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…

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