even from an early age, and when she questions it, she is told that it’s simply because he is a boy. Some of Ward’s statements suggest that she struggles with internalized sexism. For example, when she is nearly assaulted by one of her brother’s friends, she “thought he meant that he saw all the misery…saw that I deserved to be treated this way by a boy, any boy, all boys, everyone, and I believed him” (Ward 156). In addition to that sentiment, when she notes that “most of the men in my life though their stories…were worthy of being written about,” the exclusion of women is noteworthy (Ward 69). “As a consequence, the perception that African American males are marginalized by society may serve as a form of group-specific justification for tolerating abuse or not involving law enforcement when abuse occurs” (Blackmon et al 2). In other words, black male victimage occurs when black men have no place to safely direct their anger with white supremacy other than the black women of their lives, and the women have internalized sexism so much that they are trapped in abusive relationships. This phenomenon most likely factors into Thomas’s attempted assault of Ward: he tried to assuage some of his anger by attacking someone less powerful than he. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement are determined to “build a space that affirms
Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered” (Black Lives Matter 2017). In addition to sharing her personal experience with the death toll of institutionalized racism, Ward includes her own research and statistics of suicide in the black community. She finds and knows from personal experience that “not treating these mental disorders costs Black men and women dearly, because when mental disorders aren’t treated, Black men are more vulnerable to incarceration, homelessness substance abuse, homicide, and suicide” (Ward 175, 176). Ward also cites “Souls of Black Men: African American Men Discuss Mental Health,” which states Black men’s death rates from suicide are twice as high as those for Black women” (Ward 176). Suicides are not the only way in which black people die before their time: poverty, lack of communal resources, and police brutality have also claimed black lives for many years, prompting activists alike to begin the Black Lives Matter Movement. Meanwhile, Ward and the rest of her community face a “depressive ordinary engendered by structural violence” (Chu 304). They are “pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism” and are “all dying inside” (Ward 120, 127). Ward has personally witnessed that “incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, homicide, and suicide…affect not just the black men suffering from them but their families and the glue that holds the community together as well” (Ward 176). Ward knows this because she observes that her “entire community suffered from a lack of trust…didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system,” and “turned sour from the pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, without and within…even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us [we] were perpetually less” (Ward 169). Black Lives Matter strives to heal communities such as DeLisle, stating that “freedom for Black people must include healing that address the individual and collective, the current and the generational pain” (Black Lives Matter 2017). Black Lives Matter is determined to be “unapologetically black,” so their website offers a “Healing Justice” toolkit that provides “elevated and 105
innovative ways of caring and showing up for each other,” along with creating a space within the activist community (BLM 2017). Microaggressions, harmful stereotypes, damage to individuals’ mental health, strain on family structures, death, and community trauma have been analyzed as separate factors so far in this paper, but they are inseparable and culminate into something unmanageable. Lizana, a cocaine addict who committed suicide, was a perfect storm, an accumulation of racism’s devastation, according to Ward: The endless struggle with his girlfriend, the drugs that lit his darkness, the degradations that come from a life of poverty exacerbated by maleness and Blackness and fatherlessness in the South—being stopped and searched by the police, going to a high school where no one really cared if he graduated and went to college, the dashed dreams of being a pilot or a doctor or whatever it was he wanted, realizing that the promises that had been made to him at All God’s Creatures day camp were empty and he didn’t have a world and a heaven of options—all of these things would cease. And this is what Ronald thought he wanted. (175)
The terrible cumulation of poverty, mental health issues, the strain on family, black male victimage, and negative stereotypes all lead to his tragic suicide. Seeing the odds stacked against him, few readers could turn away from the text without being affected. The Black Lives Matter Movement has felt this pain before and “is therefore an indictment of these and various other patterns of racialized violence and inequity, as well as an affirmation of Black people’s humanity” (Esposito and Romano 161). Those who are affected by Ward’s and DeLisle’s pain will more than likely feel the obligation to act that testimonios generate, and some may wonder how they can effectively respond. Based on the parallel themes between Men We Reaped and the Black Lives Matter Movement, the implied and best way to help is supporting the Movement, especially since “BLMM calls for, among other demands, economic justice, more community control of the institutions and policies that effect Black communities, more investment in education and health, and an end to racial profiling and mass incarceration” (Esposito and
Romano 163).The fact that Black Lives Matter was started only two months before Men We Reaped was published speaks volumes; Ward had never met the three women who started the movement, yet she separately wrote a book testifying about the damage racism inflicts. The imperative that Ward wrote with is real and present, and “the transformative potential of this movement requires that those who support racial justice defend BLMM’s message of valuing Black lives,” (Esposito & Romano 170). After seeing the effects of systemic racism in Men We Reaped, readers should answer the call that Ward’s testimony places on them by supporting Black Lives Matter.
Works Cited Bamishigbin, Olajide N. et al. “Risk, Resilience, and Depressive Symptoms in Low-Income African American Fathers.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, vol. 23, no. 1, 2017, pp. 70-80. Black Lives Matter, 2017, https://blacklivesmatter.com/. Blackmon, Sha’Kema M. et al. “Am I My Sister’s Keeper? Linking Domestic Violence Attitudes to Black Racial Identity.” Journal of Black Psychology, vol. 43, no. 3, 2016, pp. 230-258. Burgos-Debray, Elisabeth. Introduction. I, Rigoberta Menchú, edited by Elisabeth Burgos Debray, Verso, 2009, pp. xiii-xxiii. Chu, Andrea Long. “Study in Blue: Trauma, Affect, Event.” Women and Performance Journal of Feminist Theory, vol. 27, no. 3, 2017, pp. 301-315. Edwards, Jared F. “Color-Blind Racial Attitudes: Microaggressions in the Context of Racism and White Privilege.” Administrative Issues Journal: Connecting Education, Practice, and Research, vol. 7, no. 1, summer 2017, pp. 5-19. Esposito, Luigi and Victor Romano. “Benevolent Racism and the Co-Optation of the Black Lives Matter Movement.” The Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 40, no. 3, 2016, pp. 161-173). Hudson, Darrell L. et al. “Racial Discrimination, John Henryism, and Depression Among African Americans.” Journal of Black Psychology, vol. 42, no. 3, 2016, pp. 221-243. Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, translated by Ann Wright, Verso, 1984. Nance, Kevin. “Where the Writing Will Take Her.” Poets and Writers, SeptemberOctober 2013. Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Black Lives Matter: Two Books Capture the Spirit of 2014’s Tragedies.” The Washington Post, 23 Dec 2014. Smith, Justin M. “Maintaining Racial Inequality through Crime Control: Mass Incarceration and Residential Segregation.” Contemporary Justice Review, vol. 15, no. 4, Dec 2012, pp. 469-484. Ward, Jesmyn. “Hearing Voices.” Interview by Maddie Oatman. Mother Theresa, 2013. Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped. Bloomsbury USA, 2013.
“He Wanted More for Himself, but He Didn’t Know How to Get It”: Notions of Masculinity in a Maximum-Security Prison Writing Men We Reaped broke me in different ways at different spots in the drafting process. The first draft was hard because I was just getting it out. In some ways, that draft failed. I was really just telling the story, not making assessments—this happened, then this. Just putting those facts down on paper was really painful. —Jesmyn Ward I can’t count the times death has wrapped its arms around me, the times I didn’t care if it took me, yet let me go to wait its next visit. —Prison Student
T his is an article about prison and loss. It relays the conditions
surrounding my teaching/learning experiences with reading Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped (2013) in a men’s maximum-security facility. It sheds light on how the incarcerated students responded to the memoir, including their perceptions on what Ward “got right” in her portrayal of men and how students perceived themselves as a result of reading the memoir. I also interrogate how my positioning as a black woman reading another black woman writing about black masculinity may have impacted my students’ responses to the book and to me. Like Ward, I posed as a reporter in the classroom because I was required to provide weekly prison reports to the program’s coordinator.1 Within the silences between expressed thoughts, I penned my students’ 1 My positioning as a black woman did not cause as much resistance as the white male guard’s. One reason for this is because I admitted to my students, early in the course, that I came from a single-parent, low income home. In this case, my admittance created a sense of common ground with my students that we were from similar communities.
reactions, facial expressions, questions, and concerns. My prison reports stated information from the day without much thought, but my reflections on the experience and my interactions with students require that I am more subjective and responsible here. The weight of despair and disappointment lurking within the pages of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is immediately felt in the opening lines of the memoir as she alerts the reader of her parents’ failed relationship. To open the book in this manner suggests that death, for Ward, and later for other women in the text, is signaled by the destruction of familial structures and/ or relationships with the men whom they love. Death for men, however, is physical and the men move throughout the memoir with a sense of knowing that it will eventually—sometimes sooner than later—claim their lives at unexpected moments and in unexpected ways. The memoir is positioned in a way that allows Ward to move within and outside of the narrative’s grimness, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, to interrogate the systematic forms of oppression that lead to the demise of several African American men. Whether suicide, drugs, or accidental death, posing as a reporter and voyeur, Ward draws attention to the fact that each of the men “wanted more for himself, but he didn’t know how to get it” (110). It was in the reporting and voyeur spirit that I introduced Ward’s narrative to the men in my African American Literature course in the Fall of 2015. I taught in a men’s maximum-security prison outside of Birmingham, Alabama to 17 male students—16 African American and 1 Caucasian. The class was structured in accordance with the African American literary timeline—from before the 1800s to the present—and I assigned short writing tasks to assist with the in-class discussion questions. In tense moments in the classroom such as when a student erupted in anger, I assigned smaller, yet equally important impromptu assignments for reflection. For 16 weeks, our class was held in the “visitation yard,” as it is called in prison, where the incarcerated are allowed to meet with visitors on designated days. Our meeting day was Wednesday mornings from 8:30-10:30 a.m. We sat around 4 white rectangular tables that were pushed together in the middle of the room to ensure that we were in sight of the surveillance cameras—the tables were our desks. There was one 110
prison officer (generally a white male) sitting in the far-right corner of the room to supervise our sessions. Classes did not always begin on time due to unforeseen circumstances such as lockdowns, counts, or a guard’s bad day, but they always ended promptly with an announcement from the prison guard that “time [wa]s up.”2 The officer replaced Ward in the prison classroom as he eavesdropped on the conversations between students and me. His presence was felt, in more ways than not, because he was viewed as an outsider and students restrained themselves from providing complete answers to weekly discussion questions due to his being there. As we moved from the literature of slavery to more modern texts, students spoke about a desire for upward mobility when they were in the “free world.”3 The aspiration to “make it” or to “provide” for their families fueled many of their actions, including the ones that led them to prison. And, while they did not deny their crimes to me, it became clear that they also wanted more for themselves but didn’t know how to get it. Hence, the seduction of the “street life” and the threat of poverty was stronger than the possibility of incarceration. Survival then became a pawn in an already unfair game that left them with only one option—survive by any means necessary even if survival meant imprisonment.
Discussions Surrounding Men We Reaped Men We Reaped is a book about struggle, pain, death, and survival. Within a five-year span, Ward lost five men between the ages of 19 and 31 who were close to her. One died from a heart attack as a result of drug abuse; one died in a collision with a train; one was shot as he approached his house after work; and one committed suicide. Additionally, her younger brother Joshua was killed by a white drunk driver who was sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the scene of an accident. She positions the narrative in a way to inquire as to why these deaths happened and if the young men were victims of circumstance. Ward weaves her family’s story within the tellings 2 During counts, all inmates have to stand in front of their cells while guards do head counts to ensure that no one is missing or somewhere where they are not allowed. 3 The term “free world” is used to describe the society outside of prison walls.
of the young men’s lives, shedding light on her parents’ dysfunctions, her self-hatred and habitual decision to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, as well as the history of systematic racism and economic struggle that created several problems for people in DeLisle, Mississippi. Unfortunately, Ward’s comment that “men’s bodies litter my family history” (14), signals that DeLisle—known as Wolf Town—is accustomed to these types of tragedies. Her survivor’s guilt is impossible to overlook especially as she confronts familial responsibility and its expectations, the complexity of living between black and white worlds, and the fragility of African-American manhood. I introduced Men We Reaped in the 15th week of our class. From previous classroom discussions, I gathered that students overwhelmingly equated manhood with the ability to provide for one’s family, whether enslaved or incarcerated.4 In a traditional sense, while this is a privilege that may have been stripped from them when they entered the penal system, their perspectives did not change in spite of the prison’s restrictions. In fact, they may have become more adamant on this position while incarcerated. Certainly, their unforgiving disdain for Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940) solidified this point.5 Their harshest critique of Bigger was his unwillingness to provide for his family when his mother requested that he accept a chauffeur job for Mr. Dalton. Indeed, Bigger’s hesitancy deemed him, as one prisoner puts it, a “sorry excuse for a man” who, in one way or another, deserved imprisonment; not because of his crimes, per se, but to save his life.6 Yes, Bigger “was wrong for [the rape and murder of his girlfriend] Bessie” and even the death of Mary Dalton, but he was more of a “menace to society and his family” because he refused to accept responsibility, according to one 4 I collected the information on the students’ thoughts from the program-mandated prison reports that I was required to submit after each session. 5 I expound on how my students responded to Wright’s text in “Multiple Strands of Resistance: Teaching African American Literature in a Maximum-Security Prison,” a chapter in Teaching with Tension: Race, Resistance, and Reality in the Classroom (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2019). 6 I generated the information on the students’ thoughts and feelings from programmandated prison reports that I compiled during each of the teaching sessions.
of my students. Ultimately, many of the students’ reactions to Bigger were fueled by the reality that they accepted such responsibilities as children due to absent fathers or uncaring mothers. They did what they “had to do to eat” and made sure that “other people were straight” even if it cost them their freedom. Their understanding of masculinity was sacrifice, and like many of the men in Ward’s memoir, they sacrificed their freedom for reasons that they really could not fully comprehend. Throughout the course, we examined the idea of manhood on several occasions, the social expectations of masculinity, and the political nature of providing. Though students initially failed to understand the ever-present sense of imprisonment in Bigger’s life and the danger that threatened him long before he reached the penal system, as we continued to interrogate masculinity as class sessions progressed, they often made reference to Bigger Thomas, which evidenced a continual negotiation and grappling with the complex reality of black malehood. The “Bigger Thomas Syndrome,” as one of my students called it, is a complex intertwining of W.E.B Du Bois’ double consciousness and Frantz Fanon’s articulation of being trapped in an “infernal circle” (Black Skin 88), where black men experience duality under white people’s dissecting eyes. African American men are viewed within the imagined preferences of white people instead of how they truly are. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon joins Du Bois in his critique by lamenting that the black man “...move[s] slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. [But he] progress[es] by crawling” (87) as white people “...objectively cut away slices of [his] reality” (87). Identical to many of Bigger’s thoughts, including his suspicion of the Daltons, Fanon highlights the anguish attached to slow progression, not because of the black man’s own will, but because of systematic forms of oppression. Fanon, too, writes in a way that suggests that he wanted more but had to find other ways to reach his desires. Yet, for my students, their longings led them to incarceration and lured the men in Ward’s text to death, to which many of my students’ friends had succumbed. And, these realities usually sat at the tables with us as we read African American authors.
