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The oppressive novels of Gayl Jones

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Part of the problem with Jones’ novels is their lack of spiritual worth: most of his characters have little faith even in themselves. Did America do this to them? Is Jones’ dead desperation the result of some kind of internalized racism that says black people are misogynistic thieves who suck pork and cabbage from their teeth after a murder because that’s how they do it ? One could argue that the core of Jones ‘writing is existentialist, that his novels are a black American version of Albert Camus’ ‘The Stranger’, but that would be wrong: Camus was fed up with humanity and the way whose power can be alienated from itself. . Jones’ writing in these early books is closer to seeing degradation in films such as “Hustle & Flow” by Craig Brewer (2005) and “Black Snake Moan” (2006) and “Precious” by Lee Daniels. (2009) and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday ”(2021), or the“ surreal ”black world of Deana Lawson’s photographs. In these works, Blacks are greasy artifacts from the colorful old museum, a place where racist views are celebrated and where darkness is always a curse.

Jones’ 1977 short story collection “White Rat” was the last book she worked on with Morrison. At the time of publication, Jones was teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and keeping company with a man named Bob Higgins, who had returned to Ann Arbor in 1975 – he had graduated from college there – after a run – with Staten Island Police. The editors had rejected Higgins’ treatise on Hegel, and he had become so enraged that the cops were called; there was a dead end, the police gassed his apartment, and Higgins jumped from the sixth floor to escape. The Times reported that Higgins was abandoned by his mother, who ultimately passed away, homeless and mentally ill from alcoholism. He had grown up with parents and in a series of foster homes. After returning to Ann Arbor, Higgins recounted the story of his escape to Staten Island, as a way of proclaiming his “piety.” His relationship with Jones quickly escalated and he quickly became her agent, a move that alienated Morrison so much that she stopped working with Jones. Then, with Higgins facing assault charges, after attending a gay rights parade where he said that AIDS was divine retribution, Jones resigned from college and the couple fled to Europe.

Jones and Higgins stayed abroad for five years, living mainly in Paris. They returned to Lexington in 1988 and moved in with Jones’ mother, whose health was beginning to decline: Lucille, the storyteller, had throat cancer. According to Times, Jones’ devotion to Higgins was “seemingly total”:

At 6.30am or 7am every morning, he walked to the Chateau Blanc to bring back coffee and breakfast, and two or three times a day he went to the grocery store. The few times she was seen outside, she walked, silent, several meters behind him. Even in hot weather, she wore long-sleeved shirts and bulky sweaters and wrapped her head and face in scarves, like a Muslim woman. The neighborhood children called her “the lady with the headscarf”.

While Lucille was being treated and after her death in 1997, Higgins, using the name Bob Jones, issued numerous statements and letters claiming, among other things, that she had been kidnapped by the hospital treating her and that she was the victim of the infamous white forces in the medical community and threatening the president of the University of Kentucky. Still, Jones continued to write and began working with Helene Atwan at Beacon Press, which had, by the 1980s, published paperback editions of her first two novels. In early 1998, Beacon published “The Healing”, Jones’ third novel. To commemorate the occasion, the author conducted an email interview with News week, in which Higgins’ cover was inadvertently blown. Police realized that Bob Jones was in fact the wanted Bob Higgins for assault in Michigan.

When the police arrived at the Jones’ home on a fifteen-year warrant, Higgins closed the door for them and ran to the back of the house, where he grabbed two knives and pointed them at his throat. If they tried to enter, he said, he would kill himself. A to crush team surrounded the house a few hours later, and Jones called 911. Times published part of the transcript of the call, and it’s excruciating to read. It’s like being back in Eva’s head. Jones tells the operator that the police want to kill her husband like they killed his mother. She mentions “the full page article” about her that appeared in News week. She says she and Higgins turned on the gas in the house. Were they trying to kill themselves or blow up the whole neighborhood? After evacuating neighboring houses, the police entered the house and Higgins stabbed his throat with a knife. He died in hospital. Jones was handcuffed and taken to a public mental hospital, where she was held for over two weeks, until she was no longer considered a danger to herself.

