Ayana Mathis: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

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She had been angry with her children, and with August, who’d brought her nothing but disappointment. Fate had plucked Hattie out of Georgia to birth eleven children and establish them in the North, but she was only a child herself, utterly inadequate to the task she’d been given. No one could tell her why things had turned out as they had, not August or the pastor or God himself. Hattie believed in God’s might, but she didn’t believe in his interventions. At best, he was indifferent.

We all know that story, the matriarch who’s tough on her kids but manages, through tragedy and travail, to raise a family of upstanding citizens who go on against all odds to distinguish themselves in various respectable fields of endeavor. The Lifetime movie version usually ends, complete with inspirational music, at a college graduation or major award ceremony for the youngest and/or most troubled offspring, with Mom, tucked in a wheelchair, dabbing at the only tears her children have ever seen her shed.

This book is not that story. And it sure ain’t no Lifetime movie.

I have to admit, I struggled with it for a while because I was expecting the usual narrative. I kept waiting for the tide to turn, through chapter after chapter of bad outcomes. Maybe more than anything else, it reminded me how we cling to the myth of “we were poor but we had love” which sometimes works – but for every child who succeeds in spite of poverty and institutionalized demonization, many more don’t. I get enraged when someone trots out the “I rose above it, you can, too” philosophy. I always want to answer those taunts – and they are taunts – with, “Albert Einstein discovered relativity, Mozart wrote more perfect music before he died at 33 than some composers did over a lifetime, and Robert Oppenheimer invented nuclear fission – what’s wrong with you?” It takes a kind of genius – certain intellectual and emotional characteristics that aren’t required of those of us born white middle class – to rise out of the soup of poverty and despair and tragedy that makes up life for so many. It takes a certain genius to be the Lifetime movie matriarch. This book is about everybody else.

For me, it was often an uncomfortable read. This improved great deal once I listened to Mathis’ extensive – 45 minutes – On Point interview on NPR/WBUR, when I finally let go of the “success story” template and entered into the story for what it was: a future that begins after tragedy, a promise that goes unfulfilled, and, in the end, a decision to change that’s borne out in an unexpected way. It’s an outstanding interview (despite interviewer Tom Ashbrook’s tendency to occasionally sound like a used car dealer); I recommend it highly.

While it’s tempting to call this the fictional version of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, that isn’t accurate, either. Mathis is clear about this in the above interview, that it’s about one woman who came to Philadelphia from Georgia in the 20s, not about any archetype. She also hopes the characters won’t be seen purely through the prism of race; many of their troubles come from “their own way of being.” Mathis also says it’s not a song of redemption; I felt validated to hear that from the author herself. It would’ve saved me significant confusion had I heard that before I started reading.

I also more fully realized that Hattie, as a child and young teen in Georgia, had lived what would’ve been considered a middle-class life for a Southern black; though she was limited in freedom by institutionalized racism, her father owned a blacksmith shop and the family owned their home. She didn’t migrate because she was poor; she wasn’t looking for racial tolerance or equality or economic opportunity: She was forced to leave by racial hatred and violence.

There’s a stunning moment of hope when, at age 15, Hattie gets her first view of Philadelphia:

Hattie looked more closely at the crowd on the sidewalk. The Negroes did not step into the gutters to let the whites pass and they did not stare doggedly at their own feet. Four Negro girls walked by, teenagers like Hattie, chatting to one another. Just like girls in conversation, giggling and easy, the way only white girls walked and talked in the city streets of Georgia. Hattie leaned forward to watch their progress down the block. At last, her mother and sisters exited the station and came to sand next to her. “Mama,” Hattie said. “I’ll never go back. Never.”

This sort of sets up the “success story” narrative, but it turns out to be more of a promise unfulfilled. In the last chapter, a symmetrical bookend, she looks back:

Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman – perhaps she wasn’t, but there hadn’t been time for sentiment when they were young. She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind.

Mathis discusses Hattie as a hard woman, without tenderness, but not an unloving one; her love is just hard to see. The arc of the book is her regaining of that tenderness after a lifetime of disappointments and tragedies, and when I finally glimpsed that tenderness unearthing itself, it was a wonderful thing to behold.

