Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Edward P. Jones' multigenerational sagas of Black life in Washington, D.C.

As Thanksgiving looms, many of us will be heading to a place where we more or less grew up. I came of age in the Washington D.C. suburbs and then lived in the city for a decade, while my mother and grandmother were longtime denizens. Writer Edward P. Jones is also a native of the Nation's Capitol, and I've been gradually making my way through his rich and mesmerizing "tales of the city" found in the collection All Aunt Hagar's Children. Because he's African American and I'm not, his stories offer a take on the city and its populace I couldn't possibly be privy to, so there's an overlapping sense of both reminiscence and discovery as his beautifully drawn characters wend their way through their lives on familiar crossroads. Jones told NPR that when he was growing up almost all of the adults he knew had been born and raised in the South, so there's a bifurcated approach as he weaves his tales, with actual visits to home states as well as back stories and other lore.
Here are some excerpts from Debbie Elliott's NPR interview with Jones.
On the Name Hagar:
"In the Bible, it's Abraham's concubine, his slave. The phrase, "all Aunt Hagar's children" is one my mother used for black people. The novel I wrote, The Known World, was going to be titled Aunt Hagar's Children, because when I started it, it was going to be about the black people that the slave owners owned. But as the years went ahead ... the original title didn't work. So I never throw anything away, and I found a use for that title here."
"...the other things she would say, people weren't black at that time, they were 'colored.' So it was either 'colored' or 'all Aunt Hagar's children.' It was just a phrase she used ... it's along the lines of what Penny says in the title story. She says, 'All the bad things they do to all Aunt Hagar's children.' That's sort of the same way my mother would've spoken those words."
On Blacks Who Moved to Washington
"I think a lot of them came and found a good life, a lot of them came and found a sort of hell. So my whole thing was that they take different paths at the end. So for one of them it works out, for the other it does not. And I think that's probably the case with most of the people who came from the South to Washington. I'm sure it was the same for my Mom ... I think life was rather hard for her, and there weren't a lot of things very good along the way. I think she took pleasure in her kids, but there were a lot of other things that weighed her down."
On Growing Up in Washington
"By the time I was 18, we'd lived in about 18 different places… On 10th street, we were there for a year or two, I believe. We were there when Kennedy was assassinated. All the places were horrible. You couldn't depend on any heat in the winter. A lot of times we went to bed with coats on top of blankets."
"I often say that one of the stories I'd like to write would have the beginning 'We never get over having been a child,' because that's so much of where it all happens; it all begins there. The sad thing for a lot of us is that we live our lives and can't remember the moment where things began for us and because we can't remember that moment, we continue living sad lives."
"It's a simple statement: We start out as children, good and bad things that happen to us, some of us get over bad things, some of us don't."

Excerpt from the story "In the Blink of God's Eye," from All Aunt Hagar's Children
That 1901 winter when the wife and her husband were still new to Washington, there came to the wife like a scent carried on the wind some word that wolves roamed the streets and roads of the city after sundown. The wife, Ruth Patterson, knew what wolves could do: she had an uncle who went to Alaska in 1895 to hunt for gold, an uncle who was devoured by wolves not long after he slept under his first Alaskan moon. Still, the night, even in godforsaken Washington, sometimes had that old song that could pull Ruth up and out of her bed, the way it did when she was a girl across the Potomac River in Virginia where all was safe and all was family. Her husband, Aubrey, always slept the sleep of a man not long out of boyhood and never woke. Hearing the song call her from her new bed in Washington, Ruth, ever mindful of the wolves, would take up their knife and pistol and kiss Aubrey's still-hairless face and descend to the porch. She was well past seventeen, and he was edging toward eighteen, a couple not even seven whole months married. The house—and its twin next door—was always quiet, for those city houses were populated mostly by country people used to going to bed with the chickens. On the porch, only a few paces from the corner of 3rd and L Streets, N.W., she would stare at the gaslight on the corner and smell the smoke from the hearth of someone's dying fire, listening to the song and remembering the world around Arlington, Virginia.

That night in late January she watched a drunken woman across 3rd Street make her way down 3rd to K Street, where she fell, silently, her dress settling down about her once her body had come to rest. The drunken woman was one more thing to hold against Washington. The woman might have been the same one from two weeks ago, the same one from five weeks ago. The woman lay there for a long time, and Ruth pulled her coat tight around her neck, wondering if she should venture out into the cold of no-man's-land to help her. Then the woman pulled herself up slowly on all four limbs and at last made her stumbling way down K toward 4th Street. She must know, Ruth thought, surely she must know about the wolves. Ruth pulled her eyes back to the gaslight, and as she did, she noticed for the first time the bundle suspended from the tree in the yard, hanging from the apple tree that hadn't borne fruit in more than ten years.
Ruth fell back a step, as if she had been struck. She raised the pistol in her right hand, but the hand refused to steady itself, and so she dropped the knife and held the pistol with both hands, waiting for something -terrible and canine to burst from the bundle. An invisible hand locked about her mouth and halted the cry she wanted to give the world. A wind came up and played with her coat, her nightgown, tapped her ankles and hands, then went over and nudged the bundle so that it moved an inch or so to the left, an inch or so to the right. The rope creaked with the brittleness of age. And then the wind came back and gave her breath again.
A kitten's whine rose feebly from the bundle, a cry of innocence she at first refused to believe. Blinking the tears from her eyes, she reached down and took up the knife with her left hand, holding both weapons out in front of her. She waited. What a friend that drunken woman could be now. She looked at the gaslight, and the dancing yellow spirit in the dirty glass box took her down the two steps and walked her out into the yard until she was two feet from the bundle. She poked it twice with the knife, and in response, like some reward, the bundle offered a short whine, a whine it took her a moment or two to recognize.
So this was Washington, she thought as she reached up on her tiptoes and cut the two pieces of rope that held the bundle to the tree's branch and unwrapped first one blanket and then another. So this was the Washington her Aubrey had brought her across the Potomac River to—a city where they hung babies in night trees.
When Aubrey Patterson was three years old, his father took the family to Kansas where some of the father's people were prospering. The sky goes all the way up to God napping on his throne, the father's brother had written from Kansas, and you can get much before he wakes up. The father borrowed money from family and friends for train tickets and a few new clothes, thinking, knowing, he would be able to pay them back with Kansas money before a year or so had gone by. Pay them all back, son, Aubrey's father said moments before he died, some twelve years after the family had boarded the train from Kansas and returned to Virginia with not much more to their names than bile. And with the clarity of a mind seeing death, his father, Miles, reeled off the names of all those he owed money to, commencing with the man to whom he owed the most.
Aubrey's two older sisters married not long after the family returned to Virginia and moved with their husbands to other farms in Arlington County. They—Miles, the mother, Essie, and Aubrey—lived mostly from hand to mouth, but they did not go without. Aubrey's sisters and their husbands were generous, and the three of them, in their little house on their little piece of land with a garden and chickens and two cows, were surrounded by country people just as generous who had known the family when they had had a brighter sun.



  2. A gentle, sad narrative, soft as fresh fallen snow. He writes history on the ground level--as people live it day by day-- as important as the history of documents and wars.
    I hope the babe in the tree fares well.

  3. His people stay with you ... they seem so real, although they're not particularly based on anyone he knew.