“Moonrise over New Jessup” by Jamila Minnicks
The end of the American Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery ought to have been a time of celebration and joy throughout the country. Of course we all know better. Instead it ushered in a period of legislated segregation (Jim Crow laws) in formerly confederate and border states. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan organized to systematically kill off any “colored” Americans that refused to acknowledge and respect White Supremacy. We continue to endure this legacy every day.
Black Americans dealt with these realities in various ways. Many left the South in the “Great Migration”, moving to Northern cities where there was promise of life with dignity. “The Streets were Paved with Gold”. There were no “Whites Only” or “Colored” signs or doors through which to go. You could sit where you wanted when you wanted. Everyone was respected. Those who made that migration learned early on that this was all a myth, or at best a cruel exaggeration. Migrants were often stuffed into cold, dirty, rat-infested ghetto dwellings with resultant crime and trauma. Jobs were back-breaking and workers were treated like slaves, though now with a nominal paycheck. It was impossible to build up any equity; once there appeared the slightest prospect of economic gain it was wiped out by gentrification or “urban development”. Many families fell into generations of hopelessness, despair, poverty, crime, incarceration, and violence.
Other freed slaves chose to stay put and work as sharecroppers on the plantations upon which they had lived for generations. They continued to slave in the fields, work in the plantation houses, experience verbal and sexual abuse from the landowners, but now have a plot of land that they could “call their own”. Of course, by the time the monthly payday came, they would discover that they had no money coming, they owed money to the “Company Store” for rent, food, provisions. They were offered payday loans which carried interest rates that were impossible to pay back. Again, while there was a camaraderie that led to the birth of religious, musical, culinary and social traditions that live on, it was generally a life of hardship and despair. The only hope was that the next generation might escape to a better life.
There were some courageous few who sought a better way. They banded together to found “Freedmen’s Towns”. These enclaves often grew up from the backwaters and swamps of Confederate, Border and “non-aligned” states. While these towns have been written about, occasionally to wide acclaim (such as Zora Neal Hurston’s Eatonville settings), their experiences have been under-reported. That is what Jamila Minnicks is committed to changing with her wonderful debut novel “Moonrise over New Jessup”.
I know nothing of Ms. Minnicks nor of whether New Jessup is a total fiction or based on one or more Freeman’s Towns. But I do know about the Black Belt and rural Alabama and towns like New Jessup, kept going by families who have committed generations of their lives to the cause. Minnicks brings us into this world so effectively that you can experience it with all your senses. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are real. The periodic joy is palpable, the setbacks and tragedies are enough to make you cry.
Life in a Freedmen’s Town was not all sweetness and light. The threats from nearby White Only enclaves were constant and pernicious. There were constant fights, both verbal and physical, over the goals of the movement. Were we working towards “integration”, “desegregation”, “separate but equal” “equality”, “color-blindness” where eventually everyone would learn to love one another? Was Booker T Washington right that we needed racial equality and should just focus on education and economic progress?
Or were we to promote Black knowledge, culture, exceptionalism and strength as W.E.B.Du Bois advocated, focusing on the advancement of the Black race — civil rights and Black leadership? These different ethics led to groups being formed — some extolling non-violence and integration (like the Rev. Martin Luther King/NAACP), others saying that direct action, confrontation, and strength were the only solutions (like the SNCC, the Black Panthers, Nation of Islam/Malcolm X). These fault lines spread into every Freedmen’s Town pitting family against family, brother against brother, life-long friends torn apart. These debates continue to this day.
All this is captured in a spectacularly moving way in “Moonrise over New Jessup”. I look forward to hearing and learning everything that Ms. Minnicks has to say as she visits bookshops, podcasts, radio, and television interviews on what is certain to be an exciting and educational book tour.
Thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for the eARC.