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Players for Democracy


The author and historian on the legacy of slavery, queer love, and the nineteenth century’s coded language of desire.

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Photo credit: Ellen Foto.

If you ask LaShonda Katrice Barnett for the thread count of the socks worn by sailors in Nantucket in the 1870s, chances are she’ll have the answer. “People ask me, ‘LaShonda, do you do nothing but read?’” she says. “I tell them I’m an avid footnote reader. A good footnote will give you about ten other books.”

Barnett’s passion for history is profound. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she received an MA in women’s history, and the College of William and Mary, where she earned a PhD in American Studies, Barnett has taught history and literature at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, Hunter College, and Brown University. A lover and scholar of music of the African diaspora, she has also conducted more than one hundred interviews with women musicians and edited the volumes I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft (2007) and Off the Record: Conversations With African American and Brazilian Women Musicians (2013).

Her debut novel, Jam on the Vine (Grove/Atlantic 2015), is a visceral, immersive account of a black family living through the tremendous shifts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The narrative follows Ivoe Williams, who grows up in an impoverished, segregated town in central-east Texas, the daughter of Lemon, a Muslim cook, and Ennis, a metalsmith. After discovering journalism through the newspapers she steals from her mother’s white employer, Ivoe goes on to earn a scholarship to the prestigious Willetson College in Austin, but spends a decade working menial jobs because no one will hire a black female reporter. Eventually, Ivoe moves to Kansas City, where, with the help of her teacher and lover, Ona, she starts the city’s first female-run black newspaper, Jam! On the Vine. Jam quickly becomes the sole newspaper in the city to demand an end to the extra-legal, vigilante police corruption, unlawful incarcerations, and economic inequalities the black community faces.

The book makes clear that many of our current systems of racial inequality, from the prison-industrial complex to the notion of the broken black family, have grown directly out of legislation enacted by white policymakers after slavery was abolished. But in addition to chronicling the hardships that Ivoe and her family experience—the endless cycle of poverty under the sharecropper system in the South, the violence of Jim Crow—the novel is concerned with desire, sensuality, and sustaining love. Ivoe is a lesbian, and her romantic relationship with Ona features prominently—a rarity for books published by mainstream presses today. Jam on the Vine’s critical and commercial success demonstrates how vital it is for readers to see queer love as normative, integrated into the structure of family life, and also to see queer citizens as integral players in the shaping of America.

When I sat down with Barnett in her apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, she spoke about how the novel took shape, the importance of finding books that reflect the histories and experiences of one’s community, and, of course, sex toys.

Amy Gall for Guernica

Guernica: So, should we just start with strap-ons and go from there?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: That is the best line ever. If I was bold I would put that on Facebook.

Guernica: You pulled from a number of different sources for Jam on the Vine, including real newspaper articles. Were Ivoe and her newspaper based on any historical figures or African-American, female-run newspapers of the time? The African-American reporter, suffragist, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells comes to mind.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: Ivoe is based on Charlotta Amanda Bass, a black woman journalist who got her start writing for the Providence Watchman in the early 1900s, and then, because of health issues, had to go west to a dry, warm climate. In Los Angeles, she took over a newspaper and renamed it The California Eagle. It was a black newspaper. She ran the newspaper and served as editor-in-chief until 1951. Then she retired and ran for vice president of the United States in 1952 on the Progressive Party ticket. Nobody knows Charlotta Bass. It’s too bad, the first black woman to run for national office.

Being a novelist, you get to play God. You can make anything happen. But I do feel beholden to history. I love to do research. Before I give myself carte blanche, I like to find historical precedence. So even before I [decided to] have Ivoe and Ona launch the paper in 1918 in Kansas City, I needed to satisfy for myself that it had actually been done and that’s when I found out about Charlotta Bass.

I don’t think I even realized until I worked on the novel that a journalist was such a political activist. In pursuit of the story, you’re risking your life.

Ida B. Wells co-owned the Memphis Free Speech, which she also wrote for, along with The New York Age. There were a few other women, but mostly the people who wrote for black newspapers were men. It was a very gendered practice and a very dangerous practice. If you think about the fact that black journalists were writing about Jim Crow and white vigilante violence, it would take a certain kind of woman to put herself in harm’s way. I don’t think I even realized until I worked on the novel that back then a black journalist was such a political activist. In pursuit of the story, they often risked their lives. We understand this today, when we think about the Middle East, and we’re always hearing about journalists who are losing their lives. But I don’t think I’d really put it in historical context, that it has always been this way.

