Free to be abused in dis­trict of abun­dance

All Aunt Ha­gar’s Chil­dren By Ed­ward P. Jones Harper Peren­nial, 399pp, $ 24.99

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Don An­der­son

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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