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A Kind of Freedom [Book Review]

Summary

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton follows periods in the lives of three generations of a Black family living in New Orleans, Louisiana. A Kind of Freedom captures moments from the lives of Evelyn, her daughter Jackie, and Jackie’s son T.C. but I wouldn’t quite consider it a saga as it doesn’t cover the entire lives or even a substantial part of the lives of the family members. In a sense, the story is linear as it moves through the generations in order from World War II to the 1980s and then the 2000s post-Katrina. Within these stories, we get a glimpse into issues that have plagued the Black community over time such as Jim Crow, drug addiction, and mass incarceration.

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Show Notes

A Kind of Freedom opens with Evelyn, a young woman in her early 20s who comes from a fairly well-to-do Creole family living in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. Her father, Nelson, an obstetrician, is well-respected in the community as the first Black doctor in New Orleans and has delivered many of the neighborhood’s children. The family is rounded out by her mother, Josephine, who is a housewife, her younger sister Ruby who is studying to become a secretary, and her younger brother. They’re not rich but Evelyn’s family lives rather comfortably for the time, especially being a Black family.

Evelyn and Ruby bump into two guys on the street which offers an opportunity to learn about the sisters and their different personalities. Off the bat, one of the guys is noticeably not well put together. He’s described as being not dirty or disheveled but simply not well cared for and his being slightly off attracts Evelyn’s attention. When they bump into the guys again a few days later, she takes even closer notice of him picking up on new things that she hadn’t seen before.

Ruby is the more outgoing of the two and Andrew, the guy she takes an interest in, is the more outgoing of the guys. As extroverts, Ruby and Andrew easily slip into witty banter which clears the path for them to pair off and continue interacting with each other. This leaves Evelyn with the slightly-off Renard who is just as shy as her and from the outset seems like a genuinely sweet and kind guy.

In the time that Ruby and Andrew chat they manage to set up a time and place for them to go on a date. Meanwhile, Evelyn and Renard are so nervous and socially awkward that on the surface they seem to barely make any headway, failing to even exchange contact information. Evelyn manages to learn quite a bit about Renard beyond his physical appearance and he learns about her as well. She walks away from the exchange if not interested in him, then curious about Renard. Yet, she’s a little crestfallen and feels left out because Andrew has asked out Ruby indicating his interest while Renard is less easy to read. With her sister having a more active social life in general and now this planned date with Andrew, it exposes some of Evelyn’s insecurities.

Ruby is more socially outgoing which results in her having a more vibrant social life. She’s natural and comfortable in social situations, seems to be well-liked, and has an easier time forming friendships and relationships. Evelyn doesn’t necessarily want to be as extroverted as her sister but would like to have some close relationships of her own beyond her family. She especially feels her life is lacking when she finds herself stuck at home alone while everyone else in the family has some kind of plan to go out.

Aside from Ruby, her only other sibling is her brother but he’s several years younger and doesn’t factor into the story very much. The relationship between Evelyn and her mom is less close than the relationship between Ruby and their mom to the point that Evelyn feels unloved by Josephine. Like most of her other relationships, Ruby and her mom seem to get each other and get along quite well. But Evelyn lacks that sense of intimacy with her mom so in thinking about Renard, she doesn’t feel comfortable going to her mother and talking about her feelings.

But, this social unease that Evelyn feels with most people doesn’t exist with her father. With him, she feels comfort and like she can be herself. Evelyn is a daddy’s girl but she doesn’t talk to her dad about Renard either, at least not directly. Yet he picks up on Evelyn being upset and somehow knows just the right thing to say to, if not lift her spirits then at least put her mind a bit at ease. There’s a feeling that he just gets her as he comforts her in moments where she feels like an outcast in their community.

What begins as a night of feeling sorry for herself is unexpectedly turned around when Renard later stops by while everyone is out. In thinking about Renard and them not having made plans to speak later, it boosted Evelyn’s spirits to know that he felt something too and had been thinking of her as well. On the one hand, it’s a bit weird that he showed up at her house at night. But she’d mentioned where she lived and he expected for at least her parents, if not the entire family to be at home.