Guernica: In the novel, Lemon, Ivoe’s mother, is Muslim. I knew nothing about the Muslim population and the slave trade.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: Join the club! I was reading for my PhD comprehensive exams and I read a book by this historian at NYU, Michael Gomez. The first chapter talks about how one-third of the slaves brought to the New World were Muslim. And I thought, “How did I get this far in my education and not know that?” And that just stuck in my head. I was fascinated by the fact that there were Africans brought to the New World who were fluent in Arabic and who maintained their religious culture. When I thought of the Nation of Islam, I thought about Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. I didn’t know that there was this historical legacy. So that’s why I wrote Lemon (and May-Belle) into the book.

Guernica: Was the Muslim population brought to specific places in the United States?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: From what I was able to glean from my research, they were brought to the Southeast, the Carolinas. I used a real slave ship, the Clotilde, which shouldn’t have even been importing slaves because the law had passed that [the slave trade] was over, but the Clotilde did deliver slaves to Alabama as late as 1859. I don’t know if there were Muslims on that ship, but I put Ivoe’s Muslim lineage (my characters Booker and Iraj—Ivoe’s grandparents—and May-Belle) on that ship and then moved them to Texas.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that convict labor replaced slave labor.

Guernica: This book provides a really terrifying account of the roots of the prison-industrial complex.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: People, myself included, tend to think that when we throw around this buzz phrase “prison-industrial complex,” it’s a modern phenomenon of the past twenty or thirty years. When I embarked on my research, looking at the demographics of Texas after slavery ended in 1865, I did exactly what Ivoe does in the book: I made a map of Texas and started plotting the proliferation of these prisons. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The whole state was marked up. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that convict labor replaced slave labor.

Guernica: In what ways do you think the prison-industrial complex, particularly the treatment of black men, has changed in the past hundred years?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: I think it’s worsened because it’s so blatant now. The United Nations produced a sentencing report a year or two ago that said that two out of five African American men between the ages of 18 and 35 will serve time. Not maybe. But will. That’s horrific. And when you look at sentencing, you see a young black man caught driving in an inner city with a couple of joints getting seven years while a Caucasian man convicted of the same offense gets community service. And then think about the breakdown in a family and a community when you are removing father, son, brother, uncle, when you are losing that income, when you are losing the childcare that an additional parent provides. It’s never-ending, that cycle.

Guernica: The journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recently spoke at Johns Hopkins University with Professor Deborah Furr-Holden, and they were saying that 70 percent of crack cocaine users are white, yet in 2002 the NAACP reported that more than 80 percent of crack cocaine users who are incarcerated are black.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: There’s a kind of hunting of black men, which is a very successful means of insuring that the infrastructure of a particular community never solidifies. I read this fantastic book called Gender and Jim Crow by Glenda Gilmore, which said that historically when a single black woman bought property, she could keep it. But if she married, the property had to be put in her husband’s name. And then, if her husband was lynched, or disappeared, or incarcerated, who do you think got that property? The state. Ergo, the incentive to remain single.

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued the report “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” in the 1960s, stating that historically black women have never desired marriage, he failed to do his homework. This kind of short shrift—failure to study black history and culture before theorizing about it—always happens. If you create laws that rob black women of their land, why would they want to marry? They’re going to shack up and have babies, because black people want families too. But I wouldn’t marry a black man if I was lucky enough to have an acre or two, because he would be targeted and I would be ousted from my land.

There are still people who think queer love is very different from heterosexual love. This is not serving humanity and I wish we could just get over it.

Guernica: Speaking of relationships, there’s a lot of diverse sex in this book. It very viscerally illustrates the characters’ vulnerabilities, their joys and their humanity.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: There are still people who think queer love is very different from heterosexual love. This is not serving humanity and I wish we could just get over it. It occurred to me early in the early stages of the book that Ivoe comes from a functional family. If her parents are a loving couple, they are going to make love. And because I knew Ivoe was going to be a lesbian, I thought, “I have an opportunity here to juxtapose heterosexual love and homosexual love and maybe people will see that Ivoe and her partner Ona are not much different than Lemon and Ennis.” They love each other. They are invested in each other. They are emotionally responsible. They sometimes disagree. They’re on a great adventure together, much like Lemon and Ennis are.

Guernica: Have you had a good response from audiences for that?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: A fantastic response. I’ve been to a lot of cities and I’ve had a lot of people stand up and say, “Thank you for putting both in this book.” I’ve been very touched by gay and lesbian people saying, “Thank you for showing the depths of our love.” Because often it is the gratuitous scene in a novel where people get their rocks off, but you don’t have any story as to how that love became.

