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Black Wisdom

Washington, D.C., the black city, is the setting of the stories in Edward P. Jones’s extraordinary first collection, Lost in the City (1992), and Washington is the haven escaped or freed slaves have found their way to at the end of his highly original, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Known World (2004). The stories in his new book, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, return to the nation’s capital on the banks of the Potomac that the black surveyor Benjamin Banneker first mapped out. Washington isn’t described in Jones’s stories. It just is; a gathering of nostalgia-producing addresses, locations. An ex-convict realizes that

the world was going about its business, and it came to him, as it might to a man who had been momentarily knocked senseless after a punch to the face, that he was of that world. To the left was 9th Street and all the rest of N Street, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church at 8th, the bank at the corner of 7th. He flipped the coin. To his right was 10th Street, and down 10th were stores and the house where Abraham Lincoln had died and all the white people’s precious monuments. Up 10th and a block to 11th and Q Streets was once a High’s store where, when Caesar was a boy, a pint of cherry-vanilla ice cream cost twenty-five cents, and farther down 10th was French Street, with a two-story house with his mother’s doilies and a foot-long porcelain black puppy just inside the front door.

Lost in the City concentrates on the lives of the working class and the cohesive-because-segregated black neighborhood between the 1950s and the 1980s. In Jones’s new collection, which ranges from the turn of the twentieth century to the near present, he will occasionally set a prodigy’s story at a Negro college among “‘the highest and brightest’ class of Negroes,” or have a character descended from “a long line of Washingtonians who saw education as a right God had given their tribe the day after he gave Moses the Ten Commandments.” But for the most part, his stories again take place in the isolated world of the dignified working poor. “The whole world was silent except for the mice in the walls.”

The emphasis in Jones’s new stories has shifted from the experiences that his black characters share because of race and class to the common cultural bond of their Southern origins. In one story, old folks back in South Carolina are said to spread the rumor that people up in Washington throw away their plates after every meal. Jones’s people are either recent arrivals from the South or still haunted by back home, making Washington very much a Southern city. The opiate of folklore makes its presence felt, as if Jones’s saturation in antebellum history for the writing of The Known World had influenced the way he read the urban future of the descendants of his novel’s plantation blacks:

They shared food, they shared stories about home, about Southern places that would be the foundation of their lives in the North. None of them could know that the cohesion born and nurtured in the South would be but memory in less than two generations.

Where Lost in the City is bleak and written with a kind of police-blotter detachment, All Aunt Hagar’s Children displays the full, lyrical style of The Known World. Jones uses a radiant language for the small lives of his characters, and this warmth accentuates the folkloric in his wondrous and dark events. All Aunt Hagar’s Children sometimes reads as though Jones had gone back to recount the childhood of the characters who are already adults in Lost in the City. A girl in one story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children vows to become a doctor so she can fulfill her mother’s dream of seeing the Holy Land, recalling a story in Lost in the City in which a doctor has sent her mother on a trip to the Holy Land. In his novel, Jones lets the omniscient voice follow an incident or minor characters way past their relevance to the main plot, and in All Aunt Hagar’s Children this aspect of his narrative technique adds to the atmosphere of his stories as examinations of the black and weird.

Black writers from Wallace Thurman in the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison have evoked the biblical figure of Hagar in their work, and Hagar, Egyptian bondwoman of Sarah, is sometimes called the mother of all African-Americans. W.C. Handy sang “Aunt Hagar’s Blues”; and in Jones’s “Common Law,” a long story set in the 1950s about how a man’s violence toward his girlfriend has an effect on neighborhood children, a woman remembers that two decades earlier, before she fled the South, she went to the trouble of burying the husband she had killed on their remote Arkansas farm, because she thought “all Aunt Hagar’s children deserved a place in the ground.”

In the title story, “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” a veteran not long back from the Korean War and anxious to join a buddy supposedly prospecting for gold in the Alaska territory is asked by his mother, his aunt, and their friend Miss Agatha, in “heavy black old-lady shoes,” to investigate the murder of Miss Agatha’s no-good junkie son, because two years after his killing the police have not yet cracked the case. Of the police inactivity, the veteran’s Aunt Penny says, “One more colored boy outa their hair. It’s a shame before God, the way they do all Aunt Hagar’s children.” The veteran, who narrates the story, had been in the military police and is winding down his job as an assistant to a Jewish private detective; and he does, indeed, solve the case. The women have known all along that Miss Agatha’s daughter-in-law, whom they cherish, killed her husband, Miss Agatha’s son; but the narrator doesn’t know why they want him to know it. At one point he recalls his mother saying that one of the reasons war was bad was that it made a man lose his fear of his mother.

