She was tired of seeing people drudge, get sick, and die...Tired of yearning for the woman she wanted to become, someone who moved through life with self-designed purpose…
I don’t often read historical fiction. The last few novels I read in this genre (Kindred, Fever 1793) were the foundation of whole units in the eighth and ninth grade English classes I co-teach, so I did not have much of a choice. Both times, I ended up loving the books more than I had anticipated. Much of my hesitation to delve into anything with ‘historical’ in the title is an unfortunate holdover from my own middle and high school years, where I viewed the bland, whitewashed history I was taught as facts and dates to memorize and regurgitate for the express purpose of getting As from my history teachers. Now, at 27, I’m still playing catch up: slipping into the intermittent Wikipedia wormhole, devouring articles and essays that draw on the past to make sense of the present, and, of course, listening to my husband’s occasional profuse recollections of a historical event for which I only possess the most basic, peripheral details.
To call Jam on the Vine ‘history come to life’ is to do this work a disservice: it is a story rooted in love and determination, flowered from a rich soil of blood and oppression, to sprout into an enduring saga that strikes a heavy cord in our present cultural and political landscape. What Barnett does with this story is not only illuminate a moment in time that set in motion some of the most transformative and influential policy the United States has ever seen, but highlight, with lush profundity, where we continue to falter. I finished this book with the strangest sensation of hope and dread: how far we have come, I thought; and yet, how depressingly close to the starting line we still seem to be!
“--After all, the words ‘liberty and justice for all’ have no meaning for us...We pledge allegiance to a nation that has not returned the favor. The root of this problem is the ballot-less Negro’s level of citizenship renders him ineligible for democracy. The government bills our nation as democratic but that is a claim we must refute. Far beyond rule by the people through election, a democratic government promised equal treatment for all. Where is the equality in underpaid labor, poor education and housing, substandard health facilities, lynching, police harassment and murder, wrongful convictions, and disproportionate incarceration? For the average Negro, how is living in American democracy much different from peasantry under monarch rule?”
Jam, set during the racially and economically tumultuous years of 1897-1925, follows the Williams family of Little Tunis, Central East Texas. We have Lemon, the tenacious matriarch who holds fast to her Islamic upbringing, despite being surrounded by former slaves who worship “the white man’s Jesus”; May-Belle, her aunt, whip-sharp and wise in all things medicinal and emotional; Ennis, Lemon’s loving husband, who bows daily beneath the weight of his family’s needs and his battered dignity; Timbo, the eldest son, who is lost for years before eventually finding himself; Irabelle, the youngest, the loveliest, and the one made to suffer most for it; and Ivoe, our intrepid protagonist, hungry for a purpose beyond merely surviving day-to-day in Little Tunis. Ever an enthusiastic student, she spends her childhood stealing newspapers to read, and ultimately uses her passion for education as a means to a life she thought might only exist in dreams. She is not without her healthy share of setbacks, at the hands of enemies, lovers, and the omnipresent obstacle of being born within her gender and race, but she perseveres--not out of some outdated notion of the indestructible black woman, but simply because she understands her life’s calling to investigative journalism, to bold activism, and will not bend to the world’s insistence that she sit down and be quiet.
Reading Jam is nothing short of a sensory delight. Barnett’s descriptions are warm and thick as the golden Texas sun, crafting rich scenes of pleasure and pain alike that linger long after you’ve read them. We are witness to a shifting racial climate, that ugly purgatorial morass that kept black Americans enslaved far longer than any official decree would have us believe, but the story does not stop there, at the plundering evil we have become desensitized to after centuries of media normalization. Barnett pierces the gritty surface and lets the sustaining essence of the bonds forged by black community flow: the earnest schoolteacher determined to educate the poor children in her town; disenfranchised laborers coming together to unionize; a father holding his children rapt with a beloved story on a lazy afternoon. There is more to our story than pain; more to remember than injustice, Barnett reminds us. At our root, we are human, sown with seeds of love. And it is this, the fundamental surety of our personhood, our dignity, that enables us to fight. That emboldens us to walk a little longer.
Jam on the Vine, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Grove Press (imprint of Grove Atlantic), New York, NY, 2015.