But while it’s a book about Hattie, it’s mostly told through the lives of her children, a different one or two in each chapter. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story. At first it’s more like a set of linked stories, but as the book goes on, the connections become clearer and it starts to gel as a novel.

The chapters:

Philadelphia and Jubilee 1925

“Philadelphia and Jubilee!” August said when Hattie told him what she wanted to name their twins. You cain’t give them babies no crazy names like that!”
Hattie’s mother, if she were still alive, would have agreed with August. She would have said
Hattie had chosen vulgar names; “low and showy,” she would have called them. But she was gone, and Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.

At 17, Hattie is married to August and the mother of twins, who are dying of pneumonia. It’s a frantic chapter, as she tries remedy after remedy, everything she knows to save her children. It’s Hattie at her maternal finest. And it’s the last time we’ll see her this way.

Floyd 1948

Floyd, now 22, is an itinerant musician, a trumpet player, who hauls into Georgia for a gig at “the only music club in three counties that allowed colored people.” He’s got Darla, a girl from the last concert hall, just along for the ride. But he really sets his sights on Lafayette, a young boy he sees at a Hoodoo “Seven Days” parade, and after their assignation in the woods, asks him to come to the club where he’s playing that night. Trouble ensues, of course. A gay black man in the South doesn’t play well today, let alone back then. There’s a lovely Biblical ring to Floyd’s thrice denial of Lafayette. We also learn a little more about Hattie: she was seriously depressed for many years after losing the twins, and the kids grew up pretty much in charge of themselves. Mathis calls this the “emotional legacy” in her interview: the children see themselves as solitary, not engaging with others for support.

Six 1950

Six kept his constant discomfort a secret, not because of stoicism or bravery, but out of bitterness His pain and weakness made him special – especially wronged and especially indignant – exceptional because he had suffered. His pain was his most precious and secret possession, and Six held on to it as fiercely as a jewel robbed from a corpse.

Six, a scrawny fifteen-year-old covered with scars due to a severe accidental scalding at age nine, has “spells” of what could be considered either “the Holy Spirit” or a kind of seizure, moving him to preach but not remember much of it afterwards. Unfortunately, a similar spell also resulted in his beating up an even smaller and weaker boy after he called Hattie a whore and an easy woman. Six is sent to a series of revival meetings in Alabama to get him out of Philadelphia for a while, until the family of the injured boy cool down, and he’s not happy about it: “He thought of the South as a single undifferentiated mass of states where the people talked too slow, like August, and left because of the whites, only to spend the rest of their lives being nostalgic for the most banal and backwoods things: paper shell pecans, sweet gum tees, gigantic peaches.” But at his first meeting, he heals a woman’s sister, and makes quite a name for himself, and a few other benefits as well.

Ruthie 1951

Later that evening, and for years to come, he would wonder if he had misunderstood her, if her shame wasn’t at having a child with him but something larger that he didn’t understand, and if it wasn’t his failure to grasp this that had doomed them.

Like “Philadelphia and Jubilee,” this is more about Hattie and August than directly about Ruthie; as an infant, she’s a passive agent of the thickening plot, similar to the role played by Philadelphia and Jubilee in the first chapter. Ruthie’s effect also comes not from anything she does, but quite literally from what she is: the child of Hattie’s lover, Lawrence. We learn more about Hattie’s life here, almost a third of the way into the book, than we have so far. August is something of a playboy, running off to the clubs every night. At the opening of the chapter, Hattie has left him and is heading for Baltimore with Lawrence, with Ruthie cradled in her arms. We learn, and Hattie eventually intuits, that Lawrence is as much of a problem as August due to his gambling. Immediately after arriving in Baltimore, she returns to August, who’s been struggling to take care of the children she left behind and thus tempers his response:

The thing to do was to insult her or slap her or run her out into the night. She’d left him with all their children. She was holding another man’s baby in her arms. Anyone would agree that he ought to do something terrible to her, but she had been gone fifteen hours, and in that fifteen hours his life had crumbled like a lump of dry earth.

