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Monday, January 02, 2017

Stars Shine Brighter in the Darkness: Midnight Without A Moon by Linda Williams Jackson

I leaned on my heavy hoe and wiped sweat from my face with my sleeve. When Hallelujah Jenkins got closer, I could see that his eyes were red, as if he'd been crying."What's wrong?" I asked. I knew something bad had happened.

"Didn't you hear? About Levi?" Hallelujah wiped his glasses with a handkerchief. Anxiety shone in his eyes. "Rosa Lee," he said, his voice shaking. "Levi's dead."

My knees buckled. Hallelujah's words floated to my ears: "pickup ... shotgun ... head.... "Dead."

"I shouted into my palms. "Why, Hallelujah. "Why?"

"He registered to vote," Hallelujah said.

In Mississippi in 1955 the old division between black and white remains intact, but there is a new division,between the mostly older people who wanted to lay low and stay alive, and the young who welcome the NAACP workers from up north, urging black people to register for the vote. Rose's own Aunt Belle and her big, confident husband from St. Louis are back, not for a family visit, but to work to convince people to register despite the murders of three of their neighbors. Rose's grandmother, Ma Pearl, wants none of it, prophesying that they were just going to stir things up and get people killed. Ma Pearl keeps house for Mrs. Robinson, and Papa oversees Mr. Robinson's cotton farm, providing them with their house, with plenty of rooms for the grandchildren that their good-for-nothing parents leave with her to raise, Ma Pearl says.

"The NAACP can go to hell for all I care. More Negroes been kil't since they came down her than ever before. Whites, too, if they get on the wrong side of the line. The NAACP can't stop a Negro from being lynched, and they can't make the sheriff put a peckerwood in jail for doing the lynching.

This Mississippi. Ain't nothing go'n never change."

Even in her own family, Rose feels the burden of her blackness. Ma Belle favors her light-skinned cousin Queen, saying she's too light to chop or pick cotton in the sun. Rose, she says, is black as night without a moon. Rose just hopes to avoid the sting of Ma Pearl's well-worn razor strop, get to high school, and escape Mississippi for her Aunt Belle's house in Saint Louis.

But when their friend Mose's grandboy, Emmett Till, from Chicago is found lynched, drowned in the Tallahatchee River, Rose begins to see that nothing is going to change until the black folks of Mississippi make something happen. And she has to decide whether to leave for St. Louis, with its safer, easier life, or stay in Mississippi like her friend Hallelujah and do what she can.

"Stars can't shine without darkness," Hallelujah repeated. "You got to have some darkness to know what light is. That's why folks choose to stay."

Linda William Jackson's forthcoming debut novel, Midnight Without a Moon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) bravely takes on the issue of color in this turning point in civil rights history without resorting to easy stereotypes. The novel begins with a local "peckerwood" Ricky Turner running Rose off the road and spitting tobacco juice on her. Rose's own mother rejects her and her brother because of their dark skin and moves on to Chicago with her new light-skinned husband and two new children, and the hard-nosed Ma Pearl whips Rose if she misses a chore, but lets Queen laze around while thirteen-year-old Rose works all day in the blazing cotton fields. Papa defends his boss Mr. Robinson, saying he's never been anything but fair and kind. But the sheriff refuses to investigate the shootings of young Levi and the others who registered to vote, and the jury in Money, Mississippi, acquits Emmett Till's murderers. Color is part of it all.

Author Jackson is honest with her readers, delivering strong, complex characters who find themselves in conflict with society and within themselves and their own families, with honorable motivations on both sides and everything at stake. Rich in detail, from the smell of the privy to the glories of Ma Pearl's chicken and dressing, Jackson's writing evokes the overbearing heat of the July sun and the cold fear that grip the people as they wait for the banging on the door that means a member of their family is about to be "taken." This is a powerful novel which provides a rich and enlightening experience for young adult readers, preferably those who are familiar with this period of American history as well as with current events. This is one to watch when book award time rolls around.

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2 Comments:

  • This is such a wonderful review. Thank you.

    By Blogger Linda, at 8:42 PM  

  • Thank you, Linda. I'm old enough to remember this period vividly, but you did such a great job of making this period immediate and real for modern young readers.


    I heard your interview on NPR.

    By Blogger GTC, at 8:32 AM  

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