Sexton, Margaret Wilkinson. “A New Kind of Freedom”, Counterpoint, 2017.
Margaret Wilkinson Sexton’s “A Kind of Freedom” explores the legacy of racial disparity in the South and does so through a novel in which we meet a family and its history. For me, as a New Orleanian by birth and a person who was raised there and taught in the school system, this is a very meaningful book. We meet a Black family and stay with it for three generations as the members try to make the correct and best choices even though they are often held back “by constraint, peril and disappointment” and by living in a world in which learning is hard work and life is even harder. We have three different and alternating plot lines. The story begins in 1944, when we meet Evelyn, the daughter of a well-to-do family (her mother is Creole, her father a black doctor who has raised himself to respectability), and Renard, a young man from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works at a restaurant but aspires to study medicine. In their courtship, we see the strictures of a class- and color-driven society “that suffocates ambition and distorts desire”.
Then forty years later, we meet Evelyn’s daughter Jackie, a struggling single mother in the 1980s. She is on love with the father of her child but worries that he will become a drug addict. We then meet Jackie’s son, T.C., in 2010, and he is at a turning point in his life. It is through T.C.’s that we see post-Katrina New Orleans where there is fast cash on the streets and the chances of being arrested or shot are great. T.C., loves growing marijuana and sees doing so as a creative process. Released after a four-month stint for drug charges, T.C. decides to start over but then an old friend convinces him to stake his new beginning on one last deal.
Evelyn grew up with the reality of Jim Crow but now there are newer threats and dangers. The descriptions of New Orleans are wonderful and could be written by someone who grew up and remembers the corner grocery stores where for a nickel one could get a “baloney sandwich” or “make groceries”. She remembers the language that we spoke there and the crawfish boils, wooden markers on city buses requiring “colored riders” to sit behind them and going to the movies to sit in the second balcony, the “Negro balcony”, after going through a separate entrance on the side of the building.
Sexton’s characters face tremendous choices while hoping that is little to hope for. There are few options and coping with this is exhausting. The characters try to gloss over the hurts of the past and endure as best they can.
This is a portrait of a family and their sufferings and we soon are able to identify the character by the prose that describes each of them. For example, the stories of Evelyn and T.C.’s are written distinctly different and one cannot help but wonder if there is more than one author of this book. But then, we catch on and realize that the different prose forms emphasize the different characters. Each character is also vividly portrayed and we get to know them so well that they stay with us even after we have finished the book. We see the omnipresent forces of society that undermine and suppress the success of blacks in New Orleans. I often found myself emotionally exhausted as I read even though Sexton deals with some very important topics with great sensitivity. The fact that she captures seventy years of a family’s history in just 288 pages is a major achievement in itself but also to read about
each generation’s possibilities and deferred dreams coming to fruition is an amazing accomplishment. We see that hard work does not guarantee success and that progress never movies in the ways that we think.
Through the interconnected narratives of three generations of a New Orleans family, we get more that seventy years of history and we still want more. Here is an American family who is able to endure the challenges of an ever-changing society. I love that Sexton’s characters are who we are and their journeys are our journeys. When I taught in the Black schools of New Orleans way back when I learned a lot about New Orleans Black society having first taught in a school that was almost exclusively made up of those who were considered to be “high yellow” and then in a high school in what was then the Desire project and my students were far away from societal acceptance. But those twelve years of teaching in New Orleans were nothing compared to what I read here.
We see here that the choices that we make are our choices are influenced by our familial histories, whether we’re aware or not, and this is just one way of how the present connects to the past, especially with reference to the societal weight of race and class. Through the family narratives in this book, Sexton shows us the complexities of fate and that our desires might be the opposite of practical living and even a shot at upward mobility. When dealing with the emotion of love and the ability to survive, things change. Even with the best intentions, disappointment can follow. “Promise and possibility can sometimes yield to circumstances shaped by the limits to freedom.”