This year, after 40 years, I finally learned how Black History Month came to be. It emerged out of the efforts of a former slave named Richard Robert Wright Sr. He thought that February 1, the day Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, should be commemorated across the nation; a year after he died, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman made it so. That set the stage for what would later become Black History Week, which would later extend to the full month. I mention this because books about about blackness tend to publish in February. Black stories, somehow, are elevated more this month. But they are resonant all year round. I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God every year. This year, I found another book I will likely read again and again, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. Aside from the fact that both books were penned by black women authors from the South, they also unearth the realities that complicate black heterosexual relationships in ways that are unique and hard to describe with grace or insight. Both are epic love stories that are at once timely and classic. Like Black History Month, and perhaps black history, so much of the story of our people is framed by slavery and struggle. Love is the only respite or solution, and, of course, even that is fraught, weighted by shackles. Hurston and Jones offer us a little bit of humor and light, descriptions that give us back some air—sounds and beauty to remind us that not all darkness leads to despair. (And because there is such a dearth of diversity in publishing, I have to be clear that I’m not saying that I think Jones is the new Hurston. But it also happens that Valentine’s Day falls in the midst of Black History Month, so there is some synchronicity here that gives me an excuse to write about their unique brilliance and the way it overlaps.) First, An American Marriage. The old folks might say that Roy and Celestial are not exactly equally yoked, as Scripture puts it. Roy is a down-home country boy from Eloe, La. She is well-to-do from Atlanta. The way he puts it is that she’s a “shooting star” woman, the kind he’s always had a thing for. Celestial and Roy have a friend named Andre who is better friends with Celestial, which turns out to be as suspicious as it might sound. From the beginning, we get the sense that Roy has a chip on his shoulder about their marriage that was placed there by Celestial’s family. An argument between the two of them sends Roy out of their hotel room and into a situation that ends with his wrongful imprisonment. He goes to prison based on the oldest trope connected to black manhood in the South and in America: the rape of a white woman. [millions_ad] I don’t want to give away the plot, the twists and the turns. But An American Marriage showcases Jones at the height of her narrative powers. The novel alternates between first-person narration from the perspective of Roy, Celestial, and Andre, except for when Roy and Celestial are engaged in an engrossing, detailed, and ultimately heartbreaking correspondence. We know from experience or because we read, or because we have heard our coupled and married friends bemoan the truth of this: a person, a love, a relationship can be a prison. The throbbing, broken heart of An American Marriage is the tension we feel between rooting for Celestial to be free and wondering if it is her obligation to experience the same wrongful incarceration as Roy. This is a letter from Celestial to Roy in prison, on what losing him has taught her about love: Our house is simply empty, our home has been emptied. Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again. Before I met you, I was not lonely, but now I’m so lonely I talk to the walls and sing to the ceiling. I thought I was doing okay, that I wasn’t in danger at all of being gutted by this book, and then I read that line and my eyes swelled with tears at the accuracy of what lost love feels like—singing to a bare ceiling as you miss your beloved. It is the kind of breathlessness I only ever experience over black love as depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which begins with a line that I love more than any other in literature: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish onboard.” As someone who is perpetually crushing on someone, somewhere, this is how I always feel. But this sets the stage for Hurston’s epic, which is about how women call in our horizons for the sake of love—she does not decide or cast judgment on whether we should. Janie first marries a mean ol' man who ends up as Mayor Starks. No one really likes him, but he’s respected. He makes her tie up her long luscious hair and beats her instead of loving on her. The difference between a woman like Janie and a woman like Celestial could be said to be the difference between that generation and ours. Janie sticks it out, she stays confined. But thankfully, a cruel fate befalls him (one gets the sense that Hurston, as a writer, was just fed up with Joe Starks so she killed him off) and Janie ends up a wealthy widower in South Florida. After she burns the rags, a man half her age named Tea Cake courts her scandalously (They play checkers in her husband’s store and the dead husband’s body ain’t even cold yet! They go fishing at night!) and he makes her “soul crawl out from its hiding place.” What the stories have in common is a bittersweet ending, which is probably the biggest challenge with black love, which is maybe what makes it particularly fraught. We can liberate ourselves from what we believe our love should look like, but for us, holding onto memory usually has baggage attached. Remembrance for us always has the death of something in it. And it requires us to work to cleanse memory of death and pain. Maybe that’s why it’s good we come back to this month every year after all, to find good things to remember, and to celebrate them.
