by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Counterpoint Press, November 5, 2019
288 pages, $25.00
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton is unafraid to confront the rot that economic inequalities, class structures, and racial disparity spread. These difficult realities can, as Sexton deftly reveals, weave themselves into the fine tapestries of single-parent families. In her debut novel A Kind of Freedom (2017), winner of the Crook’s Corner Prize, Sexton explores these themes in the life of a Creole woman coming of age in New Orleans during World War II and in the lives of her daughter and grandson in the 1980s and early aughts, respectively. Sexton returns to New Orleans in The Revisioners, where these themes ebb and flow through time against the slant of motherhood.
The Revisioners revolves around two Black women: a freed slave named Josephine and, nearly a century later, her great-great-great-granddaughter Ava. The novel revisits racism’s steady grasp as it drags its battered body from the ashes to terrorize across generations. The story unfolds in alternating timelines, beginning in 2017 with Ava, a biracial single mother who’s just been laid off. Her lonely and ailing white grandmother wants to repair the damage done by Ava’s absentee father. Grandma Martha offers Ava the opportunity to become her salaried live-in companion. They are family, she asserts—they should be together. Ava accepts and moves out of her low-income neighborhood while clutching to the threadbare hope that the benefits that come with this relocation will catalyze the change needed to ensure a better future for her and her son, King.
Josephine’s narrative begins in 1924 as she surveys her multi-hundred-acre farm. It’s land that she once worked as a sharecropper but now owns with her son and tills alongside other Black families. Her son, Major, is hours away from marrying a woman from a more socially elite background, which worries her grandson. He’s afraid that his new mother won’t accept him. When night arrives and Josephine tucks her grandson into bed, she obliges his request for a story about her life as a slave to soothe his fears. The timeline then switches to 1855, and Josephine recollects her life as a girl living and working on a plantation while befriending her owner’s young daughter.
Despite the sociocultural progressiveness that comes with time, both protagonists experience a similar perilousness. The Ku Klux Klan robs Josephine and her family of the safety they once treasured on their own land. Her white neighbors publicly dismiss her, only to show her deference in private when they need her help. Josephine walks a thin line, knowing that how she regards them irrespective of the setting could bring cross burnings and lynchings to her property. In the present, Ava saves up hundreds of dollars as her Grandma Martha’s caregiver and she (hesitantly) inherits a diamond necklace from her. This “better life” immediately frays as Grandma Martha’s mood swings disrupt the household dynamics. Ava worries about pushing against her grandmother’s demands. Without her, Ava and King have nowhere to go.
Conflict arises through white women. For Ava, Grandma Martha’s dementia seemingly thrums long-held family tensions and releases itself in racist outbursts. It’s easy to dismiss Grandma Martha’s increasingly bizarre behaviors as a result of her declining health, but they are rooted in a past life that subjugate her granddaughter in the present. In 1924, Josephine’s challenge arrives in the form of her young, naïve neighbor Charlotte. Josephine welcomes Charlotte into her house, thinking, “It was nice to have company…, but I am not stupid. I know who she is, who I am in comparison.” Opening the door to Charlotte opens the door to swelling racial tensions that eventually spill over onto her farm.
The heart of the novel is about motherhood and the lifeblood of determination that flows through it. In The Revisioners, mothers struggle. They wait for their missing sons to reappear, broken and dimmer of light. They mourn the cleaving of their families after their children marry and leave for better promises. They whisper incantations for the protection and secure future of their adult children and grandchildren, still innocent and full of childhood. They both lament and celebrate the life growing in their wombs. Mothers are a cup without a bottom, holding the pains of generations they have raised and long to raise, generations of their own blood and those who they wet nurse and later spite them.
This strength manifests as the magic that gently tugs at the edges of the novel. Charlotte seeks out Josephine for help because the latter is rumored to be a “conjure woman.” Josephine pretends that she doesn’t know what Charlotte is talking about, but the 1855 timeline reveals a different story. On the surface, the magic appears to be simple empathy and intuition, but it’s much more. In the rumblings and turnings of her mind, Josephine taps into the power of human connection and sharing emotional burdens then laying them down. In her past, we see the Revisioners— the slaves who work to change things for the better. They gather in the swamp, singing songs to God, expressing their praise and worship in a way that is freeing, boundless, and away from the limitations of their master’s expectations. Magic resides here, too. These meetings are a place where speaking worries binds the Revisioners to each other and allows them to exercise a transcendent power.
Ava and her mother, Gladys, also demonstrate a prodigious understanding of the women around them. They are near prophetic at times. Gladys tells Ava, “You have the power of your ancestors coursing through your veins.” It’s a reminder of the strength of her lineage as much as it hints to the energy that sustains their lineage. Sexton applies a delicate touch such that the magic feels very real and within the reach of her readers. The presence of magic does not mean the absence of religion. God and mysticism stand side by side. Sexton marries them in the text, giving a place for each without diminishing the value of the other.
With magic in the air in a novel with Black characters, the possibility of otherworldliness and Magic Negroes is usually close. Sexton avoids those traps. Josephine is the wizened woman who is wise because she is old and has lived through several sociocultural shifts. She exhibits envy, jealousy, and pettiness alongside her generosity and unending love. Her hands have touched pain and birthed life and covered the dead. Ava is a working mother who lets her hair down by visiting the neighborhood of her roots and sings trap music with her son. Her life is filled with the longing of an abandoned daughter and the rising strength of a confident woman. Both Josephine and Ava are fully realized, complex characters. They are women we walk past on the sidewalk and sit next to in church. They shop at our grocery stores and care for our children in school. It is this realness that beckons the reader to walk alongside them from page-to-page as if we were members of their family.