Monday, January 01, 2018

Arica L. Coleman's review of Patricia Hruby Powell's LOVING VS. VIRGINIA - Not recommended

Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case (Advanced Copy) 
By Patricia Hruby Powell; illustrated by Shadra Strickland 
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2017 
Reviewed by Arica L. Coleman, Ph.D. 
Not Recommended


Patricia Hruby Powell has written a young adult documentary novel to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this landmark Supreme Court decision in which the nine justices unanimously overturned anti-miscegenation laws (state proscriptions against interracial marriage) declaring such laws unconstitutional. 

I learned of Powell’s book a couple of months prior to its release while conducting a Google search. I reached out to the author in a comment on her blog which featured the book's cover, stating "I cannot wait to read your book. Here is a link to my work on the Lovings. There are additional links to other articles and my book!" Powell responded, stating, "you know I've read your chapter," meaning the chapter on Loving in my book That the Blood Stay Pure and she graciously sent me an advanced copy stating in an email: 
I look forward to your reading my book as well. And how I addressed the issue of Sydney Jeter.”  

The book received excellent advanced reviews on Goodreads and has since been highly recommended by School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and many other reputable experts of young adult literature. My review, however, will focus on the book’s merit as a historical text. While the conceptualization and execution of the work is noteworthy, its title claim as a documentary novel, I believe, is oversold, given Powell's penchant to ignore historical facts and her inability to place the work within its proper context of interracial marriage in the U.S. The essay is structured using the hackneyed phrase “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” First. . .

The Good

Powell’s documentary novel is an attractive oversized book with the author’s first person poetic prose set in large easy-to-read print. Much of the book has been typeset with the traditional black letters attractively spaced on white pages. Yet, interspersed throughout the book are black and white photos, and black pages with white lettering to emphasize major historical events that add to the beauty of this work. The illustrations of renowned picture book artist Shadra Strickland adds value to this aesthetically pleasing product. 

The book is well organized with a focus on the years 1955-1968. Those familiar with southern culture can easily imagine themselves at a gathering on the Loving’s front porch in rural Central Point, Virginia listening to the victorious plaintiffs take turns recounting the pains and triumphs against racialized state imposed marriage sanctions. The book’s structure is reminiscent of James McBride’s classic work The Color of 

Screen captures of the narrative structure
In Loving Vs. Virginia, the narrative fluctuates beginning with Mildred, then Richard, then Mildred again. 

This pattern repeats, until the confluence of their narratives joins at the point of their marriage in Washington D.C., where it is spread out over several pages and then resumes the earlier pattern for the remainder of the book. 

Powell’s splendid writing style shines through in this work. The prose is lyrical with a flow and pace that makes the reader glide from one page to the next.  

The Bad

First, the salient problem with Powell’s book is that she characterizes the work as a “documentary novel.” In her blog post, "Documentary Novel vs Historical Fiction," writer Susan Santiago describes three definitions for "documentary novel." She also writes that Loving Vs. Virginia is only the second book she's seen that claims to be a documentary novel. Hence Powell's book would have benefited from an author’s note with a clear definition of the term and how her work fits within that definition. 

Second, assuming that Santiago’s first definition of the term, "True event + real people told in a narrative format" is the one Powell would use, there is very little primary material in Powell’s book which directly relates to the Loving case. While the majority of the photos and quotes are related to the issue of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, the author does not adequately connect the dots to demonstrate how such events as Brown v. the Board of Education, King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, the signing of the Voting Rights Act or the Freedom Rides directly relate to the issue of miscegenation, Virginia, or the Loving case. In other words, her fictionalized narrative has little to no direct connection to the documentary “evidence” much of which reflects her own interpretations of historical events. 

Third, and this relates to the issue of documentation and its lack of specificity, Powell provides a 1958 map of the United States with the states with anti-miscegenation laws colored in gray; however, the states are not labeled; although she acknowledges that one of the Virginia counties closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate, she does not identity the location as Prince Edward County. 

Fourth, documents that are a must for this book such as The Racial Integrity Act, The Loving Supreme Court decision, the Loving’s District of Columbia Marriage License, and Mildred’s 1963 letter to the ACLU are absent.[2] The latter two documents are most important as they establish the fact that Mildred self-identified as Indian. That they were not included is a gross oversight which I will address in the next section.

The Ugly

Powell’s choice to tell this story in the first person narrative is a cautionary tale. The salient problem with this point of view is that the author’s biases and assumptions are imposed on the speakers. This problem occurs very early in the first chapter which is Mildred’s biographical narrative. There, the reader learns about her family life. Mildred identified an older sibling by noting his etched name in her school desk. “There’s J.J.,” who she assumes is “my much older half-brother James Jeter." She identified three additional half-brothers later in the chapter and explained (p. 24), “What makes them half-brothers is their mama. Daisy. She died. And then Daddy married our mama.”[3]

It is indeed understandable that Powell wanted to get across the fact that the Jeters were a blended family, but she imposed a eurocentric definition of family on southern people of color who do not quantify familial relations. In addition, Powell imposed a family history on the Jeters based on assumption, but an assumption that is inaccurate (p. 18): 

Our Jeter ancestors have lived here
in Central Point
for centuries,
hunting and fishing.
Daddy and Mama
are both part Indian.
We are also descended
from African slaves.
And their owners. 

