This is the fourth in a series of features highlighting the Black writers our editors and staff have been reading. To read The Common’s statement in support of the nationwide protests against anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and police brutality, click here.
Recommendations: Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, This is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope by Shayla Lawson
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
Recommended by W. Ralph Eubanks, Contributing Editor
The first chapter of Natasha Trethewey’s memoir Memorial Drive is called “Another Country,” a title that mirrors James Baldwin’s novel of Black alienation of the same name. Baldwin’s other country was Greenwich Village, while Trethewey’s is Mississippi. While these two places could not be more different, the feeling of isolation elicited by both is the same.
Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport Mississippi in 1966 on the 100th anniversary of the state’s celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, the child of a black mother and a white father. Her parents’ worldviews were shaped by the places of their births, her mother’s in Mississippi and her father’s in the wilds of Nova Scotia. “Though my father believed in the idea of living dangerously, the necessity of taking risks, my mother had witnessed the necessity of dissembling, the art of making one’s face an inscrutable mask before whites who expected of blacks a servile deference.” After their divorce, she and her mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough, move to Atlanta. In a few years, her mother remarries.
Without a doubt, white supremacy cast a long shadow over Trethewey’s life. But it is the murder of mother by her stepfather in 1985 that weighs most heavily on her life. Trethewey has described her mother’s violent death as a wound she bears that can never heal. The narrative of the first half of the memoir feels like it is her attempt to heal that wound. In the second half—which is partly told in her mother’s voice from police transcripts—the reader comes to understand the depth of that psychic wound.
The book gets its title from the address where Trethewey’s mother was murdered. Memorial Drive is not far from Stone Mountain, a symbol of the Confederacy Trethewey describes as “a monument to white supremacy that joins in my psyche the geography and history…of my deepest wounds.” In both its narrative and the symbolism that ties the story together, this is a beautiful yet painful memoir.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Recommended by Jennifer Acker, Editor in Chief
At age 16, in the Jim Crow South, Black twins Stella and Desiree flee in the night to New Orleans to escape their stultifying hometown. The town of Mallard is not only rural with few job opportunities, but has been steeped in colorism, uplifting and accepting only those so fair-skinned they can pass for white. Which is what Stella decides to do after being mistaken for white during a job interview. She marries her boss, bears a blond daughter, Kennedy, and leaves her sister and her past behind. More than a decade after leaving home, Desiree, fleeing an abusive husband, returns to Mallard with her dark-skinned (“blue-black”) daughter, Jude. The novel traces both Desiree and Stella’s trajectories in their respective black and white worlds, as well as that of their daughters, who cross paths in Los Angeles, where both are college students.
This is a book about secrets and heartbreak, of acceptance and prejudice. Narrated from four points of view, The Vanishing Half explores how to feel whole when there’s a lacuna in your history. When what you feel yourself to be is not how the world sees you or the way it wants you to perform. Another theme is inherited hurt. As young girls, Stella and Desiree watched their father be dragged from his home by white men, never to return; as young women, each is molested or abused by a husband or employer. The ongoing stress and despair blossomed by these encounters are unwittingly passed on their daughters. While Jude and Kennedy have grown up worlds apart–white and black; wealthy and poor; entitled and ashamed–they each nurse wounds born at home that they try to right with professional success. Jude becomes a doctor, and Kennedy an actor. Jude has the fortune of meeting a soulmate along the way, and it is her relationship with Reese, who was born Therese and is pursuant of ever-better hormones and surgeries, that I found the most compelling in this book of nuanced and complicated relationships. Their tenderness with each other is a welcome spot of lush greenery in a family that often feels parched of affection and understanding, sometimes through no fault of its individuals.
The Vanishing Half is a page-turner that animates four remarkably different women, each motivated by desire for safety and self-realization. It’s a novel into which you will gladly disappear.
This is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope by Shayla Lawson
Recommended by Eliza Brewer, Editorial Assistant
Shayla Lawson is a major force taking on the topic of Black femmehood in America. Her message: our conversations around Black women and girls should be one of abundance, not absence. Her essays range in topic from the history of hip hop, racist white liberalism, language and its power, twitter fame, and much more. Her attention to detail and vulnerability make this book an incredibly strong personal and historical meditation on the current state of Black femmehood. While her essays dive into heavy topics like of Black tokenism, violence, and injustice, she never veers from her goal of empowerment, recognizing that such empowerment lies within knowledge and remembrance.
In my favorite essay of the bunch, “Diana Ross is Major,” Lawson lovingly invokes Diana Ross’s image in the service of a deep psychosocial analysis:
“…but mainstream culture has trained us to accept black women who are explicit instead of intimate. We mistake candor for vulnerability. When we see a girl on television take off her wig to ‘beat down a ho,’ I associate this behavior with being ‘real’ because I have been trained to accept that these are things real black girls do. And sometimes we do. And sometimes we all need to. But sometimes we extend our beautifully manicured fingers to a crowd of adoring fans like Diana Ross did that day in Central Park. ‘Reach Out and Touch’ starts. She calls the song her favorite. She walks up to a stage platform that overlooks the whole audience and leans against a podium… She can barely stand, but she scratches her elegant fingers out to the audience. She embraces us.”
In her final poetic essay, “& Just in Case You Forget Who I Am, I Am” Lawson manifests the fact that she, as a Black femme, embodies a multitude and that this is what defines her. She is, among other things, “the Sonia Sanchez. / I am the Nikki Giovanni of love poems; love poem tattoos. / I am the Skin of British punk rock / & The Dorothy Dandridge of the ruched red dress.” Lawson doesn’t ask for our attention, she commands it with wit, history, vulnerability, and a lot of tenderness.