I wrote some different kinds of lesbian fiction in my early twenties—we call that erotica—but this is literary fiction, not an erotic novel. One of the gifts of erotica, actually, is that you can get in and out—no pun intended!—and you don’t need all the characterization. But in a novel that has the aims that Jam has, you need to know who Ivoe is, who Ona is, why they would be attracted to each other. And I think it makes the sex scenes even better, even warmer—if not hot, it makes them warm. I learned while working on this book that great sex scenes tell you about the characters; they tell you who the players are.

Guernica: There’s a scene in which a white sheriff threatens Ennis and Irabelle, Ivoe’s younger sister, for trying to purchase a music box. While he’s patting down Irabelle, he flashes back to a memory of having sexual desire for the black boys he lived with in his childhood. It’s an incredibly horrible, dehumanizing scene, but in this flashback you learn so much about who he is, and it slightly humanizes him.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: I don’t even know if I was thinking that the sheriff was homosexual and had been forced to live a heterosexual life. Children experiment with sexuality, they just do. Desire doesn’t always mean that your sexual orientation will change irrevocably. For many people it doesn’t. I’ve talked to heterosexual female friends of mine who had intense desire for girls in their Girl Scout troop. I’m not a person who can not operate on desire, but I’ve learned that there are many people who can just hang out with their desire. When I have desire I’m like the Roadrunner—I go for it.

Guernica: In the book, there are a lot of examples of thriving black communities, but no examples of thriving black lesbian communities. Did they just not exist then?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: In an earlier draft of the novel, when Ona comes to town and joins Ivoe in Kansas City in 1918, I had them going to a gay bar. My agent caught that before we even shopped the book. She said, “You know better, you’re a historian.” And she was right. In my head I was thinking of Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis’s Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, which is a fantastic social history of the lesbian bar scene in Buffalo, New York, in the 1950s. But that was the ’50s and I was trying to push back to 1918. I could not find any records of those bars existing at the time, and since I don’t take creative license without historical precedence that scene had to come out. There’s a reason you sometimes read things in historical fiction that don’t seem plausible—it’s because it didn’t happen—that can ruin a good historical novel.

It actually served me well not to have a bar culture for Ivoe and Ona. It made me feel very grateful to gays and lesbians who didn’t have cultural infrastructure but nevertheless maintained their loving relationships. How did they do that? How were they full and active citizens? Well, they were participating in American society! That’s a discussion we never have. When we talk about gay and lesbian contributions, it’s always the queers and their arts. But what about queer people who unionized? What about queer doctors and lawyers and journalists?

I love that Ivoe isn’t an artist, though she appreciates art. This book serves as a reminder that we’ve been here a long time. We have been participating and contributing since the Mayflower, and that gets lost. That’s why I was happy that Ivoe was a lesbian. It wasn’t like, “Oh goody, I get to write all these lesbian sex scenes.” It was about having a lesbian protagonist who insinuates herself into the very fabric of American life, who is a player for democracy.

Guernica: Did you find that there was any language around sexual identity that existed at the turn of the century?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: There was definitely a language. I did my undergraduate thesis on romantic friendships between women, and I looked at Sarah Orne Jewett and James Fenimore Cooper’s niece, Constance Fenimore Woolson. They wrote fantastic stories that today we’d call lesbian short fiction, though they didn’t call it that back then. Their stories were serialized in magazines like Good Housekeeping in the nineteenth century. Imagine upperclass women tuning in every month for these stories that would say things like, “Meg is calling at 4 p.m. She’s going to make love to me, and then I’ll invite her for tea, we will listen to music, and we will melt.”

“Meg is calling at 4 pm,” means she’s coming over at 4. “She’s going to make love to me” means she’s going to read me poetry. “After tea, we will melt” means we are going to have sex, after tea that is. So, you have to get the language of desire that nineteenth-century people used, where everything was obfuscated and coded. But once you figure out the language, it’s everywhere. It’s very beautiful and cuts across class lines. Stories of Boston Marriages where women are living together and sleeping in the same bed. Melville is homoerotic when he talks about Queequeg and Ishmael sleeping in the same bed at the beginning of Moby Dick. He says something like, “Queequeg made me his wife”—I mean, hello!

Stories about black lesbians falling in love with white women during the Black Power movement? Are you inviting the lynch party to your front door?

