Where We’ve Been : 1959, <i> By Thulani Davis (Grove Weidenfeld: $18.95; 297 pp.)</i>
“My tribe never practiced any magic arts, but storytellers all, they cling very close to my ear and tell softly what I have forgotten or have never known.”
“1959" evokes the cool echoing voice of a storyteller within a story. A motherless child, Willie Tarrant, narrates her 12th year and the oncoming shadows of the civil-rights struggle, the Viet Nam War--the ‘60s. In the lyrical and envisioning prelude to the story, the adult Willie revisits her hometown of Turner, Va.; the image offered for her return is the circling back of animals across the savannas to the abandoned villages of nomads. Turner, once the home of Africans and African-Americans, has been renovated out of existence by urban renewal projects--whites taking revenge for boycotts and sit-ins.
Willie has her 12th birthday in July, 1959. In August, Jack Dempsey, a high school student, is shot dead by a white man. Jack and the white man were both in cars necking by night with their girlfriends; Jack had approached the white man to ask for a light for his cigarette, and was killed.
Davis’ novel has an uncanny capacity to enthrall the reader, a power that derives from her impeccable control of horror and response to horror. She portrays the seemingly slow response of the African-American community to this unconscionable murder of one of its children.
The novel goes about its business of being August and September, picnics and bad weather, implying that the heart of the community barely skips a beat in responding to the murder. Through Willie’s voice, however, the story continues its steady growth, meticulously accumulating its quiet local color, and, accelerating, winds up to exploding social, political and spiritual outrage. The action, when it comes, manages not only to protest this death but also to rebel against segregated schools and lunch counters, job discrimination, slave wages and other innumerable wounds of racism.
The explosion occurs when the black and white communities of Turner are debating a snail-paced school integration plan that would send Willie to the white school across town. Eight African-American students from Turner College, with suits, ties and recent haircuts, walk into Woolworth’s and ask for cups of coffee at the whites-only counter. It is a mild act, but one that rocks Turner to the core. “We understand exactly, sir, and we’d still like to be served here at Woolworth’s, right at thiscounter, sir.”
Davis holds her words in her hands and places them as she wants to place them. She is not sidetracked into giving us a political treatise that would decrease the art of her work. Her control of Willie’s perspective is so complete that we can hear Willie seeing, imagining. Her characterizations pay uncommon attention to detail. Willie’s father Dixon, and her teacher Mrs. Taliaferro, are particularly enlightening. Dixon, a college professor who refuses to send his daughter out of the room during an “adult” discussion of school integration (“It’s her life we’re talking about”), has a sensitivity and honesty that make him a new character in American literature. From Mrs. Taliaferro, the conscientious and politically provocative teacher, we hear the educating words that refuse to back off and shut up in the face of white school-board members who have invaded the classroom to see if black children have brains.
The entire story is braided with music and musical references, from the first sentence of the first chapter: “Billie Holiday died and I turned twelve on the same hot July day.” Ralph Johnson, a classmate of Dixon’s who became a barber because no one would employ a black engineer, plays Thelonius Monk for his customers and raps to them about the music too. “You ever just been in a room where ten black people sat together and hummed, talked, moaned, or laughed? You been here for the feast, man.” Music is the interrelating off-beat of Davis’ text, accentuating and representing, through art, the power of pain and resistance in the lives of individual African-Americans:
“Well, yes. I don’t know if I can explain it, though. Sometimes it’s like when I hear spirituals I heard when I was a child. Kind of a consoling feeling. And sometimes, like the other day with the dogs, it’s like standing in the middle of a storm, but it’s not blowing around you, it’s like it’s coming from inside. Power, it’s a feeling of power.”
Throughout the narrative structure, characterizations and literary devices in the novel, we can feel the ‘60s heartbeat, the lilt-patter-stomp that struck out from that year of prelude, 1959, 1959. We shudder before what we know is to come, the devastations of Vietnam, the murders of political and civil- rights leaders, student revolts.
The child Willie’s recurrent nightmare--"the house a smoldering charred gray frame"--is a premonition of the adult voice that opens “1959.” It echoes biblically: “Down came the house,” “And down came the bridge,” “Down came the little cottages.” Although the profoundly compelling closing events of the novel allow space for hopes to turn out well, it comes in full view of all the losses, the deaths and abandonment. From the progenitor slave woman renamed Gambia (“first of my line”) by the narrator, to the narrator herself, what remains is the voice, the story:
“I am the last of my line. I return to curl up in the sun there because I know the sound of the birds, the smell of the tide when it has gone out.”