Color, a new novel by Sandi Russell, follows the life of an African-American woman seeking to understand her family’s origins, in the process reflecting on the history of slavery and the interaction of her community with that of native Americans. Ayesha Siddiqa outlines the narrative, drawing on Sandi Russell’s reading for Durham Book Festival.
Born in Harlem, New York, the jazz singer Sandi Russell commenced her career in Manhattan’s most distinguished clubs. She now lives in England and has gained international acclaim through her incredible performances in both Europe and the US. Russell, one of the most versatile contemporary African American women artists, is a melodic singer, a versatile performer, an educator, a journalist, a literary critic, and now a novelist. To her credit as an artist there is a lot more than her musical oeuvre, including her book of literary criticism, Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present, her one-woman show Render Me My Song, her co-edited book Love Poems by Women and her new 2013 novel, Color.
A keen audience’s presence at this Durham Book Festival event at the Clayport Library on a Sunday morning itself spoke for the acclaim of the author and her work. Russell’s reading from Color paralleled her best recitals as it echoed her immense talent in music and performance. Her lyrical voice and vivacious enunciation complemented the exquisiteness of her prose.
“Color brings together one person’s quest for identity with the inner lives of an entire community”
Russell began with a brief introduction of Color that “brings together one person’s quest for identity with the inner lives of an entire community.” The narrator, Charlotte is a creative artist in New York whose quest for “a sense of self” drives her to the South of the US where she learns about the history of three generations of her family; the extermination of their original tribe of native Americans; two centuries of slavery; and its legacy of violence and racism that have penetrated into the contemporary times – an experience that eventually informs Charlotte’s confused sense of self. This central narrative of the novel, along with those of Charlotte’s family members, probe color, sexuality and the relationship of Native Americans and African Americans over the course of history.
Russell started with the opening of the novel in which Charlotte has a flashback of a chat with her cousin Eddie on her visit to Virginia during childhood. Eddie is fascinated with the attractions of New York City and wonders if Charlotte has been to “the Apollo” and seen “real famous” people play there, to which she responds by innocuously recollecting her father’s racist remarks in disapproval of visiting such a place. Her “distance” from the South and by extension her family roots is reflected by Charlotte’s unfamiliarity with the Southern weather as well as her lack of interest in “some kind of history of the family” that Darlene “kept going back to.” This external flashback that evokes her childhood disinterestedness towards the family history also serves as a flashforward in that it foreshadows Charlotte’s “quest for identity” that commences with her pursuit of the family origin. The passage begins and ends with allusions to Charlotte’s father whose internalization of racism is introduced through his aversion of “too many crazy niggers” in Harlem.
In the second excerpt that Russell read, the disquiet that “Charlotte envisions on her return to Virginia is played out at a family dinner.” The passage reflects the couple’s (Charlotte’s parents) disagreement about the mother’s wish to invite her relatives and the father’s weariness of the “madness” of her “crazy relatives” that “might be catching.” The composure of the mother is in characteristic contrast to the conceit of the father whose rebuff of the Franklins’ “impropriety” renders the “hot meal[‘s]” air “icy.” Russell’s poetic prose moves rhythmically between Estelle’s mellowness and the Franklins’ candor, culminating in Preston’s haughtiness that prevails over the rest of the “hot meal.”
The next reading was from Eddie’s interior monologue in which we find Eddie “longing for the innocence of his youth.” His speech recaps his passage from a childhood full of hopes of “[getting] out in the world and be[ing] somebody” through the daily lived reality of racism and alienation to his present focus on “things I can get my hands on.” The disillusionment that has accompanied the imposition of race consciousness makes him long for his youthful complacency; however, despite this yearning Eddie ironically attempts to rationalize his professed smugness – a fact that evokes the very paradox inherent in the “double consciousness” of African American experience.
I was really tryin, you know, but I finally got hip to what was truly goin down here, and from what I was hearin, it wasn’t much different anywhere else, so… I still dream…but basically now I’m more into things I can get my hands on… People be thinkin we ain’t into nothing way back here, but this place be poppin if you know where to hit it. Jammin and freakin and all. Hell. I’m havin a good time…I’m way cool. I’m one fierce dude…you got to put up that front , keep that smile, and lie that lie to get on. Right? (23-24)
The final section was an excerpt from Henrietta’s “book” of “history.” Although her insanity alienates her from her own family, Russell referred to Henrietta as “the lynchpin of my novel” as her “crazed vision” gives a more rational, lucid and real account of the family’s history than any other character’s ostensible rationality. Henrietta’s psychotic speech challenges the orthodox historical chronicle and “what it really hidin underneath”:
rip the book up. that’s what thought shoot through my brain. shred and shred. let it fly off to some other eyes. some other head that could hear it and not know it lied now.it lied. yes. i be looking out the window and ain’t nothin i see be like this book called history. (46)
Henrietta’s narrative not only revises the chronicles of African American history but also supplements them with the often overlooked history of Native Americans, which serves to inform both the peoples’ sense of identity:
this is somethin. our story. i don’t know what his story is, though. who he anyway? this be our story and it be so excitin… i be expandin with self. knowin that i come from fightin peoples. proud peoples. peoples who got the kernel of calm in them and an eye for an evermore. (50)
At the end of the event I had the pleasure of speaking to Russell for a couple of minutes. In response to my question regarding how she viewed her protagonist, Charlotte, to be different from those of the other African American women writers, Russell responded that it is Charlotte’s “search for self” that becomes a vehicle to tell a history of people that “America has managed to keep divided” and that in this process the novel also addresses Native American history that most people are not familiar with. She added that Color deals with “history’s impact on the present” and its message, among others, is that “America must come together or implode.”
The final event of Durham Book Festival 2013, a reading by Festival Laureate Paul Muldoon, takes place on 29th October. A number of other reviews and features relating to the this year’s Festival are also available on READ.