And All Our Wounds Forgiven.
Julius Lester is a well-known African American writer of seventeen published works, including collections of folktales, children's stories, critical essays, and several novels. He is also remembered as a folk singer/participant in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and specifically for his activities in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the student arm of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which would later evolve into a more militant black power group that excluded whites. Lester's first book about this era bears what was then considered a militant and alarming title, Look Out, Whitey, Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama (1968). His novel Do Lord Remember Me (1985), which also treats this historical period, was acclaimed as returning "dignity to a history that has been forgotten."
Memories too painful ever to be forgotten resonate from the familiar black-and-white photograph that graces the dustjacket of his more recent work, And All Our Wounds Forgiven. This photograph not only records and recalls African American struggle for racial and economic justice and equality during the turbulent sixties, under Dr. King's leadership, but it attests as well to the determination and commitment of his supporters and followers, who marched and protested with him. Although trained practitioners of Dr. King's non-violent civil disobedience ideology and program, they are, in the picture, being pelted with water from high-powered hoses. The rear cover reminds us that Lester participated in this movement, suggesting that he is ideally equipped to write this novel, given his firsthand knowledge and insights, and validating the authorial license he takes in this work. The title foreshadows the resolution reached by the end of the novel, throughout which we listen to the cacophonous sounds of a medley of narrative voices; we envision Phoenix rising from the ashes.
However, the Civil Rights Movement--with its marches, sit-ins, freedom rides, voter registrations, etc.--is merely the historical slate and backdrop for Lester's acute dramatization and penetrating (and, in some cases, most disturbing) examination of the personal histories of his four emotionally disabled major characters: Dr. John Calvin Marshall (who like a Dickinson persona speaks from the grave), his wife Andrea Williams, and two student aides and movement organizers, Elizabeth Adams and Robert (Bobby) Card. Paradoxically, the unfathomable psychological scars each endures result more from injuries accumulated from within rather than without the group of participants, and specifically as a direct result of their personal relationship with Dr. Marshall. Although marchers gallantly faced the violence heaped on them with lethal baseball bats, maiming power hoses, and menacing attack dogs, they were not able to ward off the insurmountable violence they inadvertently or directly inflicted on each other.
Through Dr. John Calvin Marshall, a graduate of Harvard, professor of philosophy at Atlanta's Spelman College, and the charismatic leader/speaker of the Civil Rights Movement, Lester explores and provides tremendous insights into the burdens of leadership. Dr. Marshall retrospectively concludes:
i did not act as much as i made myself available to be used by the forces i
desperately sought to understand i heard hope whispering through the needles
of the southern pine trees during the late fifties and i gave it voice, that
does not mean i always knew what i was saying, that does not mean i
understood the depth and extent of the transformation
with which everyone now wants to credit me.
Fate, Dr. Marshall is convinced, cast him in the historical role in which he found himself. He reflects: "i had become a messiah, the one who would save them from the old life of sin and initiate them into a new tomorrow of freedom and purity." (His initials, JCM, equate him with another messianic savior, Jesus the Christ).
Hovering just above his head are the concomitant companions of this role, particularly death. Threatened, beaten, and imprisoned, Dr. Marshall lives with the fear of, the acceptance of, and even a titillating desire for impending death, his inevitable assassination. Although often alone and lonely, Dr. Marshall is sometimes drunk with and driven by a desire for power. Despite his acceptance of his mortality, he struggles with the existential desire to be God, to transcend even the mythological persona he has become to his followers. Recalling a history-making speech he had given before thousands of followers at the Capitol Building, he reveals more than selfless commitment or intrepid behavior:
but I did not walk away. i stood there and when the cheering and applause
finally stopped, my lips parted and the words poured forth as they always
did. there was no thought, speech and thought were indivisible and the two
became deed. at those moments and especially on that particular day, i think
i came as close as it is possible for a human being to feel like god, to
speak and the word is action.
Although his followers convert Dr. Marshall to more myth than man, he remains quite human, as his thoughts reveal.
Paramount in Dr. Marshall's leadership is the love that develops between him and Elizabeth Adams, the daughter of a wealthy white businessman who had sent her to Fisk as an exchange student, as a way of continuing the family's tradition of philanthropy that dated back to their involvement in the abolitionist cause. When Lisa gets involved in the sit-ins and other student protest activities of the '60s, a picture of her arrest appears on the front cover of the New York Times. "She had been the white girl who crossed the color line." Captivated by her beauty and tenacity, Dr. Marshall falls in love with her, seeks her out, and meets her during a visit to Fisk. Upon meeting, they immediately become soul mates. Lisa recalls, "Instinctively I knew he would need me, and when our eyes met, I saw his relief and saw his body relax as he returned to himself.... I held him in my eyes a moment longer."
