Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.
A Kind of Freedom
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Counterpoint Press, 230 pp., $26.00
Each day, legions don their corporate masks and sulk behind their computer screens longing to be custom cabinet makers or pastry chefs. Anything other than what they are. Yet when faced with the uncertainty of pursuing their desires, they squelch their moxie and sacrifice their aspirations of independence. As an author who left her job as an attorney, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton must be familiar with risk and ambition. In her debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, she balances the complicated concepts like a trial lawyer examining both sides of a case, prosecutor and defendant. She makes her argument well, having been long-listed for the 2017 National Book Award. With a fascinating multi-generational tale of an African-American family in New Orleans, she challenges readers to consider their own ability to control their actions and the power of family, community, and circumstances to alter the choices that determine who we are. To portray the complexity of these fateful choices, Sexton undertakes literary ventures. Her first gamble is with the structure of the story.
A Kind of Freedom begins in 1944, transferring readers between 1986 and 2010, and then back to World War II New Orleans. Sexton moves beyond the limitations of chronology into an expansive three-dimensional realm. By deploying time in this pliable manner, she allows us to glimpse the impact of our decisions. The narrative’s point of view is also elastic. We begin the novel with Evelyn, a Creole woman from a black upper-class family, but the story is not hers alone. Like ingredients in a spicy roux, Sexton blends in the accounts of Ruby, her sister, her father, an obstetrician, and Renard, a suitor who fails to win her Daddy’s approval. Sexton uses the novel’s structure to illustrate how we are invariably linked to our family. The choices Evelyn makes in 1944 affect her and the other characters introduced throughout the novel: her daughter Jackie in 1986, and her grandson T.C. in 2010. Each protagonist has the opportunity to select from a number of courses for his or her life, and it’s in these decisive moments that Sexton ventures another risk.
Evelyn, Jackie, and T.C. aren’t conventional heroes. They’re appealing, but they operate without insight or understanding, making the worst decisions at the worst times. Evelyn secretly drops out of nursing school. Jackie, a struggling mother, remains loyal to her no-show husband. Recently released from jail, T.C. allows friends to draw him into old habits and haunts. However, Sexton’s characters arrive at these junctures because the author is unafraid to address the issues that influence their choices: colorism, patriarchal power, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, gang culture, and young black men in prison. These are authentic problems that real people in real communities combat in real time. When faced with these circumstances, Sexton shows us how abstract freedom can be. This appears to be a lesson she’s learned in her own life.
In an August 2017 issue of Publishers Weekly, Sexton details her own writing journey. Like other authors, like her characters, and like us all, her path has meandered through fits and starts. She enjoyed her work as a lawyer, “the mental precision that the legal questions required,” yet she confesses there was a wooing need for more: “I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else I was supposed to be doing.” Her legal training bleeds through in her writing. Her style is precise like an attorney’s, and the pace is short and concise, rarely allowing the reader to linger in the moment. All her characters are well-rounded, but it does appear that she’s more comfortable inhabiting the worlds of Evelyn and Jackie than she is inhabiting T.C.’s. His post-Katrina conflicts could use more space. This is a New Orleans readers should be able to identify with, the ideal backdrop for Sexton to support her argument.
In the years since Katrina, New Orleans has exemplified the best and the worst of 21st Century America. The French Quarter tourist traps run full throttle selling t-shirts and 64 oz. frozen cocktails, and the area surrounding the Central Business District has been revitalized. Former warehouses are now upscale condos. In the spring of 2017, the city triggered the crusade to remove Confederate monuments, and in November, it elected the first female mayor in its 300-year history, but the success is one-sided. The street gangs displaced after Katrina have returned. The Crescent City rivals Chicago in shootings and violence. Depression and suicide rates have increased. The opioid crisis has its hands around the city’s throat. Further inflaming the dilemma, the New Orleans Police Department battles a decades-old reputation of corruption and brutality. T.C., like his mother and grandmother, can’t escape. It’s not a matter of moving to Houston, TX or Rainbow City, AL.
There is no true breaking away from our vision of ourselves. That’s a home that’s always with us. The key is to become comfortable with our authentic self. We’ve been formed by our life experiences—family, hurt, betrayal. When our lives don’t happen the way we plan, we are difficult on ourselves, unforgiving. Our power is derived when we realize that what matters is not our memories of the past or our thoughts of the future, but the here and now. That’s what we can control. That is freedom.