About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

#7 - Some Sing, Some Cry

Some Sing, Some Cry, by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "From Reconstruction to both world wars, from the Harlem Renaissance to Vietnam, from spirituals and arias to torch songs and the blues, Some Sing, Some Cry brings to life the monumental story of one American family's journey from slavery into freedom, from country into city, from the past to the future, bright and blazing ahead. Real-life sisters Ntozake Shange, award-winning author of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, and Ifa Bayeza, award-winning playwright of The Ballad of Emmett Till, achieve nothing less than a modern classic in this story of seven generations of women, and the men and music in their live.

"Opening dramatically at a sprawling plantation just off the South Carolina coast, recently emancipated slave Bette Mayfield quickly says her good-byes before fleeing for Charleston with her granddaughter, Eudora, in tow. She and Eudora carve out lives for themselves in the bustling port city as fortune-teller and seamstress. Eudora marries, and the Mayfield line grows and becomes an incredibly strong, musically gifted family, a family that is led, protected, and inspired by its women. Some Sing, Some Cry chronicles their astonishing passage through the watershed events of American history."

Opening Line: "The first orange light of sunrise left a flush of rose and lavender on Betty's hands as she fingered the likenesses of her children."

My Take: I've long acknowledged my fondness for grand, sweeping family sagas, so this one was on my Must Read list from the moment I read the review. Though parts get a bit confusing, the book as a whole is a good read -- enough action to keep you reading, but meaty enough to be satisfying. Tracing the seven generations of the Mayfield family from the end of the Civil War up to the present day, Some Sing, Some Cry takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of American history as experienced by Bette and her (mostly female) descendants. It's always difficult for me to sum up the plot of multi-generational epics like this one -- heck, it's hard enough even to explain who the main characters are and how they relate to one another -- but I'll give it a shot:

Already a grandmother when the Civil War ends, Bette Mayfield remains at Sweet Tamarind, the Carolina Low Country plantation where she's lived her entire life, until she absolutely can't stay any longer. Although her late ex-master, Julius Mayfield, was both her own father and the father of all but one of her children, Bette nonetheless seems to have loved him, and considers herself his "slave wife." (Not surprisingly, Julius's legal, white wife was far less enamored of her.) After saying goodbye to all her loved ones, past and present, she and granddaughter Eudora set out for Charleston, expecting to begin their free life by moving in with Bette's married daughter Blanche. Blanche, however, has fought long and hard to claim her place among Charleston's black elite, and having a countrified, Geechee mother and niece in residence doesn't quite fit her lifestyle. Under considerable pressure from her husband, Roswell Diggs, and young children, Benny and Francina (who are thrilled to have a Nana), Blanche relents, but Bette is too proud and stubborn to stay where she's not welcome. Instead, with the help of Blanche's stepson, Roswell Jr., Bette and Dora rent an apartment the Diggs's own in the poor but vibrant black neighborhood of Little Mexico. Here, Bette establishes herself as a conjurer and fortuneteller who is simultaneously scorned, revered by younger generations.

arrives in Charleston on the threshold of womanhood, with dreams of being not a mere seamstress but une modiste -- a designer and dressmaker whose talents are sought after by the very best of Charleston society. She gets her start operating a sewing machine for Yum Lee, a Little Mexico neighbor who runs a Chinese laundry and shirtmaker's shop, but quickly gains enough money and experience to strike out on her own. While she enjoys a budding friendship with Tom Winrow, hack driver by day and enthusiastic horn player/ card sharp by night, she aspires to better things, and politely ignores his romantic overtures. When she is hired to make a wedding dress for Miss Matilda, a debutante from one of white Charleston's best families, she earns even Blanche's grudging respect, and is invited to a book party for Ida B. Wells. Here, she meets the mysterious Yves Desallines, a Haitian diplomat turned sailor. When Yves sends her a bolt of exquisite lace, she is both flattered and shocked, knowing she ought to refuse the gift ... until Yves explains that he wants Dora to make a wedding dress for his fiancee back in Haiti. In time, though, the two grow closer, and Yves sets sail intending to call off his Haitian engagement and marry Dora. Unfortunately, Eudora has also caught the eye of Miss Matilda's brother, and is brutally raped during the course of the bachelor party. She tells no one, but the wedding is inexplicably called off. By the time Yves returns to Charleston, the pregnant Dora has already married Tom Winrow, and does her best to heed Bette's advice:
"'We got nothin' but to choose life. Find the honor in it. Make it so. Will it so. You a fighter, Eudora May -- in life, there is hope. In life -- choose not to give up. New day means a new day's battle begun. This child is the child of your womb, and if she is born of this hell all the more power to deliver us from it. To the seventh generation.'"

