Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I hesitate to say that I enjoyed reading this book, as that word feels somehow inappropriate. The book was beautifully written and well-crafted, but also deeply painful. Its subject matter was dark: achingly real, and all-too-relevant roughly sixty years after its publication. I think it would be more apt to say that I treasured this reading experience; it was a gift, albeit a tough one at times to receive, and I am certainly the richer for having read it. If you haven't read it, I definitely recommend the experience, both for its poignancy and its lessons.
Here's what struck me.
Don't judge a book by its cover (no matter how lame the cover art).
I find it highly annoying when cover art is inaccurate, or simply represents a different image of a character or setting than I had imagined (#screwyfeedbackloops). My copy of this book featured a small boy, and he looked more like an 8-year-old than a 14-year-old. I found it misleading to keep seeing his face on the cover between reads. This is a fairly common pet peeve of mine, and sometimes interferes with my ability to choose a version of the novel. TBQH, I generally prefer a cover that has simply a dark background and the title in letters.#KISS
"He knows Harlem, his people, and the language they use."
Also on the list of things I resent -- the need to drop little nuggets from critics on every inch of the book's cover and backflap. I couldn't possibly decide for myself what to think about this novel (being just a plain old Reader and all), so please, fancy-named-newspaper, tell me what to think. I'm sure some people enjoy having a sense of what to expect, but I would include this on the list of confounding inputs - only the book is the true source! The summary, the critics' reviews, even a foreword, are bastardizations, second-hand material. Again, this is just my personal opinion. On my copy, this rather insipid line was featured front and center. After reading it a few times, I kept thinking it sounded deeply racist; like, what does it mean that he 'knows Harlem', 'knows his people', 'knows their language'. Would you say I know white people and the language they use? I suppose in a way I do, but how is that a talent, or an appropriate thing to call out? It felt very otherizing about black people, and I didn't like it.
If the devil is in the details, then God is in the music.
As you may have divined from reading this blob, I am not a particularly religious person. That said, I grew up in a Presbyterian church, and pieces of the rituals are ingrained in me and dear to me. In particular, I have always loved the music of church service - the organ (looking at you, Mommy!), the hymns, and the rhythm of worship. I loved these lines about music and church:
- "This moment and this music had been with John, so it seemed, since he had first drawn breath." Sometimes when I'm singing hymns I feel like they come from somewhere deep within me, something older and more sacred than me and that moment.
- "Their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord." Nature and music are probably the two things that make me most want to believe in the presence of a higher being, even if they can't get me all the way there.
We used to have this list of "Children's Book Titles You'll Never See", and our sardonic family found them deeply amusing. I found the list online (click here) because of course, everything lives on the interwebs Somewhere! Anyway, "Daddy drinks because you cry" was one of them, and I was reminded of it when Elizabeth tells Roy, "Your daddy beats you because he loves you." There was a pretty significant amount of beating in this book, and I recognize that (a) it was a different time and (b) there are some cultural differences in discipline, but (c) I was still upset. I don't like violence, and I definitely don't like the power dynamic of a parent striking their child, no matter the situation.
I can remember lots of things.
When the book opens, it's John's birthday, and he is certain that everyone has forgotten. This reminded me of Sixteen Candles, when poor Molly Ringwald is desperately trying to get her family to remember it's her birthday, to no avail. Here's another similar scene from Poisonwood Bible:
Rachel - teenager (to a fault), supremacist (sorry folks, that's what she is), outlier (as in, one of these Prices is not like the others)
"'Oh, it's August twentieth today, isn't it?' I asked several times out loud, looking at my watch like there was something I needed to do... I asked Adah rather loudly, 'Say, isn't today's date the twentieth of August?' She nodded that it was, and I looked around me in amazement, for there was my very own family, setting the breakfast table and making lesson plans and what not as if this were simply the next day after yesterday and note even anything as special as Thursdays back home in Bethlehem, which was always the day we had to set out the trash."
It turns out that Johnny's mother has not forgotten, and she gives him a little spending money to go out (TREAT YOSELF). The rest of the family seems pretty oblivious, though, and I felt for the little guy! All he got for brekkies was a little hominy and a bacon scrap. Not much of a birthday breakfast! Maybe he dreamed drooling of a Banana Breakfast!
