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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book review: Those Bones Are Not My Child

“Lady, Black boys getting killed in the South just ain’t news.”
“And girls,” she inserted. “And women and men.”
“I know how you feel, but I don’t make network policy. The news of the moment is Iran, when it’s not the election or stories about international terrorism.” 

Sounds like it could be this morning’s news. But it’s 1980 in Atlanta, and more than forty black children have in fact been murdered, in a pattern that can be traced around “the city too busy to hate.” This novel, Toni Cade Bambara’s masterwork, follows an estranged mother and father whose son goes missing just as the killings are finally becoming news.

I was a child in 1980, about the same age as Zala and Spence’s younger son. I was daily reminded of the U.S. hostages held in Iran, but I had no idea that in the next state, the deadly backdrop to this book was unfolding. Atlanta was supposed to be the Black Mecca of the New South, progressive and free. It had a black mayor and new black police officers; one of them, Sergeant B. J. Greaves, is a character in the novel. I never saw a black police officer the whole time I was growing up—or a woman—but I knew such things were possible, because they were characters in books.

It was in reading those same books at school that I first came across fiction by Toni Cade Bambara. “Raymond’s Run” is one of those unforgettable stories that has stayed with me since childhood. So to discover this big novel, published after her death in 1995, is a real pleasure.

A pleasure, despite the horror that is at the heart of the story. For Bambara’s writing is so beautiful, illuminating the most everyday details of a family’s life, which will never be everyday again. She is in absolute command of her characters’ perspective, the viewpoints of both parents, the younger son and daughter. Through their increasingly desperate efforts to find out what happened to Sonny and the other children, Bambara shows us a city in the round. The upwardly mobile Atlantans, the Vietnam vets like Spence, elderly black residents who have seen it all. Whatever their class or background, none of these characters are victims, except in the true sense of being victims of crime. They never whine. They have confidence and pride.

Because of the richness of detail with which she writes, Bambara does the best thing I think a novelist can do: she takes the reader into another world. I see the banana magnet on the car ashtray, the kids at the boys’ club, the African-identified activists in the park. I am back in the time, though not the place, of my childhood, its phones, furniture, school buildings. The horror of what is happening to the children is more real, not because Bambara writes violence (which is never gratuitous) but because she places it in the ordinary world, the one we live in.

Bambara was an important figure in both feminism and African-American studies, as well as an accomplished filmmaker. All of this comes through in a highly cinematic novel. We learn a lot as readers, but she is never preachy. Instead, she sets the story in the context of other events of the time: the Harvey Milk assassinations, the Jim Jones massacre, David Duke and Jesse Helms, the struggle of Black Britons and South Africans. The mystery grows so big that the main characters almost feel lost, as they surely must have in real life—yet Bambara regains the thread of their story just when we’ve given it up for lost.

From beyond the grave, Bambara tells a human story, at a time when we cannot be reminded too often that “Black Lives Matter.” To all of us, because we are part of each other, and part of the same world. Last week* many RedState activists were calling a broadcaster who challenged Donald Trump a whore and a lesbian, and the man in the White House a “nigger.” I only wish the country of this novel felt more distant than it does.

*http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21661010-when-republicans-ditch-donald-trump-they-will-also-have-confront-his-supporters-anger