Not long after Dora's daughter Elma is born, gossip about Yves and Eudora reaches Tom's ears. Already suspicious about how little the baby's coloring resembles his own, he erupts in fury. This turns quickly to tenderness, however, when Dora breaks down and confesses everything; the result is the Winrows' second daughter, Lizzie. Sadly, over time, the tenderness and affection Tom and Dora share is strained by the repeated failure of Tom's farm to produce a viable crop, his insistence on staying out late to play his horn, and their disagreement over just how much one ought to curry favor with the white folks. Their bills mount ever higher. Shamed and broken by his inability to support his family, Tom sells his father's farm without telling Dora, and abandons them to work in the mines of West Virginia, his state of mind recalling that evoked by Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred"
"Tom's anger stirred. Folks all day telling him no to every simple request he made. He was a man. He didn't need to beg for groceries. He needed to stay in this game to turn his luck around."
Owing to her brutal beginnings, Elma is quite light-skinned -- so much so that when she enters a whites-only train car by mistake, the conductor asks her not to leave. Dora takes pride in Elma's color and singing talent, and is determined that her daughter will succeed where she herself did not. The two work hard to make this happen; Elma adopts Diggs as a surname to capitalize on her wealthy relations, and the family makes considerable sacrifices to send her to Fisk University, where she sings with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. As her freshman year ends, she is on top of the world, and expects to do great things with her voice. When her biology teacher, Professor Minor, tries to steer her toward a more practical career, she insists that "[s]inging is a gift from the Lord, not a profession." When she meets Minor's nephew Raymond, an architect, the two are instantly smitten with one another -- so much so that when Elma leaves for Charleston the next day, Ray follows without her knowing.

The grand homecoming Eudora had planned is tarnished, however; not only has Tom abandoned the family, but they've been evicted from the farm they no longer own. Not wanting to see her mother spend more money on her education at a time like this, Elma elopes with Ray, and the two move to the Great White Hope that is early twentieth-century New York.
"A wave of great inventions -- electric lights, moving pictures, telephones, phonographs, human flight, automobiles for the common man -- had made the world suddenly exhilarated and confusing, wide-eyed with hope and an unconditional faith in possibility, speeding into the future."
As Elma's vague letters to Lizzie reveal, though, the promised land isn't quite what it's cracked up to be:
"Elma's letters were always cheerful and short. Life with Raymond was getting better. New York, where buildings touched the sky, things were always looking up. Lizzie could read through the lines. She could see within the picture ... Her sister was gaunt, a smile forced on her thin lips, her large dark eyes wide and frightened, one fist clenched at the end of an arm seemingly bound to her side, her beautiful mane of hair pulled close to her head. Elma, too proud to ask, but always tacitly accepting the few dollars her mother dutifully sent."
The Minors' first two children die in the 1919 influenza epidemic, Ray loses a plum job under suspicious circumstances, and the whole country seems caught up in the exhilaration and fright of the 1920s:
"Between 1919 and 1929, the world exploded, expelling grief, death, and rage. The highways bled and flooded upstream with refugees from Southern weevils, blight, and terror. Death Riders and riots swept St. Louis, Tulsa, Charleston, Chicago. Red Scare, Red Summer, Red -- the age was hot! Burning the gut with liquor, feet slashin' up the dance floor. A perpetual party and ticker tape parade -- on borrowed time and borrowed money. With underground economies propping things up, the Depression came as no surprise to the criminal class. Their trauma came later with the repeal of Prohibition."
In partnership with a neighbor, he supports his family as a bootlegger, making enough money to turn some profit from the Harlem Renaissance.