The three old women have another secret: back when they were girls in Alabama, a white man dragged Miss Agatha into the woods. Her two friends followed and beat him down to the ground with rocks “until he was no more than an unconscious lump.” Choctaw, Alabama, didn’t believe “colored” people did “bad things to white people, whom the law was built to protect,” which gave the girls’ families enough time to get them out of town. There is a contrast here with “Big Boy Leaves Home,” Richard Wright’s classic story of a black youth who escapes Mississippi after he kills an armed white man in a struggle. The youth is eighteen years old, about to become a man through the tragic initiation of killing and being hunted. For Wright, the point is in the realism, the terror of the lynch mob, the suspense in relating how Big Boy gets away. His sharecropper family can do little more for him than wrap up food and pray. However, the girls in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” make it to Washington two weeks after the attack, passed along in wagons by a network of relatives and friends.

Miss Agatha was fourteen years old when she was dragged into the woods and the two girls who came to her defense, the narrator’s mother and aunt, were “nearing eight” and “well past nine.” The white man they beat didn’t die; the women in the girls’ families wouldn’t let their men take on the sin of finishing him off. The incident took place some fifty years after slavery, but, writing seventy years after Wright’s story, Jones stresses the calm of the black family, the presence of mind possessed by everyone in what was a life-and-death situation. He endows the girls and their innocence with power and certainty. Nobody suffers the traditional horrors. Sitting on a curb after an ex-girlfriend has seemingly walked through him, the narrator tells himself: “Forget all of them, I thought, forget Miss Agatha and Sheila and her billions of sisters and forget my mother and Joanne with her belly full of girls. Forget every bitch that ever lived.”

Murders of men, near murders of men, and episodes of defying men run through the minds of black women in Jones’s stories. The stories suggest, in a mood of almost black humor, that Jones’s black women are not victims; they are avengers. In “A Rich Man,” two young women in the drug life take over an older man’s apartment. His love for them and his addiction to the crack they introduce him to bring about his ruin. Their presence is understood in the story as retribution for his cruelty to his wife. He’d always been a womanizer, but after his wife confessed to having had an affair herself, he was cold to her for the rest of her life, refusing to visit her in the hospital during her final illness. After her death he feels rejuvenated, but the streets, in the form of the two beautiful hustlers, make a fool of him. Jones is not interested in the conventional conflict between black men and black women, an exhausted theme anyway. In several stories, he populates the memories of his black women with stern grandfathers, sacrificial grandfathers, passionate fathers, ideal family men, and forbearing fiancĂŠs.

In Jones’s stories, as in so much of African-American literature, black women are also carriers of folk belief. “Root Worker” follows a young physician’s acceptance of “voodoo” once witches begin to ride, or possess, her mother after her third and last visit to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, “that place in Anacostia where they carted mad housewives, oppressed by a normal sunny day, and mad would-be assassins, launched by a kind of love, and even madder poets, crushed between the well-measured lines.” Back in the early 1960s, when she was eleven years old, the future doctor had had her first fight with a classmate who called her mother crazy. Twenty-five years later, her mother

would usually become paralyzed after the first witch stepped boldly into the locked bedroom and took up her place across Alberta’s legs. The second witch was a middle-body person, and she entered the room sitting on the whitest cloud through the window, open or closed, curtained or uncurtained. She sat on her haunches over Alberta’s chest, her hands spread across the poor woman’s breasts.

When her elderly father at last loses faith in St. Elizabeth’s, he and his daughter take her mother to an aged practitioner of root medicine in North Carolina that he has heard about from his wife’s paid companion, who comes from the same corner of North Carolina as he and his wife. Neither husband nor wife has visited the state since their daughter’s birth, and the implication is that the mother’s “head plague” started when they turned their backs on their roots:

Sometimes black people from the South need to go back home…. We leave, we run away and don’t realize how much we’ll need to go back home one day. The South is like that. It’s the worst mama in the world and it’s the best mama in the world.

The old woman offers the young doctor’s family “fresh mints,” not refreshments, but young Dr. Holloway soon learns to call her “Dr. Imogen.” Back at her office in D.C., patients eventually come in search of help “that came out of small mason jars, help from plants that were now growing in the backyard on either side of the lovely, winding path.” The root worker cautions Dr. Holloway that there is no magic. There are no answers in the story, but symbolism abounds, such as the moment when the doctor passes a woman wearing a sweatshirt in the Pan-African colors of black, green, and red that says on the front, “IT’S A BLACK THING,” and on the back, “YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.”

Just as voodoo augments conventional medicine in black literature, so folk belief is often shown as coexisting with Christian worship, and usually the black church is Protestant, evangelical, its rituals defined by folk practice. The morality that Jones’s characters believe in is largely Old Testament, mixed with a drop of something extra from folklore:

He looked for her for three months, and then just assumed that she had been killed somewhere and dumped in a place only animals knew about. Yvonne was indeed dead, and she would be waiting for him at the end of the line, though she did not know that was what she was doing. “You can always trust unhappiness,” Yvonne had once said, sitting in the dark on the couch, her cigarette burned down to the filter. “His face never changes. But happiness is slick, can’t be trusted.”

