Dear Papa

Dear Papa:

I know you are dead and all, but I came across this lovely book with you in it, and I wanted to share it with you. LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s 2015 novel, Jam on the Vine, features a young black journalist, Ivoe Williams, who struggles with the strictures placed against her as a queer black woman in Jim Crow America—and you, Ernest, make a brief but meaningful appearance in the novel. Check this out:

Participating in the Great Migration, Ivoe moves from rural Texas to Kansas City. Ivoe studied journalism in college, and she lands an interview at the Kansas City Star. She describes what happens to her future life partner in a letter:

Imagine my joy … finally, my chance had come at the city’s top newspaper. Nothing could dampen my spirits, but when the hour came, my hope was dashed. Seated with me in the waiting room was a young man from Illinois who had just completed high school. He assured me the post was mine as he had only written for his high school newspaper and was equally interested in professional boxing. When they called me in, I asked the young man for his name. This morning an article by Mr. Ernest Hemingway appeared on page two.

Next month I will turn twenty-nine. A dozen of those years I have tried to write for a newspaper. In Kansas City alone, thirteen papers have barred me from even the lowest position. If I am to succeed at a paper, I will have to leave this city and there is no employment elsewhere. Remind me again of the virtues of black womanhood.

Barnett needed to jimmy with the dates to bring you and Ivoe into the same waiting room, but the point she makes through this meeting should not be missed. In legally segregated America, the preferential treatment of white men and the contemporaneous disempowerment and oppression of women and people of color were essential to—and never separate from—the rise of American modernism. Papa, you could graduate high school and then work at a major newspaper because separate-but-equal America ensured a pool of low-paid workers that expanded your own personal opportunities and choices. And, like most other Americans, you probably understand exactly how this game was being played—and also understood that your American Africanist fiction was part and parcel of this game. Your lovely, spare, brilliant prose is American modernism at its finest—and that modernism was always, from the very start, Jim Crow modernism.

Finally, Ernest, thanks for helping me think through the connections between the soft power of aesthetics and the hard power of oppression. Your clipped prose, some of which would be might be suitable for a 144-character tweet, is still way better than much of the stuff I’m reading these days, especially from the unabashed white nationalist in the White House.