It's a black and white world.
Like I mentioned before, this was a tough book to read - it puts the reader face to face with harsh truths about race, some of which are not noticeably different or better today. I know that the world is not, in fact, black and white, but Baldwin does paint in these colors from time to time, out of necessity and in speaking his characters' (and his) truth.
- "Before [John], then, the slope stretched upward, and above it in the brilliant sky, and beyond it, cloudy, and far away, he saw the skyline of New York. He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him... And still, on the summit of that hill he paused. He remembered the people he had seen in that city, whose eyes held no love for him. And he thought of their feet so swift and brutal, and the dark gray clothes that they wore, and how when they passed they did not see him, or if they saw him, they smirked." This was such a poignant juxtaposition of sheer joy and ostracism. It reminded me of the remarks that Laura Bloomberg gave at Breakthrough's national conference this year - she referenced a poem that one of her students wrote, a young black man, and how he looked in the mirrors at school and saw nothing, because he felt so invisible to the world. My best friend, Dennis, even expressed that he, as a gay black man, has felt invisible to the world, and he leads a rich life replete with friendships and positive relationships. I am so deeply sad that sixty years have not made a dent in this perception; there is so much work still to be done.
- "His father said that all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. He said that white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies, and that not one of them had ever loved a n*." He, John, was a n*, and he would find out, as soon as he got a little older, how evil white people could be. John had read about the things white people did to colored people; how, in the South, where his parents came from, white people cheated them of their wages, and burned them, and shot them - and did worse things, said his father, which the tongue could not endure to utter. He had read about coloured men being burned in the electric chair for things they had not done; how in riots they were beaten with clubs; how they were tortured in prisons; how they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired." We have made strides in some areas, to be sure, but what a passage to read on MLK day, in a year filled with Ferguson and Trayvon and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. There are layers to hatred, and bigotry, yes, but can white people be trusted any more today? I wonder sometimes.
- "For him there was the back door, and the dark stairs, and the kitchen or the basement. This world was not for him." I was floored by this line. You could argue that I have faced the occasional barrier as a woman, or as someone who has struggled financially from time to time, or even as a person who identifies as having mental health needs, but I have never, for one instant, truly felt, in my heart of hearts, that the world was not for me. If that isn't privilege, I don't know what is. Do you feel like the world is for you?
Roy - Favorite of the family, rabble-rouser, rough around the edges
Roy is one of the only people (aside from Florence) to stand up to his father. It doesn't exactly go well (think words like belt and welt) but it's still pretty ballsy:
"Don't you slap my mother. That's my mother. You slap her again, you black bastard, and I swear to God I'll kill you.'
In the moment that these words filled the room, and hung in the room like the infinitesimal moment of hanging, jagged light that precedes an explosion, John and his father were staring into each other's eyes."
Florence - Rower of her own boat, Miss IndePendent, Putter-in-placer-of-Gabriel
Do you pray? How do you pray?
I used to pray in the bathroom during breaks from my cello lesson. It seemed like a nice quiet time, though the lights would go off if I didn't move around from time to time.
"Florence had forgotten how to pray.
Her mother had taught her that the way to pray was to forget everything and everyone but Jesus, to pour out of the heart, like water from a bucket, all evil thoughts, all thoughts of self, all malice for one's enemies; to come boldly, and yet more humbly than a little child, before the Giver of all good things." I prefer Anne's theory on praying: "Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I'd look up into the sky - up - up - up - into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."
Florence got me thinking about intersectionality. If you're not familiar with the term, here's a good definition:
intersectionality - the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage
Here's the line that struck me in particular: "There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel's - to which, since Gabriel was a manchild, all else must be sacrificed. And he needed the education that Florence desired far more than he, and that she might have got if he had not been born." le SIIIIIGh.
Frank, Florence's husband - "It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom 'coming along' is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive." oh, isn't that the truth, Florence? I know quite a few people who are destined never to arrive.
