By Donna Bailey Nurse
All Aunt Hagar’s Children
Edward P. Jones
It appeared, in the aftermath of Emancipation, that many more slaves might remain in the South which was after all their home. For despite the general destitution of the post-Civil War period, there were signs of immediate progress: The Freedmen’s Bureau established a thousand schools and black colleges. Blacks owned land and opened businesses and won the right to vote. A number were elected to government office.
But southern whites did not look kindly upon such success and launched a campaign of brutality and political repression. Prospering black businesses were decimated, and lynching began in earnest. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation did not constitute discrimination. It was in this atmosphere of physical and psychological terror that The Great Migration began. Between 1890 and 1960 more than six million blacks headed north, ostensibly to begin again in safety and freedom.
Much of the best African American fiction deals with the restless and mysterious century between slavery and civil rights. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, nearly all of Toni Morrison’s oeuvre, Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Add to this list a luminous collection of stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones, for not since Ellison have we had an African American man writing with such eloquence and authority, such quiet, relentless power.
Jones is the author of a previous story collection, Lost in the City, and the novel The Known World, a haunting evocation of black slave owners in the antebellum South. The work earned him an armload of prizes including a Pulitzer and the rich international IMPAC Dublin Award.
All Aunt Hagar’s Children is set in the South and in Jones’s hometown of Washington, D.C., in a new century clean of the blight of slavery. The former slave district and seat of the government that banished the institution, Washington boasts the highest black population in the United States. Yet the characters, mostly descendants of southern farmers, cannot entirely shake their sense of loss, or the fear that they have exchanged a rich, sustaining culture for a city that won’t live up to its promise.
In the opening story, In the Blink of God’s Eye, newlywed Ruth looks out one night to see a woman lying drunk in the street. In the yard she makes out a bundle hanging in the apple tree: A mewling newborn baby. Debauched women and babies hanging in trees: We are a far cry from the Eden of Arlington, Virginia where Ruth grew up loved and protected, with “four brothers on one side of her and four brothers on the other.”
Jones depicts a culture in which black men treasure women and children, especially little girls. In the second tale, Spanish in the Morning, a young narrator who is starting kindergarten receives nine new dresses from one uncle, three pairs of shoes from another, and a male cousin buys her a notebook and ruler. Jones sculpts his people from such innocuous family details.
Men and women are frequently referred to as simply “the husband” or “the wife,” suggesting the primacy of these roles. Even so, marriages often fail, the uncertainty of wedlock paralleling the risky proposition of leaving the land of their fathers. Contemporary urban culture gives the impression that black people emerged out of the concrete of cities. But Jones reminds us of African America’s intimate connection to the rural South. He insists upon this birthright as cultivators of the land.
Still, for every black Washingtonian there are a dozen southern horror stories passed down like the family Bible. In the title tale, three girls must flee north after they beat a white man senseless, leaving him in the woods. The man had tried to rape one of them. Yet it would be the black children and their families that southern law would brutally penalize. At a secret meeting, a male relative suggests returning to the forest to finish the white man off, but no one is willing to commit murder, as God is a palpable presence. These characters are mindful of the story of the Jews. Though they are not God’s chosen people, they nevertheless choose God.
In the final story, Anne agrees to marry George, a sleeping car porter, and move to his home in Washington. But long before the honeymoon is over, she recognizes her mistake. She dreams of wandering back to the safety of her father’s land in Picayune, Mississippi, as the narrator imagines the life Anne might have led with Lucas, a farmer. The story is called “Tapestry” after the intricate needle works Anne’s grandmother taught her to make. Her tapestries are a metaphor for the hard-won, complicated, rich culture that might have been, had blacks held fast to their land and families and faith.
An earlier version of this story appeared in The Toronto Star.