For both these writers, American history in general, and Black Americanin particular, is a foundation on which their stories are constructed. But the large canvas of history doesn’t ever become blurred with broad strokes of what we know about our history. Instead, what we see in these novels are very specific stories with complicated characters and almost cinematic in their telling. In both novels we are bound to run into famous historical figures in direct and indirect ways.
The Water Dancer is a story of Hiram Walker in the tradition of a slave narrative. The central character is an enslaved man running to freedom from a nineteenth century Virginia plantation to Pennsylvania and his life’s work as an abolitionist. Those of us who have read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad will remember how far he pushes the metaphor of the underground railroad as an escape method. For him, it becomes a literal railroad of real trains. Coates pushes the metaphor of escape differently. He turns every enslaved person’s desire to escape slavery into a magical escape through teleportation. He makes this areality for Hiram who has the power of “conduction” almost like a superhero who must learn how to use his powers. The myth of slaves escaping from plantations by swimming or flying back to Africa is a popular one in African American folklore and it makes its way into the writings of authors like Toni Morrison. In The Water Dancer, Coates hands Hiram and a few others this power. To conduct successfully, he must tap into his past and unlock his childhood memories, because the power of conduction comes from such recollections. For the enslaved, memory, both individual and collective, kept alive in stories and songs and dances, is a way of survival by connecting to a past that was free and dignified, to a future that depends on it. Hiram has a photographic memory, but the memories he has difficulty accessing and which power conduction for him are emotional memories of his mother.
Of course, I won’t tell you the complicated and absorbing story you’ll read, but I’m merely suggesting that the fantastical and the real intersect in very interesting ways. Despite his superb skill as a modern-day social critic, Coates never intrudes on the thoughtful and historical voice of his narrator. But his understanding of modern-day racism certainly informs Coates’ portrait of the nineteenth century, and it’s easy to hear contemporary debates echoed in Hiram’s observations.
Jeffers’ novel, with Du Bois in its title as well as in its small nod to T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, is a coming-of-age story about a woman called Ailey who becomes a historian instead of a doctor her grandmother wishes her to be. This book has a complex architecture of storytelling. Complexity is necessary for Ailey to understand her multi-generational and ancestral history. To find her own place not just in her family history but also in the history of the place (Georgia, for example), and people (American Indians, White colonizers, and Black enslaved—ancestors all) from where parts of her family history derive. W.E.B. Du Bois and his considerable writings undergird and guide the narrative. Many of his concepts such as the double-consciousness as well as his observations and analyses about the South, the Reconstruction and Black people overall are embedded here without the novel becoming burdened in anyway. It is a good story first and foremost.
The author calls her novel a “black feminist kitchen table epic of matrilineal connections.” She hopes that her readers would come to a place of humanity, understanding, and connection after reading this story about one Black woman placing herself in a larger American context. The archival work that Jeffers has done here is incredibly inspiring and allows a depth to this story that is rare.
So much can be said here about both these books. All I want to do is to make you curious and to encourage your commitment of time for these books.
“Home is a place we all must find, child. It’s not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing--The Wiz,” is the epigram that begins Lanham’s meditation on his homeplace, Edgefield County, South Carolina—a place “easy to pass by on the way to somewhere else,” which has been home to generations of white and black Lanhams from the time of slavery. To love this land where he could not find his first black ancestor’s grave in a cemetery full of white Lanhams, takes a deliberate effort to turn away from ideas of Africa as the motherland which many people of African descent have glorified to emotionally survive their ancestral trauma.
Instead, Drew Lanham tells us, “I’m a man of color—African American by politically correct convention…. In me there’s additionally an inkling of Irish, a bit of Brit, a smidgen of Scandinavian, and some American Indian, Asian, and Neanderthal tossed in, too…. There is also the red of miry clay, plowed up and planted to pass a legacy forward. There is the brown of spring floods rushing over a Savannah River shoal. There is gold of ripening tobacco drying in the heat of summer’s last breath. There are endless rows of cotton’s cloudy white. My plumage is a kaleidoscopic rainbow of an eternal hope and the deepest blue of despair and darkness. All of these hues are in me; I am, in the deepest sense colored.” This sample of his voice suggests a writer who uses language with attention to its expressive power in both its literal as well as metaphoric elements.
Winner of the 2017 Southern Book Prize, Winner of the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and named a “Best Scholarly Book of the Decade” by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Drew Lanham’s book is definitely an inspiring read for us all.
Next time you’re in the library make a point of visiting the expanded Mystery/Spy section. These are some of the library’s most popular books and they deserved more space. Now there are six additional shelves dedicated to mysteries. Look for the temporary sign pointing you to these new shelves.
Eileen Smith has now inventoried all of our Mystery/Spy and Fiction books. By the time you read this, nearly 75% of Coffman’s entire collection will have been inventoried.
Audrey Estebo recently reported that residents have already this year borrowed 635 library items. This pace puts the library on target to loan as many items as it did during the COVID lockdown year of 2020!
Nearly as popular as the library itself is our surplus book sales operation. Thanks to Audrey Estebo’s and Scott Magnuson’s stewardship and your support, last year’s sales were nearly equivalent to the library’s annual Coffman appropriation.
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