The Good Negress, A.J. Verdelle.
The Good Negress, by A.J. Verdelle. New York : HarperPerennial, 1996.
GLOBAL WOMAN OF COLOR
A novel about an African American girl growing up in the rural south and in Detroit, enriched by amazing language.
A.J. Verdelle takes a familiar coming of age story and transforms it. Denise, or Neesey, lives with her grandmother in a small “colored” town in rural Virginia for five years while her mother struggles to make a living in Detroit. Being left there had hard for Neesey, but leaving her grandmother and returning to Detroit was even harder. When she is twelve, her mother remarried and became pregnant. Neesey must return to “help out.” She finds a quiet pleasure in cooking and keeping the apartment neat, but she can’t avoid the tensions between her mother, her husband and her two older brothers. At school, learning excites her. A teacher concerned with her rural speech gives her extra time and a new hope for herself. When the new baby arrives, Neesey faces pressure trying to meet conflicting demands of home and education. The boy from Arkansas who befriended her when she first returned north grows into a loving man, supportive of her dreams of education, but she can’t dismiss the demands of other family members.
Neesey is the narrator of the book. Her story weaves back and forth between north and south, past and present, home and school, as Verdelle fills in the lives of her varied characters. Initially, Neesey writes in the dialect of rural Virginia, and she is eloquent. When her teacher convinces her that language is a key to moving beyond the poverty that haunts her family, her language starts to conform to mainstream demands. At times her voice slips into a lyrical stream of consciousness. What is consistent is the life and power of her words. Some examples follow:
Growing up, Neesey’s grandmother had told her, “If you gone imitate people, imitate the best people. People like the Kinseys what got nice houses and professions. It never does harm to imitate whitefolks either, what have lace curtains and inside heat and educations.”
Having adapted to her grandmother’s world, Neesey found it hard to leave. Her grandmother reluctantly guides her out the door. “’We done said everything Baby Girl. Now go on.’ Granma’ma pushes me on to my next. It felt like the forward push of a plow with me in the harness, and the ground looking nothing but bald and flat in front of me.”
In Detroit, Neesey stared at herself every night in the window over the kitchen sink. “I watched myself grow in the black night reflections. I tried to ease the sadness I had noticed on my face. I saw inches of maturity gain on me, as I grew over the bottom panes and into the top ones. I mouthed words to Granma’am as I faced the window facing south.”
Neesey’s teacher tried to instill black pride in her students. Dr. “Dew Boys” was hard to understand, but George Washing Carver made an impact. As her teacher said, “We need to pluck genius Negroes from farms, and railroad flats, and shotgun houses. And We all need to know that We have our geniuses too. That if We look at what We do closely, We too will Invent and Discover and Be celebrated.”
Her teacher’s influence on Neesey was great. “Making a match between what I wanted to say and what is permitted in English was the closest thing I had to a religion.”
Even after Neesey has moved on to college, her family’s needs reached out to her but do not sway her. In an emergency, she decided, “Well, I will go with him. But not too far.”
I strongly recommend this book to all readers, especially those interested in African American women and in the variety and creative use of the English language. This is a prize-winning novel and one that drew praise from Toni Morrison.