With her parents not being at home, Evelyn doesn’t turn Renard away but instead invites him to talk outside. In the quiet of the evening, they tell each other about themselves, their families, and their lives. Renard tells her about his parents as well as his studying to become a doctor. It’s pretty sweet because it’s an innocent conversation and they’re both not exactly shy, but endearingly awkward and uncomfortable. No games are being played here, no ulterior motives, no witty banter. Instead, it’s just the two of them sitting out in front of the house having an honest and straightforward conversation. There’s something that just kind of draws them together from the beginning.

Evelyn doesn’t come from a large family but does have her parents and two siblings. She’s not completely alone but doesn’t have a wider social circle beyond her immediate family. Her social circle consists of the family she was born into, not people with whom there has been a mutual decision to be friends. And the people who do associate with her are usually from the same neighborhood with family ties rather than them liking her as an individual.

As a result, even with her family and associates all around, she still feels a certain sense of loneliness. For the most part, she’s been going through the motions and doing things out of a feeling of obligation but no real interest. With this being Mardi Gras season, people are rushing about and excitedly making plans while Evelyn has no interest in the festivities. Renard also has no interest in Mardi Gras and with the two meeting, they’ve found another person with whom they can connect about seemingly being disconnected from everyone else.

Renard’s mother died in childbirth, leaving him the youngest of 12 children in a family of humble means. It’s unclear what exactly happened to his father but he grew up not knowing his mother and the little he knows about her is what he’s learned from other people. He was taken in by Andrew’s family when he was a child and they raised him, helping him obtain an education and attend medical school. They’ve never treated him badly but he feels like a charity case. Renard has siblings but not quite a family because he grew up without parents to keep them all together and connected.

His family isn’t wealthy so he doesn’t live in a fashionable neighborhood and doesn’t have access to the same luxuries as Andrew’s or Evelyn’s family. And so in living in this world that’s not his and trying to provide for himself and move forward he’s on his own. He mentions his desire to be able to provide for a family which is incredibly important to him because he lacked this in his childhood.

With Renard and Evelyn meeting, they become aware of the loneliness that they’ve felt for some time but have ignored or not given voice to. In meeting each other, they have the opportunity to form an intimate and solid relationship where the two of them genuinely enjoy each other’s company. They were now part of a social group, though in this case there were just two members.

In this society, it’s made clear from the beginning that family backgrounds, skin tones, hair texture, eye color, etc. are viewed as status symbols. When Ruby and Evelyn bring their prospective suitors home to meet their families, there’s a stark contrast between the two. Andrew comes from a well-to-do family while Renard is from a nameless family. Renard has strong feelings about civil rights and bristles at the Jim Crow laws that prevent Black people from going to the park or visiting a museum. On the other hand, Andrew is more hopeful that if Black men participate in the war effort, eventually America would come to recognize Black people as being citizens of America and welcome us openly. Whereas Renard didn’t believe in fighting for a country that treats him like a second-class citizen.

This is the second instance of the men’s ideologies and what they represent being contrasted. On their first date, Andrew and Ruby went out for dinner and while walking passed a White man on the street. Ruby noted that Andrew stepped aside and pretty much pushed her out of the way to make space for this White man. It was a sign of deference, right in keeping with the standing social order.

In contrast, when Evelyn and Renard are out walking one day they come to a park that has a museum, zoo, and other attractions. Renard speaks about dreaming of a future where he, his wife, and kids would be able to go into the park to enjoy its amenities like anyone else. And with that, he takes a step towards the park’s entrance.

Andrew is harmless but has experienced some privilege being from a family of means and high social standing. He’s more willing to toe the line to avoid upsetting the social order. Renard has experienced the slights and hurt feelings that come with being poor so he’s less patient or comfortable with waiting for things to get better. Andrew is hoping that things get better on their own without ruffling any feathers along the way. Renard wants change now and that begins with him wanting to change his life so he can provide his future family with better opportunities.

The men represent two different perspectives in the Civil Rights Movement: that of being an accommodationist versus an aspirational activist. At first glance, it might seem like Renard has it all figured out but he doesn’t realize how difficult it would be in reality to achieve the things to which he aspires. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be strived for but rather that it would take a lot of sacrifice and effort. Faced with the reality of his circumstances, he too makes compromises and shows himself as being equally willing to adapt his principles when needed.