Lizzie Winrow is as much Tom's daughter as sister Elma is Dora's. She's inherited his love of music and showmanship, but his wild and ornery streak, and is devastated by his sudden departure. "Running away, leavin' behind what you love, Pa, what made you? She could not believe her Pa would do that."
"Since her pa was gone, she felt disobliged to obey anyone. She was full of anger with no place to put it but into trouble. She could win most any fight, but she rarely had to. She'd made an early discovery -- get loud and improvise a barrage of epithets to make your assailant shrink from blows of pure sound.
Together with her lifelong best friend, Osceola Turner, she plans a career as a songwriter and entertainer, but these plans are derailed when Ossie's foster brother, Deke, steals their savings for a can't-miss business opportunity. Inspired by his idol, bandleader James Reese Europe,
who insists that war "condenss and compresses a whole lotta manhood into a veryshort period of time," Ossie enlists in the Great War, hoping for a chance to play in the army band with Reese.

Lizzie, who already blames Deke for his role in her father's disappearance, is furious, and a chain of events that begins with Deke trying to rescue Ossie from the recruiting station and ends with him jailed and sent out to work on a turpentine plantation makes him enraged. When he finally escapes and gets back to Charleson, he sneaks into Lizzie's home and rapes her. By the time Ossie returns, she is visibly pregnant, and Ossie can only assume the worst. Sadly, before the two are able to explain themselves, the combination of "black folks naive enough to think that the 'war for democracy' would make a place for them at the table" and "white ire at such audacity" proves deadly:
"Pumped-up soliders were comin' home wantin' sensing it, feelin' it -- something changed. Colored weren't colored. They were 'Negroes.' On the street, they looked new, acted new, proud and entitled. Expecting the war over there would change something over here, they had a new way of walking in the world, and these Southern soldier-boy soldiers weren't havin' it. They trashed the billiard hall, then like bees, a swarm of blue jackets came flying down the boulevard. They stormed out the tavern, knocking black fellahs in the head, throwin' them to the ground. They then spilled into the side streets and alleys, looking for anybody black. Their numbers grew to a thousand. The swarm blew over the city and formed a swath of rage and lust and fun. ... he city that had been the gem of the South was never the same afterwards."
Neither is Lizzie, as Ossie is killed in the riots. Two wrenching years later, she and daughter Cinnamon Turner head north to join Elma in Harlem. Here, she takes the stage name of Mayfield Turner and achieves some success as an entertainer, but eventually finds the U.S. too constraining.
"On the road half the year, the permanent exile found no world to her liking. Paris at least was a life of her own design. Paris was where she was staked and where she was going to stay. My worthless friends, my sorry club, my lousy bookings, but mine. She was tired of runnin'."
And stay she does, leaving Cinnamon in the care of Elma and Ray while she goes on to achieve near-legendary status as a chanteuse suspiciously reminiscent of Josephine Baker. Her heyday lasts until World War II dawns, irrevocably altering the character of her adopted city. "Paris was no longer a city of light but a city haunted by shadows, the Lost Generation replaced by a constant traffic of lost souls."

