“Just Mercy”

Just Mercy

On Friday afternoon my mum and I went to the beach. It was a bit windy and sand occasionally whipped about our legs and into our faces. The sea was rough too, and there weren’t many people swimming. We ran into a friend who told us that the water was very cold, but I still wanted to give it a try and hurried in anyway. He was right. It took several minutes for me to be completely submerged, and though by then my legs were comfortable my arms couldn’t warm up fast enough; after a few strokes I headed back to our beach chairs. Mummy was relaxing under our umbrella, but I dragged my chair out into the sun. I pulled my book, Just Mercy, out of my bag and spent the next hour and a half reading.

When we got back home mum began frying fish for our classic Good Friday meal, and I read her the most disturbing passage from that afternoon. Just Mercy is a chilling memoir about the American justice system, specifically its handling of criminal cases and the abuse, neglect and victimisation of poor and minority populations. It’s written by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who has devoted his life to representing condemned criminals. The narrative alternates between the story of Stevenson’s developing career and his representation of one innocent man in particular. The passage I read for my mum was from the more general side of the memoir, about a boy who was sentenced to life in prison and, ostensibly for his protection from the adult male inmates, spent 18 years in solitary confinement. When I read about him on the beach I had to put the book down and take a few minutes before continuing. When I read aloud for my mum I made it to the end of the passage and then broke down into tears.

18 years. Ian Manuel was arrested when he was 13 for shooting a woman in the face, and though the two later developed such a close relationship that she advocated for the courts to reduce his sentence, her pleas were ignored.

Just Mercy is full of awful stories like Manuel’s, in addition to the heart wrenching tale of Walter McMillian, the man whose case we follow in the most detail. Stevenson is an excellent writer. Both sides of his memoir are equally engaging and despite its difficult subject matter the book is hard to put down. Each reading experience is intensely emotional; from the very beginning I’ve been having bad dreams. They are vague and unstructured, but the overall themes are impending death, gloom and restriction. I wake up with impressions of prison and feelings of sadness and unease, although I don’t recall any faces or particular storyline.

In addition to sharing his clients’ experiences, Stevenson explains the precedents and shifts in the US legal system, both in terms of the letter and the intent of the law. This paints a fuller picture of the scope of the problem and underscores its connection to other systemic prejudices in US society.

The horrific actions and court decisions reported by Stevenson are more than mistakes, the result of pressured officials or eventually forgivable bad behaviour. The meanness runs deep, and there’s no way to describe some of the cases he reports as anything other than barbaric. It’s unconscionable that human beings can treat one another that way, especially children. It’s frightening to know that these cases have been tried in my lifetime.

Reading Just Mercy on the heels of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass clearly evidences the legacies of slavery and the many issues and attitudes that remain unchanged, despite the centuries between them. I never did find out how Douglass escaped his chains, since he kept this information secret in order to protect the journeys of others. He gloried in his liberty but still had to contend with disenfranchisement. I wonder what he would say if he could read Stevenson’s account now? What about other Americans who lived and died chafing under slavery?

The crimes against the many men and women described by Stevenson are rooted in a poisonous evil that weighs heavy on my heart. I am in awe of this man who has sacrificed so much of himself to be their champion, and am reminded of my own responsibility to do justice and love mercy. His book will stick with me for the rest of my life, and I hope it will influence my own work for the better.

Lost! Book Separation Anxiety

As a little girl I developed the habit of taking my book-of-the-moment with me wherever I went. This was in part because I wanted to read at every available opportunity, and also because Saturday outings with my mum could turn into journeys across hell and creation. Having a book handy meant that I could wait in the car and be entertained while she completed her errands.

Although I manage my own time and errands now I haven’t abandoned the habit – I still like to carry my book with me. There is more of a risk though that I’ll leave it behind, since I’m doing the running about and not sitting in the car. In that instance, I could lose my book forever or go through a deal of trouble to get it back.

That’s the situation I’m in currently. I left my book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, somewhere in the library of the University of The Bahamas. I’ve spent a lot of time on its campus over the last few days for a literature festival. I’m at home on a break between panels, and was looking forward to reading it, but alas! I’m upset enough that I can’t actually think of anything else to write about. If it were a mediocre book then it probably wouldn’t have been this big of a deal, but I am really enjoying Douglass’ autobiography and have already begun recommending it to friends.