There’s quite the role reversal between Evelyn’s mom and dad with regards to their expected views on the suitors. But because they keep things cute during dinner it’s difficult to know their real feelings. I found it interesting that Evelyn’s mother who seems very wedded to social standings and expectations, shows a great deal of flexibility. Evelyn’s father’s assessment of the two men is harsh and arguably grounded to some degree in his insecurities. But he’s not completely wrong in his views as some of his predictions about how the men will fare in life play out inline with his forecasts. And it was due in part to his having experienced both ends of the spectrum, having raised himself from humble beginnings, and finding his fortune as a doctor.

It’s telling that despite their father’s success as a doctor, by their generation, Evelyn and Ruby no longer seem to be upper-middle-class. To be clear, they’re not poor but they don’t seem to have the equivalent luxuries in their lives that their parents obtained and provided for them. Life hasn’t quite worked out the way that they probably envisioned for themselves. Yet, despite maybe taking a few steps down the social ladder, Evelyn and Renard are still happily married and have figured out a way to provide themselves and their two daughters with comfortable lives.

Fast forward to 1986 and A Kind of Freedom shifts to Jackie, Evelyn and Renard’s second daughter and last child. Jackie is married but a single mother as a result of her husband, Terry, abandoning their family due to his drug addiction. Her only child, a son named “T.C”, is very young and beloved by Jackie’s parents and sister who pitch in to help out though Jackie mostly prefers to try to manage things on her own.

Jackie and Terry were high school sweethearts who went on to college and began young adulthood with bright futures. But difficulties finding work and trying to fit in threw their plans off track. Coupled with the stress of everyday life, Terrence experimented with and became addicted to drugs which further complicated their lives. She’s going through a rough time in her life and finds a great deal of joy in T.C. Yet, she’s heartbroken because this man that she has known, loved, and grown up with since they were teens has blown up his life for drugs. He’s not a bad guy, but he is an addict.

Sybil, Jackie’s older sister, decided to enroll in law school at 30-years-old and is now a rather successful lawyer. She now rubs shoulders with powerful people and can afford a fancy and expensive lifestyle. Sybil has earned her success but this is at a time when things aren’t going well for Jackie. Jackie graduated from college but settled into being a housewife after having difficulty finding a job. So initially, she’d achieved success in her personal life by being happily married to her high school sweetheart. At that time Sybil was working but didn’t have a career of any significance and was also unmarried with no children.

None of these situations are anything to be ashamed of but both dealt with insecurities that were in part a result of struggling in their lives while their sister was thriving. It doesn’t help that there is an ongoing sibling rivalry between the two where they say insensitive things and harbor negative feelings about each other. We get Evelyn’s perspective on her early experiences and exchanges with Sybil but it’s possible that she might have also been snide when things were looking up for her but not going too well for Sybil.

There’s a marked difference in the relationship between Evelyn and Ruby versus Jackie and Sybil. In their youth, Evelyn and Ruby were very different and while they were aware of each other’s flaws, they accepted and supported each other. That’s not to say they didn’t also butt heads or say mean things to each other. But rather that they were quicker to make amends. It’s quite different with Jackie and Sybil who seem to relish in the other sibling experiencing hardship and feel slighted by their success.

Having lost their home due to Terry’s drug addiction, Jackie is now living in the projects and dealing with everything that comes with that. She craves to return to the life she thought she’d secured for herself. And not just that but Jackie has loved Terry since they were kids. Jackie doesn’t hate Terry because she recognizes that he left because of his addiction and his addiction is an illness.

When Terry pops up wanting to come back home, Jackie takes pity on him and allows him to get off the streets and stay at her place while he gets himself together. Being quite vulnerable, Jackie is upset but has never stopped loving Terry. It’s not like their relationship fell apart because he was abusive, cheating, otherwise doing something to directly hurt Jackie. Struggling with addiction, he wasn’t healthy within himself so he couldn’t be healthy within the relationship. But the love wasn’t gone from either end of the relationship. There are hurts and disappointments but deep down inside Jackie still loves Terry or at least their history together. So it’s not quite so easy for her to walk away.

