Jesmyn Ward returns with an evocative tale of slavery

From The Economist:

On nights when the moon shines brightly, Annis’s mother takes her to a secret clearing and teaches her to fight. “You the grand-daughter of a woman warrior,” she says, as she teaches sparring skills learned from her own mother. These lessons strengthen Annis but confuse her. As a slave on a plantation in North Carolina, she knows she must absorb blows, not parry them. “It’s a way to recall another world,” her mother explains, eager to pass on something, anything, that grants a sense of her West African history, of power, of potential. “It wasn’t a perfect world,” Annis’s mother adds, “but it wasn’t so wrong as this one.”

Jesmyn Ward has earned two National Book Awards and a MacArthur “genius” grant for novels that animate the poverty and violence experienced by black families living on America’s Gulf Coast. In “Let Us Descend” she returns to this southern American landscape, but centuries earlier, for a visceral chronicle of one young woman’s bondage. The novel’s title comes from Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem, “The Divine Comedy”, in which he describes a journey through hell.

A longtime resident of rural Mississippi, Ms Ward has observed how the legacy of slavery still haunts the region. She has noted that the state waited until 2013 to ratify the 13th amendment to abolish slavery and had a Confederate battle emblem on its state flag until 2020. She is in good company in using fiction to contemplate America’s brutal history. Novelists are offering slave narratives, perhaps to help counter state crackdowns on efforts to teach children about the country’s racist past. Recent books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marlon James, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead and others connect the dots between the degradations of slavery and the current hardships for many African-Americans.

When the book opens, Annis’s life seems hard enough: she works long hours cleaning and polishing the home of her master, who is also her father. . . . Yet time steals what little Annis has, including her mother, her lover, her strength and her hope. She toils in sugar-cane fields among children who “breathe in sobs”, and she looks for relief from spirits, having lost faith in people.

This is a sensual book, full of humming bees, brackish water, “undulating mud” and “ground-down bones, breaking dusty at the joints”. It is also often a sluggish book, trudging despairingly forward—like Annis herself when she is forced to walk hundreds of miles, “stooped, bleeding”, to the slave markets of New Orleans. The novel sometimes succumbs to its misery. The grief is palpable, often uncomfortable, perhaps because Ms Ward wrote much of the book after the sudden death of her partner in 2020.

Link to the rest at The Economist

2 thoughts on “Jesmyn Ward returns with an evocative tale of slavery”

  1. I learned about the US’s “racist past” in high school in the ’80s, then studied it as an avocation and, later, a vocation until a decade ago.

    The difference between now and then is that in the ’80s, we understood very clearly that we were leaving that past behind and moving into a better future; whereas now, reductivists like Ward are mired in the past and refuse to believe that we can, or should, move on. To Ward and her ilk, America can only ever be racist. End of story. That view completely ignores human nature and the social progress America has made since its founding.

    If schools refuse to study America’s “racist past,” it’s precisely because Ward’s view of endless marginalization and oppression has been so deeply infused into modern textbooks as to make them unusable in the classroom.

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