So often, black victims of the criminal justice system are fast moving statistics, hashtags, or headlines that fade in and out of view, instead of fully-formed humans we come to understand as failed by our many systems. A combination of new books—I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Rolling Stone contributor and New York Times bestselling author Matt Taibbi; Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. by Harvard University professor Danielle Allen; and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith—works in ways overt and subtle to correct this damaging oversight. Individually, they own an aspect of the journey of one who has been killed: Taibbi writes an empathetic, journalistic overview; Allen writes with the intimacy of a loved one; and Smith transforms anticipated elegy into a defiant, lovely celebration. In I Can’t Breathe, Taibbi offers the closest thing to a comprehensive, mature look back at a single example of how these stories play out that I’ve read. It is a clear-sighted account of exactly how the criminal justice system renders invisible the bodies of black victims and their families, as told through the life and death of Eric Garner. Garner was killed by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in July 2014, when Pantaleo placed Garner in a fatal chokehold for illegally selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. The book is written in Taibbi’s vivid, precise language, like a literary version of the HBO show The Night Of. No life or pattern is left unexamined in the mosaic of problems that led to the end of Garner’s life, including the history of “Broken Windows” policing in New York, a pattern of unjustified and often fatal violence against black men throughout the city at the hands of police that crushes them in a bureaucratic criminal justice system. We know, because we live in America in the 21st century, that this is true for so many others. Instead of simply being a symbol, Taibbi asserts that Garner “was a flesh-and-blood person—interesting, imperfect, funny, ambitious, and alive—who just happened to stumble into the thresher of America’s reactionary racist insanity at exactly the wrong time. But his story—about how ethnic resentments can be manipulated politically to leave us vulnerable to the lawless violence of our own government—is not his alone. His bad luck has now become ours.” Danielle Allen’s Cuz is a both a close and distant look at the life of her cousin, Michael, for whom she was a primary financial and emotional support. Michael was devoured by the prison industrial complex by the Three Strikes law right after its inception in California. He spent the entirety of his formative years incarcerated. He fell in love with an inmate, Bree, and that love led to his death at 29. Cuz draws us close to Michael—his heart, his brain, his pride. It is not human to be caged, her book reminds us on every page. But prison not only impacts the prisoner, but everyone around him. They can never leave, nor can those who love them. I wondered what the value would be, honestly, in Allen’s book. From a distance, learning the premise and her stature compared to her cousin’s, and reading The New Yorker excerpt, I wasn’t sure I trusted her as a narrator. In the end, I learned that her story is probably more common than not, just not unearthed as often—a concerned relative with more questions than answers. There is, though, hope in the midst of this mostly bleak aggregation of black mourning. While the facts and statistics about police brutality and violence and black mortality and incarceration in America are all damning and depressing as hell, what is also true is that black people do not abide a perpetual mournfulness. This is why we hold homegoing services, better known to most as funerals. You can bury us, but, as Danez Smith’s incredible poetry collection asserts, don't call us dead. Smith has written an incredible array of meditations on what it means to survive. There are homages to some of the lost: Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice; addressing them with simple, rigorous, lovely lines like these in, “summer, somewhere”: “we say our own names when we pray./we go out for sweets & come back.” Or, “O, the imagination of a new reborn boy/but most of us settle on alive.” I do not want to cannibalize the gorgeous, whole, soaring loveliness that Smith has compiled here to well-deserved fanfare, on topics that certainly include a kind of healing resurrection for slain black people. The collection is also full of refreshing honesty and vulnerability about hooking up on dating apps and being HIV positive and the many betrayals of life that have nothing to do with other people, but can live right within the flesh, the bloodstream. What I loved most, though, about Smith’s poems, as with Taibbi’s book and Allen’s, is that they did not let numbers tell tales. Instead, they give us flesh and blood, beating hearts you’ll still be able to hear long after the books are closed. I can’t say it will be easy reading, but I can promise it will be worthwhile. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
At this year’s BookExpo, surrounded by stacks of galleys (most of which I tried to haul from the Jacob Javitz Center in Manhattan on two different train rides to the South Bronx in an effort to claim the world’s nerdiest #FirstWorldProblems award) I was introduced to the Irish novelist John Boyne by a woman who saw me staring at the pink and red tome with a puzzled look on my face. It was a doozy of a galley, thick and intimidating. I wasn’t sure I could stand to bring one more book home. Still, I find epic novels sexy. All I ever need is an enabler. “You really need to pick that one up,” she said, as if my internal voice had gone external. “It’s the best book you’ll read all year.” I’m a trained librarian, a proud bookworm who prefers Goodreads to all other social media, and a writer. Reader, I could not resist. I was raised Catholic and my frame of reference for all things Ireland is the Catholic Church. I wanted