Privately, Dr. Marshall and Lisa become lovers, while publicly she serves as his private secretary. Despite the fact that Dr. Marshall, who Lisa calls "Cal" to differentiate the man from the myth, "would not have left his wife for a white woman eleven years his junior," he manages to maintain an adulterous relationship with her until his death--a period of seven years. He dies in her arms, the victim of an assassin's bullet.
Forever in the background is Andrea, Dr. Marshall's intelligent and attractive African American wife, a bright and articulate woman whom he meets during her freshman year at Radcliff. Inevitably called upon to live in the shadows of the historical giant she chose to marry and continues to love, while simultaneously sharing in all the dangers and fears he faces, Andrea knows from the very beginning that her beloved husband has taken a mistress, has chosen to trust his soul to a young white college coed. The intimate, sexual relationship "Cal" shares with Lisa transcends the more Platonic one "Dr. Marshall" shares with Andrea. "John Calvin's touch made her feel she was his sister. There was affection; there was caring; there was play. She would have drowned them all like a sack of kittens to have felt him desire her." Not surprisingly, Dr. Marshall's death brings Andrea "an overwhelming elation that finally, at last, he belonged to her. In his death, she finally became his wife...."
Unlike him, however, she is not truly free at last. Twenty-five years after her husband s assassination--a period during which she has made a career out of being the widow of John Calvin Marshall while living "the marriage that had never been"--Andrea has a stroke while preparing her diary, in which she sets out to paint an idealized picture of her marriage to Cal, for publication. Comatose, she symbolizes, through her condition, the painful domestic life of terror, anguish, helplessness, and voicelessness she had known. She had in fact been no more than a "guilty intruder" in her husband's extramarital affair with Lisa: "If her words could have had tongue, she would have asked Lisa, who was he?"
Equally wounded are the students. White students find that, despite their commitment and sacrifices, including death, they are eventually ejected from the movement by militant blacks. Despite her position of privilege gamed through her relationship with Dr. Marshall, Lisa becomes angry with the ungrateful black students, whom she defines as racists. She laments and protests:
But something happened and blacks became racist. I'm not supposed to say
that, am I? But I can't rationalize and call the current black antipathy to
whites "antiracism racism," or some doublespeak. Being black does not confer
automatic immunity from being racist.
However, the greatest damage is experienced by black youths--particularly males--who, like Bobby Card, gave their lives as foot soldiers in the vanguard of Dr. Marshall's movement. Card, who becomes Dr. Marshall's best youth organizer, is a mere eighteen when he forfeits his studies at Fisk to face head on the acrimonious hatred of white racism, segregation, church bombings, and murder of young children and colleagues. He is a disciple who, like his leader, must face the pervasive fear of hovering death, which is forever kept in the forefront by small-town sheriffs and supremacist resisters of his voter registration efforts who murder with impunity.
Card is disabled, and his erratic, almost neurotic behavior (years after the movement he can fall asleep only when fully dressed) and life of drug abuse, AA, bitterness, and misogamy are the legacies of the living nightmare and abuse he experienced. He is haunted by the memories of fly-covered, dead black bodies and the suicide of another organizer. Above all, he is unable to escape the memory of the symbolic castration and humiliation he was made to suffer at the hands of a Mississippi sheriff. The homoerotic scene paints a most distressing and disturbingly unsolicited rite of passage: "Robert closed his eyes as he felt the sheriff's surprisingly soft hands take hold of his penis and tenderly stroke it until it, because it was it, became stiff and rigid and the sheriff reached in his pocket and taking out his pocket knife, opened it and began gently stroking the head of Robert's penis with the sharp edge of the knife blade...." Purification comes with further debasement and humiliation when, at the end of the ritual, the sheriff instructs Wylie, a local black man he had brought to the "party," to "lick [Card] clean." Card's pain resounds from his accusing proclamation: "I was too young, Cal. You took my love for you, my eagerness, my naivete, my idealism. You took everything about me that I loved and I'm sorry, Cal, but youth and love and eagerness and idealism are no match for evil and hatred and violence." Dr. Marshall compassionately understands the plight of these young people. He knows that "death had claimed their souls but, as a cruel joke, decided to leave their bodies behind."
