This novel begins in 1879 in Union County, Arkansas, and spans some 63 years thereafter as we learn about the fate of an interracial family headed by white Henry Hardin. Henry’s wife Bertha could not have children, but Henry’s black “mistress” gives Henry his first child shortly after Bertha’s fourth miscarriage. “Henry was no different from any other man of means in Union County. They all had colored mistresses. Many had more than one.”
The term “mistress” was used intentionally, implying consent. But a slave woman did not have the option to say no. Nevertheless, white masters preferred this benign term to one that might have suggested force or rape. Henry’s behavior exhibited a long-standing pattern of white power and privilege that allowed white men to do with their “property” what they wished to do.
The young woman of 18 with whom Henry, 43, had relations, Salome, was mixed race herself. Her mother had been raped repeatedly by Henry’s Irish overseer. When Salome’s baby by Henry was born, the little girl looked white, and Henry decided he and Bertha would raise the child as his own so he could carry on his legacy.
Much of the story is told from the perspective of Salome and her children – she eventually has three – but only her first can pass for white. In the process of telling the story, the author catalogues the sexual predations of whites on black women (seen as no more than they deserve), and the constant insults, injustices, and threats of violence to which the black men were subject, especially if they did not show proper deference to whites.
But most of the book is about “passing.” As Daniel Sharstein wrote in his study of this phenomenon in The Invisible Line, there was an overlooked mass migration from black to white as many African Americans gave up their identities in return for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As blacks, they suffered restrictions on the ability to earn a living, get an education, enjoy public facilities, avoid threats and insults, and live without the fear of lynching when the mood of whites spoiled. So those who could cross the invisible line between races would often choose almost any other hardships to escape the poisonous consequences of racism.
Margaret, Salome’s first child, benefitted from both affluence and whiteness as the putative daughter of Henry and Bertha Hardin, at least until Henry’s resentful brother exposed Margaret at her coming out party when she turned 18. [Interracial sex was one thing, but bestowing white privilege upon a black or mixed-race person was held to be anathema.]
As Sharfstein emphasizes, from the very beginning of our nation, “…the consequences of being black or white were enormous. It often meant the difference between slavery and freedom, poverty and prosperity, persecution and power.” Thus Margaret was desperate to keep the secret of her African American blood for as long as she could. But the rumors continued to circulate, and all of her family was endangered. After all, trying to “pass” to obtain what one didn’t “deserve” was considered to be even worse than being black in the first place.
Some of what happened at the end of book got resolved a little unrealistically, in my opinion, specifically in terms of the metamorphosis of some of the characters from very bad to pretty good. But it made the injustice of the saga more bearable, at least.
Evaluation: This is a horrific story in many ways. But it is well-written, and unfortunately, does not seem at all exaggerated. As difficult as it is to read, for those who want to know what blacks in the South went through after the Civil War was over, this book will make a good start.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, 2016