Star-Spangled Slavery and the Great American Novel
One needn’t believe in ghosts in order to recognize that America is haunted. At least in the historical sense, racial apparitions are everywhere, inhibiting our discourse, strangling our ideals. Racism needn’t require that we “see” race in most aspects of American life, but rather that you don’t. There is nothing to see, so to speak. But there is much to acknowledge and, indeed, much more with which to reckon.
What history often forgets, the novel reminds. The American novel has frequently acted as the moral shadow for our messy, tragic past, and yet, America’s original sin, slavery, only intermittently takes refuge at the center of the American narrative. One doesn’t necessarily read Melville, Hawthorne, Hemingway or Fitzgerald for evidence of a heightened racial consciousness. While Huckleberry Finn and Jim may have floated intrepidly down the mighty Mississippi, their sacred Eden was as tenuous as it was temporary. Despite Mark Twain’s depiction of a young white boy and a runaway slave as the thrilling tease of democracy made flesh, any claim that he may have had to some prelapsarian America remains little more than a fantasy unto itself.
There he was: Uncle Tom.
In 1987, Toni Morrison’s Beloved exhumed the trauma of our slavery-stained history; by turns supple and furious, it made its case not just as an essential African-American novel, but an essential American novel. Morrison tells the harrowing, supernatural tale of an escaped slave who murders her own daughter rather than see her returned to slavery. Forever haunted by her actions, the story is unbearable, psychologically and existentially, yet Morrison’s leitmotif was fueled by the necessity of history — through what Beloved’s protagonist, Sethe, calls “rememory.” Morrison’s great triumph was to refashion American history in order to change it — to redirect its emphasis. Slavery figures not as some abstraction, but as the vertebrae of the American experiment. In 1988, 48 leading Black intellectuals, collectively writing in The New York Times, coalesced around Morrison’s achievement, celebrating Beloved as a unique literary depiction of slavery. The novel, they asserted, created
…a universe of complicated, sweetly desiring, fierce and deeply seductive human beings hitherto subsumed by, hitherto stifled by, that impenetrable nobody-noun: ‘the slave.’
What is literature, after all, but a passionate rejoinder to our politics — and thus our lies, our evasions, our sins? Literature is the poetry to our national prose, or, as Balzac famously averred, it’s “the history which so many historians have neglected.” And there can be no doubt that our national language of individual rights, property and freedom have all too often animated our national delusions.
Slavery: vertebrae of the American experiment.
When Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, bequeathed Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American public in 1852, the exclusionary nature of our racial politics were instantly laid bare; her novel unmasked how our ideals, long-jaundiced, were being swaddled in the language of liberty. At the time Stowe wrote, slaves were still Constitutionally designated as 3/5 of a person. And then, at once, a whole nation that had long made a mockery of its egalitarian vision was shown up. There he was: Uncle Tom — avatar of human bondage, model of Christian mercy, still able to offer his murderous master a shot at redemption. Stowe knew that any acknowledgement of racial oppression would be coupled with disavowals — that is, the oppressor would explain away the oppression. Stowe demanded otherwise. As Tom thunders to his unforgiving master:
O, Mas’r! Don’t bring this great sin on your soul. It will hurt you more than ‘twill me. Do the worst you can, my troubles’ll be over soon; but if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end.
Stowe, Morrison and others have proven that the slave novel is the great American novel, and it’s an exorcism of sorts. Add Natashia Deón’s revelatory Grace to this list, as once again it locates exquisite poetry in the realm of American racial sin. Deón insists upon a racial reckoning, right here and now. She hears the jazz of American anguish, the agony of diminished chords and syncopated beats; she riffs on the pain of antebellum America with haunting lyricism and pulse-quickening suspense. Hers is a stunning new voice in fiction, unstinting yet sentimental, and her story bleeds with immediacy and longing. Like James Baldwin, who insisted that artists must confess in order “to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up,” Deón has come to bear witness.
The dead don’t rest easy.
Grace spans more than three decades — before, during and after the Civil War. It is as much a ghost tale as a mother-daughter love story. Majestically, Deón conjures the dehumanization endured by female slaves, their male babies engines for the slave trade while their bodies were there for the raping. Naomi, the novel’s protagonist, escapes her cruel master in Alabama when she’s just 15, leaving her mother and older sister behind and finding a precarious sanctuary in a Georgia brothel. Although she’s tended to by Cynthia, the brothel’s spirited owner, at the age of 17 Naomi must make a run for it again, now with a baby in tow, courtesy of a white patron of the brothel with a gambling addiction. Naomi gets to see her daughter, Josey, grow up, and she watches over her. But the necessary “turn of the screw” is that Naomi, in fact, is dead.
Grace unfurls in flashes, drawing on memories of Naomi’s brief life, moving effortlessly in and out of chronology. From the start, Deón immediately thwacks us when Naomi announces herself as a voice of grave omniscience:
I am dead. I died a nigga a long time ago. Before you were born, before your mother was born, ‘fore your grandmother. I was seventeen. What matters is I had a daughter, who had daughters and they had theirs. … But there are some stories that mothers never tell their daughters — secret stories. Stories that would prove a mother was once young, done thangs with men she could never tell. … Private stories where love, any ‘semblance of love, would lead a person like me to the place I was that night in 1848. When I died.
The dead don’t rest easy, and Grace‘s breakneck pace collides violently with America’s own dissonant history. Naomi may be a specter, but she is no less an embodiment of a mother’s love. Deón seems to be saying that sorrow is immortal in the wake of hell on earth: just as Naomi and her sister, Hazel, once witnessed their mother repeatedly raped, Josey, too, is similarly violated. Vengeful yet helpless, Naomi is thus impotent — a heart-slicing reminder of all Black bodies violated. Deón’s masterstroke, though, is not to set Naomi free but to put her taste of freedom on borrowed time. Perhaps this is the reason that Naomi sticks around in purgatory to protect, or even avenge, Josey’s rape:
Some say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to die. It don’t always. Not for me. …It’s only now that I see flashes. They come and go, and choose what day of my life to show me and I ain’t got a say in it. It happens to all of us dead.
Grace teems with vitality and life even as it makes peace with death. In Deón’s telling, enslaved women were mothers to our nation. Slaves built our republic, then we oppressed and murdered these architects of our nation. Where was there decency, mercy, grace? Naomi tells us that grace differs from justice or mercy, since grace is “getting a good thing, even when you don’t deserve it.”
Reading Grace is a pungent reminder of our history, an immersion into betrayal and immorality, love and redemption. Like all great novels — and Grace is very much a great novel — the story tantalizes us with all things possible, despite grim assessments and tragic tropes, because even the worst of history can still be told through the best of language. With language there is poetry, and where there is poetry, there is humanity. “We die,” Toni Morrison famously observed. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”