ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HEREis set in an imagined community in a mountainous area roughly north and west of Paterson, New Jersey in the 19th century. Russell’s Knob is a hidden, secretive place settled by people who might be described today as bi-racial or tri-racial. The inhabitants describe themselves as runaways and stay-aways. They are people who reject the limiting definitions of racial identity and character of 19th century, mid-Atlantic, North America and live outside of the “white” towns. They are spoken of derisively as “amalgamators” and “race mixers” though their true history is as complex as is the history of settlement in the region.
They’re discussing ANGELS MAKE THEIRHOPE HERE and its depictions of fathers, surrogate fathers, patriarchy vs. matrilineal constructs and parenting in the time of slavery.
. . . the most damaging aspect of the institution of slavery is the destruction of familial relationships through separation and the inability of enslaved parents to protect their children. It is in the interest of preserving families that the people of Russell’s Knob built a community, preferring to live apart from the mainstream in order to stay together with loved ones.
Parenting in the time of slavery is necessarily fraught with peril. In Breena Clarke’s novel, ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE, young Dossie’sparents do the most difficult thing imaginable. They send their child off to uncertainty rather than have her suffer as an enslaved person on the Kenworthy plantation. They embrace a hope that, with the help of others, she can become free and live a better life (even if they don’t actually know what that better life would be). For them, the knowable horror of Kenworthy plantation is worth risking this child’s life and separating from her forever.
Passing across racial boundaries is a longstanding theme in American fiction.
In the imagined 19th century town of Russell’s Knob, which is the setting for the novel, Angels Make Their Hope Here, race identification is fluid. In a town of amalgamators, race mixers – the complex national and racial identities of the inhabitants do not hinder their cohesiveness, community and camaraderie. But the maroons of Russell’s Knob hector white skin privilege in this small community because of their ancestors’ experiences of the First European Contact, the Middle Passage and chattel slavery in the Americas. In Russell’s Knob you are some combination of what your parents bring with them. You are, in appearance, a blend of the physical characteristics of all of your forebears. If being white-skinned confers no special privileges in this tri-racial town, forays into the wider, whiter world are fraught with danger.
“Maybe you could get in, Pet,” Jan said.
“What? Oh, shut up, Jan! You probably could, too.” Pet said. “You got the price.”
“But not in the Alta Club. That’s a place for pale white-skinned men like you and your father,” August said to Pet, “only.” August looked straight into Pet’s face. He had the eyes all the Vanders have that people call molasses bullets because they’re the color that molasses becomes in the deep wintertime and they are hard like ice.
“What does it matter?” Pet asked. He felt the one glass of whiskey he’d drunk sear his stomach and roar to his head. He chose to be dumb to August’s provocation. But a realization crept up on him that his pale face had kept him from knowing some deep tenets that Jan knew – that August knew – because their faces said something different from his face in the town. And he didn’t know what they knew, or did he?
“I ain’t white,” Pet said.
“Well, you look white,” Jan came back at him.
“You and your papa.” Again August spoke in a sly voice of instigation. “You the only ones look white enough to pass through those doors.”
“I aint no white man,” Pet said as he’d said so many times before.
“Pet, don’t be dumb about it. You know what you look like. You know what people take you for.”
from ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE
Now available in paperback with Reading Group Guides including a Conversation with Breena Clarke http://bit.ly/1K09XEZ
Breena Clarke talks about her debut novel, RIVER, CROSS MY HEART with Jyotsna Sreenivasan of Herstory Novels.com
The impetus for beginning to write River, Cross My Heart came directly as a result of having listened to an oral history that my mother had taped at my request. She and my father grew up in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C and their memories of the neighborhood were vivid. It was more than facts that they related. They related a sense of community that enforced social segregation made imperative, but that nevertheless was a source of their positive sense of themselves. I regretted that the stories of Washington’s neighborhoods were not known, were not being told. Why not, I wondered? It gave me a lot of energy to galvanize my research work as being necessary, being purposeful.
She’s a pretty little dark plum. Had he trespassed? He had asked her. Ha! She wanted him, she had said, and seemed to. He knew damned well he had a sway with her. Hell, he’d counted on that. Little Bird was so obedient to him now that he was afraid of himself. What was a man supposed to do when a lucky coin cross his path? He will close his hand around it. He will praise his good fortune. But still in all, this ain’t the same as trifling with a grown woman, Duncan argued with himself.
“New York! New Amsterdam! Act! Grandmother spit when she say it. She say ‘since when is new?’ Grandmother’s spittle runs into our creeks. It sustains us. We won’t die of thirst in these hills.Our Grandmother sleeps there up ahead. She is taking her well-earned nap. Her lips fall back. Spittle runs our of the side of her mouth while she sleeps. The hills, the outcropping, the ridges, these are her misshapen teeth. Them sharp juts are what remain when flesh pulls back from bone.” from ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE
Since when is new, I ask. I write historical fiction primarily from an urge to re-tell the past, rehabilitate the skimpy, fractured, fragmented narratives of the people of The Americas, the so-called New World. I believe that much of the national narrative of The United States is based on limited facts, racially motivated lies and the visceral belief that all people are NOT created equally. .Sometimes it feels like I have a score to settle. I think I must be a caretaker of imagination so that our race of people are not unimagined and thus disappear from the earth. I feel I need to be like Scheherazade. I survive daily because I’m able to continue to tell stories of myself/OURSELVES.