What is the shame she speaks of to Lawrence? I’m guessing it has to do with leaving her children, and to a lesser degree, her husband. The portraits of these characters are stark and hard; each one looks different depending on the angle. Just like real people.

Ella 1954

Again we have a chapter titled after a baby, and again we learn a great deal about Hattie’s life, and about the time. We find out Hattie, falling deeper into poverty, is giving Ella to her sister, who’s doing quite well in Georgia. We find there’s a bond between Hattie and August that even the affairs, even the turmoil of the last chapter, can’t break. We find out, during a terrifying scene, what it is for a well-to-do respectable black couple driving north from Georgia to run into trouble at a Negro rest stop in Virginia at the mercy of some punks. We learn about the horrors and atrocities people take as a matter of course, the burdens they bear with dignity and class. We learn about family jealousy, regret, sorrow, and maybe more about the shame Hattie mentioned in the last chapter: perhaps it’s that she feels she’s descended beneath her upbringing, a shame I understand well. And when she turns over Ella, we learn what it is to watch her heart break.

Alice and Billups 1968

Hattie’s house was ony thirty minutes away, but Alice never went there now. When she did see her parents and siblings, they had to come to her, dine at Alice’s table and be served by her help. They were all coming for the party. They’d eye her lovely things, sit on her settees and sofas, and chat with her as though she had never been one of them…of course, the trouble was their jealousy. Though it was also true that, when assembled, the family put her in mind of a group of roaming, solitary creatures rounded up and caged together like captured leopards.

When she hired her, Alice had hoped Eudine might become her confidant, like in those films in which the lady of the house sits at her vanity telling her secrets to a maid who unclasps her necklaces and lays then in the jewelry box. Or was it only white women who made confidants of their servants? Or only white women with whom colored maids could be forced into confidence? Maybe Alice was only an imitation of a rich white woman in a big house. She was not entirely certain what she was imitating. That is to say, the object of her efforts was nearly always unclear.

It’s a powerful thing, to be a caretaker: to feel needed, to feel in control. Here we have a little chain of caretaking: Royce taking care of wife Alice who is taking care of brother Billups. But when Billup decides he doesn’t need caretaking, the order of things is threatened. Lay that on top of the family situation – Alice having married a well-to-do doctor, not really fitting into the role but also not fitting in to her family of origin except for Billups – and you’ve got an astonishing chapter about relationships.

Franklin 1969

I’ve been on plenty of missions and I have begun to feel that I am not quite as human as I was when I came here…. Most of my missions are at night. I shoot into the darkness and sail away before I have to count bodies. It was the same with sissy. I was a violence in her life and left before I had to face the damage I’d done; with Lucille there would be more recklessness, more hurt, more promises I don’t keep, more destroying the people I love.

This chapter affected me greatly, partly no doubt because we’re now in my era, but also because it’s so well constructed. The story swings back and forth between Franklin’s Vietnam service, setting a mine on a dark night, and his marriage back home, which lay in tatters due to his gambling (which may hint at Hattie’s continued dalliance with Lawrence?) and irresponsibility. He’s not without insight; he recognizes that he’s doing the same thing to Sissy as his father does to his mother every day of her life. He comes up against himself when he gets a letter from Sissy telling him about a daughter he didn’t know he had, conceived on a brief leave when he attempted, unsuccessfully, to win Sissy away from the man she was then living with. When a mine he’s just set explodes a fishing boat, he tries to make a bargain with himself – “It’s not like I don’t know I bet my family on an exploded boy’s body parts” – but he’s developing some sense of honesty, and knows whatever his intentions to change, to deserve Sissy, to deserve his daughter Lucille, he’ll fail. All these threads – what we pass on, what we live with, what women do, what men do – all came together beautifully brutally and elegantly, and left me in tears.

Bell 1975

All of them – Hattie and Willie and Evelyn and even ruined, crazy Walter – were little lights; sparks flying upward in dark places, trying to stay light though they were compelled toward ash. They were nearly extinguished one moment, then orange and luminous the next. Who was Bell to have tried to unmake herself in the face of their strength?