Not surprisingly, Cinnamon is forever haunted by her mother's abandonment, despite being raised with love by the Minors. Although hers is perhaps the most promising musical talent in the Mayfield family to date, she is determined to sing opera and opera alone, insisting "I already know that my life won't be involved in that gaudy, vulgar Negro jazz life my mother's chosen for herself. No, that's not for me." She overcomes considerable discrimination to study music at Hunter College and later, Julliard. But her single-minded focus on opera proves problematic. Most operatic roles are reserved for whites, so the only gigs Cinnamon can get are with the National Negro Opera Company -- even as she resists singing the old Negro spirituals that are coming back into fashion. Her contempt for jazz and swing remains unshaken, even at the price of a broken heart; at a rare nightclub appearance -- a favor to cousin Memphis, who doesn't share her mistrust of the night life -- she meets jazz musician Baker Johnson. The two fall deeply in love, yet Cinnamon categorically dismisses the music Baker plays and loves:
"I am singing opera. ... And I'm going to continue to sing opera. I'm not going to wallow in the gutter with this swing, this 'jazz,' like you and Memphis. Don't you see there's nothing hallowed about swing? It's colored folks doing what colored folks have always done, making things up as they go along. Just noise and pelvis grinding is what it is ... "
Stung by her rejection, Baker turns instead to the all-too-willing Memphis. Cinnamon's focus, however, garners the attentions of two unlikely patrons: Harlem kingpin Deacon Holstein and his wife Iolanthe. While Deacon admits immediately that he used to go by Deacon Turner ("'When I married into Mr. Holstein's family, I took the name on -- for the sake of the business"), he does not tell Cinnamon that it's he who bankrolls the National Negro Opera Company that gives her a stage -- or, until he's on his deathbed, what he meant to Lizzie and who he was to Cinn herself:
"I'm dyin', Cinn. But before I do, I must tell you somethin'. I have wronged your family. Run off the father, deceived and betrayed my brother, but the greatest wrong was to Lizzie. Broke her body, her heart, warped her spirit. I cannot undo that. I cannot give these things back to her, but maybe I could give her back her daughter. ...

"When I was a young man, I was a wild one, a roustabout -- got so the police arrested me before the crime, sayin' 'I know you gonna do it,' ... "We both loved Osceola. Competed. I came outta prison, took your mother by force. Your mother. Hurt her, hurt her bad. Most likely, you my daughter. ...

"Please, please. Hear me out. I cannot rest while there is distance between you and Lizzie, distance that was caused by me. When she left, she wasn't runnin' from you, she was runnin' from me. ...

"I cannot undo that night. Would not want to. You are my pride, Cinn Turner. I have done my best to do right by you."

Under the Turners' tutelage, Cinnamon travels to Washington, D.C. to hear Marian Anderson's famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial; to to Chicago. Here, she meets labor activist and Tuskegee airman Lawrence Walker, who embarks on a gentle courtship, even though he knows Cinnamon is still in love with Baker. Sadly, her nascent career is cut short when she develops a case of laryngeal dystonia. Lawrence's unflagging, unconditional love and support as this tragedy unfolds ultimately win her over, and the two are married, finding in each other a mutual, tender affection that grows steadily deeper over the years:
"Cinnamon wrapped her arms round her husband, feeling his weight and warmth. She thanked the Lord again that he'd come home unscathed from the war, giving her a chance to discover how much she loved him. How precious his life was to her! When she lost her ability to sing, he had stood by her through the sorrow and anger. The emptiness had been filled with love and laughter and three rambunctious children. At the same time Lawrence hoped his wife understood that while he couldn't play a horn or piano like most of her family, he had tried to surround her with creativity. ... [S]he missed her own voice. He knew that. Still, to him, Cinnamon's music was never lost. It lingered in the way she walked and laughed and smelled, in how she loved. She was every woman Ellington ever composed for, every lady Prez ever serenaded, every girl Smokey ever crooned to."
Jesse Minor, Elma and Ray's eldest surviving child and only son, survives the flu that killed his older sisters, but his speechlessness and overall slowness greatly worry his grief-stricken parents. Healing comes from a surprising source, however, when Lizzie and Cinnamon arrive in New York, and Jesse slowly but surely learns to walk and talk from watching and playing with his slightly-older cousin. Years later, when the Minors journey south to attend Grandma Bette's funeral, Jesse remains in Charleston at Dora's urging, and finds himself thriving on the slower pace of southern life. He eventually marries a young woman named Mabel and becomes a pastor. Their only son, Joshua, is killed before their eyes in 1953 when an Alabama voting rights protest march turns violent.

Jesse's younger sister Memphis is born to Elma and Ray after the flu epidemic, and named by her aunt Lizzie (who mistakenly thought it was Memphis, rather than Nashville, where Ray and Elma had met). She inherits her mother's singing talent and Lizzie's wild streak, and idolizes her older cousin Cinnamon. After her fling with Baker fizzles, she weds one of his bandmates. Their marriage lasts just long enough to produce a daughter, Alelia, before dissolving. Memphis then follows in Lizzie's footsteps, decamping for Paris while leaving Alelia behind in New York.

