Friday, May 28, 2010

Where I Must Go by Angela Jackson

Where I Must Go: A Novel (Triquarterly Books)
Where I Must Go
Angela Jackson
Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press (2009)

I started at Northwestern University in the fall of 1971. I was not yet 18, and although I was looking forward to the challenge, I remember being bewildered. I lived in a triple in Latham House, a dilapidated residence on Clark Street in Evanston that once housed George McGovern. (Not long after I moved into my fraternity house the following year, the building was torn down by the university. It's now the parking lot of the Burger King.) The roommates, also freshmen, were fine, but a few of the other residents--I'm not sure how to put this--were way outside my comfort zone. I don't remember much about them except for the morning I left my room to go to the bathroom down the hall to find two naked people--one a woman, and it wasn't a co-ed dorm--sitting on the floor in the hallway talking on the phone. My phone.

But my experience was nothing like that of Magdalena Grace, the protagonist and narrator of Angela Jackson's Where I Must Go, who arrives at Eden University (which is clearly Northwestern, where Jackson also went to school) from the South Side of Chicago (although not so identified in the novel--it's merely called "the City"), just a few years earlier. It's 1967, and Maggie Grace is the same age I was as a freshman. But Maggie is black, and that makes a big difference. At least it certainly did back then.

In my high school, there were few blacks. I just looked at the yearbook from my senior year and I see six black faces out of a graduating class of over 500. At Northwestern, I remember few blacks. We had none in my fraternity. I knew none socially or in my classes. The blacks on campus, as I recall, pretty much stuck to themselves, and, I suppose, the rest of us also pretty much stuck to ourselves.

It was at the end of anti-war activism, although Northwestern never did see the disruption that many other campuses saw. During my freshman year, I remember one large demonstration that shut down Sheridan Road (the major North-South artery that bisects Northwestern's Evanston campus), but that seemed to me, as a clueless freshman, to be as much a celebration of spring as it was an outpouring of anger over an unjust war. In terms of race relations, though, I don't remember any problems, except for one case, a minor clash between two dorm residents, that came before the campus judicial board, of which I was a member. Even that seemed quiet. The school wasn't segregated, exactly, but there sure wasn't much mixing.

So, because I was basically THERE, in the time and place of the novel, I found it especially disturbing. Not because I doubt a single word Jackson is saying, but because I believe EVERY word she's saying. The book is fiction, of course, and so I don't know how much of the plot is based on events that actually happened. But the plot is almost beside the point, at least for me. The book tells a good story, and at times it's even exciting and suspenseful, but it's really about the environment and the times, and that part of it was TRUE, even if I didn't recognize it back then.

So, Maggie Grace arrives on campus and gravitates naturally toward the other black students, in part because the white students aren't exactly welcoming. There are clashes with the white students and administration, and eventually the tensions come to a head--a demonstration that promises to get very ugly. Meanwhile, Maggie has issues at home, and back in Mississippi where her family is from originally, and there are various other conflicts between Maggie and her roommates, Essie and Leona, and the other students at "Blood Island"--essentially a university-owned house where the school's black students hang out.

Maggie lives in a dorm I recognize. She goes to classes in buildings I recognize. She walks streets I recognize. And yet this isn't an experience I recognize at all. Which I find embarrassing, because it was happening before my eyes. The white students in the book are bigots -- there are few or no exceptions, ultimately. And I suspect that's the way it really did feel back then to students like Maggie. Of course it wasn't everyone. But it might as well have been. I know I didn't do anything to make it better. Hell, I didn't know it was happening because my eyes weren't open. A book like this can open your eyes.

Jackson is a poet, and the language of the book illustrates this. Open to any page: "Trains then were the veins and arteries of the nation, not the free-floating circulatory system of the sky, and dapper men of color with quick, quiet tread skimmed the railed ropes to the heart of the country, which was this City by the lake where the Hawk that did not then have a name blew and tore the skin off people and the hordes of farm beasts routed there for dying." The novel is worth the read for the language alone, but there's a lot more to it than that.

And, as an aside, it's published by Northwestern University Press. Below is a video of Jackson returning to Northwestern for a reading from the novel.

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