Ask a Book Question: The 51st in a Series (How Hagar Got Its Name)

March 12, 2007 | 1 book mentioned 1 2 min read

Nancy wrote in with this question about All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones:

coverI am listening to this book on CD and in the past week I have driven over a 1000 miles just to keep listening. It is a wonderful book. I am wondering what the significance of the title is? Since I can’t page back and see if I missed something, I ordered the book today. I have heard Aunt Hagar mentioned several times, but I need a little help.

The “Aunt Hagar” Jones is referring to is Hagar from the Bible, Genesis to be exact. As the story goes, Abraham’s wife Sarah was unable to bear children and so she presented him with Hagar, her slave, and with Abraham Hagar had Ishmael.

I’ll let Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley take it from here, as he went in depth on the title in his review of the book.

God then permits Sarah to bear a son, Isaac, but Sarah is angered when she sees the boys together and demands that Abraham “cast out this slave woman with her son.” This he does, but he is distressed, so God tells him: “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” The nation that ensued, many people believe, is Africa itself, hence blacks are “all Aunt Hagar’s children.”

The story of Hagar has long been told in black churches and is the stuff of music as well. In the early 1920s, W.C. Handy wrote “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” which includes the lines: “Just hear Aunt Hagar’s chilun harmonizin’ to that old mournful tune!/ It’s like choir from on high broke loose!/ If the devil brought it, the good Lord sent it right down to me,/ Let the congregation join while I sing those lovin’ Aunt Hagar’s Blues!” The song has been recorded many times, perhaps most notably by Louis Armstrong on his album devoted to Handy’s music. It’s easy to imagine that Jones listened to that performance more than once as he wrote these superb stories.

Aunt Hagar is present here both as the symbolic mother of all African Americans and as the embodiment of black womanhood. In the title story, a young black man is murdered, and a friend of his mother says: “One more colored boy outa their hair. It’s a shame before God, the way they do all Aunt Hagar’s children.”

Thanks for the question, Nancy!

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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