Each of Cinnamon and Lawrence's three children, Abbott, Tokyo, and James, is shaped in his or her own way by two watershed events. The first is their service on the front lines of Chicago's busing controversy:
"It was an ominous fall morning, like a heroin haze kind of day, like a lazy Charlie Parker day, taut, delicate, and spiraling to God knows where. Trash dropped into the gutters was thrown at the lil mess of colored children. But the Walker family was prideful ... They'd seen burning crosses and KKK parades before, but this was different. It was their backs that carried the weight of the race and nobody had said a word. ... They'd been so proud this morning and here they were now, disheveled and soiled. How could they explain that the white grown-ups just didn't want them there? That any Negro youth found west of Halsted was imperiled? The first day of school -- turned away at the door. They hadn't done anything. Just being colored and trying to learn. What could they possibly say? They were now the ones to be ashamed or beat with a cat-o'-nine tails, that's how fearful they were of messing up their parents' dream."
The second is, of course, witnessing their cousin Joshua's murder.

Abbott finds an outlet for his anger in Elijah Muhammad's Black Muslim movement, and becomes his volatile sister Tokyo's rock, reminding her "that the only freedom for black people was liberation and they were busy enslaving themselves to cocaine and booze." Tokyo becomes the family's most successful musician, winning several Grammys and even seeing her biggest R&B hit used in a presidential campaign (unspecified, but obviously 2008), despite a lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol.

Memphis's daughter Alelia becomes a singer in her own right, although her instrument of choice is the guitar, and she finds herself drawing on both her ancestors' sounds and the new strains of folk music she encounters. As a young woman, she travels to Paris to see her mother and now-venerable Aunt Lizzie, and immerses herself in that city's emerging beat/ folk scene. Here, she meets Raoul Johnson, son of Lizzie and Memphis's former paramour, Baker, and his Algerian wife, Raschel. (In an even-smaller-world coincidence, Raschel's mother Genya was an old friend of Lizzie's who died at Nazi hands in World War II.) Alelia and Raoul quickly discover that they're on the same wavelength emotionally as well as musically; they fall in love, marry, and have a daughter, Liberty, a deejay and cancer survivor who struggles to define her own place in the by-now-august Mayfield family pedigree.
"Sweet memories ... Each generation had its collector. For her Great-Nana Dora it was swatches of fabric and buttons, photos and shoes. For Lizzie it was costumes and poster, a kaleidoscope of stuff from her ragged, rollicking life. Rare LPs from Uncle Ray and her grandmere Memphis. Always the music. Aunt Cinn's precious librettos. The last time she had visited her beloved Cinn, the woman was just a grip of shaking bones, the skin soft, holding fast to her hand. Memories dissolving, even her beloved arias. Aida, Carmen, Butterfly, the heroine always dying. Cinn ... clinging to her with desperate fingers, one last grasp at life. Liberty had gone to confide in her, seeking that quiet solace she had always found. I can't do this alone.

"She reminded herself that she wasn't alone. .. Though her blood family was scattered all over the globe, she had family. People who loved her for all of her eccentricity. ...

"Life, Liberty ... or death. All of this rich history, this past I'm supposed to be able to stand on and draw from. Instead I'm already part of the past even before I've begun.
The Seventh Generation. The what? ... New life. To the seventh generation. What then? What now?"

As is probably evident from the epic-length book report this has become, I really enjoyed this book. I don't know that it quite lives up to the "modern classic" status the dust jacket proclaims, though. For one thing, a story this long and convoluted gets confusing real fast if some important points aren't made crystal-clear ... and occasionally, this is a problem. The chief example is whether Julius Mayfield truly was Bette's father as well as her master/ lover. The authors hint at this, but don't come out and confirm it for certain -- not a trivial issue, as there's otherwise no way for the other characters to blame their much-hyped unusual (read: white) coloring on his genes (given that Eudora's mother, Juliet, was the only one of Bette's children fathered by a fellow slave rather than by Mayfield).