Normally, I opened classroom discussions with overall thoughts and responses to the current week’s text. Often, students would draw attention to a specific scene with which they identified. Other times, they would either explain why they liked or disliked a text; however, on the December morning that we discussed Men We Reaped, we entered into the somberness of the narrative before we opened the book. One student was eager to speak—which was unusual—and he revealed that he “literally reaped a cellmate” who had become like his brother. He started the conversation by thanking me for introducing the book to him especially during this time. He said that he felt that “this book was prophetic” because he witnessed his cellmate die in his arms a few days prior to our class meeting. There was a fight in general population and another inmate stabbed his friend.7 Unfortunately, there was no sense of urgency from authorities to help the injured man. In fact, the student lamented that his friend died because of the lack of medical attention after his wounding. I questioned him to discover what he actually meant by “lack of medical attention.” He then admitted that those administering correctional medicine are not in a hurry to attend to the medical needs of the inmates.8 Though several medical organizations, such as the American Public Health Association, the American Correctional Association, and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, have interest in inmate health, their impact has been limited. As a result, my student believed that it 7 General population is a section in the prison where inmates are allowed to move outside of their cells most of the time. They are allowed to visit other prisoners in the cell block and even go to the prison yard. 8 Inadequate prison medical care is not a new occurrence. Lily Chi-Fang Tsai posits that “less attractive working environment[s in] correctional facilities have faced the challenge of employing highly-qualified and well-trained physicians, and medical care personnel...Consequently, inmates [are] subjected to harm by unacceptable and inadequate medical services practiced by subpar physicians and inadequate medical care staff, exposing correctional facilities, physicians medical care personnel, and even entire correctional systems writ large to damages of civil liability” (4). For her complete discussion, see Lily Chi-Fang Tsai, Substandard Medical Care in U.S. Prisons: Improvement through Civil Liability Actions (United States: LBF Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2014), 1-6.
was the fault of the prison system that his friend died, and he was left with the blood of the deceased staining his white shirt and pants. Officers “didn’t care that I just lost a friend,” or that someone was dead for that matter, he said. All they were concerned about was that “my shirt was tucked into my pants” as I walked away from the incident. “My fucking shirt.” The other students in the room neither denied nor confirmed his indictment on the prison, guards, or systems in place to ensure that this type of behavior was promoted and sustained. Perhaps the other students did not know about what happened, or they simply had become numb to this type of behavior. There is also a possibility that they remembered that there was a guard in the room. I, on the other hand, was mortified and apologized for his experience. He nodded as if he had a sense of validation that accompanied satisfaction. The trauma of the experience coupled with the reality that death is a constant threat to those who are incarcerated made the remainder of the class session difficult. Certainly, Ward’s memoir was no longer a story solely about her experiences because we entered into the story with her, giving truths to parallel stories of what happens to black men when they do not die on the streets but while incarcerated. How does one mourn a person that society has already dismissed? If their absence in the free world has long been felt, what are we to make of the voids created when they are snatched from the earth? Imprisoned only to die from imprisonment. These questions still perplex me as I attempt to untangle what it means to die doubly for inmates. To die to society and to die to one’s self while still controlled by societal laws. Ward treads upon this line of thinking in regard to silence as she lists the deaths of her brother and friends “Joshua in October 2000...Ronald in December 2002...C.J. in January 2004...[and] Roger in June 2004” (7). She explains that, “that’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time” (7). The men in Men We Reaped were silenced long before they died. They were silenced as victims of poverty who do not have chances, who in turn, used drugs, got into accidents, and had bad luck just as my students. Overwhelmingly, those who are imprisoned struggle with being silenced under the constant gaze of correctional officers, wardens, cameras, 115
and other incarcerated people, and their voices become an endangerment to themselves. 9 Therefore, their truths become entangled in an already corrupt system that perpetuates the myth of the illegitimacy of prisoners’ voices that are unworthy of attention. These are intentional silences. Just as Ward continues to interrogate why “...silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief [that she] decide[d][was] not right, that [she] must give voice to this story” (7), I also feel the responsibility of sharing my students’ stories, if only through small snippets, so that they may participate in a public discourse that continues about them but without them.
Writing about Men We Reaped [Jesmyn’s] experiences—told so forcefully and eloquently—expose the significance of my own. There is justice in her telling. Her story matters. Her life and the lives of those taken too, too soon matter. The love, pain, grief, fear, and strength in her words and life unite us. The struggle makes us one. It was so brilliant how she showed those things we do that seemingly don’t make sense in their greater context to show the enormous pressures that bring them about. —Prison Student (emphasis student’s) I dropped out of high school in the 10th grade like Rog. Some of the faults in her father I went through and worser and also good. That was the hardest thing about reading a book of this nature, it reminds me of so much also why I’m always failing at attempts to write my story. —Prison Student
9 Jessica Feierman asserts that “The politics of silence is articulated in almost every moment of a prisoner’s life. A confluence of laws, regulations, and correctional officer practices work together to create a culture likely to teach prisoners that their voices are not valued, and that democratic processes and public participation cannot work adequately for them” (253). See Jessica Feierman, “Creative Prison Lawyering: From Silence to Democracy.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy, XI.2 (Spring 2004): 249-281.
Perhaps the genre of the writing and the intersectionality of Ward’s identity prompted compassionate responses to Men We Reaped.10 With other texts, students were highly critical and sometimes dismissive when they vocalized their reading preferences. Now, the written responses showcased minimal resistance; they were tremendously filled with a level of understanding and gracious regard for Ward. Granted, Ward’s text is not a work of fiction as Native Son, but neither is J. Edgar Wideman’s memoir Brothers and Keepers (1984) that we read just two weeks prior, to which students were dismissive and categorized as “just another prison book.” While both Wideman and Ward share similar stories of loved ones who were silenced by systematic racism in one way or another, students were more empathetic towards Ward’s tellings than Wideman’s. Gender could be one reason as to why they were more sentimental with Ward, and another reason could be that Wideman interrogated prison directly while Ward questioned systematic racism. This is purely speculation on my part, but the differences are obvious as evidenced in their verbal and written responses.11 Yet, students trusted Ward in similar ways that they trusted me with the personal truths that they shared in some of their writings. They were willing to share about their experiences of dropping out of school, crimes, and understanding the necessity of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, as Ward points out about her and her friends: “Now, we were subdued drinkers, drinking to forget” (30). Even more, some explained that they understood what C.J. felt when he admitted that, “‘They picking us off one by one’” (38), and one student wrote that Ward’s “pain and loss became my own. She open[ed] doors that I’d locked long ago to keep from reliving the bereavement of loved ones and very close friends.” He continues that, 10 The term intersectionality was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to examine the intersection of women and identity politics to understand the ways in which multiple identities intersect to form single subjectivities. For Crenshaw’s expansive explanation, see Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140, (1989): 139-167. 11 See the book chapter, “Multiple Strands of Resistance: Teaching African American Literature in a Maximum-Security Prison,” where I expound on how my students responded to Wideman’s text.
“she paints a clear picture of how crack changed our communities, as well as mental health statistics that shows how racism, inequality and poverty affects us psychologically, and how many of us choose drugs and alcohol to cope with the despair they produce.” To many of them, Ward got the story right. Overwhelmingly, though, when students wrote about Men We Reaped, it was less about the men who died and more about the women left to hold the families together in the absence of the deceased. In a reflective and sorrowful manner, many turned the lens on themselves and wrote about the pain that they caused the women in their lives by their behaviors. For instance, one student wrote that, “[Ward] open[ed] my mind and heart to the emotional struggles of the southern black woman and black women as a whole, the foundation of a nation that would have [been] long exterminated had she not been able to stand strong in the face of abuse from everyone else. I also see my shame and sorrow for adding to her burden—and still she loves me even when I didn’t love myself.” Though the memoir was positioned in a way that allowed the men to speak more than women, the silences of several women in the text, though they may have been saying words, was more prevalent to students. Yes, the men in Men We Reaped had challenges and were even tormented at times, but students felt it more necessary to address the women who were left to survive their symbolic deaths in the free world. Ward offered them a chance to reconcile with the women they left behind. For example, one student started to write a fictional story about black women who loved their children. For many of them, this was a form of restorative healing and for others it was a reminder of their negligence.12
12 Restorative healing is a practice that is missing in the criminal justice system. Prisons are not designed to heal, equip, and resend the incarcerated back into social communities, but they are designed to remind inmates of their crimes and usher them back into the prison system. Howard Zehr, a restorative justice pioneer, suggests that victims [and perpetrators] have needs for “information,” “truth-telling,” “empowerment,” and restitution” (14-15). He continues that offenders need “accountability that addresses... harms, [and] encourag[es] empathy and responsibility” as well as support (17). See Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (New York: Good Books, 2014).
Not only did Men We Reaped allow students to reflect on the love of black women towards black men, but it also provided space to contemplate the psychological status of women who are left uncovered, so to speak. Ward provides snapshots of the women in her family who became sole providers for their families: “They worked like men then, and raised their children the best they could, while their former husbands had relationships with other women and married them and then left them also, perhaps searching for a sense of freedom or a sense of power that being a Black man in the South denied them...The result of this, of course, was that the women who were so devalued had to be inhumanly strong and foster a sense of family alone” (83-4). In response, one student shared that “our women mature quicker because she’s weathering storms to protect her and the sons, brothers and husband that she loves. She is humble allowing men to take credit for all that she does...By our actions we are invalidating our women. Therefore, we are causing our women to feel as though they have no purpose in our lives.” This was written by one of my intuitive students who, when he spoke, did so with power similar to Malcolm X. To the student, not only were women left to secure the families when black men were snatched from the family, but they were also forced to endure unfair emotional treatment at the hands of the men they love. Other students wrote similar thoughts in their written responses that attempted to capture their feelings towards black women and the regret of leaving them to provide for their families. Ultimately, Ward’s memoir did a lot of reflective and emotional work for my students, but for one in particular, it opened a deeper level of understanding of the actual sacrifices that his grandmother made for her family. There is one scene where Ward writes about her mother working as a housekeeper “...for a rich White family who lived in an antebellum house on the beach in Pass Christian” (132) when she and Ward’s father divorced. As a result of her mother’s employment with the lawyer’s family, and because Ward is being bullied constantly at the school that she currently attends, Ward is offered the opportunity to attend a “private Episcopalian school his children attended” (137). In response to her mother’s’ “...loath[ing] to accept help after being betrayed by her [ex-husband]” the student explains that, “My grandmother was 119
a maid for a few wealthy white families as well. I’ve never had the misfortune of observing her at her job, but now, through Jesmyn’s eyes. I have. And it hurt. I hadn’t truly understood my grandmother’s sacrifices until reading this story. I knew, yet I didn’t really know.” He goes on to reveal that he cried at times while reading the memoir because of the reality of his grandmother’s sacrifice. His mother had chosen alcohol over her children and his father “wasn’t a speck of dust in the picture.” His grandmother, however, was made to “forget whatever she had dreamed the night before and stand up every day because there were things that needed to be done and she was the only person who could do them.” Perhaps, she too wanted more for herself, but she had to ensure that her grandchildren were cared for. My student’s response reveals a lack of knowing. Ultimately, he knew and still did not know the sacrifices that his grandmother made to ensure their survival. This admittance further solidifies the understanding that it is possible to look and still not see, which prevents one from understanding.13 By the end of the memoir, he entered into another level of appreciation for his grandmother who is now deceased. While the majority of the written responses to Ward’s text were inviting and reflective, even in some of the reflectiveness there was still a level of distance. For instance, one student suggested that, “Although the book Men We Reaped written by Jesmyn Ward was categorized as a memoir, it clearly tells the situation and predicament of the average black woman that struggles 13 A literary example of this is in the conversation between Nel Greene and Eva Peace in Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) treads upon the difference between looking and seeing. In the text, Morrison draws attention to this through Eva’s questioning of Nel’s “watching” Sula throw Chicken Little into the water. While Eva suggests that Nel “watched,” Nel reasons that “[she] just saw it” (170). Morrison’s distinction suggests that there is a sense of complicity in “watching” as opposed to unintentionally “seeing” something. See Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Knopf, 1973). In regard to my student, he looked at his grandmother’s sacrifices but still did not see them. This calls into a question a sense of “inattentional blindness.” In regard to human psychology, inattentional blindness (IB) “denotes the failure to see highly visible objects we may be looking at directly when our attention is elsewhere” (“Inattentional Blindness,” 180). See Arien Mack, “Inattentional Blindness: Looking Without Seeing,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12.5 (2003): 180-184.
to make sense of all the harsh realities of losing male figures to various circumstances—one minute the male figures are present and the next the world somehow manages to swallow them whole.” Whereas other students expounded on their explanations and observations, and even made attempts to draw connections to their lives, this student did not. Generally, he was a more reserved participant and very reluctant at times to talk. Several of his writings look similar to the aforementioned statement and it was very difficult to break through his wall of resistance. In his discussion of prisonization, Donald Clemmer suggests that once a person undergoes prisonization he or she takes “...on in greater or less degree of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary” (298-299).14 The custom of the prison, especially in a men’s facility, is not to show weakness; therefore, do not show emotion. While other students were willing to forsake, or even push past the inmate prisonization belief, this student was not. Indeed, he was not alone. There were other students who refused to submit the writing responses, and this was their way of resisting the work that the memoir and other readings demanded as well as upholding the prisonization creed. By and large, it is important to realize that teaching incarcerated students presents a unique set of challenges. Not only are inmates living in a perpetual state of danger with their peers, but they are forced to think and act in ways to ensure survival behind bars. As if this type of mandate were not hard enough in the “free world,” under the gaze of prison officers, wardens, and other surveillances, they are pressured to conform to prison expectations of violence and silence. I also understand the weight of being silenced by the prison institution because, on several occasions, I was almost denied entry into the facility for having—warden approved—items such as a computer. If an officer decided that they did not wish to allow me entry, then I could not resist their decision. There were other times when a white female officer would refer to me as a “girl” though I am well past the age of girlhood. Her 14 Prisonization is a process of socialization inside of correctional facilities. It mandates that inmates undergo a process of indoctrination into the inmate culture that includes but is not limited to the inmate way of life. See Donald Clemmer, Prison Community (Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1958) for additional commentary on prisonization.
reference signaled an attempt at prisonization towards me. Wayne Gillespie articulates that “the mortification of self begins with degradation ceremonies that inmates undergo when they first enter a total institution. This process involves the stripping away of one’s name, usual appearance, possessions, identity, and sense of personal safety” (45). Though I was not an inmate in the technical sense of the word, when I entered into the prison to teach, I had to obey the same rules. I was no longer a “free person” but a liability to the prison. I had to be managed and cared for just as my students, and officers had command over my movements. It became very clear that I could not resist the might of the state if I hoped to continue teaching in the facility. I could not resist the officer’s attempt to strip me of my name and identity, though I was completing a degree at the state’s most prestigious university. Ultimately, I had to remain silent, like my students who are referred to by a number, though I felt degraded and mistreated. Furthermore, I had to weigh the possible consequence of speaking up for myself and possibly having the program removed from the prison or endure the mistreatment and have access to my students. I chose the latter. Ward comments on the unusual weight of silence in meditation on what her brother Joshua’s life was worth after a “... drunk driver, a White man in his forties, sped up on [him] from behind... and hit Joshua’s car at eighty miles per hour” (231) causing him to hit a fire hydrant, which “came through the floor, peeled back the metal like the lid of a sardine tin, and smashed into his chest” (231), killing him. She explains that, “It is worth more than I can say. And there’s my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say” (243). Her conflict is one that I also carry as I attempt to give voice to the silenced behind bars through my prison work. All I can do is say/tell when words have failed me about how weighty and emotionally draining the prison classroom can be for the incarcerated as well as the teacher.
