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Jesmyn Ward, Scrambled Eggs, and Why The Future Depends on Black Historical Fiction

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Early this December, when my kids asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I didn’t skip a beat. “Just one singular thing,” I told them. “Breakfast with Jesmyn Ward.” Her new author photo had caught my eye on a poster at the Enoch Pratt Central Library: she was going to be featured at their next annual Booklovers’ Breakfast in February.

Offering my kids a visual aid, I laid before them my cherished, marked-up copies of Salvage the Bones and Sing Unburied Sing, which surely they must have noticed me rereading year after year as I teach them at University of Baltimore. “Jesmyn Ward,” I repeated. “Got it, girls?”  They are eight and eleven years old—the tickets for the Booklovers’ Breakfast were well out of their price range at $50 a seat—so this all relied on them getting the message to my wife, to whom, taking a leap of holiday faith, I didn’t say a word.

Bless them all. On Christmas day, I opened an envelope to find one of my wife’s signature hand drawn coupons. I had a ticket!

The Booklovers’ Breakfast is the Enoch Pratt Library’s annual kick off to Black History Month. In years past, it has featured prominent Black writers and thought leaders like April Ryan, Walter Mosley, late congressman John Lewis, and many more. But this, the Pratt’s 36th Breakfast, was to be my first. And so, with little idea of what to expect, I daydreamed about Jesmyn and me sitting across a fancy table, spearing pancakes and passing the bacon whilst talking about characters we had yet to bring to life.

Fast forward to reality: February 3, at 8:26 am, I scored one of the last spots in a quickly maxed out parking garage, then was swept in a swell of Black women following our reservation directions to the entrance of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel. Guided seamlessly by Pratt employees and volunteers, we flooded the ornate hallways and staircases, the whirls of your sister’s/ auntie’s/ mama’s/ grandma’s perfumes announcing to all ahead and behind us this was an occasion not to be understated. We would add up to roughly 740 attendees, gathered at last in the hotel’s sprawling Harborside Ballroom.

 

Mahogany Books at the 2024 Enoch Pratt Booklovers' Breakfast
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott at the 2024 Enoch Pratt Booklovers' Breakfast. Photo by Howard Korn.

The first order of business were the awaiting buffets of scrambled eggs, pastries, sausage, home fries, berries, and coffee, plenty of coffee. Then we settled into the company of our preassigned tables of ten or so. Most were seated according to book clubs you could declare on your reservation.

I have to say, the book club pride was lit. As each one of the nearly seventy-five clubs in the room got a shout out by the Pratt, a table or more would holler back, whooping and doing the napkin wave. My vote for the best named, by the way, was Read Between the Wines. 

Table #61, where I was assigned, was evidently where they put us motley, book-club-less folks. But we had no less hype and filled every chair. Since I am on the board of CityLit Project, Executive Director Carla Du Pree and I were glad to find ourselves seated together. Across from us, I had the nice surprise of recognizing another mom from my kids’ school, her T-shirt printed with the names, “Zora, Toni, Maya, Octavia.”  

We were welcomed by Heidi Daniel, outgoing President and CEO of the Pratt as well as Darcell Graham, who will serve as the interim CEO. Mayor Brandon Scott took the mic after them, aglow in a bright yellow “From Baltimore with Love” hoodie. He wished us a happy Black History Month and acknowledged the Booklovers’ Breakfast as “one of the most highly anticipated events at the Pratt.”  When Ward came to the podium at last, she took pause for a moment, as if taking the whole lot of us in.

The award-winning author began to read to us from an unpublished piece she’d written about her grandmother, Dorothy. With the easy, Southern, I’m-going-to-keep-it-real timbre of her voice, everyone one of us in that ballroom went quiet. She described her grandmother as a woman born to mourning and poverty—rejected by her own mother after the death of her twin. She labored most of her life, subsisting on beans and rice, but she also loved fiercely, found joy, and would come to know “how to eat good too.”

Her grandmother Dorothy, Ward said, was the one to teach her a lesson she would never lose sight of, “Tell it straight, tell it all… and tell it again.”

  

Jesmyn Ward at the 2024 Enoch Pratt Booklovers' Breakfast. Photo by Howard Korn.
Ward’s newest novel, Let Us Descend, centers on Annis—a young, enslaved girl taken from the Carolinas to southern New Orleans.
Chelsea Lemon Fetzer

With limited access to African American history and Black authors throughout her early school years, Ward’s understanding of the life she knew in Mississippi was founded, first and intimately, by the “story keepers and tale tellers” within her family and community. She admitted knowing “practically nothing of American Slavery” until reading Alex Haley’s Roots in high school. Later, through the discovery of more Black writers, Ward began to see how her grandmother’s stories and her family’s experience connected to a far broader tapestry.

Ward’s newest novel, Let Us Descend, was the yellow glow in most of our laps, or between our empty plates. And though she was not reading from it, the book was at the heart of this conversation.

Taking place in the early 1800s, Let Us Descend centers on Annis—a young, enslaved girl taken from the Carolinas to southern New Orleans. The character came to Ward after she heard a segment on NPR describing the history of slave pens in New Orleans.

