The Hamilton Spectator

Of Woman Bound

This debut novel imagines an America where Black women are forced into concubinag­e.

- By TOCHI ONYEBUCHI TOCHI ONYEBUCHI is the author of “Goliath,” “Riot Baby” and the forthcomin­g essay collection “Is This a Race Book?”

THE PAST, HOWEVER deep, is never far from the surface in Rae Giana Rashad’s debut novel, “The Blueprint.” In a nearfuture America, riven by Civil War II in the mid-20th century, Black Americans in select states are designated as DoS,


By Rae Giana Rashad

Harper. 294 pp. $30.

or Descendant­s of Slavery. Black men are enlisted to subdue unrest within and along the borders of these states. Black women are forced into concubinag­e with white statesmen before being married off to Black men, a life course determined by a shadowy, faceless algorithm.

Our protagonis­t, Solenne Bonet, shares, in many ways, a life narrative with Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s most famous slave. Indeed, the official who circumvent­s the algorithm to take possession of Solenne, after her initial pairing with a writer, has a portrait of Jefferson in his office. And Hemings appears — as lodestone, as motif, as cautionary tale — at numerous points throughout the novel.

However, freedom is a secondary concern in the story. What occupies the book’s primary real estate is Black girlhood and its constricti­ons in the past, present and future of these disunited states, the broken promise of it. This is the undercurre­nt not only to Solenne’s story, but to that of Hemings, as well as that of Henriette, an ancestor of Solenne’s whose biography Solenne transcribe­s.

“The Blueprint” is ambitious in its themes and were it a bigger book, more specific in its world-building, and were the parallel narratives treated with the same depth as the main story, the novel could have presented a much more powerful statement on the interminab­ility of the Black woman’s struggle to assert her own personhood.

Gaps in the picture Rashad paints raised questions for me, speed bumps that interrupte­d the flow of the reading experience. If the power of the state is so great that it can coerce such large segments of the population into such bitter oppression, how is our protagonis­t able to learn about a figure like Sally Hemings in the first place? Why are the so-called executione­rs, supposedly tasked with rounding up insurgents, allowed to prey on unaccompan­ied young girls out after curfew? Is the concubine’s primary role that of child bearer? House servant? Secretary? These are all questions the book could have answered, even if the main focus was still Solenne’s psychologi­cal turmoil.

BUT PERHAPS THESE are the concerns of someone who has read too much speculativ­e fiction. Where the novel shines is in its depiction of the torment Solenne endures during her relationsh­ip with Bastien, a Texas official with his eyes on the presidency. To call it a relationsh­ip, though, is misleading, because the power imbalance makes clear at every turn just how nonexisten­t Solenne’s agency is.

And yet her fight for autonomy amid captivity is the book’s beating heart. Solenne knows she needs to be loved. Indeed, it is one of her deepest truths. But what do you do when the person who claims to offer love is the man who rules you and will never let you go? Why does what Solenne feels, in her moments of weakness, look so much like love? Like infatuatio­n? When the novel explores these questions, it is at its most fascinatin­g. And its most impressive.

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