Card and Lisa are reunited at Andrea's deathbed twenty-five years after Dr. Marshall's death. Dr. Marshall functions as an omniscient narrator, whose voice weaves in and out of their individual stories and reflection of catharsis and healing. In the end, however, one has the disturbing feeling that each had paid too great a price.
In And All Our Wounds Forgiven, Julius Lester journeys back to a painful juncture in American and African American history, not merely to echo uncritically what has been written about it or its significant players, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Instead, Lester intentionally troubles the water by not shying away from the disturbing revelations and findings made clear by his more focused, microscopic lens which ultimately provides a deep, panoramic view of Dr. King's Civil Rights Movement.
Fiction becomes the vehicle to verisimilitude as Lester recapitulates, chronicles, and catalogues to (re)vision history. Incorporated journalistic headlines listing the murdered and lynched are dramatically presented: "August 28, 1955: Money, Mississippi--EMMETT TILL 14 MURDERED FOR SPEAKING TO A WHITE WOMAN." Distressingly, however, Lester's microscopic examination (though fictional) suggests that in the end there is no celebration, no real sense of accomplishment, benefits, or reward. Most disturbing are the characters' festering sores which lie open at the core of the novel, signifiers of deferred dreams, sagging heavy loads that can only explode--as exemplified by Andrea's stroke. We are told that there are still "those who hemorrhage from wounds they don't know they carry, those who hurt and don't know it is from pains thirty years old."
Thus, in And AH Our Wounds Forgiven, we are left with a descent into the personal infernos of the participants in the Civil Rights Movement, where we find the passion and spirit that propelled them forward. We come to see each one, black and white, as truly dead men and women walking, condemned by irrational hatred and racist behavior, which Dr. Marshall identifies as "the tragedy of western civilization." He argues that "the very premise of western civilization--the superiority of the white race--is evil incarnate." And he concludes:
Negroes cannot be free until you stop being white. Only when you stop being
white will you stop seeing us as black. Only then will you see that you have
been wounded by this disfiguring notion of race more deeply even than we.
Freedom can come only when we forgive the wounds inflicted on us by the
other--and the ones we've inflicted on ourselves.
However, in And All Our Wounds Forgiven, Lester goes beyond the newsroom and darkroom and plants his narrators in bedrooms. If his exploration of the former spaces amplifies and makes more transparent the familiar, opaque black-and-white cover photo and inserted headlines, then the incursion into the latter space further unlocks and makes more translucent the sealed FBI files kept by its director on the very embodiment and voice of the Civil Rights Movement, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One may correctly argue that part of Lester's apparent objective in And All Our Wounds Forgiven, through his treatment and characterization of Dr. John Calvin Marshall, is to demythologize Dr. King. A possible premise is that wounds resulting from years of confronting segregation and discrimination must not conceal or supersede those caused by the adulterous behavior of fornication and extramarital liaison that Dr. King practiced and Lester explores through fiction.
There is little doubt that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is the historical prototype for Lester's Dr. John Calvin Marshall (the play on historical names here is significant), a fictional character, the creation of Lester's imagination. Like Dr. King, Dr. Marshall is beaten in Birmingham, speaks to a quarter-million at his march on Washington, and leads marches along Mississippi highways. Both have anything but amicable relationships with the Kennedys, meet with Malcolm X, and have a holiday named after them, as well as have their images placed on postage stamps.
More important, Dr. King's biographer, Taylor Branch, in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988), and his personal friend and colleague in the movement, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, in And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1989), have both provided convincing evidence of Dr. King's behind-the-scene activities in his private life, including his life as a philanderer. It is well-known that Hoover tried to discredit Dr. King with an FBI file that included photographs and phone tapes documenting his extramarital affairs. In fact, the FBI director sent copies of the file to Coretta Scott King. This historical fact becomes an important scenario in Lester's novel. Thus, And All Our Wounds Forgiven is certainly not an expose in the truest sense of the word.
However, despite Lester's effort to reveal hubris, frailty, and even private terror and fears, the larger implications of the novel leave one twitching with discomfort. We see a human being, but where are the moral qualities and disposition of Lester's Dr. Marshall? They are a far cry from those associated with the historical, private or public Dr. King, who today--nearly three decades after his assassination--continues to be viewed as a "towering symbol of moral and social progress," and one of America's most important leaders, African American or otherwise. Dr. King is not remembered as a hypocritical philanderer but as a drum major for justice and civil rights whose dream was for an America in which freedom rang freely for all its citizens. He is remembered as a the public prophet of agape love, who taught his foot soldiers to turn the other cheek and to embrace the cardinal principles of Christian love, which demand that one loves his enemy. To his credit, although the public might not fully have known Dr. King, he had unabashedly accepted total responsibility for who and what he was. Dr. Abernathy confirms this in And the Walls Came Tumbling Down.
