‘Memphis’ Is a Rhapsodic Hymn to Black Women

Yet “Memphis” is far from joyless, conveying a world where blithe gratification is garnered through traditional women’s work — seamstressing, hairdressing, nursing — as well as through less conventional pursuits, as with the 1960s Black female radicals who find a welcome space for strategizing on Hazel’s porch. There is the sense that these women are familiar to Stringfellow, who, after years of living abroad (Okinawa, Ghana, Cuba, Spain, Italy), has, literally and figuratively, returned home.

Still, there is some discordance in the book’s logic. Only Joan’s chapters are written in the first person, and even as a 10-year-old girl, she expresses herself in a manner more akin to an adult. Then, years later, as a high school junior taking honors history, she oddly has not even heard of the New Deal. Another conundrum: From the start of the novel, the reader is to accept that Miriam, a caring, sensitive mother, had no refuge besides August’s home — but given that Miriam knew of Derek’s past brutality against Joan, I would have liked clearer confirmation of this dearth of options before she took her little girls to live with him. Then there is the scene when a mysterious, disruptive Black stranger (identified later) barges into a wedding reception and pistol-whips a white waiter who, not knowing the man, had understandably tried to refuse him entry, while the mostly Black attendees, all spectators, inexplicably continue enjoying their cake even as the server lies unconscious.

Contradictions aside, “Memphis” is a rhapsodic hymn to Black women. (Fittingly, throughout the novel, Stringfellow references musical legacies from Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith to Aretha and Chaka.) On a busy day in her hairdressing salon, August, a gifted singer, suddenly takes up “Amazing Grace,” enchanting her customers: “And when she hit that high note — that high C — even Mika nodded her roller-adorned head and sang along.”

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