An unhinged teacher at a Christian school in one story asks his little pupils to write what they “would say to people who might not know Jesus.” He is aware of himself as “a reformed and wanton scoundrel,” while a mother of one of his pupils is exhilarated by the freedom that will soon be hers, because her young husband, a soldier, is dying of cancer. In another story, the Devil accosts a woman in a Safeway supermarket: “Himself been studyin you.”

When organized religion comes up in Jones’s stories, his black people are often Catholics. In the story “Blindsided,” a party girl losing her eyesight recalls a Catholic friend who “had prayers to some saint for every ailment. Who was the saint for blind people and had he himself been struck blind?” Jones’s people count the unborn as living people. If a pregnant woman is killed, then they will say that there were two victims. Or a mother wants her daughter “educated by nuns and priests all dressed in black, the way it had been done down through the generations with her people. Taught by people who had a firm grasp of how big and awful the world could be.”

In one story, “A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru,” a young black woman who has survived several tragic accidents that claimed the lives of those around her wonders why her neighbors did not burn her at the stake. “She had come to believe that death, with all her miracles, had merely overlooked her somehow, and that to make up for such a stupendous mistake on its part, death was planning something quite spectacular.” But at the end of the story she has formed a bond with a girl and a woman who are, like her, survivors of multiple threats. Jones leaves her on a high, as it were, a newlywed on a bus 137 miles southeast of Lima, on the road into what her guidebook calls “the Valley of Enormous Science Mysteries and Smallest Happenings.”

Jones awards most of his characters a sort of moral victory, or moral comfort. All Aunt Hagar’s Children has a sentimental mood running through it, because of the life-affirming endings that he has constructed. It isn’t that Jones prettifies the history of black people in the South. One of his characters can hate the state of Georgia, “because it had executed his uncle, an armless man who was as innocent as Jesus Christ.” However, there is a softness at the center of Jones’s new work and it has something to do with the way that folklore can turn black history into an uplifting heritage lesson. “We want, we rage, we desire, we fail, we succeed. We stand in that long, long line. Where were you when they taught us that?”

Then, too, Jones’s attitude toward his subjects has much to do with his gentle, caressing tone. He is the shepherd of his invented world; protective toward his flock, his people. “About these passioning souls he did not need to be ironical,” Saul Bellow said of John Berryman among the mental patients. It’s not that Jones likes them so much he can’t make anything bad happen to them. Caesar, the ex-con returning to his neighborhood in “Old Boys, Old Girls,” recalls once again the death of his beloved mother:

It was one thing for him to throw out a quick statement about a dead mother, as he had done many times over the years. A man could say the words so often that they become just another meaningless part of his makeup. The pain was no longer there as it had been those first few times he had spoken them, when his mother was still new to her grave.

But it’s as though he saw it as his mission as the writer of their fates to compensate them for life’s sorrows, to take them out of history or to give them victory over that history.

His language shields them, elevates them, transports them. He isn’t a magical realist so much as he is a historical lyricist. Other black writers who have made the folkloric an important part of their tone can sound hammy and overdone when compared to Jones, whose prose usually carries everything before it. Or maybe Jones’s work is another step in black literature, another register of the folk voice as a literary voice. The way he can make the strange occurrence seem like the most natural thing that could happen to a black person recalls the passion and grace in the work of Henry Dumas, the brilliant young short story writer who was shot to death by a policeman in a Harlem subway in 1968—but without Dumas’s overt militancy.*

Jones’s cultural politics are conservative, by comparison, and maybe, in trying to reach for the universal in black wisdom, he invents a world that isn’t as sharp and arresting and truly weird as in his earlier work. The Korean war veteran in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” holds the hand of a stricken young Jewish woman who has just gotten off a streetcar and he thinks her dying words are “A moll is gav vain ah rev und ah rabbit sin. Zetcha kender lock, gadank za tira vos ear lair rent doe.” His boss’s wife eventually explains to him that she was saying, “Amohl iz gevayn a rov und a rebbetzin. Zet zhe, kinderlach, gedenkzhe, teireh, vos ir lert’ doh.” “Once upon a time there was a rabbi and his wife…. Listen, children, remember, precious ones, what you’re learning here.”

  1. *

    The Ark of Bones and Other Stories (1974) and the novel Jonoah and the Green Stone (1976)—both volumes edited and introduced by Eugene B. Redmond and published by Toni Morrison at Random House—show Dumas’s allegorical gift for writing about the world of Southern blacks.

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