In And All Our Wounds Forgiven, one hears and sees not only the tumbling of public accommodation, of educational, economic, and legal barriers, but also the toppling of a revered and treasured hero who retrospectively is disgruntled with his place in history. Dr. Marshall laments: "i am not missed, the changes for which i was the catalyst are dismissed as unimportant or taken for granted and he who wrought no changes [Malcolm X] is enshrined in the hearts of a new generation." He is a hypocrite whose private life was a quagmire of erotic love of fellatio, in which he is driven by a compulsion (explained as rooted in slavery) to be with a white woman. Lisa recalls that Dr. Marshall had told her: "I need you to be white and blond and blue eyed." She rationalizes, "An adulterous love is moral." Not surprisingly, in And All Our Wounds Forgiven, the symbiotic relationship between sex and racism is considered the possible impetus for the Civil Rights Movement. Consequently, the sixties become a period "when a lot of black men and white women tried to heal history with their bodies." Dr. Marshall is left to ponder "if the real work of the civil rights movement was not interracial sex." For him, agape love is pure idealism, certainly "not sufficient." He concludes:
god is love! they shout from the pulpits, if that is so, then he is a poor
lover and would be well advised to try another attribute, i think god is pain
and suffering and anguish and despair and hopelessness because there is so
much more of those in the world than love.
These seem more the appropriate thoughts of a Camusian or Sartrian existentialist philosopher than of a Christian minister of the "good news" gospel of the New Testament.
Concomitantly troubling is the treatment and characterization of passive Andrea (Coretta Scott King?), despite what could be called her quiet courage. She seems to surrender her husband to Lisa without any real objection. Dr. Marshall justifies his psychological abuse of his wife by telling himself that Andrea was "relieved that someone was finally going to take responsibility for my aloneness." Patient and understanding, Andrea rationalizes:
i can't hate [Elizabeth]. it is not her fault.... it is not [Calvin's]
either, black men, white women, history has decreed that the two belong to
each other in ways that black men and black women, white men and white women
cannot.... it does not mean i forgive [Calvin]--yet. it does not mean that i
do not hate her. but my mind understands, some day, if i am blessed, my heart
Ironically, if not insultingly and certainly hypocritically, although Dr. Marshall dies in Lisa's arms, his final, whispered words are "tell andrea i never stopped loving her...." Nothing in the novel seems to verify this, including the fact that theirs remain a loveless, childless marriage! Andrea dies in peace, with Lisa seeking atonement (which is silently granted) at her side.
Writing this novel was indeed a risky undertaking. Consequently, Julius Lester is to be commended for not shying away from the controversial (it is not in his character to do so), despite the disturbing portrait he inevitably creates of Marshall's historical prototype. Although difficult, if not outfight impossible given the resonances, readers must remember that Dr. Marshall is not Dr. King! There are subtle evidences of this fact. For example, despite his rhetorical skills, missing in Marshall's prosaic thought and tone are the rich, poetic cadences of Dr. King's powerful orality. Perhaps one cannot expect the same quality from a cerebral professor of philosophy that one expects from a Baptist minister (although someone like Vincent Harding readily stands as proof to the contrary). Lester's improvisational, jazz-like medley of narrative voices melting one into the other is among the novel's strengths, although this is not competently maintained throughout. Too many passages seem contrived, such as those in which Dr. Marshall reflects on his meeting with Malcolm X. Above all, the tendency to focus almost exclusively on Marshall's trysts with Lisa rather than to provide a full progression of his life leaves short, if not understates, the true complexity of Dr. King's lives as husband, father, scholar, preacher, leader/orator, etc.
One wonders if And All Our Wounds Forgiven returns "dignity to a history that has been forgotten" the way that Do Lord Remember Me is said to do, particularly to the shapers of that history, living and dead. One wonders if wounds now closed won't be reopened. One wonders if in this instance of "(re)remembering" we do not exhume ghosts of the past only to (re)assassinate the dead. However, we must acknowledge that, in these days where much pleasure is gained by those who spend hours absorbed in the sort of public disclosure and pulp fiction that take place on daily talk shows such as Maury Povich, Racki Lake, Geraldo, and Montel Williams, Lester's novel should provide more than sufficient intrigue. The question is, would such an audience buy a novel, then take time to sit down and read it?
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|Author:||Samuels, Wilfred D.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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