Works Cited Clemmer, Donald. Prison Community. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1958. Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum vol.140, 1989, pp.139. Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press, 1952. Feierman, Jessica. “Creative Prison Lawyering: From Silence to Democracy.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy, vol. XI no.2, Spring 2004, pp. 249-281. Mack, Arien. “Inattentional Blindness: Looking Without Seeing.” Current Directions in Psychological Science vol.12, no.5, 2003, pp. 180-184. Tsai, Lily Chi-Fang. Substandard Medical Care in U.S. Prisons: Improvement through Civil Liability Actions. LBF Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2014. Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped. Bloomsbury, 2013. Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Good Books, 2014.
Unforeseeable: Student Engagement with Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones
In the fall of 2015, as New Orleans and the world marked the tenth
anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Xavier University of Louisiana’s firstyear students engaged with Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, as part of a first-year common reading experience. The program had been started under a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), the theme of which was Read Today, Lead Tomorrow, and was tied closely to the Freshman Seminar, a course taken by all first-year students. Previous books had been The Other Wes Moore, Fast Food Nation, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Ms. Ward’s was the first novel to be included. Also, the QEP, under Dr. Jason Todd, had done a tremendous job in securing the authors for speaking engagements on campus. First-year students had been treated to talks by Wes Moore, Eric Schlosser, and by Henrietta Lacks’ granddaughters Jeri and Deborah Lacks. These books and these talks were all successes. The students’ experience of getting to know an author through his or her words, and then hearing that author speak directly to them, all experienced together as a cohort, proved enriching in a lasting way, a way that shows why these types of first-year programs are so widespread and popular with students, teachers, and administrators. But in selecting Salvage the Bones and securing Ms. Ward for a speaking engagement, the program upped the ante, offering students a unique opportunity to reflect on the impact of natural and human-made disasters and other unforeseen events on the course of our lives, while engaging with Ms. Ward’s novel, the plight of its main character, fourteen-year-old Esch, and the other beautifully drawn characters Skeeter, Randall, and Junior, who all resonated with the students. Many of the cohort of about 600 were from New Orleans (approximately 40%) and had been eight years old, Junior’s age, when Katrina changed the course of their lives, sending them to Houston or to Atlanta or to one of many cities, towns, and hamlets across the Southeast and beyond, to start again with help from extended networks of family and friends. Those 124
young people undoubtedly felt their identities pulled in different directions, no longer strictly defined by the known and unique quantity of New Orleans as a formative place. Some of them were returning to New Orleans for the first time, now as young adults, on their own, with those extensive networks at least one degree removed from their daily lives. The novel, then, which takes place on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a major storm approaches, could not have hit them at a better time, the ten years between that transformative life-event and their first freedoms of young adulthood offering a them chance to reflect that felt almost natural. My role was as a teacher of Freshman Seminar, one section, twenty-eight students, and as such I got to guide students through the journey, while going on it myself as guides do. I had arrived in New Orleans two weeks before Katrina, to begin graduate studies at the University of New Orleans (U.N.O.), and ten years later I was seven years in at Xavier, where I had worked more and more with first-year students, in capacities that had less and less to do with what Iâ€™d studied at U.N.O. The two or weeks or so captured in Salvage the Bones, a moment just before a major event, a tail end of a life we suspect might be changing forever, is a deeply familiar setting to anyone, as we recall the paths of our lives, individual and collective. I also served that year as editor of Pathways, Xavierâ€™s journal of first-year-student essays, and in this role I had the opportunity to solicit and review writing from across the campus dealing with this very theme. Then in its fourth year, Pathways had worked closely with Freshman Seminar to publish writing that dealt with themes covered in the course, themes of the common reading. That year we asked students simply to reflect on an unforeseen and unpreventable event that altered the path of their lives. And as I wrote in the introduction to the issue, the results were at once heartbreaking, touching, sweet, humorous, honest, and above all, consistently filled with joyous hope and optimism for the future. Itâ€™s my pleasure to be able to share some of what the students produced. Several students wrote about their Katrina experience, and almost all of them found hope and inspiration amidst devastation, as Kieara Dawson does here:
Seeing the city where I was born in ruins was hard. Trees were stripped of their leaves, foundations were stripped of the houses that lie on them, and people were stripped of their belongings and what was once called home. New Orleans seemed gone for many. The beautiful architecture and rich culture of New Orleans were no longer as beautiful or as rich. The city was a wasteland of broken spirits and lost hope…. My [extended] New Orleans family had come to live with us in our one-family house. There were eleven people living in a three-bedroom home. Immediately after the storm there was no electricity, so the living situation was even more uncomfortable. I will never forget how my room was taken over by adults. My cousins, siblings, and I were younger, so we slept together on the living room floor. Packed together like a deck of cards, I felt like a refugee in my own house. Going back to school, I felt like a stranger among so many new children there displaced by the storm. I had no escape and I felt trapped, and the city’s feeling of hopelessness washed over me…. However, life-changing experiences can also make you stronger and Hurricane Katrina made my family and me stronger.
Taj Dright put her post-Katrina experience this way: Without Katrina, I would have been a completely different person. I would have attended different schools, met different people, and led a different life. Growing up in the projects is something I have never hated. Just like Esch in Salvage the Bones, I had to start over at a young age, by my family’s side. Esch and I have a lot in common. We both were members of a single-parent household, didn’t live in the nicest parts of town, had many siblings, and had to grow up early. This storm definitely put my life on a new path, but this path has been one of many learning experiences, so I am grateful. I occasionally reflect back on the storm, but never with remorse. It was a stepping stone in my life that helped me become a stronger girl with a wider view of the world. I love the Seventh Ward, the projects, the ghetto, whatever you want to call it. That’s me, that’s who I am. Along with the storm, the place has been crucial in shaping me into the strong, passionate girl I am today. Though some people hate talking about their past obstacles, I don’t because I’m not afraid. I’m proud of what I went through and where I come from, even if it may be “ghetto.”
Several students were struck by differences, particularly in education, between their native New Orleans and Texas, where many landed, such as Jamie Francois, who here applies a term from the course to her experience: Hurricane Katrina caused a sense of contextual mobility, in that I was able to move to a location, Texas, that offered economically and educationally better options. Because of Katrina, I was able to get the opportunities I did, making me an overall better person. Sure, I missed my New Orleans traditions and wished so many did not have to suffer while I did relatively well, but I can say that I am grateful for the move my family and I had to make because of Katrina. I was also able to see how one really does not realize what options are out there until one leaves the place they are from. Living in New Orleans, for most, caused a sense of contentment, meaning that most were just comfortable with the sub-par life they were living, but leaving made me realize how poverty-stricken and lacking in basic educational needs New Orleans really is. Hurricane Katrina was also able to show me how important it is to be thankful for the family members I have in my life and for everyday life in general because I never know when it could be snatched away from me, as well as to educate me on how to interact with others of different races and live in a world where most are different from me in some form or fashion.
This theme of seeing anew also appears in an essay by Alyssa LaFrance: As a kid you don’t really pay that much attention to your surroundings. All you see is what you want to see. You don’t notice that there are thirty homeless people under a bridge. You don’t see the massive numbers of shootings in your area. You don’t realize that everyone in your neighborhood, including you, is on some kind of public assistance…. All of that changed in an instant in August of 2005…. One day [in Texas] we were in reading class, which, coincidentally, was my best a favorite subject. We had a test. I was confident, of course. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? I had done that a hundred times. I knew reading like the back of my hand. I took a look at the test and was shocked. I couldn’t comprehend 90% of what was on it. In other classes I started to realize that I knew close to nothing of what was being taught. This gap didn’t make sense to me. I was
smart; I knew I was. I had awards to prove it! So why was I failing?… That was when I no longer took my surroundings for granted.
Not all of the students were from New Orleans, so some wrote about other life-changing events, such as the sudden deaths of loved ones, as Tyra P. Smith heartbreakingly does here: In fourth grade, I was no longer a very happy and pleasant joy to have in the classroom. In December, about three weeks after my ninth birthday and two weeks before Christmas, my dad died. He had been my best friend. I used to do everything with him. When I would sleep too wildly and mess up the fragile hairstyles my mom would complete in my hair the night before, he would re-comb my hair into three crooked ponytails and braid them unevenly to where each ponytail was half braided and half twisted. Of course the braids didn’t last, so he would get frustrated and just brush my hair to the back, exposing my huge, pale forehead and add a headband. My best friend and I even woke up to the same TV show, Spongebob Squarepants. He knew how to whistle, but I didn’t, so each time the end of the theme song came on he would fiddle with his nose as if it were a flute and whistle the tune of the sailor call. I could never get enough of seeing him perform on his miniscule makeshift instrument. Also his nose was big like Spongebob’s, so his unusual resemblance made the theme song that much more amusing.
Kaitlyn Williams offered this unique take on a life-changing event, when she moved from a military base school into a civilian school: Initially I was frightened and anxious attending a new school, but then again, who wouldn’t be? But I knew I would be alright because making new friends has never been a problem for me; I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people. One day in the lunchroom, I ran into someone who probably at the time had never met an AfricanAmerican person. Maybe he didn’t know how to react or even know what to say. I can’t recall what we were talking about, but all of a sudden he blurted out, “You’re as BLACK as my jacket!” I was puzzled and irate; I had no clue what to say. I thought to myself, why would he say that to me? He doesn’t know me. Why did I look different from him? Why did he point it out? I went home to my
mom as she comforted me and told me, “Everyone is beautiful, and we are different because this is part of God’s design. Embrace your differences and enjoy life.” That was the day I discovered I was black and that being different was good. It was this lesson of discovering that helped me to appreciate and understand the differences in the world and to respect those differences.
The night Ms. Ward spoke in October 2015, the University Center ballroom was filled with electric energy. The chatting and cell-phone use that one would expect from a group of several hundred students soon dissipated as lights dimmed and Ms. Ward took the spotlighted lectern. Students’ attention remained notably focused as Ms. Ward spoke of her life as a young adult, the path that led her to become and author, and the similarities and differences between her life and the characters in the novel, which had won the National Book Award in 2011, propelling her to national attention that felt new at the time and has since grown immensely. A few students lined up at microphones in the aisles to ask questions, some wanting to know, like regular fans of a novel, the source of certain characters. Were they real? Questions that reveal the degree to which a work has captured one’s imagination. Many students lined up afterward to have their copies signed, to shake the hand of and exchange a word with a famous author whom they almost seemed to know. And whether or not they waited for a signing or stood to ask a question, many will remember that night, and the experience of engaging collectively with that novel, as a flashpoint to reflect on in the future, perhaps as they again mark the change brought inevitably by the passage of ten years time.
