Epic sagas, magical tales, historical novels, and multi-generational stories of love, loss, and family abound in this spring’s crop of prose and poetry by Black women writers. Usher in the season o…
The Book of Harlan, by Bernice McFadden. Akashic Books (2016), 400 pages. FORTHCOMING
An unusual novel by an accomplished African American woman.
Bernice McFadden has written several novels of African American life. Often her books touch on themes seldom developed by other authors. In her new book, she follows Harlan, a man hardly typical of black Americans, through much of the twentieth century. Harlan was born in a small town in the South and initially raised by his grandparents, a minister and his wife. When he finally joins his parents in Harlem, they are living a comfortable life. His mother’s best friend from childhood has made it big in show business, and Harlan’s family move in and out a cluster of leading African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. Harlan learns to play the guitar and is playing in Paris when German troops take over the city…
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One book with four different covers is just one aspect of the special story and brilliance behind A Bitter Pill to Swallow, just released from Blurb Books as the debut novel from writer and visual artist Tiffany Gholar.
I am behind the novel not only because Gholar is a friend from college at University of Chicago; Gholar is also an alumna of Governors State University in painting, and resident artist of The Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
For one thing, the book is a tribute to the 90s: a lesser celebrated decade not yet fully marked as a true “era.” For another, A Bitter Pill to Swallow is a literal and figurative testimony of perseverance, triumph and concern for humanity in a novel more than twenty years in its making. Lastly, Gholar’s soft and subtle advocacy for individualized talk and arts therapy versus chaotic nervous system restructuring via uniform medications can change and save many lives.
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May 17, 1953
Go Tell It On the Mountain
By DONALD BARR
GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN
his book is about pietism in Harlem and, of the three sorts of novel (string, wind and percussion). It belongs to the first. It does not produce its story as an accumulation of shocks (as most novels of Negro life do), or by puffing into a rigid metaphysical system (as most novels about religion do); it makes its utterance by tension and friction.
The organizing event of the book is a 14-year-old boy’s first religious experience. This experience is a fit, a brutal, unexpected seizure: for poor little John Grimes is the son, or thinks he is, of a deacon in one of the stomping, moaning, falling sects that ululate in converted stores around Harlem, the metropolis of grief. As a matter of fact, John and his real father had never known of each other’s existence; Gabriel Grimes, a preaching widower up from the South, hard, without laughter, with a touch of the Messianic in his nature and a good deal of the trapped animal, had armed John’s mother and accepted John in explanation of his own carnal sins.
While John is in the holy spasm, Mr. Baldwin (who has really unusual substantive powers but conventional ingenuity in form) passes through three generations to find the antecedents of that hour. He has a curious attitude toward religion. He respects it. He does not find it comical, or anthropological, or pathetic. At his most grotesque, he will still have us know it in its own terms.
It is easy to explain. When the slaves, bred like animals and denied an equity in their own lives, were sent forth into monogamy, civil existence and the labor market, they received both freedom and the Law in the same instant. They then had the need of religion. In the religion that was most available (a vulgar export-model Puritanism) the notion of sin was central and fearfully inclusive. It included all but the most joyless releases of human needs. Guilt, guilt, guilt chimes through the book. Gabriel is guilty. His first wife Deborah is guilty, though she was the victim of rape. His second wife Elizabeth is guilty, though she loved much. Guilt is visited on his children. Hypocrisy will not sweeten the tragic dissonance. And guilt could not be removed, not by everyday contrition or penance–only by being born again altogether, as in baptism, but with huge pangs and convulsions. So it is writhing on the floor of “The Temple of the Fire Baptized” that John is saved.
Judicious men in their chairs may explain the sociology of guilt, and so explain Negro religion away. Mr. Baldwin will not have it away. In this beautiful, furious first novel, there are no such reductions.
Mr. Barr is an instructor in the English Department at Columbia University.