Narrative is the first of three memoirs that he wrote, and it’s very brief, around 100 pages. I expected to be finished by now – and since I’ve left it behind am wishing that somehow I was able to  – but this week has been really busy, with functions every evening, which is when I get the most of my reading done.

Douglass has me wincing on almost every page at the atrocities he witnessed and experienced. I am shocked all over again at the horror of slavery in the Americas, and am amazed that anyone at all made it through alive, much less generations of people. Douglass gives heart-wrenching descriptions of cruelties and his emotional distress, but at the same time his retelling feels more straightforward than dramatic. Indeed, the brevity of his memoir underscores this point. He sticks to the facts and allows their stark truths to do the work of proselytising for him.

I’m at the stage where it seems Douglass is finally going to break free from his captives and begin his life as an activist. I’m burning to know how it happened, since my earlier guesses – a kind mistress helped him? A freed slave woman’s husband started him on the underground railroad? He ran away after a near-death beating by one of his masters? – all proved wrong. So then how did he do it? And what was his life like immediately after, when he was very much a fugitive, without the protection of (I’m assuming) white abolitionists and his general popularity? I have to get my book back, and find out.

War and Peace

I finished War and Peace a few weeks ago, after about nine months of reading. It wasn’t difficult, just too easy to put down. I pushed through because hey, it’s lauded as one of the greatest novels of all time, and I wanted to see if, when all was said and done, it lived up to the hype. Welp, not for me.

To start with, the book opens with a protracted party scene, which introduces us to mostly unimportant characters and is incredibly boring. It goes on for over 100 pages, which in the scheme of the book is hardly any time at all, but for an opener it’s really no fun. I read it carefully too, expecting I’d have to remember everyone, but much to my later annoyance found out that most of the people didn’t matter. Although come to think of it now, it was a good primer for the rest of the book, since there are countless characters weaving in and out of sight, some reappearing after I’d decided they weren’t going to show up again.

The ending isn’t great either, as there are two – yes two – epilogues, the first setting up the remaining characters with a more or less rosy future, and the last indulging Tolstoy’s love of philosophising on the nature of  life, free will and causality. This was another thing that I didn’t like about War and Peace. I’d be in a good part, happy that I wasn’t having to work so hard to move forward or enjoy what I was reading, and bam! Tolstoy would pull up and start talking directly to me about how historians are ridiculous, giving too much credit to the famous men from the 18th and 19th centuries and their role in starting, winning or losing wars and setting revolutions in motion. Or you know, I might be in a not so good part – the war bits weren’t my favourite haha – but it would be made even worse by Tolstoy’s analysis of troop movements, generals’ actual versus perceived qualifications and explanations of why Napoleon is vastly overrated. Yawn. Can we get back to the story now? I love historical fiction generally, and I liked that War and Peace helped me learn a little about the wars between France and Russia, but a little more excitement and less academic musings please!

Another issue I had was that I didn’t care enough about any of the characters. There are a handful whose lives we follow closely throughout the novel, but even those ones couldn’t get much emotion, other than annoyance, out of me. Pierre for instance is the bastard son of a count who inherits his fortune and finds himself thrust into the social spotlight. He struggles interminably with the meaning of life and how he ought to be living, but he’s so snivelly, indisciplined and changeable that there was only a brief period, somewhere in the early to middle part, when I found him actually likeable. He’s also incredibly out of touch with reality, following around the Russian soldiers as if on a field trip, endangering his life – he literally stands in the middle of gun and canon fire – with no intention of actually fighting. Who does that? Why did no one kick him off the field/send him home? How is that even believable? Even describing it now is making me frustrated. Then he gets it into his head that he’s going to be the one to take down Napoleon. Pierre the assassin. Good grief.

Then there’s Natasha, who I dislike more for the way she’s written than her actual character, if that makes sense. She’s the stereotypical flighty, shallow, beautiful girl, who plunges into a deep depression after a heartbreak that she brought on herself. It’s understandable, to an extent, but Tolstoy writes her as sick to the point of death, for months, which I found too dramatic, especially given the way things happened. In general the women in War and Peace are two dimensional caricatures: the beautiful mercurial one, the pining-away-for-the-love-she’ll-never-have one, and the pious-to-the-point-of-perfection one. The other women we learn about are much the same, with two busybody mothers and a greedy socialite. The men are much more interesting, complicated and given credit in ways that the women aren’t. None of this is surprising, given when War and Peace was written, but it still bothers me that people today completely gloss over this fact when they give it such high praise.

