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Sunday, January 22, 2017
RRNN Book Discussion Group Navigates the Currents of Cane River
The Book Club gathered on Martin Luther King Day to discuss Cane River, by Lalita Tademy, a fictionalized history of 7 generations of a real family descended from Negro slaves in the United States. The book told the stories from 1790 to a few years past the author’s birth in 1948. The book included copies of written documents the author had available; the fiction was obviously researched to represent the likely relationships, life events, and personal stories of the family members in such a way as to form a readable story.
The most important theme that Pam noted from the book, as she led the discussion, was the relationships between the characters. Pam asked us to discuss mother/daughter relationships, father/children relationships, those among siblings, and master/slave relationships. The combination of the master/slave relationship with all the other relationships made the book unique and historical.
Carla started the discussion with comments about about T.O., who wasn’t born until toward the end of the book. T.O. was unique in that he had a somewhat contentious attitude toward the rest of the family after emancipation. By the time T.O. was born, the family had evolved to include more member of later generations with lighter skin colors. Although there was a tacit and spoken preference in the family for the younger generations to continue to perpetuate the pattern toward lighter skin, by marrying spouses with lighter skin and thereby having lighter-colored children; T.O. purposely chose a dark-skinned black woman to marry. The narrative about T.O.’s introducing this woman into the family was a fascinating compilation of some of the complex attitudes the black family lived with. The mothers in the family, especially, valued lighter skin for their children, because they loved their children and wanted the easiest life possible for these children. Life was indeed easier for those with lighter-colored skin, especially those who could “pass for white” some or all of the time in post-slavery society. But the family also evolved with lots of familial love; so, the matriarchal treatment of T.O.’s choice of wife was subtly accepting and loving, even with and especially at first, a reluctance to embrace and accept the new darker woman as a young daughter and mother of the next generation.
Pam noted the relationship between 2 half-sisters in the family, Bet and Emily. The 2 girls didn’t meet until Emily was already grown. Bet had been taken away from the girls’ mother, Philomene, early and without Philomene even knowing that Bet was alive. Emily had grown up in the family with Philomene, her mother. The young ladies’ relationship showed that each envied the other from the time they met, but there was also a lot of respect and love between them. Emily felt Bet had every reason to envy her (Emily light/Bet dark; Emily could read/Bet could not), yet it was Emily who felt jealous because Bet had a bond with their mother and “the Greats”, a bond Emily did not have with them (quilting together etc). As grown women, after emancipation, Bet and Emily learned to appreciate each other’s individuality.
These relationships were described with a lot of subtlety as the family evolved. The chapters with masters and slaves included Oreline, who was a white daughter of slave owners, who grew up with Philomene sleeping on a palate in her bedroom. The relationships depicted included those between the women in the family and male slave owners and other men who were white and privileged, such as Narcisse, a Frenchman. As Peggy mentioned, Narcisse forced Philomene into pregnancy over and over again. He mixed love and lust in fathering 8 children with Philomene and then mixed love and pride with the raising of these children. Joyce noted that slaves’ relationships, whether with family or whites, were fragile, because slave owners could destroy their own relationships with the women through brutality or could destroy the women’s relationships with friends or family, by selling slaves and moving them away from loved ones. Carla gave an example of when someone asked about the apparent disappearance of slave Clement, Philomene’s beloved mate; the answer was, “Oh, we sold him.”
Pam gave us a chart to help us understand the history of color and the Census. When the matriarch of the family in Cane River met the Census taker who knocked on the door, it was the Census taker who decided what colors of people to list on the Census. Pam reminded us how closely the Census rules were related to rules of property and inheritance. The rules were also behind a theme in the story, when the father of Emily’s children and then Emily and her son, T.O., tried hard to allow the children to inherit the father’s wealth and property. A bystander at the Barnes & Noble café even offered the comment that under the Napoleonic code, an illegitimate child acknowledged by the father can inherit from that father. Anyone get the bystander’s email address so we can invite her to another book discussion?
Our group had some discussion about the history of the Census and the changes over the years as to how various skin colors were described. Dennis remembered that the census in Nazi Germany had rules about how to describe Jews similar to the rules in the United States about the Negroes and also about native Americans. Pam’s chart said that it was in the Census for the year 2000 that the term “African-American” was used for the first time.
Thoughts continued to the end of the discussion. Jay liked our discussing this book about racial history on Martin Luther King Day. Shirley wondered whether blood transfusion changes someone’s DNA. A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Carol told us a quote from Mother Theresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Media Programming mentioned during the discussion: Lemony Snicket’s ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’, on Netflix
‘Emerald City’ on NBC
Hidden Figures – Feature Film
Notes written by Pam are in red. Thanks to Pam