Angela Flournoy should have written a novel about her experiences as a child growing up in a single parent home in Los Angeles. Or perhaps she would have fared better to write a book about an alcoholic father and his gambling addict daughter. Or maybe Flournoy’s strength as a writer leans more towards essays….Idk… Whatever the case, Flournoy’s new novel, The Turner House, left me feeling ambivalent, hopeful, encouraged and nostalgic. I liked her novel…but…then…at times I felt that it didn’t work hard enough to envision southern black life in 1945, to capture an honest and complete snapshot of Detroit. At times TTH read more like a passenger on a train bound for Somewhereville, riding through a Detroit train depot, snapping phone pictures while simultaneous trying to stake awake.
The (Turner) house serves as a symbol for all that is wrong with the dysfunctional Turner family: loss of stability, instability, isolation, community change. The thing that irked me most about The Turner House was the constant reference to “the haint” – a ghostly vision that Cha Cha encounters from time to time. But the haint issue is never really explored, never resolved, never fleshed out enough for the average reader to understand Flournoy’s angling of the ghost. This particular point in the novel was very important to me since I’d recently completed Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion, a book which delves deeply into various kinds of African religious systems, beliefs, and how those systems of faith syncretized with American ones. But more importantly I recalled a conversation with my uncle I’d had many years ago. He talked about his ability to see and communicate with ghosts. He spoke about a former neighbor’s ability to conjure and dabble in black magic. It reminded me of Cha Cha. (Click here – Uncle David – for the conversation between me and my uncle. It is lengthy but necessary to show the connection between my family and Flournoy’s story.)
Flournoy said in an interview with Miriam Grossman of Kirkus Reviews that she supposed her novel would explore “very specific things that happened to the black population in Detroit that have never really been written about in fiction. I wanted to show the place and the people who live there are not just a sum of crime statistics or per capita income.” The following excerpt places the novel squarely at the doorstep of Detroit’s current issue:
Problem with black folks is that we’re too quick to cut our losses and let white folks decide what happens in the cities we live in. Sure the mayor is black, damn near the whole council is black, but we don’t have the real money or property. That’s how they keep us on the run (203).
Good stuff. I also liked the wartime flashbacks to Hastings Street, Paradise Valley, and Arkansas. Here, Flournoy’s sense of nostalgia is easy and mellow, but I would’ve liked to see more of the violent, racialized reality of southern life rather the subtle allusions to black life in 1945. Most southern blacks were seduced by Ford’s $5-a-day wage promise, many sought peaceful refuge from vicious, unchecked, racist violence. Flournoy gives us none of that, just under-analyzed snapshots hurried away into pointless narratives which seem to go busily everywhere and nowhere. We get no real sense of the duality of (street) danger and (economic) vibrancy for which Hastings Street is famous. (WHERE IS JOHNNY LEE HOOKER!?) The colorful ambiguity, the effervescent charm, and the ambivalent dynamics are never fully explored, nor do we ever truly understand how the Gotham Hotel (inasmuch as WHY black entertainers visited this particular hotel) could boasts such regular prominent guests as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, B.B. King, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Count Basie, Langston Hughes, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the inimitable Billie Holiday.
When Flournoy researched Paradise Valley and Black Bottom (she mentions Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, and Elaine Latzman Moon’s Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967 as source material) I wondered did she discover other books which might have shed greater light on life in Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. In fact, Sugrue’s study gives minimal attention to the area known as Black Bottom, skimming over the true essence of who the people were and what the area was about. Moon is an excellent source, but there are other sources as well. Even the digital archives at Wayne State University’s Walter Reuther Library would’ve provided countless images from which one could glean a reasonable idea of black (and white) life in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.
But. More important is that I found my family story in this novel, particularly the one of men, many men in my family (maternal and paternal), how they came to the north for industrial jobs, leaving behind families of wives, sons and daughters, never to return, seduced by big lights, equal rights, sturdy paychecks, Paradise Valley, and sexy, sultry women like Odella Wither. The anguishing alienation of migrant dislocation is captured quite well in TTH (i.e page 112). So you gotta love this novel, even with its minor flaws and mistakes, it’s still worth the read. Especially the parts that take place in Paradise Valley, Black Bottom & Hastings Street…