Another frustrating trope is the noble savage. War and Peace revolves around the aristocracy; peasants are written as simple beings needing guidance, but there’s an especially repugnant storyline involving Pierre and a fellow POW. Platon Karatayev is a grown man in his late 50s, but Tolstoy describes his attitude on waking as “a child wanting to play with his toys straightaway” (p. 1079, Briggs 2005) and tells us that the great thing about his conversation style was that he “never thought over what he had said or worked out what he was going to say” (1079). If that’s not ridiculous enough, somehow Karatayev could “never remember what he had said even a minute before” (1081). He “enjoyed no attachments, no friendships, no love in any sense of these words that meant anything to Pierre, yet he loved and showed affection to every creature he came across in life, especially people, no particular people, just those who happened to be there before his eyes” (1080). Karatayev is the most vapid, uninteresting, impossibly unreal human in the entire novel, but somehow crowned as simplicity and truth personified, the “epitome of kind-heartedness and all things rounded and Russian” (1079). He plays a small role, but every time he was on the page and Pierre interacted with him in all his condescending glory, I cringed.

In spite of all this, I wouldn’t say that War and Peace was a bad read or a waste of time. The prose is pretty straightforward (I wonder how it feels in the original Russian), but I came to enjoy its clarity. I liked following the development of characters in such detail, over years of time. At least as far as the men were concerned, they have interesting problems to solve or goals they’d like to accomplish, and we see them react to the various challenges and opportunities life throws at them. As their experiences change them, my feelings for them often changed as well.

For a good while I was expecting something to happen, for there to be a big climax or problem that needed solving, the usual climb and descent of a novel. Then I realised that War and Peace isn’t that kind of story; it’s more of a window into people’s lives and relationships, like real life, with people that you can’t stand, that you just tolerate, that you root for and who disappoint you. It’s impressive in its detail and grand in its scope, painting a picture of a particular time in history and a class of people that are entirely gone today. While I wouldn’t go around recommending it to people, I can see how its subject matter and ego made possible its status in the canon of great literature. To put my earlier criticisms in perspective, I picked up a few shorter books while I was reading, since my copy is big, bulky and not great for carrying around. None of them were as good. Since I’ve finished the best thing I’ve read is The Rosie Project, which, although a very different type of novel, I wouldn’t put in the category of lasting literature. Overall, I’m glad it’s done and I can check it off my reading bucket list, and though I can see how another read through could help me understand it more and maybe enjoy it better, I don’t see myself picking it up again – I read in the introduction that one writer has read it as many as 12 times! :O

(Post script: I ran into a Russian grandmother on the subway platform one day while I was reading. Her 7 year old grandson had a copy of War and Peace and I made a comment that got us talking. She was thrilled to see me with my copy, and promised that I would laugh and cry and have the greatest time. As I was 3/4 of the way through I knew this wasn’t the case, but I just kept that opinion to myself.)

Power and “The Known World”

“Papa, just cause you didn’t, that don’t mean…” Augustus took down a stick, one with an array of squirrels chasing one another, head to tail, tail to head, a line of sleek creatures going around and around the stick all the way to the top where a perfect acorn was waiting, stem and all. Augustus slammed the stick down across Henry’s shoulder and Henry crumpled to the floor. “Augustus, stop now!” Mildred shouted and knelt to her son. “Thas how a slave feel!” Augustus called down to him. “Thas just how every slave every day be feelin.”

Henry squirmed out of his mother’s arms and managed to get to his feet. He took the stick from his father. “Henry, no!” Mildred said. Henry, with two tries, broke the stick over his knee. “Thas how a master feels,” he said and went out the door.

Edward P. Jones, The Known World p. 138

I don’t usually mark up the books that I read. A passage has to be particularly striking for me to highlight it or write a note in the margins. This was one of those. I was overcome by the truth and the violence in this scene, and it’s haunted me ever since.