While the Jeters ancestral roots are Indian, European, and African, there is no evidence that the Jeters were descended from slaves. In fact, Mildred’s father, Theoliver Jeter was descended from a line of white and free women of color (African, Indian or both) that stretch back at least to the 1760s. 

Moreover, Powell’s causal mention of the Jeter’s Indian ancestry on several occasions throughout the text at once acknowledges and erases Mildred’s Indian identity as the aforementioned example demonstrates. Another example is her characterization of Central Point as a tri-racial harmonious community as demonstrated by the statement (p. 28): “If I stop and watch I see . . . Indians, Negroes, Whites—all mixed together. . .Whites and coloreds—we go to different schools . . . churches, drink out of different water fountains. But our section is different.” 

Powell relies on outdated information which constructed Central Point as a colorblind society, a narrative begun by famed African American journalist Simeon Booker in his feature article on the Lovings not long after their Supreme Court win.[4]

Yet, as my work demonstrates, new information highlighting inter and intra-racial tensions in the small rural community of Central Point, tensions which persist to this day, called for a reevaluation of Booker’s earlier conclusions. Again as demonstrated here and here, Central Point was a microcosm of the lived experience of racial politics in Virginia, the South, and indeed the nation. 

What is most unfortunate is that Powell does not provide Mildred adequate voice to explore her self-identity as an Indian woman. Case in point, when Mildred and Richard arrive in the District of Columbia to obtain a marriage license, Powell's depiction of their conversation is as follows. On the left is Mildred; on the right is Richard (p. 117):

This exchange is reminiscent of a dialogue between James McBride and his mother when he discovered that she was not, as he had long suspected, the light skinned black woman she had always claimed to be, but was in fact an Ashkenazi Jew who spoke fluent Yiddish. 

Powell’s scenario does not work and in fact seemed rather bizarre. I mean, what an awkward time to have a conversation or--as it seemed here--a debate about your future wife’s racial identity. Mildred’s race never mattered to Richard before. Why make it an issue now? Her racial self-identity was indeed full of complexity and intrigue. For example, in her 1963 letter to the ACLU Mildred stated, 
“I am writing to you concerning a problem we have . . . My husband is white and I am part negro, part indian.” 

On page 176, instead of providing her readers with the letter [5] which features Mildred’s own words in her own handwriting...  [Update on January 3, 2018: In response to a reader's request, I have inserted the text of the letter. Scroll to the bottom of the page to see it.]

... Powell chose to highlight a quote from King’s Letter from A Birmingham Jail. In doing that, Powell did something that many white writers do when they imagine real people as characters: she erased the very people to whom she claims to give voice. That Powell would use Mildred’s Indian heritage as mere honorable mentions rather than provide space for this woman of color to use her own words to explore a central aspect of her self-identity is most unfortunate.[6] 

The Uglier
Now to discuss Sidney Jeter. As demonstrated in my work on the Lovings (see endnote 6 and here), Mildred was already a mother when she and Richard began dating. Sidney was born in January 1957 which places his time of conception in April 1956. According to Powell’s time line, Richard and Mildred’s courtship began in November 1955. Five months later in an entry dated May 1956 Mildred stated (p. 72): 
“Didn’t see Richard for awhile. I missed him. But he’s coming steady again.” 

By September, Mildred, who was at least five months pregnant, was in a quandary over how to break the news to Richard which she does a month later after they attended a dance together. Keep in mind that by this time a very slim Mildred is at least six months pregnant. They are seated in his car when (p. 94), “I tell him,” she says. "I tell him everything." 

The problem is, the reader does not have a clue what Powell meant by “everything.” Was the pregnancy the result of a rape? Of a one night indiscretion? The reader is left to wonder. 

I find Powell’s handling of Sidney Jeter’s paternity unconscionable.  If she felt that this aspect of the story was too controversial for a teen audience, she should have left it alone. Since she chose to include it, then she should have simply told the truth rather than perform a slight of hand by attempting to adhere to a courtship timeline which has been adequately disproven.  Unfortunately she creates complication where truth and simplicity would have been sufficient. 