Deborah - Woman wronged, Wallflower, Wifey #1 to Mr. Meanypants
Deborah has something in common with Franny from HNH, and unfortunately it rhymes with tape. In Deborah's case, it is at the hands of white men who consider her public property:
- "That night had robbed her of the right to be considered a woman. No man would approach her in honor because she was a living reproach, to herself and to all black women and to all black men."
- This line - "Folks can change their ways much as they want to. But I don't care how many times you change your ways, what's in you is in you, and it's got to come out." reminded me of this line from HNH: "When someone touches you and you don't want to be touched, that's not really being touched - you got to believe me. It's not you they touch when they touch you that way; they don't really get you, you understand. You've still got you inside you."
- "She, who had been the living proof and witness of their daily shame, and who had become their holy fool - and he, who had been the untamable despoiler of their daughters, and thief of their women, their walking prince of darkness!"
- "It was she who had known his father in a life where John was not, and in a country John had never seen. When he was nothing, nowhere, dust, cloud, air, and sun, and falling rain, not even thought of, said his mother, in Heaven with the angels, said his aunt, she had known his father, and shared his father's house [...] She could have told him - had he but been able from his hiding-place to ask! - how to make his father love him." This was one of my favorite lines.
Gabriel is a very odd character, and quite the enigma wrapped in a paradox wrapped in a riddle. He prides himself on his holiness, yet takes more moral missteps than anyone else in the book.
- "Yet what frightened him, and kept him more than ever on his knees, was the knowledge that, once having fallen, nothing would be easier than to fall again." let's just say he needs stitches based on how many times he falls in this book.
- after Roy is slashed across the forehead by a group of white men: 'You see?' came now from his father. 'It was white folks, some of them white folks you like so much that tried to cut your brother's throat.' John thought, with immediate anger and with a curious contempt for his father's inexactness, that only a blind man, however white, could possibly have been aiming at Roy's throat. 'This is what white folks does to n*s.' I love John's sassy internal retort, despite the obvious somber quality of this moment.
Esther was one of my favorite characters in the book. Unfortunately, she dies giving birth to Gabriel's bastard son, Royal. Here are a few of her choicest lines:
- "I reckon you don't want no whore like Esther for your wife. Esther's just for the night, for the dark, where won't nobody see you getting your holy self all dirtied up with Esther."
- "I ain't ashamed of it - I'm ashamed of you - you done made me feel a shame I ain't never felt before."
Richard was one of my other favorite characters; packed with promise, ruined for his race.
- Elizabeth, on first meeting Richard: "She noticed him at once because he was so sullen and only barely polite. He waited on folks, her aunt said, furiously, as though he hoped the food they bought would poison them." I loved this description. Apples for you! Bread for you! Hope you don't CHoke on it!
- Elizabeth, to Richard: 'How come you got to know so much?
- 'I just decided me one day that I was going to get to know everything them white bastards knew, and I was going to get to know it better than them, so could no white son-of-a-bitch nowhere never talk me down, and never make me feel like I was dirt, when I could read him the alphabet, back, front, and sideways. Shit - he weren't going to beat my ass, then."
- What the store owner says when he IDs Richard as part of a group of black boys who robbed his store and stabbed him, when Richard asserts his (rightful) innocence: 'You black bastards - you're all the same." Such a deeply upsetting series of events, and again, one that I would like to feel was squarely behind us, but I know it isn't.
- the night after Richard is finally released from wrongful imprisonment: "He fell asleep at last, clinging to her as though he were going down into the water for the last time. And it was the last time. That night he cut his wrists with his razor and he was found in the morning by his landlady, his eyes staring upward with no light, dead among the scarlet sheets." I was heartbroken (but unfortunately not surprised) when this was revealed. How much can we expect Richard to bear?
- "She had kept, precariously enough, what her aunt had referred to as her pearl without price while she had been with Richard down home." Love this euphemism. I will continue to guard my 'pearl without price'. Guard your carnal treasure, Rosalie!
- On how she would respond to the white policemen who questioned her about Richard's supposed robbery: "She was entirely in their power; she would have to think faster than they could think; she would have to contain her fear and her hatred, and find out what could be done. Not for anything short of Richard's life, and not, possibly, even for that, would she have wept before them, or asked of them a kindness." I am often struck by how much additional patience and fortitude is required of people of color. I wonder if I could be so poised, if I could withhold my rage, in such moments of crises. I know that no one should have to.