This chapter, to me, became the emotional climax of the book, as past stories begin to gel together into a whole, and Hattie begins to change. It’s that inevitable-yet-surprising quality, something unexpected that you realize you knew was coming all along. And here, finally, I feel love. It’s been hard for me to find the love in this family so far, but here it is, and I realize, it was there all along.

Cassie 1980

I sat on the bed and watched her lay out the clothes she had chosen for me: the skirt and sweater, my panties and girdle. When I was a child, she never did that sort of thing. There was never enough time to set out clothes for nine children. I wonder if she would have if there hadn’t been so many of us. It requires a kind of tenderness, I think, laying out a little person’s clothes. Mother was never tender. She still isn’t. She put those clothes on the bed for me as though they were the ingredients for a roast chicken, as though I were to be trussed. Mother has always done what’s necessary. I suppose she thinks she’s doing that now by taking me off somewhere…

Cassie is in and out of some kind of psychotic state (“My Sala, my sweet girl, is the only clean thing that I know”) and August and Hattie are taking her to some kind of doctor’s appointment, perhaps having her committed. It’s a continuation of the turning point in Hattie’s life from the last chapter: she’s starting to take care of her children in a broader way. There’s chaos along the way, but it ends on a gentle, poignant note from Cassie, a note that, oddly, reminds me of Blanche DuBois’ “kindness of strangers” line:

I try to look for the beauty in things. Mother in her apron all of those years ago, the amber twinkle of the cordial in her glass, and that song only she and I could hear.

Sala 1980

Hattie had looked through the rear-view mirror at Sala waving and running; she glanced at Cassie, who was so taken up with whatever was in her head that she couldn’t see anything outside of herself. Every bit of Cassie was twitching: eyes twitching and hands twitching and mind and the very soul of her twitching. How Hattie had wanted to sit in that backseat with her and hold her hand until she stopped shaking……when she saw Sala running toward the car, she knew Cassie wouldn’t have wanted her child to see her in her worst hour. That was Hattie’s kindness. She had spared her daughter and grandchild that pain.

She had lost Six to the altar. She sent him off to Alabama with nothing but a Bible, and he had become a womanizer and an imposter. By the time she understood the depth of his unhappiness, it had been too late to save him. Her twins were dead. She had given Ella back to Georgia. It was too late for Cassie, whom Hattie had also sent away. And it was too late for Hattie, who was a fraud in Christ and had shown Sala the ways of fraudulence. She couldn’t bear that the child was already so broken she was driven to the mercy seat. There was time for Sala. Hattie didn’t know how to save her granddaughter. She felt as overwhelmed and unprepared as she had when she was a young mother at seventeen. Here we are sixty years out of Georgia, she thought, a new generation has been born, and there’s still the same wounding and the same pain. I can’t allow it.

In this closing chapter, we see more clearly what happened with Cassie. We get a much better sense of the toll life has taken on Hattie. And we see Hattie continue her step-up arc, this time in the interests of her grandchild, Sala. It’s an odd scene if you’re not familiar with the religious setting. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, so I know exactly what’s going on. Some may feel offended that Hattie is “rescuing” Sala from religion, particularly given the unmistakable Biblical connotation of the title. Remember, of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, only two survived into the Common Era, and that seems to have kept the nation going strong for the past two thousand years. It is, perhaps, a redemption of both Sala and Hattie; Hattie is now all in with her tribe. She may not always be involved in the right way, but at least she’s putting her efforts into the well-being of Bell, Cassie, and now Sala. And so closes this saga, on this note of change:

Hattie put her arm around Sala and pulled her close; she patted her granddaughters back roughly, unaccustomed as she was to tenderness.

I chose to read this book because I’ve become interested in “different paths” lately, via a number of influences. And because Roxane Gay was enthusiastic about it. I didn’t read much about it beforehand, deliberately; I wanted to experience it afresh. I still haven’t looked too closely at the Oprah reading guide but I will; I’m a fan of reading guides, as I’m always interested to see what I “should” have seen but didn’t. But right now I’m just letting it echo a little bit, listening to my own reverberations of Hattie’s life. And that’s plenty interesting.

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