Today’s release of “The Revisioners” (Counterpoint Press) marks Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s second book surrounding multiple generations of a New Orleans family. In both novels, she explores her black characters’ relationships with their ancestors, though through two entirely different lenses.
The New Orleans native wrote her debut National Book Award-nominated novel “A Kind of Freedom” in 2017 as an examination of one black family spanning from post World War II to post Hurricane Katrina. Over the years, the family’s situation worsens as its members are plagued by systemic racism in the form of the war on drugs and mass incarceration.
That novel served as a thesis on “intergenerational trauma,” the theory that trauma can be passed down, Sexton says. But her new novel examines the flip side of that coin, a concept she calls “intergenerational power,” the idea that descendants can channel the strength of those who came before them.
“I want my black readers to feel inspired and to feel hopeful instead of bogged down by our oppressive history,” Sexton says. “Of course, we have to honor the sadness of it and the gravity of it. … But I also want us to honor the degree to which all the strength and power that our ancestors had to summon to face the difficulties that were targeting them on a daily basis. All of that strength, power, all of that hope and wisdom lives and resides in us, and we can access it.”
“The Revisioners” is told from the perspective of two women, Josephine, a former slave who lived from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, and her descendant Ava, a 34-year-old mixed-race single mother living in New Orleans circa 2017. Josephine’s story is told from two perspectives, one in 1855 and 1924, before and after she and her parents fled the farm where they were slaves.
The book details three complex — but ultimately similar — relationships between white women and black women. As a child, Josephine befriends her enslaver’s daughter, Sally, who is the same age. Sally becomes enamored with Josephine’s seemingly supernatural ability to will things into existence, and while Josephine cares for Sally, she tries to navigate the relationship with caution, as per her mother’s warnings.
Nearly 70 years later, Josephine finds herself in an unlikely friendship with Charlotte, her young white neighbor. While Josephine is hesitant at first, over time the two relate over the feelings of loneliness they both experience. But the relationship becomes dangerous when Charlotte and her husband join the Ku Klux Klan.
In the present-day story, Ava and her son King move into a large house with her wealthy white grandmother who is nearing the end of her life. Her grandmother offers to pay Ava her old salary and let them live rent free in exchange for looking after her and keeping her company. But as time goes on and her grandmother's health declines, Ava becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the situation.
Sexton wanted the book to spark conversations about the relationship between black women and white women as a whole “that ultimately facilitate healing between the two groups,” she says. It’s something she says became a topic of national discussion with the results of the 2016 presidential election, when 54% of white women voted for Donald Trump and 98% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton.
“I want to explore the degree to which none of this is new,” Sexton says. “We've had this glaring disparity between these groups since the beginning, and we really need to expose the degree to which white women, instead of bonding as women with black women, have chosen to side with the patriarchy as a way to maintain their own superiority as whites.”
“My interest in exposing that has nothing to do with guilting or shaming anybody,” she adds. “I think now more than ever, we desperately need white accomplices in the struggle that we find ourselves in today in this country. I think we're only going to get that communion by exposing the history of what's happened and by healing it.”
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In the novel, Josephine’s mother is a healer who leads spiritual ceremonies with other slaves who are planning to escape. Nearly 100 years later, Ava’s mother Gladys works as a doula and believes she is in regular contact with her ancestors.
Though Sexton says she is not as familiar with her family history as many characters in the novel are, she’s heard stories about her great grandmother, after whom she is named, giving powerful speeches in church and acting as a fierce advocate for education, despite not having a formal education herself.
It wasn’t until after she’d written the character of Josephine that she realized the character was everything she’d imagined her great grandmother to be.
“When I was rereading the Josephine section one time, I was like, this is interesting because without consciously knowing it, I feel like I created my great grandmother in the Josephine character,” she says. “And when I've read a few times aloud from that section, I do feel like a supernatural kind of power and I do feel like a presence.”
It’s a force she carries with her, just as the characters in “The Revisioners” do.
“I feel like maybe (Josephine) lived inside me before and creating the character just got her outside, or maybe creating her has instilled her permanently inside,” she says. “I feel like if I was able to create the lady, then I must have her interior available to me, and it's like, well, what would she do and how would she feel about that? I can sometimes, sometimes summon that strength and that confidence.”
Sexton will be in town Tuesday, Nov. 5 for a joint book launch at Hotel Peter and Paul at 6 p.m. with her friend and New Orleans resident Jami Attenberg, whose book “All This Could Be Yours” came out last month.
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