Through the three generations of this family, we see how the actions and circumstances of one generation carry over to and affect the lives of the generations that come after. Evelyn and Renard got together around the time of World War II before the major push of the Civil Rights Movement. And with that, there’s a discussion of the question of should Black people fight a war for a country that treats them as second-class citizens.

We then have the story of Jackie in the mid-1980s during what’s referred to as “the crack epidemic”. Through her eyes, we see the impact of drug addiction on both the user and their loved ones. Both she and Terry began their adult lives with so much promise but a lack of connections, racism, and a host of other factors blew them off course. And then we have Jackie’s son T.C. who also has a great deal of potential but his father’s drug addiction, his mother’s depression, lack of resources for college, and Hurricane Katrina upended his life plans.

These three stories serve as a summary of the generation of the Civil Rights Movement and how the promise of progress never became a reality for many Black people. We see how Evelyn and Renard have worked hard in hopes of having a better life for themselves and their children. Ultimately, Renard is unable to complete medical school but Jackie makes it through college and then experiences difficulties in finding a job. Terry finds a job but feels pressured to do things that aren’t in his best interest to keep the job.

They are the generation of integration and have the opportunity to more easily attend school and even graduate from college. But they then have to deal with the reality of being Black people in corporate America. In these environments, they’re still the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Jackie has a safety net in the form of Terry but when his addiction causes him to lose his job, that safety net goes away.

Having a family history of addiction in the form of alcoholism didn’t help matters and Terry collapsed under the pressure. He was having a hard time trying to fit in at work in an environment where he was sort of an outsider. Terry tried drugs in an attempt to fit in with his coworkers but with addiction running in his family he was tempting fate.

Imagine your parents are of the Civil Rights generation and have made all of these great sacrifices in hopes of a better future. But then feeling as though you’re failing and falling short of what they dreamed of and strived to obtain. You try to make their dreams of reaching the promised land a reality but when you get there it all turns out to be a mirage.

These new opportunities and possibilities in the bright future that were supposed to now be a reality haven’t been fully realized. It’s like almost dying and thinking the war is over and you’ve won only to realize that what you came through was just a battle and you’ll have to keep fighting until the end of your days. And now and then when it seems you’ve beaten the enemy of racism and prejudice back, the rules will change and the ground will slip out from under you.

This brings us to the last and most recent generation, T.C. who we first meet shortly after he has been released from prison. Honestly, this was probably my least favorite part of A Kind of Freedom because it covers mass incarceration in a way that I’ve seen and read countless times. Unlike Evelyn and Jackie, we get more insight into T.C. because the circumstances of his life are also told in part through Jackie’s experience with Terry. For the most part T.C. has the support of his mother and her family but is missing his father’s presence and guidance in his life. I found myself shaking my head at some of the choices he makes knowing that they won’t work out well for him in the long term.

I enjoyed A Kind of Freedom but it felt a little bit too short and while the stories were mostly tied up at the end it still felt a bit abrupt. I wanted to know and understand more about things that happened along the way. You get some insight into the three main characters, their lives, and what they’re up to during the time of the book. Because it’s a rather short book you don’t get much in the way of backstory. And I don’t exactly need a happy ending but it felt like Jackie and T.C. evolved throughout their stories only to then regress. But then again, maybe that’s the point to show these characters striving and pushing but then getting knocked down by life.

With regards to A Kind of Freedom feeling short and me wanting more, maybe that was a good thing. When you read some books, and they’re not very good, it can feel like the book is dragging on and it can become a burden to read. But with this book, I enjoyed the writing style and got into the characters, even though I didn’t necessarily like all of them. I don’t think I have a favorite character or at least I didn’t like one character more than the others. Yet, I liked how they all came together in this story.

A Kind of Freedom is worth reading and it falls into that section of fiction that draws on real issues, situations, and periods from the Black experience. It uses these fictional characters and representational situations to spark discussion. This was my first time reading a book from this author but I have another one of her books on my reading list. I enjoyed her writing style and the way that she describes things in a fresh and lively way. This isn’t one of those books where you have to wade through multiple chapters to get into the story as you’re pulled in right from the beginning.

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