to read Boyne, who has written 10 novels for adults and five for young readers (his international bestseller, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is his best-known work), due to a combination of my interest in this very long book as my chosen summer read, the perspective of an Irish writer on the old Catholic mores of Dublin and the country at large, and because I was intrigued by this stranger’s passion. Though The Heart’s Invisible Furies is new to the U.S., it was published in the U.K. and elsewhere in 2016. Inspired by Ireland’s Equal Rights Marriage Referendum, Boyne utilizes the story of Cyril Avery to represent how his country managed to change dramatically over a short span of time. The book begins when Cyril’s birth mother, Catherine Goggin, is cast out of her hometown of Goleen, Ireland, as a teenage mother in 1945. She is publicly shamed by the town priest for being pregnant so young, which provides the context for how conservative Ireland was in those days. Banished, she makes her way to Dublin where she befriends Sean MacIntyre, who takes pity on the young, visibly pregnant woman and invites her to live with him and his roommate, Jack Smoot. It doesn’t take Goggin long to realize that the two men are secretly lovers, foreshadowing the way same-sex love is obscured then revealed to sometimes fatal consequences over the course of the novel. Cyril is adopted by two well-to-do Irish citizens when he is young: an arrogant government worker, Charles, and his reluctantly renowned wife, Maude, a chain-smoking female chauvinist author. (To give you a sense of their personalities, they name Cyril after their beloved spaniel.) They incessantly remind him that he should call them his “adoptive parents,” and think of his time in their home as more of an “eighteen-year tenancy” because he’s not really family. They insist he call them by their first names instead of mother and father. Cyril has a secret: He is in love with his best friend, Julian Woodbead. Cyril describes himself, and Julian, thus: But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our future lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably toward isolation and disaster. Descriptive phrases such as this fill every page of this novel. It is difficult to find flaws in the writing, the characterization, or the plot. There are two major achievements in the book: With intricate narrative precision, The Heart’s Invisible Furies cuts to the heart of what family is, how it is chosen, and how it endures. And it is charming and funny, even as it dives down from the precipice of endearing humor into the very specific ironies and cruelties of real life. When Cyril talks to Julian about sex, for example, his childlike reaction to sex is both hilarious and descriptive: “...he took great delight in describing in detail actions that to me seemed not just unpleasant and unsanitary, but possibly criminal.” If there is one thing that could strike a reader as implausible, it is that for large swaths of this nearly 600-page novel, Cyril is not even the slightest bit curious about the identity of his birth mother. Adopted children may experience this as ringing true, but I found this lack of interest odd, even for a wonderfully quirky protagonist and narrator. But we have a period of 60 years, up until 2015, for his life to unfold—and that it does, in a careful, exquisite way. Over that span of time, Cyril is also understandably distracted by life: there are kidnappings; fatal beatings; harrowing nights of lust and sentimental triumphs; grimacing, lethal pimps and petite, lovely boys whose spirits are nearly crushed by the heft of sex trafficking. When he finds the love of his life again, more than halfway through the novel, he describes him in foreboding terms: “His cheeks were sunken, as were his eyes, and a dark oval of purple-red sent a hideous bruise along his chin and down his neckline. A line came in my mind, something that Hannah Arendt had once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.” Boyne writes of the shame others make of homosexuality, bound by the arbitrary rules of the Catholic Church, in a homophobic society that does not improve so much as transform from blatant institutionally accepted bias to individually expressed prejudice. He explores how shame is equally meted out against unwed teenage mothers like Goggin and closeted gay men like Cyril -- the deep sadness, angst, and resilience that life’s changes can require of us. His characters are cinematically rendered, with a deft, decadent wit that will make you laugh aloud at least once. Searing heartbreak; loneliness; a quest for internal and external redemption, solace, and contentment are all there in The Heart’s Invisible Furies. Cyril finds love, and after a number of sad departures from his old friends and lives, finds himself out in New York City, visiting with young men dying from AIDS when his misfortune strikes again. It sets him on a course back to Ireland where life continues—as it is wont to do—to surprise and open him up further to himself. On nearly every page there is some witticism that Boyne offers Cyril—usually in reaction to his sexuality or as others react and he informs them after they’ve embarrassed themselves that he is, indeed, “one of the queers.” Mrs. Goggin returns to us as a force to be reckoned with in a tea room that Cyril visits over the years, and Boyne instills in us the hope, longing, and yearning of a little boy who wants to belong to someone. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is as much a multicultural epic of Ireland’s social transformation as Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is an exploration the intricate tentacles of slavery over time and into the modern era. Boyne’s author bio suggested that of the many books Boyne has written this was his most ambitious. It is the most affecting, beautiful, and memorable novel I have read in some time, transporting me into worlds as dreadful as some are delightful. Turns out that lovely anonymous woman at BEA was 100 percent correct.