- "She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all - the white city, the white world. She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humour, had hearts like human beings too, more human hearts than theirs." May we all know that human beings of all types have human hearts, and especially as we think of those whom we have suppressed and oppressed and repressed. Let us hear the brag of their hearts: 'they are, they are, they are.'
- Elisha, the pastor's nephew: "Do you want to be saved, Johnny?" This reminded me of when I went to youth group with my friends the Atens, roughly
a millionfifteen years ago. They had me fill out this questionnaire, and along with my name, address, and age, was this question: "When were you saved?" I didn't know, as my mother later told me, that it would have sufficed to say "in Presbyterian faith, we are saved from birth", so instead made up some story about seeing Jesus by my bed one night. #sorrynotsorry
- "People fell all over themselves to meet John Grimes. He was a poet, or a college president, or a movie star; he drank expensive whisky, and he smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes in the green package." I loved this - famous Meredith, she drinks imported coffee from Seattle, and is only seen in the fanciest of slippers. Does mine sound as cool? (Don't answer that.)
- "This was why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John's heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God's minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father."
- "He had made his decision. He would not be like his father, or his father's fathers. He would have another life."
- OK - so I thought I understood the direction we were going here with John, but then in the end, he has this whole 'come to Jesus moment' and he decides he is going to be a Reverend. I was confused, and a little disappointed, tbqh.
- "He loved this street, not for the people or the shops but for the stone lions that guarded the great main building of the Public Library, a building filled with books and unimaginably vast, and which he had never yet dared to enter. He might, he knew, for he was a member of the branch in Harlem and was entitled to take books from any library in the city. But he had never gone in because the building was so big that it must be full of corridors and marble steps, in the maze of which he would be lost and never find the book he wanted. And then everyone, all the white people inside, would know that he was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at him with pity." I loved that John loved books. As I've mentioned before, so many protagonists in semi-autobiographical works love books and then love writing, and John felt similar in this way, though his status as a reader and consumer of literature was obviously more complicated (and challenged) by his race.
- "Since he was noticed by an eye altogether alien and impersonal, he began to perceive, in wild uneasiness, his individual existence. This moment gave him, if not a weapon at least a shield; he had in himself a power that other people lacked; he could use this to save himself, to raise himself." John, on being praised by a white teacher.
- "Dirt was in the walls and the floorboards, and triumphed beneath the sink where roaches spawned; was in the fine ridges of the pots and pans, scoured daily, burnt black on the bottom, hanging above the stove; was in the wall against which they hung and revealed itself where the paint had cracked and leaned outward in stiff squares and fragments, the paper-thin underside webbed with black. Dirt was in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove, and lived behind it in delirious communion with the corrupted wall." This description of dirt reminded me of a passage from 'To the Lighthouse':
- "So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and a basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, 'This is he' or 'This is she'."
- on Gabriel's role as a deacon: "He was a kind of fill-in speaker, a holy handyman."
- "The mantelpiece held, in brave confusion, phonographs, greeting cards, flowered mottoes, two silver candlesticks that held no candles, and a green metal serpent, poised to strike." I love the specificity of this line, and the idea of 'brave confusion'.
- "You just kindly turn out that light and I'll make you to know that black's a mighty pretty color." Frank, to Florence, after telling her to stop using skin whiteners. This was almost the title for this post.
- on Florence - "She moved in a silent ferocity of dignity which barely escaped being ludicrous." God, I love this line.
- "He remembered only enough to be afraid every time her belly began to swell, knowing that each time the swelling began it would not end until she was taken from him, to come back with a stranger." John, on how he perceives his mother's pregnancies.
Come in the evening, or come in the morning,
Come when you're looked for, or come without warning,
A thousand welcomes you'll find here before you,
And the oftener you come here, the more we'll adore you.
I'll leave you with my other favorite line: "We might have the joy bells ringing deep in our hearts tonight!" I hope the joy bells ring deep in your bragging rubymeated hearts tonight, and know that the oftener you come to this blob, the more I'll adore you.
I'm off to the Devilish Prose!