Even more unacceptable is Powell’s explanation for Richard’s resuming his relationship with Mildred whom she characterized as an innocent child in need of protection.  Speaking about leaving Mildred in the dark about their impending confrontation with the county Sheriff who was sure to arrest them when he learned of the couple’s marriage, Richard stated (p. 131), “I knew she was pretty innocent. Innocence what got her Sidney—sweet Sydney. Hell, I love her innocence.” Hmmm, riddle me this—What in the hell is Powell talking about? 

And more egregious still was Powell’s use of the N-word when speaking for the Sheriff who was present when the couple arrived for their hearing at the courthouse stating (p. 151): “There’s the white trash and his nigger.” Yet, earlier in the novel when the couple was pulled over by the Sheriff who, after admonishing Richard about speeding, stated (p. 102), “Now you take that little negress home where she belongs.” Why the change in language? The use of the N-word was/is unnecessary and offensive. The argument that the use of the word is necessary for historical accuracy does not hold water in this case as it was not a direct quote, but was deliberately placed there without regard for its detriment particularly to young readers of color.

Equally offensive is Powell's dialogue on Mildred's passing, in which she states (p. 81):
I'm not real dark--'bout the color of a grocery sack--and I have good hair, but I surely couldn't pass." Or the statement by a passerby who, when seeing Mildred and Richard arm-in-arm, says (p. 81) "Nice piece o'colored ass." It is clear that Powell gave no thought to the feelings of young girls of color when she chose to include these statements in her novel.*

The Conclusion of the Matter
I attempted to review this book several times since receiving it in late 2016, but my frustration with the text caused me to set it aside with the hope that when I resumed the effort, I would feel better about the work. I think I wrestled with this book these many months because deep down I wanted to like it. I recognize the tremendous time and effort Powell put into this work for which she is to be commended. Notwithstanding, good writing cannot substitute for accuracy in historical context and facts; and the pitfalls of the first person narrative are too glaring to ignore. Its subtitle as a “documentary novel” places a claimed authoritative validity on the work that requires a standard of execution that is higher than if it were categorized as historical fiction. Being bound by both professional and personal ethics requires that I provide an honest assessment. While I applaud the concept of the work, the lack of focus, historical inaccuracies, and the imposition of the author’s personal biases have derailed what could have been an excellent book.

[1] James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His Wife Mother (Riverhead Trade), 1997.

[2] What appears at the beginning of Powell’s book is the first page of a pamphlet issued by the Virginia State Registrar’s Office about the new Act to Preserve Racial Integrity. Text of the actual law appears on subsequent pages; documents relating directly to issues surrounding the Loving case are easily accessible via The Eugenics Archives in addition to other online sources.

[3] There is a gross imbalance between Mildred’s narrative in chapter one and Richard’s narrative in chapter two. The reader is provided extensive information about the Jeters, but nothing about the Lovings. In fact, it is Mildred, not Richard who introduces the reader to her in-laws. Where is the research on the original Mr. and Mrs. Loving?

[4] Simeon Booker, “The Couple That Rocked Courts,” Ebony Magazine, September 1967.

[5] Mildred's mention of the Attorney General appears to be an afterthought. There is no evidence of correspondence between Mrs. Loving and Bobby Kennedy. 

[6] For more on Mildred Loving’s racial identity see Arica L. Coleman, “ Beyond Black and White: Afro-Indian Identity in the Case of Loving V. Virginia,” in That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia (Indiana University Press, 2013), 151-176; and “Mildred Loving: The Extraordinary Life of An Ordinary Woman” in Virginia Women Their Lives and Times, Vol. 2 (University of Georgia Press, 2016), 313-319, for further discussion on the first-person-viewpoint see,      

*This paragraph added on Jan 2, 2017.

Update, January 3, 2017
Here is the text of Jeter's letter:

1151 Neal St.
N.E. Wash. D.C.
June 20, 1968 
Dear sir: 
I am writing to you concerning a problem we have. 
Five yrs. ago my husband and I were married here in the District. We then returned to Va. to live. My husband is White, I am part negro, + part indian. 
At the time we did not know there was a law in Va. against mixed marriages. 
Therefore we were jailed and tried in a little town of Bowling Green. 
We were to leave the state to make our home. 
The problem is we are not allowed to visit our families. The judge said if we enter the state within the next 30 yrs., that we will have to send 1 yr. in jail. 
We know we can't live there, but we would like to go back once and awhile to visit our families + friends. 
We have 3 children and cannot afford an attorney. 
We wrote to The Attorney General, he suggested that we get in touch with you for advice. 
Please help us if you can. Hope to hear from you real soon. 
Yours truly,
Mr. + Mrs. Richard Loving
Update, Jan 10, 2018
See Debbie Reese's review of Powell's book.  

1 comment:

Tenisha McCloud said...

Coleman writes: "although she acknowledges that one of the Virginia counties closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate, she does not identity the location as Edward County."

The location I believe Coleman means to intimate is Prince Edward County, as referred to in the 2015 title by Kristen Green Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle published by Harper.