Guernica: Was there political action around sexual identity at the turn of the century?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: At the end of the nineteenth century, there were several sexologists who were beginning to write a lot about “masculine women.” Havelock Ellis was a very prominent sexologist who talked about women who grew hair on their legs and didn’t want to shave. Hirsutism really troubled this guy. For whatever reason, he and others were beginning to pay attention to women who didn’t fit the Victorian mold. What is this about? When I look at it, I think, “Oh, they were starting the hunt for the butch.” This was the beginning of the demonization of butch women, before butch even existed.

Guernica: Do you have queer or lesbian authors and books that inspired you?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: As an undergrad I came across Ann Allen Shockley. She was so brave, because not only was she writing about black lesbians in the 1970s, she was writing about black lesbians involved with white women. Stories about black lesbians falling in love with white women on the heels of the Black Power movement? Hello! Are you inviting hyper-hetero Black Power Brothers to your front door? Say Jesus and Come to Me and Loving Her were two books that struck me for their bravery.

Jewelle Gomez is another author whose work I fell in love with when I was first beginning to publish my short stories. She wrote The Gilda Stories, a series about a black lesbian vampire who traverses the 1850s to the twentieth century. I have always loved history and when I read The Gilda Stories I thought, “Wow, you mean to tell me I can historicize black lesbianism?” And then of course The Color Purple. I’ve been lucky because when I came into my reading self as an adult, I could lay hands on these books. I don’t know how I found these books or how they found me, but I’ve always been aware of a black lesbian literary culture, which is such a gift.

Guernica: There’s a lot of older woman/younger woman sex in your book. There is the main romance between Ivoe and her mentor Ona, and also the brief sexual relationship between Ivoe and her employer Lois at the chocolate factory she works at in Kansas City. Ivoe is more than ten years younger than these women.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: I love you for saying that. Ivoe has an affinity for older women. Ivoe is in love with Ona when she’s with Lois. I don’t think it’s rare for adults to seize a sexual opportunity with someone when someone else is on their mind.

And Lois is married to a man, so this was another opportunity to say to my straight audience, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Just because folks have on wedding bands, just because they trot out their heterosexual partners, it does not mean that other desire isn’t happening. I am fascinated by human desire. Thank God I also like history because I could just mine that field of human desire for the next sixty years. It’s amazing to me.

Guernica: I was joking a little about strap-ons at the start of the interview, but in the book Ivoe and Ona do use one when they travel to Paris. I’m curious about the history of sex toys in Europe and in the United States.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: My next historical novel is called Three Deuces, which is all about black sailors. So I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea, which is the true story of the Essex, the boat that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. In the first few chapters of the book, he talks about how they excavated an old maritime home on Nantucket, where inside the chimney, they found a dildo. It was called “He’s-at-Home.” That was the name for the dildo! These men were out to sea for months, sometimes years on end. Maritime culture is kind of the beginning of American culture in New England, so if dildos were there then, they were probably there before. That blew me away.

When I put Ivoe and Ona in Paris, I was like, “Were there dildos? Could they have purchased one in 1925?” And there were, and they were called consolers, which is hilarious. I also have to shout out to Sarah Waters. Tipping the Velvet came out when I was graduating from Sarah Lawrence, and there was some dildo action in it. That took place in England in the late nineteenth century, so that also gave me the idea.

Guernica: While in Paris, Ivoe and Ona experience freedom on a tremendous scale. What made you decide to bring them there and how did that fall in line historically with African-American migration to Europe?

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: All my life I’ve known about W.E.B. Dubois, but I didn’t know until I was researching Jam that Dubois had spearheaded these African diasporic conferences that began in 1919. They happened in Belgium; in London; in Paris. There was no conference in 1925 when Ivoe and Ona go, but the World’s Fair was taking place in 1925 and I just couldn’t resist.

It also made perfect sense to put them there because other black Americans were there experiencing that joie de vivre. Josephine Baker was there, Langston Hughes was there, a lot of black soldiers had remained in France after World War I. Paris was a magnet for black artists and black politicos. And I also thought [about how] jazz was big at the time, fashion, food. I am a writer who loves to exploit the senses. I don’t like reading novels that don’t give me a sensory experience. And Paris is just the ultimate of sensory experience.

But also, as Ivoe realizes, we always tap Paris for being this epicenter of democracy and freedom, yet women couldn’t vote there in 1925. American women had earned the right to vote in 1919. So it’s also an important place for Ivoe to be because she realizes: As a woman, and as a black person, even here, I am not really free. Jim Crow is not as rampant, but if I were to become a citizen, I wouldn’t even be able to vote here. So she begins to understand just how important it is for her to go back to America and pick up her pen and keep writing in the name of democracy.

G

Grateful thanks to the author for providing all of the corroborating resource material for this interview.

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