Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #40: Redemption Song by Bertice Berry

RedemptionSong-BerticeBerryFor as long as I can remember loving to read, I’ve had an affinity for black fiction. It might’ve been rebelling against my dad’s bigoted ways when I was growing up (I’m white, just so’s you know) or my third grade teacher reading every chapter of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to us and me absolutely falling in love with it to the point where it’s still in my Top 10 list of favorite books. It could also be that as a fat kid growing up, I identified in a very visceral way the harshness of being judged solely by the way I looked. No, I’ve never been a slave. But I also didn’t have my parents taken away from me by an evil wizard when I was a baby. Yet I can still empathize with Harry Potter and the loneliness he felt and the choices he faced between being a good and a bad person. You don’t have to go through exactly what someone has gone through to empathize. Though it definitely does help to have gone through your own adversity.

For a relatively short read (178 pages) Redemption Song packed an emotional wallop. It tells the story of adversity: it is written partly in first person by a black slave woman named Iona who has many special gifts (talking to the stars, medicine, cooking, future sight) including the ability to spontaneously write without ever having been taught. She tells her own story, that of her and her love Joe, through the book Children of Grace. The other part of the book is Miss Cozy, the bookshop owner who brings together Fina and Ross. Ross and Fina originally show up at Black Images bookstore (which, incidentally, is a real bookstore in Texas that I now so want to go to someday) to buy the book but Miss Cozy ain’t selling. She, too, has the gift of future sight as well as reading people’s mind’s. She knows she’s supposed to bring these two present day people together via Children of Grace for a very special reason.

I loved all the characters and found myself wishing I could be their friend, the way I usually wind up doing when I read a book I love. I especially loved the element of Fina and how she liked to wear her boyfriend’s shirts. There’s something so sexy about a woman wearing a men’s button down dress shirt. That aspect is woven into the story in surprising ways and I appreciated the hell out of it.

However, there were some places where it seemed like they wouldn’t want to be my friend because I was white. That felt unfair and like reverse racism, but then I had to remind myself a) before I get my knickers in a twist, I was reading a book not dealing with real people, and b) the character were reflective of real people who had gone through a lot at the hands of some very specific people. Very specific people who look like me. If I’d been put down, enslaved, and brutalized only by a certain race of people, I might develop an understandable aversion to them, as well. However, passages like:

From Manny he learned that the most radical thing that he or any other black man could do was to love a black woman, to care for her and restore her to her rightful position in life. To erase the psychological scars of abuse left by slavery, to tenderly wipe away the disappointment from men who said that they’d be there but couldn’t. Black men needed to love black women and their children and raise strong families.

and:

“Yeah, but give a black man a Brooks Brothers suit and a white woman and he will sell his mama,” Fina commented angrily.

“Alright, Ms. Ndegeocello!” Ross said, referring to the singer Fina had quoted.

were hard to take, especially being a woman who married a mixed race man. He’s told me some of the struggle he’s gone through, and it just reaffirms to me that we need to look at each other as people. Not black, white, yellow, pink, grey, whatever….but people. Thankfully, the book does touch on the sad fact that black is not always synonymous with good and white does not always mean evil. It talked about the black folks who turned against their own by selling fellow men into slavery and snitching on people who were trying to escape and also of the white people who helped fight to end slavery and in general treat people like people. And by the end of the book, Iona says as much and instructs her readers that Everybody who looks like you is not on your side. And everybody who don’t is not against you.” Ross and Fina admit this is hard, but are willing to take on the misson that Iona gives them: Learn to love, strive to love, cause we ain’t got time for nothing else.

That love emanates from this book, which was awesome. It’s a love story that spans decades, challenges both the reader and the characters, and teaches us ways to love and open up in the process.

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