For another, I like my historical fiction best when the history lessons don't detract from the narrative. There are passages here, like the long aside that interrupts Marian Anderson's concert, where it feels like I just clicked a hyperlink and ended up on Wikipedia by mistake:
"The Norwegian composer Dvorak in 1893 had declared American Negro spirituals the root of truly new American music. Since the end of the Civil War, the Fisk Jubilee Singers had stunned the world with their repertoire of these indigenous songs by anonymous composers. The great baritone Paul Robeson and tenor Roland Hayes in concert performances across the globe had through their renditions of American Negro spirituals ... "
I also had a similar reaction to that expressed in Mike Fischer's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review, which suggests that the authors "dutifully [checked] all the boxes. The end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. World War I and the 1919 race riots. ... " and points out that the history presented is often sloppy and inaccurate.

That aside, there's a lot to enjoy and appreciate about Some Sing, Some Cry, and its 558 pages are crammed with complex and compelling themes. Most obvious among these is the complicated definition of success in the black community. Especially in the novel's earlier years, the characters can only get ahead by denying their pasts and their very selves. Certainly this is evident during Reconstruction; Blanche can't hurry her freed-slave mother and country Geechee niece out of her home fast enough, and even groundbreaking author Ida Wells is judged for her dark skin and nappy hair. A generation later, Elma's light skin and ability to "pass" gain her entree into the better colored circles in Charleston, and her husband Raymond is respected as the son of a higher-class black man. However, the price of their success is "[erasing] from consciousness facts and experiences they could not face, inventing stories more to their liking;" Elma is the product of rape, and Ray the son of a prostitute.

In addition to denying their pasts, generations of Mayfields find themselves denying their dreams in order to survive. After becoming pregnant with Elma, Dora is forced to give up on being an esteemed designer and work merely as a seamstress; the difference between her dreams and Tom's, and his unwillingness to give his own up, ultimately cause their marriage to collapse. Dora finds herself in the still-familiar position of working her fingers to the bone to send Elma to college, only to find that education changes her daughter in a way that can't help but separate her from the family. Many years later, Cinnamon explains this to Deacon, describing how "at school the white students are always yapping at me" while "at home, even at home, it's not my home." Cinnamon, at least, fares better than most; despite being abandoned by her mother (who saw in her daughter's face the rape that robbed her of a future with Ossie), and having to abandon her own dreams of being an opera singer, she does manage to build a loving, honest relationship with Lawrence and their three children.

In contrast to those who deny their pasts and their dreams, the characters who embrace them seem to lead far happier and more authentic lives. When the family travels to Charleston for Bette's funeral, Eudora embraces the chance to be "Nana" -- undoubtedly remembering her Aunt Blanche, who had ordered her own children to call Bette "Grandmother." On the same trip, Dora proudly tells Jesse that the slaves are in the family's blood, and that their history keeps the Mayfields strong. Similarly, Memphis emphatically rejects Cinnamon's insistence that only opera is good music: "If you got an idea you never let it go and never present it as if you understand it to be an opinion ... Just cuz I don't like that white folk shit make me ignorant?"

Through all their trials and varied history, the characters of Some Sing, Some Cry share a reliance on music as a solace in hard times and a means of preserving their history. Tom tells Eudora this with great earnestness shortly after they meet, explaining that while he makes his living driving a hack by day, the music he plays in Little Mexico at night is what makes his life. Years later, his daughter Lizzie is both inspired by and makes her mark on the Harlem renaissance and ultimately, the Paris jazz scene. Jim Europe is vehement about the importance of music not just to the individual but to society, telling Ossie during World War I that "the world is changing ... What has captured it is the music," and then acknowledging on his deathbed that words "take away from a man everything that he knows [so] what is he to do? He sings." Hearing Marian Anderson sing in D.C., "Cinnamon's faith in the power of voice to draw people, to awaken them, was reaffirmed. More than speeches, more than protests;" later, at the height of the Chicago busing crisis, her nonmusical husband Lawrence reminds their children that "the music of our forebears ... tells us that we can survive anything."

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