Margaret Wilkerson Sexton opens her debut novel with a poignant quote from Edward P. Jones’ book of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children: “They were the children of once-upon-a-time slaves, born into a kind of freedom, but they had traveled down through the wombs with what all their kind had been born with—the knowledge that God had promised next week to everyone but themselves.” A Kind of Freedom vividly underlines the profound truth summed up in this evocative statement.
In this powerful family drama, Sexton tracks the sad history of three generations of a single African-American family in Louisiana. (Most of them and many of their neighbors are, in the terminology of that time and place, Creole, many of them passé blanc.) In alternating short chapters that highlight the experiences of each of several central characters, she relates the family’s story at three eventful periods: 1944-45, 1986-87, and 2010-11.
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (2018) 230 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The earliest chapters, set during the closing months of World War II, concern the lives of a prosperous doctor, his accommodating wife, and their two very different daughters, Evelyn and Ruby. Evelyn is studying nursing; Ruby is in vocational school. The young men they’re dating go off to war. Four decades later, the focus shifts to Evelyn’s two daughters, Sybil and Jackie. Sybil practices law, while Jackie teaches school. Sybil has remained single, but Jackie has married Terry, the football star and president of the senior class at their high school, now a pharmacist. However, Terry has fallen prey to crack cocaine and is in and out of Jackie’s life and that of their son, T.C. By 2010, we view the world from T.C.’s perspective. At 6’7″, he was a promising college basketball player when injury upended his life. He now deals marijuana and has just been released from a four-month spell in jail. As you can see, the family’s trajectory slopes sharply downward. It’s a grim testament to the pressures of history that sometimes overwhelm the lives of Black families.
The word “racism” appears nowhere in A Kind of Freedom, but its evidence is sharply defined throughout this powerful family drama. The “first Negro doctor in the state” who heads the family must bow to white people on the street in the age of Jim Crow. Back from the war in Europe, Evelyn’s boyfriend describes how white soldiers had viciously assaulted him and his bunkmates in the barracks where they were housed—because one Black soldier had brandished a pistol to scare away a group of violent (white) drunks. Jackie “hadn’t gone to law school like her sister, Sybil, and, yeah, she graduated from Xavier, but she’d applied for seven jobs after college and never got past the interview stage.” T.C. is sent to jail, and later to prison, for possessing modest amounts of marijuana that police officers would likely have ignored had he been white. This, tragically, is the reality that confronts so many African-Americans to this day.
The book’s publisher describes A Kind of Freedom as “an urgent novel that explores the legacy of racial disparity in the South through a poignant and redemptive family history.” But that’s not how I read the book. Surely, there were overt changes in the Jim Crow regime over the seven decades during which the story unfolds, and that represents progress of a sort. But Jim Crow lives on in the present day in the lives of Evelyn and Jackie’s family. And I don’t see redemption in the decline of the family over the years, from the household of the first Black doctor in Louisiana to a great-grandson imprisoned for growing marijuana. Is this the “progress” civil rights has wrought?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, a few of them serious. But I’ve never had to go to prison because of any of them. Need I add that I am white?
I had the privilege of interviewing Margaret Wilkerson Sexton when moderating a panel discussion on politics in the novel at the 2018 Bay Area Book Festival. I found her to be exceptionally bright, insightful, and engaging. Sexton lives in Oakland, California, but was raised in New Orleans. Before turning to writing her novel, she had gained a law degree from the prestigious Boalt School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked for a year in civil rights in the Dominican Republic with her husband.
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