The Known World tells the story, in a roundabout way, of what happens to the plantation of black slave-owner Henry Townsend after he dies. It’s an incredible book, not least because the places and people are entirely fictional but feel so real I kept trying to look up miscellaneous facts and personalities. I told a cousin that my favourite thing about The Known World is probably the way it’s so destabilising. There are lots of characters involved, but Jones doesn’t tell their stories in chronological order, so it took a while to get my bearings and even then I felt like the ground was ever-shifting beneath my feet. There’s a little magical realism sprinkled throughout the story too, just enough so that you’re mostly on solid rock, but every now and again puddles of water creep through so slowly and ordinarily you wonder whether some fantastical event that you wouldn’t otherwise be taken in by could actually be possible.

Then of course the whole subject of the novel is unfamiliar territory – who really talks about black slave owners? Even though they were an extreme minority, the fact that there were free black people who owned slaves adds a fascinating complexity to the fabric of society during this period. One aspect of this complexity is played out in the relational dynamics of this scene, and dwelling on what’s happened for a little bit shows us why it’s important to think about these complexities at all.

Augustus and Mildred are Henry’s parents. All of them began their lives as slaves, and Augustus worked to free first himself, then his wife and finally his son. While he was still enslaved Henry developed a relationship with his master, which continued after he was freed. His former master mentored him and helped him develop his own plantation. This scene is the aftermath of Henry revealing to his parents that he has bought his first slave.

Augustus and Mildred are, understandably, bewildered – how could a son of theirs ever think to buy another human being? Did they somehow go wrong in assuming that he would implicitly understand the evils of owning another person? That it was tantamount to returning to Egypt “after God done took you outa there”? (137). They have to ask him, explicitly, whether or not he knows it’s wrong, and Henry replies that no one ever taught him so. Then he becomes defensive – owning slaves isn’t illegal; he’s not doing anything a white man wouldn’t do. It’s clear that parents and child are at odds, and Augustus, having vowed to himself never to suffer a slaveowner on his property, kicks Henry out. As he’s ushering his son out the door, he tries, one last time, to convey to Henry the implications of his purchase.

When Augustus brought the walking stick crashing down onto Henry’s shoulders, I felt as though I too was receiving the blow. It’s one thing to be moved by accounts of the mistreatment of slaves, to be appalled at how plantations were run and to be disgusted by Jim Crow laws. It’s quite another to imagine myself buckling to the floor every day under the force of a solid wooden stick slamming down onto my shoulders. I felt as though the wind was knocked out of me. I felt beaten down. The analogy was so very real. I cheered for Augustus for making his point so clearly, for definitively proving the moral high ground, even as I was still reeling from the blow he dealt his son. Then, before I could catch my breath, Henry comes back for the last word, demonstrating his immense power by actually breaking the stick over his knee. He is totally free from that subservient position, and, strangely, I felt myself rooting for him too. Yes! Go Henry! You’re not gonna take that! Sock it to ’em!

Therein lies the tension that makes this passage so illuminating and compelling. On the one hand, Augustus, standing up against the oppression of a system and refusing any part in it, even if it means ejecting his son from his house. On the other hand, Henry, who has found a way to extract himself from the system and will soon benefit from it. Who can blame him? In the moment his father chooses to represent him as a slave, Henry appears the underdog. Then he pulls himself up off of the floor, takes the white man’s chains and shows himself capable of destroying them. The memory of him beaten down is still so fresh in my mind, it’s easy to understand the delicious temptation for the power that a master wields, and the desire never to be on the ground that way again.

In this exchange we have two black men on opposite sides of the slavery debate, and both of them appear to be winning; well, winning in the sense that we can empathise with either side. It’s brilliant, and one example of the way The Known World constantly plays on our perceptions of absolutes, of truth and fiction. To the very end, I found myself wondering about my beliefs of the known and the unknown, what’s fixed and mutable in the world. What about decisions that some (black) people make today to look out for their best interests, deceiving themselves about the effects they have on the wider community? If they have personal experiences with these consequences, is it worthwhile illustrating these to try and convince them to pursue a less selfish course of action? How far does empathy for that individual’s experience with this pain go in our conversations with them? And let’s make this more personal – what about me? If there’s anything I learned from this novel, it’s that I can think I’m totally within my rights to act in some way or hold a particular belief that is in truth abhorrent.

The power dynamics described in The Known World – between slaves and slave owners; black, white and Native American people; civilians and the law; men and women – make this far away 19th century world more real to me, and make the unseen forces which operate in our world seem realer to me too. And I wonder about all the ways of being that I – we – have inherited: absolute, fluid and somewhere in that spectrum, from the world that Augustus and Henry lived in.