“Any niggerwoman can become a black woman in secret.
This is why we dark,
cause in the night we disappear and become spirit.
Skin gone and we become whatever we wish.
We become who we be.”
I first came upon this book about two years ago, whilst browsing second-hand bookstores with a friend. I must have been in a very good space back when I first read it because despite parts of the book standing out (read: scarring me) I remember it being quite explicit but not overtly traumatising.
Fast-forward to present day when this book came up as my book club’s selection and I re-read it to refresh my memory. I was unprepared for the strong feelings of anger, hurt and disappointment that welled up inside of me for a book I was reading again.
Let’s just say that this book definitely won’t leave you with the warm and fuzzies.
“Every negro walk in a circle.
Take that and make of it what you will.
But sometimes when a negro die and another negro take him place,
even if that negro not be blood,
they still fall in step with the same circle.
The same circle of living that no nigger can choose
and dying that come at any time.”
Marlon James’ tale follows the coming of age tale of a Black slave girl Lilth whose very existence in this story is steeped in violence and tragedy. Lilth’s biological father is the Montierplier Estate’s ruthless White overseer John Wilkins and her mother is a slave who is an unwilling participant in the activities that result in Lilth’s birth, and subsequently Lilth’s mother’s untimely death.
Blessed and cursed with her biological father’s green eyes, Lilth is initially raised in isolation by a sadistic female guardian and mentally challenged father figure. Her sheltered childhood ultimately leads to her downfall as she cultivates a false sense of entitlement and superiority over all the other Black slaves she interacts with. A dramatic turn of events ultimately leads to a teenage Lilth being relocated to work in the “big house” where she meets her 5 green-eyed half-sisters and finds out just how unremarkable she is considered as a Black woman and slave leaving on a Jamaican plantation.
This story has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy, but I know that’s not what’s going to compel any of you to read it. So let me give you a heads up on why you must buy, download or loan a copy of this here novel.
James writes the entire novel in Patois/Pigeon English which lends a very authentic vibe to the third party narration of the story. It’s not hard to follow at all, but does take a bit to get into the rhythm. This novel is also the first one I have read that has been written by a person of colour who tackles the topic of slavery. Other books I have read in the past have either presented a watered down and more palatable version of this time in history.
Previous works of fiction I have read up until now, that address slavery, have either skirted over the specifics and identities of Black slaves or not included that information at all. James’ does one better in this novel by providing a breakdown of origins of African slaves shipped to the Jamaican plantations and also providing insight into how each African clan was viewed and generalised by slave owners and second generation slaves alike:
“White man is white man is white man,
but not every nigger be the same nigger.
And if she came from the ship, more so be the difference.
If the negro is a Igbo or she born to a Igbo,
sooner or later she goin’ kill herself.
If she came come from or born to an Angolan,
then she goin’ be lazy till her dying day.
If she come from or born to a Popo or Ibibio,
then she goin’ work hard and alugh and merry and thank God for the massa.
If she be Akan, her hand working as hard as her mind plotting.
But lord help you if you get an Ashanti, who the white people call Coromantee.
not even massa whip can tame the Coromantee blood that never know slavery mix with white blood that always know freedom.”
As I have already mentioned, both explicitly and implicitly within this review, James’ is not trying to paint a pretty picture of how slavery was back then, especially for Black women. He is quite brutal in the way he details the numerous acts of sexual and domestic violence that became second nature to slaves during those times. Most movies would cut away before a horrific scene got too gruesome to continue watch and some authors would leave the harsher, unforgiving details “to our imagination”. James does neither.
His raw writing style is purposely ugly and incriminatory to shame this instance of Humankind’s history.
Above all else, the sobering takeaway I gained from Marlon James’ vivid story of the abuse, desperation and oppression of Black slaves in the late 18th century, is that very little had changed or improved regarding the attitudes around the value of Black lives, Black identity or Black culture.
Reading this story, the second time around, against the current backdrop of Black-on-Black Xenophobic attacks currently being experienced here in South Africa, the never ending cop killings of Black men in America and the overall degradation of people of African heritage around the world reminds me that we as a people and the world-at-large, still have a lot of work ahead of us in restoring and preserving our dignity.
Who should read it?
Those among you who enjoy fictional stories steeped in detailed historical realities. especially narratives addressing the state of slaver in the 18th century slavery, in the Caribbean.
My Rating: 4 chickens out of 5 (yes, chickens)
Let me know in the comments if you have read this book or anything written by Marlon James, and how you found it/them?
Love this book and review.