The story reported that, as of that time, there were only two markers, out of the dozen or so slave pens that had existed—and one of those markers was in the wrong place. Ward thought of the countless people who had suffered, entrapped in those pens, and realized, “I wanted to write a story that would push back against that erasure and that would bring that experience back into the public consciousness.”

In Let Us Descend, Annis’ journey to the pen is brutal, and so is her journey beyond it. But Ward’s lyrical writing, nearly incantational here, offers reprieve too. Annis’ agency is seeded in the memory she keeps of her mother, in the stories she has been told about her grandmother, a warrior, elephant hunter, and one of the wives to the king of Dahomey.

In the present time of the novel, Annis awakens to her own desires and selfhood through her affection for another enslaved girl named Safi and through the relationships she navigates with spirits who appear to her throughout the book.

The most vivid and intimidating of these spirits, in my opinion, is Aza. Maybe a reflection of the Yoruba Orisha, Oya, she is storm-like when she appears to Annis. Ward renders her unforgettably in descriptions like, “Nothing of the tender mother in her. She glares at me with her black eyes, her lightning irises.” Annis has no power beyond escape within the human world, but the spirits offer her a broader vision and an awakening to the past. Changed through their lessons, and discovering herself as she boldly translates and at times challenges them, Annis ultimately forges her own future. That’s as much as I am saying. Because… just read it.

 

Jesmyn Ward at the 2024 Booklovers' Breakfast. Photo by Howard Korn.
Black historical fiction, including works that take on slavery—which has ever been treated tentatively by the publishing industry—cannot be diminished now. It must be part of the forward-looking movement too.
Chelsea Lemon Fetzer

“I try to make the people I write about whole.” Ward told us, “Capable of not only enduring, surviving, fighting, but of finding family, experiencing joy.” She was responding to a question someone had asked in the Q & A session, on where she draws the line between writing toward the hard and… well, “trauma porn”?  This is a question that inevitably arises when we talk about fiction that takes on slavery, and Ward’s answer echoed back to the story she shared with us that morning—to her grandmother Dorothy. Of course. Tell it straight, tell it all.

As her reading reached a close, Ward revealed that she’d been speaking of her grandmother in the past tense, not because she had passed, but because she is losing her memory to Alzheimer’s disease. I could feel it resonate across the room. We understood. The stakes of memory lie both in the personal and political.

Each one of us will lose, and have already lost, generations of story-keepers born before—just as we face book banning, relentless censoring in public schools, lack of representation among the gatekeepers of publishing. How and why we go about recovering our stories must also be personal as it is political.

I want to speak now, not only as an advocate and admirer of Ward’s work, but as a writer of historical fiction too.

My father put Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, in my hands, when I was a senior in high school. Before that, the incidents of racism I faced in my small Midwestern town, felt as abstract as they were inextricable from the few obscured photographs in my history textbook of Black bodies picking cotton in the south.

Through Morrison’s writing though, I was with Sethe in the woodsheddriven to cut her baby’s throat when the slave catchers were coming. And I was with her too, when her Beloved returned to her, ghost though she may have been, kneading Sethe’s shoulders in the Clearing. Free. Morrison offered the energy and language of a time I shared to show me the hard and the brightness of the past. At the same time, I knew I was safe in the care of her intention as an artist.

Later I would read Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs, whose autobiographies are a revelation, both in the elegance of the writing and in their rarity as firsthand accounts from those living through enslavement. Enslaved people were not only denied publication, but literacy, any rights in the way of speaking their minds, and even pen and paper. Their stories were meant to be lost.

The first generations of freed Black Americans had caught onto the power of their words though, especially toward the cause of abolition. And whether or not the means to publish a book might have been out of reach, many, Douglass included, founded newspapers. It happened, one of these newspapers (American Baptist) was just where Morrison came across a small article published in 1856. It was titled, “A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child.” Like Ward hearing about the New Orleans’ slave pens on the radio, Morrison was compelled by the incomplete glimpse of a life that, through fiction, she might make whole.

 

Today, we readily champion fiction that offers forward-looking visions of Blackness, worlds liberated from the legacies of American oppression. The attraction of Afrofuturism and the ticket sales for Wakanda Forever are undeniable. It makes sense. We need that. At the same time, I argue Black historical fiction, including works that take on slavery—which has ever been treated tentatively by the publishing industry—cannot be diminished now. It must be part of the forward-looking movement too.

The transatlantic slave trade persisted more than four hundred years. Tens of millions of people were enslaved. The effects of this legacy are felt, one way or another, in every American state and across the world. There is a lot of recovery to be done. This next part, to me, is just as far-reaching: There are writers I cannot calculate or map who will one day stumble across a story on the radio, an old newspaper article, a photograph, an object, a post online—a small, incomplete glimpse. And they will be compelled, for their own reasons, in their own language and time, to make it whole. Generation after generation, attuned to what has been revealed and tried and imagined by writers who came before, they will come to the blank page and craft from it an opening.

There’s no knowing which one of us will write the book that first shows a young reader how the colors of their own story weave into the broad (bright and sorrowful and beautiful and resilient) tapestry of the past. A reader who then, I hope, like Annis awakening in the company of memory and spirits, finds her own way forward.

 

Photos courtesy of the Enoch Pratt Library

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