“Sitting There Crying Hungry:” Subsistence Economies in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing
Driving through Mississippi is both scenic and desolate, with hackberries,
pines, and mounds of red clay against the sprawling, often-empty asphalt. There are rusted trucks and BMWs, chain gas stations next to mom-and-pop truck stops, and a few towns interspersed by miles of empty road. Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing traces a family’s lineage across this Mississippi landscape, negotiating old-time spirituality with the modern, musky exhaust of diesel along the highway. Jojo and Kayla ride with their mother, Leonie, to retrieve her significant other from prison in the northern corner of the state. Their journey is populated by ghosts and herbal remedies that live next to crystal meth and gas station snacks. But from the outset of the novel, Ward’s community of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi survives. The initial pages show Jojo learning to skin a goat with his grandfather, Pop, and the middle pages depict drug dealing and incarceration in modern Mississippi. When these subsistence economies surface alongside Gulf South voudou, Ward’s commentary on the regenerative power of markets outside of capitalism becomes clear. Though Jesmyn Ward never goes so far as to celebrate mere survival, she does show how communities subsist outside traditional economies and use their spirituality as a bulwark against suffering while surviving poverty and oppression. In an early interview on her first novel Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward described her use of the words “salvage” and “savage” in her novel, claiming: The word salvage is phonetically close to savage. At home, among the young, there is honor in that term. It says that come hell or high water, Katrina or oil spill, hunger or heat, you are strong, you are fierce, and you possess hope. When you stand on a beach after a hurricane, the asphalt ripped from the earth, gas stations and homes
and grocery stores disappeared, oak trees uprooted, without any of the comforts of civilization—no electricity, no running water, no government safety net—and all you have are your hands, your feet, your head, and your resolve to fight, you do the only thing you can: you survive. You are a savage. Bones is meant to remind readers what this family, and people like this family, are left with after tragedy strikes. (Ward 2011)
Here, Ward shows the powerful force of survival within communities that routinely do just that. Hardness, weariness, and subsisting against insurmountable obstacles are celebratory character traits that warrant pride. In most rural, poor, Southern, or Appalachian communities, this ability to survive against nature—when all you have is “your resolve to fight”—becomes a form of currency. In the forced subsistence economy of poverty, survival tactics are used, traded, and passed down as the only meaningful forms of inheritance available along generational lines. On a base level, subsistence economies are markets, or communities, that survive without producing excess for profit. But at its core, a subsistence economy utilizes natural provisions to survive outside of capitalist markets—or, in other words, using “savagery” as a powerful currency without the material luxuries of capitalist markets that these communities are forcefully excluded from. “Savagery,” then, is more appropriately denoted as Ward positively defines it; it is fighting against nature in systemic poverty to survive. And the “savage” possesses the power to survive with hope. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, subsistence is a characteristic of Gulf South spirituality, yet it is also forcefully developed through generational racism. The novel takes place in the safe Gulf Coast town of Salvage the Bones, called Bois Sauvage. In this town, the characters that often “make do,” find food, create herbal remedies, and use natural provisions around them to live are the characters that offer their communities regenerative power. Jojo and Kayla, Leonie’s children, inherit two generations of subsistence wisdom and the suffering that accompanies scraping by. The close of the novel shows Kayla’s spiritual gifts with the tortured souls of ghosts trapped in the spirit tree, showing her ability to make those spirits smile—and, ultimately, showing
the future generation’s regenerative power over the ghosts of their history. Jojo describes watching his sister sing the ghosts to peace, saying: She waves her hand in the air as she sings, and I know it, know the movement, know it’s how Leonie rubbed my back, rubbed Kayla’s back, when we were frightened of the world. Kayla sings, and the multitude of ghosts lean forward, nodding. They smile with something like relief, something like remembrance, something like ease. (Ward 284)
While both Kayla and Jojo have experienced tremendous loss with the death of Mam, their grandmother, and have been all but abandoned by their mother as she rekindles her relationship with their father, they both exit the novel with a “savage” power gained through subsisting and spirituality, and they each exude hope for the next generation of African American young adults. Survival and savagery are both currencies to be traded and act as weapons of hope. In one interview, Jesmyn Ward was asked her opinion on being considered an artist from “the Dirty South.” She described the expression with a kind of reverence, claiming that to be a writer of “the Dirty South” is to “express what it means to be born and grow up into the cycle of poverty that has been bequeathed to so many of us [...] to reckon with what growing up in this place has affected us, and how we fight against it, sometimes foolishly, sometimes foolhardily, but always with a kind of courage born of desperation” (Taylor 267). In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward depicts this kind of desperation differently than in her previous work: there is no natural disaster on the periphery, no forceful event of nature that pushes characters to their limits of survival. Instead, Ward uses Sing, Unburied, Sing to broach subsistence from a different vantage point. Survival, for these characters, is the act of living through the slow-burning cruelties of poverty, racism, and desperation. Unlike Salvage the Bones, Gulf South subsistence economies are not driven by an impending storm, but by the routine and repetitive sacrifices of poverty. In one early review of Ward’s novel, Tracy Smith claims:
In Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi, one must grow inured to the rituals of killing and butchering animals for sustenance. Exhausted women beat their children in public. Men of good character do unspeakable things out of necessity, and the bad men do far worse. And there, just as in the real world, caring about people like Jojo and Leonie is not a matter of looking past these grim possibilities, but rather consenting to step into them and be affected. (Smith 1)
As a deeply empathetic writer, Ward dissects the ugliness of survival with an unflinching, valueless lens. Despite how Leonie struggles with motherhood, she makes tremendous sacrifices for her children that echo Ward’s definition of the “Dirty South”—fighting for her children’s survival with a “courage born of desperation.” Ward teases out the choices that those outside of poverty or subsistence economies could never grapple with, such as choosing to traffic drugs, to swallow the entire container when faced with the prospect of incarceration or teaching children how to be “hard” out of an innate need to see them live. Cruel mothers figure centrally in Ward’s work. In Salvage the Bones, the storm, China the pit-bull, and the myth of Medea each appear in young Esch’s life as she navigates the prospect of becoming a mother herself. Carly Chasin succinctly describes the role of mothers in the novel when she says: “Just as Esch reinterprets the savage actions of Medea, China, and Hurricane Katrina as motherwork, her character offers a similar re-signification—she undermines the savage or deviant stereotypes typically associated with the black, pregnant teenager, and instead, is an empowered survivor” (114). In Sing, Unburied, Sing, mothers take on a stronger spiritual role, but also struggle to be present for their children. In 2016, sociologist Matthew Desmond published the ethnography Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. On the back cover, Jesmyn Ward is quoted describing the work as “Gripping and moving—tragic, too.” Arleen, an African American mother suffocating under the constraints of the housing market as she tries to care for her children, displays the identical behavior of Leonie as she struggles to provide. Desmond describes Arleen’s seemingly cruel behavior toward her children, claiming, “You could only say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t’ so many times before you began to
feel worthless, edging closer to a breaking point. So you protected yourself, in a reflexive way, by finding ways to say ‘No, I won’t.’ I cannot help you. So, I will find you unworthy of help” (Desmond 241). Leonie, who never quite masters the maternal and spiritual lessons provided by her mother, becomes more desperate to fight against this reflexive cruelty as the novel progresses. After Kayla becomes sick in the car and needs medicine to settle her stomach, Leonie walks away from the parking lot where their car sits to find herbs. Symbolically, this moment shows the juxtaposition of Leonie’s family’s old-time spirituality out of place next to a gas station parking lot. Leonie thinks, “Mama always told me that if I look carefully enough, I can find what I need in the world. Starting when I was seven, Mama would lead me out in the woods around the house for walks, and she’d point out plants before digging them up or stripping their leaves and telling me how they could heal or hurt” (102). Here, Leonie manifests the hopefulness that accompanies a subsistence economy—that one must only know how to use nature to survive. But unlike Jojo, Mam, and Pop, Leonie is stuck in a generation of modernity and cruelty that makes her spirituality weaker, which the asphalt of the parking lot and her forgetting the herbal recipe symbolizes. She realizes, “Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds” (104). Mam, a powerful, kind mother who attempts to train her children to use their spiritual gifts cannot fully imbibe Leonie with the subsistence knowledge she needs to survive traditional markets outside of subsistence economies. After Michael hits Kayla for “misbehaving,” Mam soothes an upset Jojo by saying, “I don’t know if it’s something I did. Or if it’s something that’s in Leonie. But she ain’t got the mothering instinct. I knew when you was little and we was out shopping, and she bought herself something to eat and ate it right in front of you, and you was sitting there crying hungry. I knew then” (Ward 233). Mam does blame Leonie for not protecting her children, but recognizes that she is confused, or does not know how to balance her volatile love of Michael with the love of her children. Mam tells Jojo, “I hope I fed you enough. While I’m here. So you carry it with you. Like a camel” (233). Mam hopes she filled Jojo with the currency of subsistence that he will need, 134
a currency that Leonie could not completely inherit. It is much simpler to note that Leonie is not a “good” mother or fails to love her children enough. In reality, the subsistence economy Ward paints in Bois Sauvage is hard, often desolate, and not a magic reprieve from capitalist exploitation. Surely, it offers communal regeneration, but only at the will of the harvest and species of herbs willing to be found. Once Leonie leaves the homestead and enters the highway, which is symbolic of modernization and new markets, her family struggles to subsist with the currency their older family members gave them. At home, survival is different and powerful. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward plays with the fecundity of land rather than its violence. In “What Comes to the Surface: Storms, Bodies, and Community in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones,” Christopher Clark examines the land of Bois Sauvage which is “deprived, injured, and hurting” (344). Alternately, for Leonie’s family, the landscape Bois Sauvage provides—Pap’s livestock feeds the family, while Mam is renowned for using herbal remedies as a healer. During Hurricane Katrina, Bois Sauvage’s land was “a disturbing emblem of neglect, disregard, elision, and the throwaway” (Clark 345). For Leonie’s family, the landscape is overabundant—filled with spirits, life, and renewal. Outside of the natural disaster, Ward shows how familial attachment to the land works as a means of survival, which not only informs the recent novel but offers a compelling argument against the flawed question of why families choose to stay during disasters. Once Leonie, Jojo, and Kayla leave home to travel to Parchman, they no longer have the natural resources they need to subsist—money is the currency, stores that stock stomach medicine are difficult to come by, and police officers point their guns at thirteen-yearold boys. Each of these threatening moments does exist on the homestead in Bois Sauvage, despite the ghosts that haunt there, reminding the family of the world of loss. In the early pages of the novel, Jojo and Pop slaughter a goat to eat. Jojo describes the scene, the sound of the “bleat swallowed by a gurgle, and then there’s blood and mud everywhere” (Ward 4). The two clean and prepare the goat for eating, framing the first pages of the novel by the violence of rural, subsistence living. Pop uses this moment to teach Jojo how to survive, trading 135
his knowledge of the land and the livestock that inhabit it so that Jojo can provide for himself. Here, Ward shows the tortured duality that accompanies subsistence economies. While Jojo and Leonie experience fear, danger, and lack on their travels north to Parchman, the homestead does offer some semblance of security and provision. But the cost is high—violent land, blood from slaughtered animals, and the will of nature to provide or not. Without ascribing the land with a value judgment, Ward shows the redemptive power of cloistered subsistence without shying away from its violence. When the family returns home from their trip, Jojo thinks, “The woods around us are a great dark green tangle: oaks reaching low and wide, vines tangled around trunks and drooping from branches, poison sumac and swamp tupelo and cypress and magnolia growing up around us in a circular wall” (251). This land is overabundant with life, forming a “wall” of isolation between the homestead and the outside. It protects and traps the family inside, where they learn to survive the best they can with what is available to them. Ward shows other forms of subsistence available to the poor that are much more dangerous and precarious than inside the walls of the homestead. Separated by race, Misty and Michael appear to struggle in starkly different ways from Leonie’s family. Misty, a white woman who works as a waitress and reveals that she has dealt drugs before, consistently struggles with the forms of surviving that Leonie is used to. Misty complains of the smell of taking care of children when Kayla becomes sick, and she tells Leonie to simply “take advantage” of the drug trade to provide for Michael and her children. Leonie thinks, “The way she said it, take advantage, made me want to slap her. Her freckles, her thin pink lips, her blond air, the stubborn milkiness of her skin; how easy had it been for her, her whole life, to make the world a friend to her?” (91). Without the constraints of race, Misty, although poor, does not have to subsist in the same way that Leonie does. With the family that cooks the meth the women will sell, she shows an ease and comfort unavailable to Leonie. Similarly, Michael’s subsistence manifests in different ways than the African American family. Without the natural subsistence knowledge of Leonie’s family, he chooses to cook meth for work, or works in other dangerous 136
professions such as his job on the oil rig. Both Misty and Michael lack the spirituality, wherewithal, and knowledge to survive in the same ways that Leonie’s family does. Stuck between Michael and her parents, Leonie views her mother’s lessons deeply pessimistically—in ways that Jojo does not. She recalls her mother’s advice: This is the kind of world, Mama told me when I got my period when I was twelve, that makes fools of the living and saints of them once they dead. And devils them throughout. Even though the words were harsh, I saw hope in her face when she said them. She thought that if she taught me as much herbal healing as she could, if she gave me a map to the world as she knew it, a world plotted orderly by divine order, spirit in everything, I could navigate it. But I resented her when I was young, resented her for the lessons and the misplaced hope. (105)
These lessons fail Leonie, leaving her relatively hopeless at the prospect of subsistence. Unlike Kayla and Jojo, Leonie’s spirituality leaves things dead and ghosts abundant. She fails to make the proper healing tea for her sick daughter and watches her mother decay from a cancer they cannot heal, both of which are compounded by the various pressures of racism and poverty that she confronts in her bi-racial community of Michael, Misty, and Michael’s family. Despite the volatility of the Gulf South region impacted by climate change, racism, and incarceration, Ward’s families survive outside of the capitalist structures they’re systematically barred from, negotiating their traumas against the absolute renewal offered by subsistence spirituality. In Elizabeth Harnell’s introduction to “When Cars Become Churches,” an interview with Jesmyn Ward, she notes that Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped ends with the phrase: “We are savages [...] We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach” (210). In response to Hartnell’s question about this quotation, Ward says: The way I wanted to use that term, especially in that part, is to say that we are fighters and we are resourceful. Even in the face of this, of the losses that we experience, of this entire interconnected pressure
after pressure after pressure. The pressure of racism, the pressure of the history of racism, of economic inequality, of a popular culture that constantly tells you that you’re worth less. Even in the face of all that, we still survive and we still claim for ourselves a certain sense of dignity or humanity. (Hartnell 213)
Here, Ward expresses her belief in the power of regeneration or survival after loss. The close of the novel shows Jojo, Kayla, and Pop mourning the loss of their spiritual core—Mam—as the spirit tree fills with the ghosts of their pasts. Kayla, strongly clairvoyant like her grandmother, waves her innocent little hands around the spirits that torture Leonie and confuse Jojo. The spirits in the tree smile, repeating the word “Home” at the close of the novel. This moment shows how significant subsistence spirituality is for Kayla and her family—what they inherit, what they endure, and, ultimately, how their natural resources and beliefs serve as a fortification against the pressures they suffer.
Works Cited Chasin, Carly. A Loneliness That Cannot Be Rocked: Maternal Loss, Language, and Unconventional Mothering in Contemporary African American Literature. Dissertation, University of Rochester, 2016. ProQuest, no. 10038694. Clark, Christopher. “What Comes to the Surface: Storms, Bodies, and Community in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 3-4, 2015, p. 341-358. EBSCOhost. Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York, Broadway Books, 2016. Hartnell, Anna. “‘When Cars Become Churches:’ Jesmyn Ward’s Disenchanted America. An Interview.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, 2016, pp. 205-218. Cambridge University Press. Smith, Tracy. “Ghosts On the Bayou.” Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2017, p. 1. Taylor, Danille. “Literary Voice of the Dirty South: An Interview with Jesmyn Ward.” CLA Journal, vol. 60, no. 2, 2016, p. 266. Ward, Jesmyn. Interviewed by Elizabeth Hoover. The Paris Review, 30 Aug, 2011, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/08/30/jesmyn-ward-on-salvagethe-bones/ Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. New York, Scribner, 2017.
