by Lalita Tademy
Warner Books, 2005
My sister-in-law Pat recommended this one. I like most books she recommends so I went out and bought it almost immediatly. And then I almost didn’t finish it.
Having so recently read Known World, I wasn’t sure if I could face what I was about to read. But if you have the same hesitation when you begin — read on. There is a grit and hope that will help you transcend the anguish of this tale.
In her fictionalized memoir, Lalita Tademy traces her roots through the lives of four women: Her great, great, great, great, Grandmother Elizabeth and the direct line of grandmothers that follow — Suzette, Philomene, and Emily.
Three were slaves, though one, Philomene, would know freedom after the Civil War. The last, her grandmother Emily, though never a slave, would continue to feel the hard edge of racism with its undercurrent of violence.
It’s a story about the holocaust we call slavery. The inhumane way people were treated only because their skins were black. Husbands and wives sold separately after thirty years of marriage. Mother’s whose children were sold away whenever the master needed a little extra money. The hard labor, the beatings. It’s all there — though not in an unrelenting way.
It’s also about the way white masters believed they had a right to have sex with their women slaves — even when they were only 12 or 13. It’s about little children of mixed color who grew lighter with each succeeding generation, again thanks to the proclivities of white masters.
And it’s about “yellow” and “light” people of color, who could almost pass for white, wanted to pass for white, knew it was safer to pass for white — and so sometimes did.
But it is infinitely more complicated than that. It’s also about white men who fell in love with black women but couldn’t marry them because it was against the law. And so they did what they could to protect their children and the women they loved.
Because Tademy has fictionalized her facts, she brings to life the men and women captured in old photographs, deeds of sale, and marriage records depicted throughout the book. Better than straight non-fiction, her storytelling sets our imaginations free to glimpse the way it might have been — glimpse how hard it can be to find that line between right and wrong, just and cruel, bitter and sweet.
Her memoir/fiction reminds us that we must tell the stories “lest we forget.” And in the case of Tademy and her family it would be a crime worse than any recounted should they ever forget these four valiant women, without whom there would be no story to tell.