Free to be abused in district of abundance
All Aunt Hagar’s Children By Edward P. Jones Harper Perennial, 399pp, $ 24.99
WASHINGTON, DC, is where all 14 stories that constitute Edward P. Jones’s All Aunt Hagar’s Children are set. Also the scene of his earlier collection, Lost in the City ( 1992), it has the centres of all three branches of the US federal government and the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The District of Columbia houses a little more than 500,000 people, of whom 58 per cent were black and 39 per cent white, according to the 2005 census. It is with that black majority, that underclass, the children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren of slaves, that Jones is concerned. DC used to boast a proportionately larger African- American population but it has been declining due to many middle class and professional African- Americans moving to the suburbs, mostly in Maryland. Perhaps those who could afford it were in flight from the violent crime wave of the early 1990s, when DC was known as the murder capital of the US.
If upper- class white DC is represented in Gore Vidal’s Washington, DC ( 1967), as in Vidal’s life, then the murder capital aspect may be found in the brilliant noir novels of George P. Pelecanos, which always have urban rot at their core.
Pelecanos’s Washington, in the words of The New Yorker, is ‘‘ a rough patch of urban real estate populated by guttersnipes, snitches, dealers and rapists, and by plenty of decent and hardworking citizens who have to stand by and watch as their neighbourhoods go to hell. Most of those citizens are African- American, like most of Washington.’’ They are, to invoke Jones’s title, All Aunt Hagar’s Children.
The story of Hagar may be found in the book of Genesis in the Bible. In African- American mythology, Hagar is a sort of patron saint of former slaves. ( Jones had already dramatised the ironies of slavery in his 2003 multi- awardwinning novel The Known World.) W. C. Handy’s song Aunt Hagar’s Blues immortalises Hagar as the mother of African- Americans.
It is from this historical, demographic, social and mythic nexus that the stories which make up All Aunt Hagar’s Children derive. So just, so dramatic, so fully realised are Jones’s fictions that one has no reservation in feeling that James Joyce, the Joyce of Dubliners, would have saluted their epiphanic achievements as well as their ‘‘ scrupulous meanness’’ ( an aesthetic, not a moral, quality). Just as his family, and his rejection of it and guilt about it, always stood behind Joyce’s achievements, so do the female ( distaff) members of Jones’s stand shoulder- toshoulder behind him.
All Aunt Hagar’s Children is dedicated to his sister and ‘‘ to the multitudes who came up out of the south for something better, something different’’ and to the memory of his mother, ‘‘ who came as well and found far less than even the little she dared hope for’’.
All the families in this volume have travelled north, after the reconstruction, early in the 20th century, to seek a new and better life. They leave behind them a world where a lynching is ‘‘ just the opening act of the entertainment for an Independence Day celebration. Just before the white people’s picnic and five hours before the fireworks.’’ Yet, as they travel north, ‘‘ they shared food, they shared stories about home, about southern places that would be the foundation of their lives in the north. None of them could know that the cohesion born and nurtured in the south would be but memory in less than two generations.’’
One man returns from the Korean War to be told that Miss Agatha’s Ike was ‘‘ one of only 66 people murdered in DC’’ in the year he was away. No one in authority does anything. Aunt Penny says: ‘‘ One more coloured boy out of their hair. It’s a shame before God, the way they do all Aunt Hagar’s children.’’ Supreme irony: this in the city where Martin Luther King will deliver one of the most famous speeches of all time, ‘‘ I have a dream’’. Many of the characters in this book have dreams, too, but most of them are cruelly disabused.
The book begins: ‘‘ That 1901 winter, when the wife and her husband were still new to Washington, there came to the wife like a scent carried on the wind some word that wolves roamed the streets and roads of the city after sundown.’’ It ends, travelling north: ‘‘ The train slowed. ‘ Mama, I’m a long way from home,’ Anne whispered into the darkness and confusion. ‘ Papa, I’m a long way from home.’ ’’
Family may be all there is against the darkness of the modern world. Don Anderson taught American literature at the University of Sydney for three decades.