Dolores Flores-Silva and Keith Cartwright
The Scaly Bird Sings “Remember Me”: Gulf Fiestas of the Dead and Tribalography in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing Recuérdame, si en tu mente vivo estoy Recuérdame, mis sueños yo te doy “Recuérdame” as sung by Natalia Lafourcade in Coco (2017) His breath was hot with Tabasco. Jesmyn Ward, remembering her brother Joshua Dedeaux in Men We Reaped (2013)
From its title, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) issues a
ritual summons, if not an outright command. The novel takes characters and readers on a journey across time and space from contemporary Bois Sauvage on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast to unburied ghosts of the Delta’s Parchman Farm prison, and through places, spirits, and beings even older and from beyond. Sing, Unburied, Sing may send us all the way back to Stela 19 from the Gulf coast of Olmec Tabasco, with its depiction of someone making a cave-descent to be swallowed by a plumed serpent. Ward scripts such a journey. The car of the novel becomes a cave, and its road trip from the coast to prison and back enters an underworld noted by Wole Soyinka as “the immeasurable gulf of transition” (148), a “cosmic gulf” (154). In Sing, Unburied, Sing (hereafter, Sing) Ward charts a journey through chthonic regions shaped by her immediate space—the Gulf of Mexico—by days of the Dead, feathered serpents, animal familiars, herbal pharmacies, and more. She engages gulfs between the living and the dead, between what seems clear and what’s buried or even unburied in our consciousness. Readers follow as Jojo, a thirteen-year-old with a gris-gris bag in his pocket,
is nearly shot by a policeman who stops his parents’ car. Clearly, the novel comes out of a long Black Lives Matter movement. In its responsiveness to place, however, Sing also draws from an Indegenous presence with staying power, taking readers to a Mississippi Gulf that is as potent and universal an underworld as we have: an American Mediterranean, our Greece. Peoples all along the Gulf of Mexico pay respects to the dead through Todos Santos or All Saints practices. On the Days of the Dead, life matters anew through the living’s offerings. In Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, All Saints Day (November 1) brings Mississippi families “around loved ones’ graves” with “folding chairs to sit in after they’ve cleaned headstones and sandy plots, arranged potted mums, and shared food” (6). They make their ofrendas. Similarly, in The Fire This Time, which Ward edited in 2016, Claudia Rankine points out how “Black Lives Matter aligns with the dead, continues the mourning, and refuses the forgetting” (151), thereby seeking to “align some of us, for the first time, with the living” (155). Such depth of alignment has strong African (and Catholic) roots responsive to the vulnerabilities of black life in America. In meaningful addition, Ward’s commitment to her home space brings her to remember Choctaw and Indegenous Mississippian lives that have shaped its foundation. This familial alignment drives a film released a month after Sing’s publication: Disney / Pixar’s Coco (October, 2017) which—in its light-hearted animated way—celebrates los dias de los muertos and Mexican life. What Jesmyn Ward and Coco make clear is that when the dead are remembered, they can transmit dreams and vibrance to inspirit us in the face of destructive forces. From its opening epigraphs, Sing bears witness to unattended lives and injustices. The novel’s first epigraph is an African chant to retrieve a boy from whatever has swallowed him. Communal voices call him home: “It’s Equiano we’re looking for.” Ward’s next epigraph turns to Eudora Welty for an All Saints ethos whereby “all that is remembered joins, and lives— the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.” Finally, her invocation of Derek Walcott’s poem “The Gulf” reminds us that unaddressed realities bring us to face, “age after age, the uninstructing dead.” This is Jesmyn Ward’s Gulf, our “cosmic gulf” as well. Nigh every reviewer 141
mentions Faulkner as ancestor, but we turn to other Mississippi guides through this underworld, relying especially on Choctaw Nation’s LeAnne Howe (of Oklahoma) to chart what joins across the Gulf rim. LeAnne Howe has theorized how Indigenous stories and relations to the land have scripted “tribalographies” of Choctaw or Creek experience, as well as ways America has emerged from the stories and knowledge of Indigenous nations. Ward, although not self-identified as Choctaw, has family ties to Indigenous ancestors across generations inhabiting the land. She taps into a trans-tribalography across nations and time, at least in our reading. Her Bois Sauvage is Choctaw space. Across deeper time (from AD 700) it is shaped by Mississippian-era maize agriculturalists who built temple mounds and established what has been termed the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex along much of the Mississippi River basin. These older Mississippians found their stories scripted in part by their relations to the maize seed acquired from the Mesoamericans who bioengineered it and traded it northward. The “dissemination of maize agriculture in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest,” Karl Taube writes, “concerned more than agricultural practices and technology; it involved a complex body of ritual and belief” (297). Jesmyn Ward’s profoundly performed “Remember Me” cannot forget the dreams of this complex body whether in Mississippi or in the Tabasco on her brother’s breath.
Gulf Sowings of Tribalography’s Seed and the Feast of the Dead Howe’s tribalography cuts against the academy’s script to write its own story. As she puts it in Choctalking on Other Realities, whatever else America may be, “America is a tribal creation story” (13). “[O]ur stories” (13), she asserts, like “the Three Sisters” that told settlers “how to plant their crops, corn, beans, and pumpkins (squash)” (14), co-created and sustained an emergent nation. Something of this agency animates Sing. For Howe, Choctalking moves through tales, plants, animals, apprehensions of ecosystemic reality and “Other Realities”: from a grandmother who “could see life and death, and… told me not to be afraid of either one,” who appeared as a “winged
person” and “visited me as a bird” (16) “telling her stories” (17). Among the stories Howe relates is “how the Unknown Woman brought corn to the people,” appearing to two Choctaw hunters atop a mound (18). She cites Susan Power on how “’much of the material produced by white Southern writers and African-American writers reflects Native oral traditions’” (35) and presents “tribalography… [as] a story that links Indians and non-Indians” (36). On the routes maize seed has traveled, Howe insists that “even if worse comes to the worst and our people forget where we left our stories, the birds will remember and bring them back to us” (38). Sing’s scaly bird joins in this remembering. Stories and iconographies, like tucked away seeds, have life of their own. Tribalographies generate what Carter Meland calls “transformative dialogues between the human, the other-than-human, and the inhumane” (28). This is what Ward does with narratives of Bois Sauvage and DeLisle. As Afro-Creole as her Gulf memories are, they remain connected to archaic Mississippians and an accretional movement of cornbread nations with accompanying ball games, feathered serpents, invocation of cardinal points, and underworld passages, as Susan Power notes of Mesoameriacan-Mississippian links (157-58). Some scholars see these links as being so strong that, as Miguel Covarrubias wrote of Mississippian iconography emergent from adoption of maize agriculture and the spread of hierarchical chiefdoms, it “is in such measure an extension of Middle American [Mesoamerican] civilization that it has been called… ’peripheral Mexican’” (272). There are kernels of truth here if we connect Howe’s ideas of “reciprocal embodiment between people and land” (“Embodied Tribalography” 76) to Michael Blake’s observation that, with maize, both cultivators and the cultivated are so symbiotically domesticated that we may say, “Humans grow maize and maize grows humans” (22). Sing follows a winged serpent as it guides an adolescent ghost from Parchman Penitentiary to the Gulf. This iconographic figure is prominent in Mississippian sites and related to a “Beneath World…. associated with the fertility of the earth and the beginning of the path that spirits of the dead took” (King 256). The scaly bird that guides the spirit’s path in Sing, like 143
the feathered serpents that have functioned similarly for Mexican societies, is a strong emblem of the gulf of transition and of fiestas of the dead that insure earth-fertility. Ward’s work indeed speaks from a northern periphery of Day-of-theDead cultures. All Saints memorials are practiced in DeLisle and more spectacularly across the state line in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana where a French Creole priest, Adrien Rouquette, ministered a Choctaw settlement on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain from 1859 to 1886 (Brosman 32). While Lacombe, Louisiana’s cemetery lightings are Catholic and imbued with the practices of Afro-Creole parishoners, many in the community cite Choctaw roots and the mother church’s Choctaw foundations. Some point to Mexico, claiming the Choctaw (or “Chacta,” translated by a Lacombe community historian as “followers of the Rain God Cha’ak”) migrated from displaced Mayan populations, in the same manner as Huastecan people—speakers of a proto-Maya language—settled near the border of the Texas coast (Burst). To read Jesmyn Ward’s Gulf for its Choctaw tribalography and its peripheral Mexicanidad, as well as for her crucial evocations of black life within our greater cosmic gulfs, is to traverse borders and to follow restored behaviors of solidarity with our living and our dead. An ethos is shared between historic Choctaw rites and contemporary Days of the Dead, as LeAnne Howe’s novel Shell Shaker (2001) shows. Drawing upon archival research, Howe has a French priest witness a bonepicking ceremony in Mississippi in 1738 before writing in his journal, “I am convinced now that Chahtas pay more respect to their dead than any other race. To them the bones of their relatives are holy. Proof that they existed in the past as they will exist forever” (178). William Bartram’s Travels from the 1770s described the “Chactaw” practice of setting the dead on scaffolds, the bone-picking ceremony that followed the flesh’s dessication, and the cleaning of the bones before their placement in a chest set in a “bone-house” (403). Bartram’s informants spoke of how, “when this house is full,” the chests are taken
to the place of general interment, where they place the coffins in order, forming a pyramid; and lastly, cover all over with earth, which raises a conical hill or mount. Then they return to town in order of solemn procession, concluding the day with a festival, which is called the feast of the dead. (404)
Ward’s full body of work aligns in formation with this fiesta of the Gulf dead.
“A Fanged… Mouth Swallowing Me”—Bois Sauvage Belongings Ward’s first novel, Where the Line Bleeds (2008) introduced readers to her world where, “[l]ike the oyster shell foundation upon which the county workers packed sand to pave the roads, the communities of Bois Sauvage, both black and white, embedded themselves in the red clay and remained” (4). Those who first stacked the shell foundation of Bois Sauvage remain occluded here, but assert themselves in subsequent texts. Ward’s follow-up Salvage the Bones (2011) is full of mythology, identifications, and animalhuman fluidities that place it in tribalographies of Gulf formation. Its first person narrator (pregnant fifteen-year-old Esch) describes a just-birthed puppy mewling like “the loudest Mardi Gras dancing Indian” (12), and she yearns for this puppy that is “chanting and singing like the New Orleans Indians, like the Indians that gave me my hair” (12). Esch “could be Eurydice walking through the underworld” (28), in a state and nation where “nobody wants what is inside you” (102). As Hurricane Katrina’s surge comes, she almost drowns in waters transformed to a huge cosmic snake: “It is a fanged pink open mouth, and it is swallowing me” (234). Katrina, “the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered” like Medea, “left us a dark Gulf….left us to salvage” (255), and it is this bone-picking and salvaging that Ward has addressed ever since. The swallowing is more complete in Men We Reaped. With its mourning of five young men’s deaths over four years (including her brother’s death), and its recognition that “men’s bodies litter my family history” (14), this memoir opened the way to Sing. Here where “bodies litter,” Ward tends to family
narratives from “southern Mississippi and Louisiana… mixed with African, French, Spanish, and Native ancestry all smoothed to the defining Black in the American South” (15). She describes community All Saints observance, a tradition carried forward from ancestors and “stories about them,” telling how “some…were Haitian, that others were Choctaw” (9). She narrates stories of Native ancestors on her mother’s side: a housekeeper who married one of the “White Dedeauxes” (11) and another great-grandparent rumored to be Native American (12). Ward’s profound grief for her brother and friends “insists that he matters,” that “they matter” (243), and confronts the steady message that “You’re nothing” (244). This is why All Saints matters, why “We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again” (250). Gulf formations gather more fully in “Cracking the Code,” an essay from Ward’s edited collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016). It opens by telling how her Hurricane Camille-displaced father—in Oakland, 1969—was greeted by “strangers… from El Salvador and Mexico… [who] would spit rapid-fire Spanish at him, expecting a reply in kind” (89). Light-skinned, with “black, silky hair” (89) from coastal Mississippi, he looked like a man from the Gulf continuum of creolization and mestizaje. Ward writes, “I always understood my ancestry, like that of so many others on the Gulf Coast, to be a tangle of African slaves, free men of color, French and Spanish immigrants, British colonists, Native Americans” (91). The essay addresses her family’s genetic testing, and how her father, a former Black Panther “who’d always believed himself to have Native American heritage,” found family tales supported by discovery “that he is 51 percent Native American” (92). She delves into what has been embedded in family narratives: “I remember that people of color from my region of the United States can choose to embrace all aspects of their ancestry, in the food they eat, in the music they listen to, in the stories they tell, while also choosing to war in one armor, that of black Americans” (94). Sing rises from this embrace, from that one armor of identification, but also from “Choctaw settlements on the Mississippi bayou” and stories and signs that trace “a new
type of belonging” amidst “all those people whose genetic strands intertwined to produce mine” (95).
“The Color of the Space between the Stars”: Sing, Unburied, Sing’s Path of Souls With the opening words of thirteen-year-old Jojo, “I like to think I know what death is” (1), Sing launches an initiation narrative around the butchering of a goat: “I want Pop to know I can get bloody” (1). Jojo thinks he must “look at death like a man should” (5) in a manner that differs from his intuitive identification with the animal. Having felt invisible to his parents to whom he feels “I didn’t matter” (12-13), he models himself after Pop, his grandfather, “the way he combed his hair back straight from his face and slicked it down so he looked like an Indian in the books we read in school on the Choctaw and Creek” (12). Very early, Sing insists on an Indigenous presence in the community of Bois Sauvage. Pop, “[h]is Indian cheekbones severe” (46), carries that presence in a manner reminiscent of how Ward has described her own father. The book’s second narrative voice is that of Jojo’s mother Leonie, who opens with cursing, opioids, and dependence on her partner Michael, a young white man from a violently racist family. Leonie’s friend Misty suffers from a botched initiation: “Misty told me once that she got her period in fifth grade, when she was ten years old, and because she didn’t realize what was happening… she walked around half the day with a bloody spot spreading like an oil stain on the back of her pants. Her mother beat her in the parking lot of the school” (35). Unlike her white friend Misty, Leonie received guidance from her mother, who spoke of her own moment at twelve, when “’the midwife Marie-Therese came to the house to deliver my youngest sister’” and began “’asking me what I thought each of the bundles of dried plants did’” (39). Leonie’s mother affirms, “’Right there, she told me I had the seed of a gift’” (39). Mama tells her daughter, “’I think it runs in the blood, like silt in river water…. come around full-blown when you bleed for the first time” (40). This “seed of a gift,” however, with all its storied bayou embodiment, demands commitments beyond Leonie’s reach.
