These aren’t particularly well-written books, but the second one, Mustard Seed, covers the important and often-neglected subject of double discrimination – in this case, a black American woman during the Reconstruction era feeling that the movement for rights for black people was only focusing on those of black men, and that she had to choose between that movement and the movement for women’s rights. BBC 3 recently interviewed some members of the Black Trans Lives Matter movement, who spoke about feeling that they had to “pick sides” and didn’t feel fully part of either the black community or the trans community. A black Jewish woman interviewed in a local newspaper recently made similar comments, and there was controversy at Manchester Pride last year over whether or not black and brown stripes should be added to the rainbow flag. I think the term “intersectional identity” is used by American academics?
Unfortunately, the books just got plain silly as they went on, culminating in a bizarre saga involving an embittered brother, an embittered ex-fiancé and everyone kidnapping, drugging and shooting each other. I was just waiting for someone who’d been killed in the war to come out of the shower and say that it’d all been a dream! Also, some of the dialogue was very wooden, and, for crying out loud, the author got the number of states in the Confederacy wrong. Oh dear. If she’d focused on a basic plotline, following issues with which she was clearly very concerned, rather than making it into an ’80s soap opera on drugs, these books could have been very well worth the read. They had some good points to make.
A bit of background – Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the US, were both prominent Abolitionists, but opposed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments giving the vote and legal protection to black American men whilst American women of all races were denied the same rights. Sojourner Truth, another prominent Abolitionist and a former slave herself, affiliated herself with them. It’s not the same thing, but many British suffragists and suffragettes weren’t happy about the idea of all men getting the vote before any women did – which didn’t happen in the end – as it then enshrined in law the fact that women were denied rights because they were women and for no other reason. It’s a complex subject.
The author struggled to find a publisher because much of the plot hinges on the affection between an antebellum plantation owner’s daughter and her mammy. That seems to be a taboo topic now. But there’s an interesting scene in Gone With The Wind in which one of the “carpetbagger” women is looking for a nursemaid, Scarlett recommends a black woman, and the carpetbagger woman says that she wouldn’t trust a black servant. Scarlett can’t understand that at all, because she always had an affectionate relationship with Mammy and some of the other former slaves who’d known her since she was a child. Nothing’s ever entirely straightforward: things are nuanced, and there must have been maids and mammies who did have affection for their owners, and vice-versa, despite the horrific “peculiar institution” of slavery.
The John Jakes North and South books, which I read two years before I read Gone With The Wind but which was published half a century after it, don’t feature a mammy .. which is strange, really. They do show a friendship between a plantation owner’s cousin and a black boy of the same age, though, and female slaves being close to their mistress even though their master is cruel. In the second one, Love and War, a plantation owner’s daughter moves from South Carolina to Pennsylvania and works at a school where most of the pupils are the children of freedmen. She tells a colleague that “I’ve loved every one of those children”. He says “When you feel just as much love for an adult of their colour, you’ll have made the whole journey”. I read that book when I was 12. I’ve never, ever forgotten that line.
Back to this one. Laila Ibrahim’s books do make it clear that none of the slaves are happy in slavery. That’s where Gone With The Wind and other books depicting such relationships have caused problems, because they’ve often shown the opposite. In Yellow Crocus, on a Virginia plantation in the 1830s, Mattie, shortly after the birth of her own son, is forced to leave him with relatives and move “inside” to become wet nurse and then mammy to Lisbeth/Elizabeth. Rather unrealistically, she gets Lisbeth to teach her son and her niece to read and write. Her son’s then sold to a neighbouring plantation, and he and her husband escape to Oberlin, Ohio – famed for its college where black and white students worked together, and known to be one of the most tolerant places in the country. Shortly afterwards, Mattie realises that she’s expecting her second child, and is replaced as Lisbeth’s maid by Emily … who turns out to be Lisbeth’s half-sister, the daughter of her father and one of the slavewomen.
It’s at this point that the characters, especially the white characters, start sounding very wooden indeed: the lines just sound like standard lines on a subject, rather than things that the characters would say. There’s also a ridiculous scene in which Lisbeth goes on about being so glad she’s American and born free, rather than being like a Jane Austen heroine! Excuse me? Compared to all the social strictures placed on plantation owners’ daughter, the society of Lizzie Bennet, Catherine Morland et al seemed like a hippy commune!
Mattie runs away with her baby; and it’s great that she makes it to Oberlin and is reunited with her husband and son, but the journey isn’t very realistic. Marks for trying to show the work of the Underground Railroad, but it’s “trying” rather than “succeeding”! Lisbeth becomes engaged to a wealthy neighbour, but breaks off the engagement when she finds him raping a slave girl … at which point she suddenly decides that she’s become an Abolitionist.
I’m not sure how well that works. It does seem to play into old fears about white men wanting to rape black women and black men wanting to rape white women, but, yes, female slaves were at the sexual mercy of their masters: it was horrendous. But why did it take that to change Lisbeth’s mind? She’d seen Mattie’s son be sold, she’d seen Mattie be whipped for saying that she didn’t know where her husband and son had gone, and she claimed to love Mattie so much … why had none of that had the same effect on her? And she then dumps her fiancé, and persuades a male friend, whom she’s heard is moving to Ohio, to marry her and take her with him. As you do. And, whaddaya know, they end up in the same place as Mattie and her family. And, when Lisbeth’s having a difficult birth, the local midwife is sent for … and, hey, it’s Mattie, whom she thought she’d never see again.
On to Mustard Seed. We’ve missed the war: it took place in the gap between the books. It’s now the late 1860s. Mattie’s son is a lawyer, and her daughter, Jordan, is a teacher. And it looks as if the book’s going to be about Jordan trying to reconcile her desire to work for women’s rights with her family’s focus on black civil rights. Alongside that’s the generational clash between a young woman who’d grown up free, in a community where a lot of opportunities were open to black people, and her parents, who’d spent much of their lives as slaves and wanted to make sure that she never forgot that. And that sounds fascinating.
But it isn’t like that. Instead, everyone ends up back in Virginia – Lisbeth, her children, and, later, her husband to visit her dying father, and Mattie, her children, and, later, her husband to try to persuade her sister niece to move to Ohio with them. There are some well-written scenes in which they try to trace Sarah’s children, who’d been sold, but then everything just gets silly. Lisbeth’s brother, who feels that she’d ruined their family’s social standing, arranges for both Mattie’s son and Emily’s husband to be arrested as vagrants, and hired out to Lisbeth’s ex-fiance, and then there’s all this bizarre stuff with drugging and shooting before everyone escapes and makes it safely back to Ohio … apart from Jordan, who decides to work with black children in Richmond.
I take the author’s point, that it wasn’t safe for black people in Virginia during Reconstruction, but it just all got so sensationalist that it was hard to take it seriously. Why not just show them visiting Sarah, and Jordan deciding, on seeing the conditions in Virginia and experiencing the way in which black people were treated there, that she was going to prioritise working to improve the lives of other black people over the fight for women’s rights? That would have worked really well.
But still. The books made some very good points. There was affection between Mattie and Lisbeth. There was friendship between their children. Emancipation did not bring true freedom. Neither black nor white women could vote in the US for another half a century after black men were given the vote … and, as it turned out, black men often weren’t able to vote either. And the books did to some extent show the horrors of slavery – the violence, and the separation of families – and also reminded the reader that many slaves were actually the children of their masters, something which seems to be quite an “in” topic in fiction at present. But it would all have worked a lot better if the plots hadn’t got so far-fetched.