I was already working for this magazine when Jones’ story broke, and there was a lot of talk in the office that day about what could be written about it, and if we could reach out to Jones or Harper, his former counselor, who, despite Higgins’ best efforts, was still in contact with her. But Jones wasn’t talking to anyone. In my heart, I knew that no article would be written with Jones’ help: if she spoke to the press, it wouldn’t just be a betrayal of Higgins and his black masculinity; that would negate his role in the creation of this masculinity.

Michele Wallace, in his 1978 seminal text, “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,” argues that the ideology that informed black nationalism of the 1960s was not so much revolutionary as reactionary: for black men to be men — and to embody the “bad nigger” myth, let’s say: someone must have cracked the eggs, or had their head cracked. I had seen a version of it all my life. I had attended rallies in Harlem while one of my sisters, charged with guarding me, listened to a confused and confusing speech about nation time, a separate economic system and how a “sista” was there to uplift. her man. But what if this man was violent? Or crazy? There were many broken men who hid their shattering under a cloak of Darkness. Higgins believed in the power of his machismo because that was all he had. What could a woman do for him but serve the madness his motherless loneliness had created? I wonder if Jones thought she needed to not only live one of her early stories, but also apologize for it – apologize for creating a Cabot that would throw Ursa down the stairs, or a Davis who didn’t like the smell of a menstruating woman.

Jones’s relationship with Higgins appears to have been partly a genre minstrel performance, with her walking a few feet behind him and covering her face. She had no right, as Wallace might say, to her own subjectivity. Yet she picked up on that subjectivity, and what she did with it was both sad and triumphant. Sad because “The Healing”, “Mosquito” (the novel that followed “The Healing” in 1999) and “Palmares” are not good books; triumphant because in writing them she was always struggling to keep her own vision. Subjugation takes away your options but, in some cases, frees your mind: with so few choices to make, you can afford to imagine.

The narrator of “The Healing,” Harlan Jane Eagleton, a faith healer, grew up in a world of women: her mother and grandmother owned a beauty salon in Louisville, and for a time, Harlan also worked as a beautician. We first meet her on a bus as she eats sardines, sips mustard sauce, and ruminates on the beauty of the passing landscape. Harlan is a healer, not a preacher, and she made that distinction early on – it is, after all, what Flannery O’Connor called the “Christ-haunted” South, where faith is synonymous with Jesus. In a sense, Harlan is her own Jesus, and the scriptures she reads have to do with the garbage of the modern world. McDonald’s, Sally Jessy Raphael, Taco Bell: they’re as much a part of America as the tipis at Wigwam Village, where people stay when they want to feel like they’re Native American.

“You get pissed off, very pissed off. . . “
Caricature by Zachary Kanin

To bolster his credibility, Harlan brings in his old friend Nicholas from Alaska to describe to his followers his experience of witnessing his first healing, even though he has hinted that he would like to retreat from this particular truth. Nicholas, Harlan says, looks like the colored guy from the Village People, “like those men dancing for women in nightclubs, you know, usually they dress up to look like male stereotypes of men.” She adds, “I thought about hiring another ‘witness’ but that would be duplicity and the real Nicholas witnessed the first real healing.” These lines are fairly typical of the book as a whole, which swings associatively from thought to thought, not so much to indicate the movement of Harlan’s mind as to encompass everything Jones wants to talk about: the roles of kind, faith, America.

What does Harlan heal? Sometimes pain or a sick mind, and sometimes its very presence is a comfort. (She comes from a line of spiritualists, including her grandmother, who is convinced that she was a turtle in another life.) Eventually, Harlan meets a singer named Joan, and, as with other female connections. in Jones’ books the connection is strained. Joan is a richer character than, say, Elvira, in “Eva’s Man”, but she is still prone to Jones’ tendency to define women in degrading language. Here’s how Harlan presents it:

And now Ladies and Gentlemen, our star, the fabulous Joan Savage, or as she prefers to be called, Savage Joan the Darling Bitch! Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? A wild sweetheart? A Bitch Honey? I love a good bitch, even a darling bitch, which lets you call her a bitch, though, because some bitches even the most beautiful darling bitches, when you call them bitches, even the bitches that they are, even bitches who they know they are, even wonderful bitches, like this wonderful bitch.


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