To carry one’s critterly sensibilities in Bois Sauvage is to be healthily aligned with animal identifications. “The only animal I saw in front of me was Pop,” Jojo remarks, in a passage rich with nonverbal communication (61). Awareness of one’s human sensibilities in this space is awareness of a history of domestication. The memories of Pop’s maternal ancestor tell how “she was made into an animal” in slavery (69). Treatments come in “the feather, the tooth, the rock” (71) that Pop gathers in a gris-gris bag for Jojo’s protection since this Choctaw-looking black man’s great-grandaddy taught him that “’You need a balance of spirit,’” and “there’s a spirit in everything” (73). Subsequently however, when Leonie is watching the Deepwater Horizon rig gush oil on TV—“and feeling guilty…because I don’t give a shit about those fucking pelicans”—we see more of what’s out of balance. If her man Michael, a welder aboard the rig, turns to “meth, crystal, crank” (94) on his return, ending up in Parchman, a place for the dead (96), it makes sense. Who wouldn’t be “tired of this shit?” (98). In the film Coco, spirit animals move between worlds to address offbalance energies. These alebrijes are the invention of a 20th-century folk artist who encountered them while suffering a high fever, but they also came from an Indigenous realm of animal familiars, naguals, by which people wield animal powers. They move in tandem with mythic deities such as the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl (Aztec) or Kukulkan (Maya), or the Mississippian winged serpent that guides souls through the Milky Way. We meet this Vision Serpent in Sing stirring Richie, the ghost from Parchman: There are things you need to see, It said. It raised its white head in the air and swayed, and slowly, like paint dissolving in water its scales turned black, row by row, until it was the color of the space between the stars. Little fingers sprouted from its sides to grow to wings, two perfect black scaly wings. Two clawed feet pierced its bottom to dig into the earth, and its tail shrunk to a fan. It was a bird, but not a bird. No feathers. All black scales. A scaly bird. A horned vulture. (134-35)
Richie’s ghost carries a scale from this creature to enable flight: “I followed the scaly bird. Up and up and out” (135). He seeks the path of souls: “Home
is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you” (182), recognizable because “[t]he place is the song and I’m going to be part of the song” (183). Pop has taught Jojo to navigate the night’s constellations: “’The Unicorn’… The Rabbit…. The Great Snake… The Bull, the Lion’” (222-223), the sky-animals that are aligned with planetary measures of time and motion. When Richie’s ghost says to Jojo, “You don’t know shit about time” (184), he would have us “conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once” and “that time is a vast ocean where “everything is happening at once” (186). Through “many turns of the earth,” Richie wakes to discover “I was in the Delta before the prison, and Native men were ranging over that rich earth, hunting and taking breaks to play stickball and smoke” (186). He wakes “to the whispering of the white snake” giving a cardinal direction: “Go south… to the face of the waters,” and the snake becomes a bird “speeding south” (191), our direction across further waters. Sing concludes in Bois Sauvage, where Richie senses “the other waters is near” (230), and Mam—grasping the simultaneity of Gulf time and space— tells Jojo, “It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once” (236). On behalf of her mother, Leonie gathers graveyard rocks from the oldest gravesites and the recent dead, including her brother’s grave, hauling them to Mam’s bedside. At this moment Pop’s horrific, deferred story comes out in the backyard: how he saved Richie from the sacrificial terror that sustained Jim Crow. In a desacralized twisted mirror of the human ofrendas that sustained Mesoamerican hierarchies, Pop finally shares what happened to Richie’s prison escape-companion Blue: “they was cutting pieces of him off. Fingers. Toes. Ears. Nose. And then they started skinning him” alive (254). Pop tells how he cut Richie’s throat and turned his dogs on the boy’s corpse to cover up this protective act that saved him from spectacle torture. Richie cannot bear hearing his life’s disposable end: a blues gnosis, bound to trails of tears and to today’s separations of families to police Anglo-borders, cut loose from the white nationalist lie that All Lives Matter. The narration returns to the vision-space of Mesoamerican and Mississippian ceremonial complexes: “Mama looks beyond me, up to the cracked ceiling, pocked with thousands of little stalactites like the roof of a 149
cave” (266). This is an underworld made of love’s cosmo-vision: “Pop [had] spent hours dripping a broom in paint and then stabbing the ceiling with the bristles, making circles and loops and swirls, shaping the paint into stars and comets” (266). In this bedroom the family helps Mam pass in peace. The perspective is Leonie’s as Mam’s “hands fall away from me like husks from corncobs” (267). Leonie places the rocks on Mam’s altar with ofrendas of cornmeal, cotton balls, and rum, with prayers to Maman Brigitte, “’mother of the dead’” (268). Collectively they resist Richie’s predatory ghost, and the spirit of Mam’s dead son comes to guide her as “Time floods the room in a storm surge” (269). In death’s aftermath, Jojo resembles a colossal Olmec figure: “his preadolescence dissolved to a granite stance” (270), “[a]nd then the headpiece so that the baby face, the last of the milk fat, is steel-still, frozen for war” (271). Sing, Unburied, Sing ends in the music of the book’s title. Richie lingers in a tree near the Gulf’s shores, yearning to enter “The sound. Beyond the waters” (281). He tells Jojo (and readers), “’Now you understand life. Now you know. Death’’ (282). And we suddenly see the oak harboring Richie full “with ghosts” that “perch like birds, but look as people” who “speak with their eyes” (282). This roost of the Gulf’s unburied takes in a deep sweep of time signified by their clothes: “rags and breeches, T-shirts and tignons, fedoras and hoodies” (283). It is little Kayla who slides down from Pop’s arms, “toddles past” and “faces the tree” (284). “’Go home,’ she says” (284). In a scene reminiscent of the character Hushpuppy facing the Beasts of the Southern Wilds, or of Miguel’s interactions in Coco’s land of the dead, the child responds and “begins to sing, a song of mismatched, half-garbled words” to which “the ghosts open their mouths wider and their faces fold at the edges so they look like they’re crying, but they can’t. And Kayla sings louder. She waves her hand in the air as she sings” (284). She sings the join across gulfs, “like she remembers the sound of the water in Leonie’s womb, the sound of all water” (285). This is the comforting nigh-maternal ofrenda to the unattended dead that could open borders inside and between us.
Conclusion Jesmyn Ward’s writing supports holistic readings of Gulf cultures across borders and time. We read her texts through LeAnne Howe’s tribalography, examining Indigenous shaping of spaces where, as Mam asserts in Sing Unburied, Sing, “We all here at once” (236). We read Ward through her kinship with Afro-Creole/Choctaw continuities, and through the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex—drawing from further south and an “Olmec culture [that]… crystallized fundamental principles that pervade Mesoamerican thought” (Kerpel 10) and created America’s first political and economic urban centers (Cyphers 18). Ward’s identity as a black writer from a GulfSouth community fuels rather than blocks her leap into this continuum of human history. To what degree, however, might Ward’s Indigenous motifs, or perhaps our own tribalographic reading, be appropriative rather than in organic rapport? We offer some parting observations. Ward’s kinship embrace of the “s-word” in Bois Sauvage comes with less irony than the word usually carries in Choctaw writing (see Howe’s “Noble Savage” and “Savage Indian” sequences). In the “We Are Here” conclusion of Men We Reaped, Ward states, “We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive: we are savages” (250). This attitude titled Salvage the Bones, and moved through the tidal creeks of Where the Line Bleeds as two young fishermen discussed the survivability of some mullet they’ve caught and might toss back: “They some little savages” (238), so of course they would survive. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, aside from the place name of Bois Sauvage, the word savage appears only twice and has shifted from noun to verb: something dogs do “to savage smaller animals” (191), or have been trained to do to prisoners (121), something settler plantation culture and capitalism have had us do to each other. Ward writes in rapport with all who have been savaged when she states, “We Are Here,” or has Mam insist, “We all here at once.” This need to affirm resistant presence aligns with The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal (2010), an anthology that insists, “Indian people of the South resist, survive, persist”: “‘We are still here’” (2). We see it too
in an anthology of contemporary poetry in Mexican Indigenous languages, in the title of Enriqueta Lunez’s poem in Tsotsil Maya: “Vu’un li’ oyunkutike” / “I Am Those We Are Here” (122-123). The feathered serpents and winged beings of Mississippian cultures are still here too, along with Kukulkan’s and Quetzalcoatl’s realms of transition. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s imagination responds to a tribalography of the Gulf that opens southern borders. It carries a Choctaw dissemination, an older Mississippian one, and seedings from further back. Ward’s work, like her home, has been shaped by a complex body of human and other-thanhuman experience and been embodied by it, with it. It is all still right here.
Works Cited Bartram, William. Travels of William Bartram. Ed. Mark Van Doren. New York: Dover, 2017. Blake, Michael. Maize for the Gods: Unearthing he 9,000-Year History of Corn. Oakland: U of California P, 2015. Brosman, Catharine Savage. Louisiana Creole Literature: A Historical Study. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2013. Burst, Deborah. “All Saints Day in Lacombe.” Country Roads. October 1, 2012 countryroadsmagazine.com/art-and-culture/history/all-saints-day-in-lacombe. Accessed June 29, 2018. Covarrubias, Miguel. The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent: Indian Art of the Americas. 1954. New York: Knopf, 1967. Cyphers, Ann. “Los Olmecas de San Lorenzo.” Arqueologia Mexicana, num. 150, marzo-abril de 2018, pp. 18-25. Hobson, Geary, with Janet McAdams and Kathryn Walkiewicz, eds. The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2010. Howe, LeAnne. “The Story of America: A Tribalography.” Choctalking on Other Realities. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2013. — “Embodied Tribalography: Mound Building, Ball Games, and Native Endurance in the Southeast.” Studies in American Indian Literatures Vol 26 No 2, Summer 2014. 75-93. —, Shell Shaker. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2001. King, Adam, ed. Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Chronology, Content, Context. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2007. Lankford, George E. “The ‘Path of Souls’: Some Death Imagery in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.” Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography. Eds F. Kent Reilly III and James F. Garber. Austin: U of Texas P, 2007. pp 174-212. Lunez, Enriqueta. “I Am Those We Are Here.” Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry. Ed. Victor Teran and David Shook. Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2015. 122-123. Magaloni Kerpel, Diana. Preface. Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. Ed by Kathleen Berrin and Virginia M Fields. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. pp. 10-13. Meland, Carter. “Talking Tribalography: LeAnne Howe Models Emerging Worldliness in ‘The Story of America’ and Miko Kings.” Studies in American Indian Literatures. Vol 26 No 2 Summer 2014 26-39.
Power, Susan. Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2004. Rankine, Claudia. “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning.” The Fire This Time. Jesmyn Ward, ed. New York: Scribner, 2017. 145-155. Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature, and the African World. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995. Taub, Karl. “Lightning Celts and Corn Fetishes: The Formative Olmec and the Development of Maize Symbolism in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest.” Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica. Ed. by John E. Clark and Mary E. Pye. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. 296-331. Ward, Jesmyn. “Cracking the Code.” The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Jesmyn Ward, editor. New York: Scribner, 2017. 89-95. —, Men We Reaped: A Memoir. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. —, Salvage the Bones. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. —, Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2017. —, Where the Line Bleeds. Chicago: Agate Bolden, 2008.
Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Where the Line Bleeds. Agate, 2008. The river was young and small. At its start it seeped from the red clay earth in the piney woods of southern Mississippi, and then wound its way, brown and slow, over a bed of tiny gray and ochre pebbles through the pines, shallow as a hand, deep as three men standing, to the sandy, green lowlands of the Gulf of Mexico. (1)
The epigraph begins Where the Line Bleeds, the 2008 debut novel by
Jesmyn Ward. Vivid in its description of a rural Mississippi landscape, the setting immediately segues into readers’ first introduction to the novel’s protagonists, Joshua and Christophe DeLisle, fraternal twins. As the narrative weaves through the lives of the brothers and other family members who reside in the town of Bois Sauvage (translated as “wild wood”), the characters reflect the contradictions inherent within their environment; the beauty and lushness of the terrain juxtaposed with a region barren of opportunity and the disquiet nature of hopelessness. In Where the Line Bleeds, Ward depicts the strained outlook for African American boys growing up in a small, rural, town in the deep South; an outlook that has rarely been properly written of and even lesser known to contemporary literary audiences. As the novel begins, the brothers are preparing to jump from a bridge that runs over the river. With their impending high school graduation, the jump can be read as both a baptism and as a sign of approaching changes in their lives. Each brother’s leap into the awaiting river below will be different from the other’s and for each, their rise to the surface will be equally different as well. This scene serves as the novel’s exposition, establishing the tone, and setting the story in motion for the respective paths Christophe and Joshua will assume. However, despite the apparent contrasts between the fraternal
twins, they will remain connected by blood, spirit, and deeply by place. It is with this scene that Ward sets the plot in motion. Starting with the cusp of their commencement, readers will come to experience each brother with his own path to follow, his own decisions to make, and his own consequences to suffer as the novel unfolds. The twins have been raised by their blind and ailing grandmother, Ma-mee, after their own mother, Cille, moves to Atlanta for work. The grandmother as primary caregiver is illustrative of many African American families in small, rural towns. Ward aptly depicts this form of parenting and family dynamics to show the common place practice in many large families to send a child away to be raised by other relatives, many of whom were childless themselves. It is in Ma-mee’s mention of this practice that provides her daughter, Cille, a reprieve from any guilt of having abandoned her sons to live a better life in the big city of Atlanta. While Cille financially provides for the boys, emotionally there is no connection. As the narrative provides opportunities to consider the mother-child relationship, the imprint of Cille’s absence from the twins’ lives is paramount and sets in motion a longing that cannot be fulfilled. Though Ma-mee provides an understandable explanation for Cille’s absence, the sense of abandonment is tangible for the brothers. Coupled with their absentee drug-addicted father, Sandman, life in a town stripped of opportunity becomes the alchemy for tragedy. Unlike Cille who establishes a distance between herself and home, Christophe and Joshua so connected to place, cannot fathom leaving neither Ma-mee or Bois Sauvage. Against the wanting landscape, both grandsons seek employment following their graduation from high school. Joshua obtains a job, while Christophe anxiously waits for the phone to ring with opportunity. When it fails to do so, the latter begins to secretly sell drugs to support his family and to feel that he is also contributing to the household like his twin, Joshua. Though visually impaired, Ma-mee sees the tension and difficulties faced by her loved-ones. As the family matriarch and the blood from whom the boys and Cille have their being, she possesses a knowing that does not think, an embodied and intuitive understanding forged by the bonds of spirit and flesh. The bonds of love for family sustained by Ma-mee transcend physicality 156
of body or place. In African American literature, the grandmother becomes an archetypal character of unconditional love and acceptance, nurturing, and strength. As her family members navigate their respective paths throughout the novel, Ma-mee serves as the reader’s guide. Various types of conflicts abound throughout the novel; not simply the promise of youth set against the limited prospects in Bois Sauvage, but by extension those that arise in the characters having to decide how best to confront their circumstances. A loss of innocence occurs once the brothers are thrust into the adult world post-high school graduation and in having to confront the absent parents in their lives. Though the appearance of Cille renders an ambivalence and disappointment towards her as a mother, the interaction with Sandman, the twins’ drug addict father who also has been absent from their lives, proves profoundly tragic within the context of black male experiences. During a fight between Sandman and Javon, a drug dealer in the community, Christophe steps in and is wounded by his own father. Joshua, instinctively moves to protect his brother and begins to pummel Sandman. The specter of patricide in the novel intimates a pervasive theme within black male experiences where fatherless sons coming of age within surroundings that offer no outlets or respites from trying circumstances are perpetually on the verge of fate’s cruelty, misfortune, or the consequences of their own gross actions. Though the foreshadowing and conflicts render the story predictable in some instances, as a first novel, Where the Line Bleeds provides an emotionally moving narrative nonetheless. The setting, a rural coastal Mississippi town, effectively creates both the mood and tone so that depictions of family bonds between the main characters proves relatable to readers. The brotherly ties between Joshua and Christophe, and the abiding love and support of Ma-mee for her grandsons counter the dismal world that exists beyond their home and their connections to each other. By the ending Ward leaves us imagining: What will become of Joshua and Christophe? How much longer will Ma-mee live? Do the sons ever truly reconcile with Cille? What was Sandman’s true fate?
Ward, while writing fiction, allows readers a glimpse into the real lives of many African American males in the rural and small-town deep South. Through her characters, readers are given glimpses of humanity and the beautiful humanness of people many never encounter in their actual lives. The writing explores the complexity of physical and social landscapes and the intricacies of human relationships which shed light on our commonality regardless of place or circumstances.
Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2011
A two-time National Book Award winner, Jesmyn Ward is the latest
Mississippi native to make good in the book world, and it’s tempting to read Salvage the Bones in that tradition. Like William Faulkner, Ward imagines her own postage stamp of native soil, a coastal hamlet she dubs Bois Sauvage. On closer reading, the American South, as its borders have traditionally been drawn, hardly figures in the novel. Granted, it tells the story of a poor rural family, but they face many of the same problems as other people affected by Hurricane Katrina. The extreme poverty and inequality in Bois Sauvage addresses timely questions about social worth and vulnerability in our increasingly global age. The leap from the local to the global should not overlook regional differences in drawing broader parallels. The Batiste family saga is part of a much longer narrative about race in the South and how dreams are deferred in America, if not completely destroyed. The oldest boy, Randall, has his dream of playing college basketball cut short by a knee injury. The second oldest, Skeetah, has his hopes gradually dashed, as the puppies from his prized pit bull die off one by one. The youngest child, Junior, is too little to understand the unlucky hand he has been arbitrarily dealt. All this happens before their lives are upended by the storm. Hurricane Katrina leaves them fewer options because they are poor, and fewer still because they are black. And yet the disparity between rich and poor, in this case, is not a reflection of the age-old rivalry between north and south. As the storm nears, local news reports connect Mississippi to points along the Gulf coast, from Puerto Rico to Mexico. Bois Sauvage, it turns out, wrestles with the same issues facing other Gulfside places. Poverty, hunger, healthcare, education, safety—these problems stem from exclusion, broken infrastructure, a lack of resources and access to technology. For Ward’s heroine, Esch, an unwelcome pregnancy brings the crisis much closer to home than the hurricane looming offshore. 159
“In the bathroom, I bend over standing and knead my stomach, knead the melon to pulp, but it just keeps springing back: ripe,” she admits fairly early on, “I’ve never had a prescription, wouldn’t have the money to get them if I did, don’t have any girlfriends to ask for some, and have never been to the Health department… These are my options, and they narrow to none” (102103). Her narrow options are of a piece with the rest of the work in that they play off our uninterrogated assumptions about global inequality. “Global fiction,” as Adam Kirsch explains in The Global Novel, “is a tool for undoing the complacency of global citizenship—a way of forcing the reader to attend to the realities of the world’s violence and injustice” (Kirsch 56). A running metaphor in Salvage the Bones likens the daily grind of life in Bois Sauvage to being invisible. To make matters worse, the boy whose child Esch is carrying wants nothing to do with her. The last time they have sex, an encounter that borders on rape, she insists, “He will look at me” (145). Of course, this matter of public indifference applies to the others as well. In a hospital waiting room, the family sits with a couple that “studied the receptionist station the whole time we were there and never looked over to [us]”(132). Stuck between first- and third-world Americas, Ward’s setting confronts us with the unseen struggle of the most overlooked members of society. Faulkner is credited with having said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Though he, in fact, never wrote those words, this often-quoted remark finds its fullest, most far-flung realization with Ward. Salvage the Bones at last transcends its regionalism and lays bare the third world problems in our own backyard.
Work Cited Kirsch, Adam. The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century. New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2016.
Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. Bloomsbury, 2013
Jesmyn Ward is a trueborn storyteller who lays her heart bare in her
pungently honest 2013 memoir Men We Reaped. Recounting the deaths of five young men in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi, from 2000 to 2004, Ward provides a witness for the plight of victims of discrimination and provokes empathy for those who have tragically lost someone to a battle many in southern society deny still exists. Her unapologetic bluntness brings to light the ugliness of prejudices and racism, all the while wooing fine-tuned readers with the gorgeous style which has won her two National Book Awards. Although the individually tragic deaths of Ward’s young brother and friends are not directly related, she provides a compelling argument that each is a result of the enormous obstacles inflicted on them due to their race, rural inhabitance, and lower socio economic status. She avoids a linear, chronological narrative arc to relate these five deaths as they occurred, but instead organizes her work in reverse chronological order, building her burden of grief until she reaches her near breaking point in the narration of her brother Joshua’s death. By moving backward in time, she denies the denouement, a place of uncertainty where she must face her brother’s death and admit its finality. Withholding her most painful story for last, Ward projects her loss to the reader, already painfully aware that Joshua’s life will end tragically, but eagerly searching for the missing story that Ward is so hesitant to tell. The chapter on Joshua’s death is her most exposed moment of the memoir, leaving her to question her own chances of survival, and haunting the reader with her profound grief that he or she cannot, nor would want to, forget. Parallel to the tragic deaths of the young men, Ward’s story revolves around her painful relationship with her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi. She begins with the savage history of her hometown, a place deeply divided by prejudice and hardened by poverty. She establishes a metaphor of her hometown as a violent wolf which stalks her and those she loves. As this 161
metaphor is carried throughout the work, it keeps the reader aware of what is to blame for the tragedy she and her community experience. The wolf becomes an analogy for the “they”: those with power and in control, mainly the rich and white, who have been allowed to prey easily on them. Many in her community fall victim to the vicious predator of prejudice and oppression which has hunted them since birth. She utilizes this analogy to communicate the vulnerability she felt growing up black in Mississippi, a vulnerability that drove those around her to make poor decisions toward crime and addiction out of desperation, all the while enticing the wolf. Yet, Ward conversely describes her hometown as a community entrenched in family who grieve deeply over the losses of their sons and brothers. She alternates her wolf analogy with descriptions of her hometown as a place with a “boundless blue” sky and water that “glittered with its reflection” (165, 230). Stories of funeral t-shirts and drug addictions are coupled with those of nights out at the local nightclub and childhood games. Her memoir is her own coming of age story, including the multiple influences within her family. She embraces not only the positive aspects of her family history and upbringing such as the heroic sacrifices of her mother and brave determination of her grandmother, but also her strained relationship with her father. Like the work as a whole, her depiction of her father is painfully honest. She couples the hurt of his infidelity and indiscretions with an admiration for his strength. Her concept of home is deeply intertwined with her family, the lure of which she describes as “a love so thick it choked me” (195). Home is simultaneously the place she is desperate to escape, but helpless to abandon. Her narrative voice balances on this sharp edge of coinciding love and revulsion for her home, much like her characters Esch in Salvage the Bones and JoJo in Sing, Unburied, Sing, bringing a poignant and relatable balance to her life’s story. While Ward’s story itself is tragic and moving, it is her superb storytelling and the raw honesty it communicates which distinguishes her memoir. She crafts her story in an emotional arc that propels the reader along with her journey, giving a voice to the marginalized. Her work leaves her readers with not just with a good story, but also an enlightening point of view. The
lasting impression she engraves on readers with a story about â€œreal shit,â€? will hopefully ensure that these tragic deaths were not in vain (30).
Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Scribner, 2017
Albert Camus identified “the heat and the dust” as the main protagonists
in Faulkner’s literary imagination; he underlined their ability to conjure the stifling and oppressive affect of History and its legacy. Undoubtedly, he would have acknowledged the evocative power of Jesmyn Ward’s elemental poetics. A harrowing sense of the paradox hatched by the vulnerability of our physical presence looms up: we, as embodied creatures, can and do endure. The haunting fear of racial terror and terror pervades the plot. Light in August and the lynching scene come in, uninvited—disruptive, and unbearable. A violent act intrudes on the reader’s expectations. Echoes of Beloved are heard in the distance: love comes in a cruel way. The daily routine of a close-knit family (Pope, Leonie, Jojo), and a secret concealed—only to be abruptly revealed—constitute a mosaic of narrative threads, whipping alternative heuristic patterns into shape. Existence is declinated in minor and major keys: the grammar of agency, the vocabulary of identity, the tenses of self. Pope presides over un-exorcised demons; he navigates a difficult course between the Scylla of a destructive past and the Charybdis of an ominous future. Leonie’s baktinian grotesque body speaks “with the volume turned up” to use Patricia Yaeger’s suggestive image, reclaiming voice and place. Jojo rides the wave of adult arbitrariness and absurdity; he befriends a fish and feeds it, weaving an unlikely bond—twins of a different kind to the peculiar pair staged in the recent popular movie The Shape of Water. Yet, the companion of his loneliness falls prey to human obliviousness: “Leonie kills things” (108). Enter a ghost—the formulaic “monster,” infelicitous and fated progeny of the Southern textual uncanny. Each ghost, like each living person, is unique: a harbinger of trauma, guilt, and grief—and occasional redemption. As James Lee Burke’s General Bell Hood wanders in “the electric mist” of the Louisiana swamp, Ward’s variation on the spectral trope inhabits the in-between space 164
where the dead drift above the living, and sometimes encounter them, or run counter to them. Last but not least: a bird, and the substrate of black folktales recorded in such works as Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly, usher the reader into a sense of possibility, chartering a flight into the beyond, or even a leap into the supernatural, wherever it might be found yet. A few props such as Jojo’s tooth are carved out of the material of mimesis; through them, characters emerge out of the abstract to become flesh and blood actors, strutting about—page or stage—telling a tale full of sound and fury. Until their candle is extinguished. The animal world is a foe to be reckoned with; cruel dogs function as reminders of the southern “curse”—heeding the Faulknerian “gloom and doom” of buzzards hovering over the human predicament—and suggest the predatory nature of racial prejudices. Animals are synecdoches of an indomitable world abiding by the South’s deterministic logic that dictates your place on earth and in the sky—for good and ever, for better or worse. The prosaic portrayal of poverty and toil is intertwined with lyrical moments of pure poetry and joy. A polyphony of registers performs a contrapuntal antidote to the relentless and nagging struggle of a material life that takes a toll on the human body and soul. The dehumanizing tear and wear of lack on the family evokes the Bundrens’ mock epic journey through their own alienating deprivation. A world created out of italicized words runs a parallel course to the main line. The narration oozes modernist tricks—strategies of writerly rupture and readerly rapture, as Roland Barthes might have identified them as an invitation to jouir du texte: broken chronology, fragmented characterization, multivoiced narrative, semantic and semiotic paradoxes. Ward’s writing expands through kaleidoscopes of cryptic sentences, and lapidary statements combining brevity and depth: the occasional hermeneutic aporia leads to disturbing interrogations and revisions. The style secretes “weird” images—fear, for example, appears in the guise of a “bloated and croaking toad” (75)—where weird, as for Lovecraft, conveys “a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities 165
on the known universe’s utmost rim.” Sometimes, the narration collapses into aphorisms to speak the unspeakable, such as the dialectical work of recalling, “We hold hands and pretend at forgetting” (275), and resonates with the haunting temporal maze of Light in August: “Memory knows before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders”. An economy of concealment and exposure crystallizes through metaphors and metonymies—a range of masks and persona—and conducts an ongoing dialogue between linguistic axes: “Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe” (270). Snatches of narratives, groping and reaching out, coalesce to form a gradual pattern out of cognitive gaps and leaps—sudden breakthroughs leading to more puzzles and riddles: “There’s too much blank sky where a tree once stood” (271). The multi-voiced structure begets expressionistic behavioral patterns: fellow protagonists seem to be observed from the other side of a glass pane, as when one stands on the opposite wall of the aquarium. Time emerges as the great hero—the warp and woof of narrative—whether it is, in Sartre’s image, “a convertible going backwards” as in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or “a vast ocean” where “everything is happening at once” (186) in Ward’s world. Suddenly, it becomes another name for death: “Time floods the room in a storm surge” (269)—shifting the existential balance, uttering some oracular mystery. Jesmyn Ward’s magnificent novel powerfully and intensely exposes the terrible legacy of a violent and cruel history while rehearsing the elements of a folktale; it ventriloquizes Shreve’s request to Quentin in Absalom, Absalom!: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” A lasting dirge, an enduring threnody. Sing, unburied South, sing.
Review of The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, Edited by Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 2016
y any account this is a meaningful and powerful look, as the book’s subtitle states, at race relations by a new generation of writers. The Fire This Time was inspired by Ward’s reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death, the public response to it, especially on Twitter, and then finding solace and inspiration and hope in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time published in 1963. Ward’s talent as a writer, as a voice deeply rooted in the African-American experience in the South, is as resonant here as it is in her other well received and honored published works. Like William Faulkner before her, I believe that Ward is establishing herself as a writer whose clear and enduring sense of place will be her defining strength. This book is structured along the same lines as Baldwin’s with perspectives from the contributors focusing on the past or legacy, the present or reckoning, and the future or jubilee with the past and present drawing the most attention. Ward says that told her, and I agree completely, that “ ... it confirmed how inextricably interwoven the past is in the present, how heavily that past bears on the future; we cannot talk about black lives mattering or police brutality without reckoning with the very foundation of this country.” She also notes that “... it reveals a certain exhaustion ... a feeling of futility with having to come to terms with telling each new generation of black children about the on-going, ever-present fear of simply being black and therefore suspect… predicated as this country is, founded as this country was, on our subjugation”. But she also notes “That this work (The Fire This Time) helps me believe that this is worthwhile work, that troubling the water (as Baldwin did in his work) is worthy.” She ends her introduction with the words “I burn, and I hope.” As I read through the essays and poems included in The Fire This Time, I found a common swath of a fabric constructed of thought and words that
prodded me both viscerally and intellectually and gave feeling to the ideas of: fear and fearlessness; resistance and subjugation; servant as a masking euphemism for slave; Jim Crow and Civil Rights; property in reference to people; equality and inequality; advances and the reactive establishment pushback; the strength and fragility of slave families; divisiveness and unity; history and heritage and monuments; a sense of place and knowing your place; respect and empathy and a lack of respect and empathy that too often led to terror, violence and death even by those pledged to defend; entitlement and having to force change to earn even a reasonable chance at equal footing or equal job opportunities; freely walking city streets as a white person and being seen as a flaneur while walking those same streets as a black person and being too frequently seen as a threat or a suspect; family history previously unclear given clarity by DNA ancestry tracking; and a motherâ€™s love, hope and resolve. All in all, a litany of the deeply embedded contradictions and the unresolved issues involving the nationâ€™s history, past and present, that outline the enduring impact of slavery on race relations today. I then began to contemplate what might be the catalyst that will provoke a greater sense of unity. Can a book of essays spark change? Can writers, musicians or artists change hearts and minds? Can we reach a time and place in this country in the foreseeable future when bipartisan legislation and more civil social discourse will affect change? Who are and where are new leaders who can change the consciousness of not just our nation but all nations? Is there indeed hope? Are unresolved issues in our race relations, a cancer marker so deeply imbedded in our countryâ€™s DNA, something we can ever expect to resolve? I started with the idea that hope resides in the hearts of the people all over the world. Then, through some research, I found a chorus of instructive voices and resources like: Mae Jemison (former NASA astronaut and current principal of the 100 Year Starship organization), Rhiannon Giddens (musician), Bob Marley (musician), Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie (author), Harlan Ullman (author), Kamala Harris (politician), Malala Yousafzai (activist for female education); Dee Rees (screen writer and director), Lena Waithe (TV show creator, writer, actress); the Chicago Violence Reduction Program; Ronke 168
Olabisi (biomedical engineer); and many others too numerous to mention, including the spirits of past change makers like Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, MLK Jr. and his counterpoint Malcom X. It is Jemison’s contention that the Overview Effect of viewing Earth from space is a transcendent experience in that it encourages you, when you view both the mind changing beauty and the fragility of our planet, to begin to recognize the futility of conflict and war; the damage done by the political, religious or economic subjugation of others; and the inherent danger of mismanagement or neglect of the planet’s natural resources and climate. I took to heart the broader perspective of the Overview Effect experienced by Jemison as I read The Fire This Time in the sense that a broader perspective might be the key to bringing about change in seemingly intractable long standing injustices - examining one’s personal interior boundaries and reaching across cultures and national borders to create a world that is a safer, saner, and more equitable in how it views and treats its citizens. Keeping in mind the words of Coretta Scott King, “Struggle is a neverending process. Freedom is never really won. You have to earn it and win it in every generation.” I have hope for improved race relations in this country because of people like Ward and her writing, and I have hope for the world at large based on a broadened perspective of achieving unity by believing that the struggles of one are an interconnected part of the whole.
Robin G. Vander
It seems rather unoriginal here to state that literature helps us to find
ourselves, to make sense of our experiences and relationships with others, to understand society past and present. After all, anyone having studied or taught a course on literary works regardless of the genre will have said or thought something along those lines. Reading literature, we contemplate possibilities, character flaws, consequences of decisions and actions—all either real or imagined; resolutions. The well-written word is inexhaustible, dynamic, and is concurrently timely and timeless. Inherent are occasions for rereading the text and rethinking meaning. The writings of Jesmyn Ward are illustrative of such and this special issue of the Xavier Review acknowledges the currency of the author’s oeuvre thus far while also intimating the increasing momentum for scholarship examining the myriad aspects of her work. This special issue reflects on the major works of Ward beginning with her debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds. Consider: That first novel was originally published in 2008 and this issue of the Xavier Review will have gone to press in November 2018. In the span of one decade, Ward will have been honored with two National Book Awards for Fiction rendering her the first female author to do so; Salvage the Bones in 2011, and Sing, Unburied, Sing in 2017. The same year in which she received the second National Book Award, she was selected for a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly referred to as the MacArthur “Genius” Award. The myriad accolades for her writing and perpetual inclusion on best-seller lists are inarguably justified. A daughter of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Ward has deliberately chosen to remain in the region and to engage it in her work. DeLisle is not only the surname of her fictional characters but the actual name of the rural town of her family roots and serves as inspiration. This writing that connects to home and heritage is deliberate. In its representations of nature and landscapes, lineages, culture and social class, prospects and trials; in its signifying on Southern literature, African American literature—American history—both
early and contemporary and its legacy of race—the literature is purposeful and wrenching. The openness in which Ward depicts African Americans in the rural Deep South is crafted through the deliberateness in her use of language. Details are vivid and tender indelible impressions of the often unknown, unrecognized, or unacknowledged struggles of poor or working-class people of African descent who reside in places seemingly enriched with nature’s resources yet devoid of capital or viable paths to prosperity. Descriptions of the social and economic environments in which her stories are set and her characters reside and how they face challenging circumstances encourage readers’ contemplations. It is here, in these moments of reflecting on the texts that the deliberateness of it all ideally comes full circle. In this first decade of Ward’s published works, comparisons to Emerson, Faulkner, Morrison and others have been made in regards to her writing of landscapes, the American South, and aspects of the African American experience. Surely, more will occur with the release of subsequent publications and each will no doubt consider her use of the South and its environs as inspiration. Ward herself has mentioned her own influences and inspirations. In a 2009 interview she identified Jean Toomer’s Cane as influencing her desire to write about the South and in 2018 she noted the weight of language in Layli Long Soldier’s poem, “He Sapa.” Of Toomer, she felt that “He wrote this novel about the South and got it right. He captured something so amazing and beautiful, but also nebulous—this quality the South has that fascinates me and makes me want to write about it.”1 And of Soldier’s poem published in the full-length poetry collection that won the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award, Ward stated: “…it reminded me what careful language can do. It made me recommit to writing…and made me believe again in the power of writing and the truths that it can reveal for people and what that
1 Berry, Nico. “Getting the South Right: A Conversation with Jesmyn Ward.” Fiction Writers Review, 19 August 2009, https://fictionwritersreview.com/interviews/getting-thesouth-right-a-conversation-with-jesmyn-ward/.
remembering and honoring the truth can do for the individual, but also for the group, for all of us.”2 Careful language. Amazing and beautiful. Remembering and honoring the truth. Writing about the African American experience in rural, coastal Mississippi. Making sense of experiences and relationships. Contemplating consequences and possibilities. The writings of Jesmyn Ward.
2 Ward, Jesmyn. “What Moved Me. Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas.” As told to Jazmine Hughes. The New York Times Magazine. The Culture Issue. 07 October 2018.
Contributors Thomas Bonner, Jr., is Professor Emeritus at Xavier University of Louisiana. His recent books include Parterre: New and Collected Poetry and Prose and the coedited edition of William Spratling’s and William Faulkner’s Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles. He also has books and articles on Kate Chopin, Frederick Douglass, and other American writers. His fiction and poetry appear in periodicals and anthologies. A founder of Xavier Review, he served as both journal and press editor for twenty years. Rachel Bryan is a doctoral student in the Literature, Criticism, and Textual Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She grew up in a tiny town in Northwest Alabama, in the same rural area where Muscle Shoals Swampers wrote the guitar intro to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” In 2015, she received her bachelor’s degree in English from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2017, she received her master’s degree from Tulane University. Her research foci include 20th-century American literature, poverty and policy in literature of the American South, the work of William Faulkner, and all things relating to zombies. She currently contributes to the West Virginia University’s 100 Days in Appalachia. Keith Cartwright teaches at the University of North Florida and served as Fulbright-Robles Chair of U.S. Studies at Universidad de las Américas Puebla. He has published the scholarly monographs Sacral Grooves, Limbo Gateways (2013) and Reading Africa into American Literature (2002), as well as the book-length poem Saint Louis (1997) from Xavier Review Press. Working with Dolores-Flores-Silva on the legacy of an Afro-Mexican maroon leader, he completed a documentary film titled El grito de Yango/Yanga’s Freedom Cry (2018) and is currently collaborating with Flores-Silva on a literary history of the Gulf of Mexico as a transnational region. Jessica Doble is a graduate student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her dissertation “Fanfiction as Reception: An Exploration of Power Dynamics, Interpretation, and the Practice of Reading” examines fanfiction as a process of making reception visible and the way interpretations are negotiated in 173
communities. Her other interests include Southern Studies, folklore, and gender studies. Dolores Flores-Silva, from the Mexican Gulf state of Veracruz, is Professor of Latin American literature and culture at Roanoke College. She is co-author of The Cross and the Sword in the Works of Rosario Ferre and Mayra Montero (2009) and has recently published in journals such as World Literature Today, Southern Quarterly, The Australasian Journal of American Studies, and south: a scholarly journal. Working with Keith Cartwright, she has completed a documentary film titled El grito de Yanga (2018) and is currently collaborating with Cartwright on a literary history of the Gulf of Mexico as a transnational region. Trudier Harris is University Distinguished Research Professor in English at the University of Alabama and formerly the J. Carlyle Sitterson Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her publications include Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison (1991), The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South (2009), and Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature (2014). In 2014, UNC-Chapel Hill established the â€œTrudier Harris Distinguished Professorship.â€? In 2018, she received the Richard Beale Davis Award for Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literary Studies, the Clarence E. Cason Award for Nonfiction Writing, and the National Humanities Center Fellowship for 2018-2019. Nova Jett (Pronouns xe/xem/xyr) has a B.A. in English from Concordia University Texas and an M.A. in Literature with a cognate in American Social Justice from Texas State University. Xe is currently enrolled in the Student Affairs in Higher Education Program at the university and plans to work in the Diversity and Inclusion area of Student Affairs upon earning the Master of Education in 2020. Nova approaches xyr work with a passionate focus on intersectionality, advocacy, and education for marginalized communities and plans to research the impact of politics on student activists and ways to effectively support gender non-binary students.
Marie Liénard-Yeterian is Professor of American literature and cinema at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis. Her major fields of research are Southern Literature, American Theatre and the American South in Film. Her publications include articles on William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy and Janisse Ray, Joyce Carol Oates (for the Cahier de l’Herne, 2017), and the films Deliverance, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Cold Mountain, No Country for Old Men, and The Help. She has also published Faulkner et le cinema (2010), a book on the Southern Gothic and the grotesque titled Nouvelles du Sud: Hearing Voices, Reading Stories (2012), and the first volume of a collection she created (“Play and Film”) devoted to A Streetcar Named Desire (A Streetcar Named Desire: From Pen to Prop, 2012). She has co-edited Culture et Mémoire (2008) and Le Sud au Cinéma (2009). She is currently working on a book about the grotesque on screen. Keith Mitchell is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He has co-edited two collections of essays with Robin Vander on Percival Everett: Perspectives on Percival Everett (2013) and Percival Everett: Writing Other/Wise (2014), and has published articles and book chapters on Percival Everett, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones. He has recently completed the long essay “James Baldwin and the South,” which will be published in James Baldwin in Context edited by Quentin Miller (forthcoming Cambridge University Press). Brian Railsback is a Professor at Western Carolina University where he has served as Department Head of English, founding Dean of The Honors College, Faculty Chair, and was named a University Scholar. His books include Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck (1995), A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia (2006, co-edited with Michael J. Meyer), and a novel, The Darkest Clearing (2004). Recently he has published ecocritical essays or book chapters on Ron Rash, John Steinbeck, and Jesmyn Ward. He has given lectures and keynote talks in several countries and has led courses in Cuba and Morocco.
Robert Rea is the Deputy Editor and Web Editor for Southwest Review. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, The Millions, and more. He currently teaches courses in American literature at the University of Mississippi. David W. Robinson-Morris is the founding Director of The Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit at Xavier University of Louisiana, and concurrently serves as the universityâ€™s Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations and as Assistant Professor in the Division of Education and Counseling. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Research with a dual concentration in Higher Education Administration and Curriculum Theory, and an Education Specialist (Ed.S) Certificate in Educational Leadership with a focus on applied research, measurement, and evaluation both from Louisiana State University. He is the author of Ubuntu and Buddhism in Higher Education. An Ontological (Re)Thinking (2018). James Ryer is a retired administrator for the State of Florida where he also served as an adjunct professor with local community colleges during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He has a masterâ€™s degree in English Literature from the University of South Florida and served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam. He currently lives in Central Florida and frequently spends time in Western North Carolina. Cherylon Teel is a native of the Mississippi Delta and received her undergraduate degree from Delta State University where she published in Confidante. She later received her Master of Arts from Northwestern State University of Louisiana. A National Board certified educator with over twenty years of experience, she currently works as an Advanced Placement Literature teacher in a north Mississippi high school and as an adjunct professor for Northwest Mississippi Community College. Jeremy Tuman teaches English at Xavier University of Louisiana. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, New Orleans Review, The Journal of College Writing, and Room 220. Jeremy plays guitar in the roots-rock band Bob & the
Thunder and gauges the merits of his music and his writing by the reactions of his two young sons and one old dog. Robin G. Vander is an Associate Professor of English and African American and Diaspora Studies, contributing editor for the Xavier Review, and a cofounder of the Xavier University Performance Studies Laboratory. She is the coeditor with Keith B. Mitchell of two essay collections on Percival Everett and has served as guest editor for the Review of Black Political Economy. Her publications include essays on African American literature and the African American community in post-Katrina New Orleans. She has served as a director and dramaturg for staged public scholarship on New Orleans history and culture, post-Katrina housing struggles, and African American women’s experiences. She is currently completing a book project on the transatlantic slave trade. Sondra Bickham Washington is a doctoral student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Her research investigates depictions of black girlhood and the development of female children and adolescents in African American literature. She will be a doctoral degree candidate at the end of spring 2019. Briana Whiteside is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her research interests include science fiction, popular culture, natural hair, and black women’s narratives. She is particularly interested in the ways in which black women have endeavored to heal from physical and psychological traumas, as well as in how African American literature by women has represented this struggle. Her work also explores the ways in which notions of imprisonment have shaped understandings of the prison system—an interest resulting from her experience teaching within both medium-and maximum-security prisons. As evidence of her commitment to fostering intellectual growth within the prison classroom, she created a library within a maximum-security prison in Alabama. Her work has been published in several edited volumes and journals, including the College Language Association Journal.
XAVIER REVIEW Parterre: New and Collected Poetry and Prose by Thomas Bonner, Jr. 978-1-883275-218-0 • 2018 • $20.00 Parterre celebrates the career of a remarkable scholar and teacher. Tom Bonner’s short stories and poems are intimate and affectionate portraits of Southern people and places. His insightful articles… supplement his pioneering work on the fiction of Kate Chopin. Bernard Koloski, editor of Awakenings: The Story of the Kate Chopin Revival. In a collection brimming with erudition… Tom Bonner also gives us serene poetry and narrative thrill rides such as “Front Lines”— an altogether original story form that can best be identified as postmodern. Ralph Adamo, author of Ever: Poems 2000-2014.
XAVIER REVIEW www.xula.edu/review
XAVIER REVIEW Go Home and Cry for Yourselves by Tim Fitts 978-1-883275-27-3 • 2017 • $13.00 Quirky, surprising and darkly humorous, Tim Fitts’ characters will get under your skin. These memorable stories unsettle, as strong fiction should. —Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl Powerful in its portrayal of Americans living on the margin between “just getting-by” and catastrophe—financially, morally, existentially—this is a riveting collection of short fiction that captures the voices, attitudes, and crippled/crippling days of its masterfully drawn characters. —Gordon Macalpine, author of Woman with a Blue Pencil
XAVIER REVIEW www.xula.edu/review
XAVIER REVIEW The Shy Mirror by Gordon Robert Sabatier 978-1-883275-26-6 • 2016 • $15.00 There is no singular delight in coming into the world of Gordon Robert Sabatier who is both a natural poet and a learned one too…. Here is a poet who does what all art asks us to do: to blur the lines between what is human and not human, the lines between pain and ecstasy, between being fully immersed in the physical and the spiritual in the moment of the poem. Here is a poet who uses formalisms we use to harness the fierce and wild. —Darrell Bourque, author of Megan’s Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie
XAVIER REVIEW www.xula.edu/review
XAVIER REVIEW www.xula.edu/review
Our special issue on the writing of Jesmyn Ward, featuring the Prologue to Men We Reaped, a chronology, and essays by Thomas Bonner; Rachel...
Published on Jan 4, 2019
Our special issue on the writing of Jesmyn Ward, featuring the Prologue to Men We Reaped, a chronology, and essays by Thomas Bonner; Rachel...