“Nobody could tell me that today wasn’t gon’ be my day. Even though I couldn’t determine the correct term of equality in math, shanked the nearly airless volleyball in PE, and truly didn’t care to discuss the effect of the Civil War in social studies. I was unshook, ‘cause today my girls finally agreed to hang out with me–at my house!” –opening lines of Alicia D. Williams Genesis Begins Again.
Atheneum, 2019. Hardcover, 384 pages. Middle grade fiction.
This deeply sensitive and powerful debut novel tells the story of a thirteen-year-old who must overcome internalized racism and a verbally abusive family to finally learn to love herself.
There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant—even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see.–publisher’s copy.
In what reads like new beginnings, her father’s latest failure to pay the rent moves them out of Detroit and into white wealthy suburbia. Genesis’ father has an opportunity for a promotion and her mother is revisiting her own prospects. A work contact agreed to rent them a big house with a yard and a washer/dryer that is within walking distance to a new school for Genesis. It’s at Farmington Oaks Middle where Genesis will finally make friends, decide what she wants for herself, and meet the pivotal chorus teacher Mrs. Hill.
But the move is hardly a fresh start because there is no leaving everything behind. Moving to the neighborhood didn’t cure her father’s alcoholism; it didn’t solve familial instabilities; it didn’t lighten Genesis’ skin.
The darkness of her skin makes Genesis a target of name-calling and painful stereotypes. And when her own kin tells Genesis that the blackness of her skin will make it harder for her, they aren’t thinking that they, too, are contributing to her suffering, that they are also asking her to be twice as good as everyone else in order to prove herself.
There are interactions with her father and grandmother that are excruciating. I was breathless as her maternal grandmother finished the family history; and that exchange the following day… [and what Genesis feels she must do in the meanwhile.] It’s a scene that will and won’t surprise as Williams is damn good in her characterizations, their back stories and their growth progressions. Similar is that confrontation with her father nearing the end of the novel; Williams prepares you for it, but there is only so much a writer can do with that trajectory but allow that level of heartbreak and hope their own compassion for their characters inspires likewise from the reader.
The least expected confrontation between Genesis and her kin is with her mother. Her mother Sharon wants to talk to her about her mother and color. It’s a moment where you feel them being drawn together by experiences that read like a revelation; and yet the hard truth Genesis’ realization has to follow.
“The brown bag is…such an old way of thinking. A wrong way of thinking. I know it’s history, and I really am ashamed it’s our history, but you can’t believe in that. You just can’t.”
Yet, and yet, Mama’s always complaining about doing my hair, calling it “that head” or “tangly mess.” She believes it at least a little. It peeks out when she describes someone dark complexioned and adds: “But he or she’s still good looking.” Mama may not mean it; in fact, I know she doesn’t, but it’s there, under the surface” (212-3).
Genesis isn’t the only one to have internalized racism.
And Sharon may have hoped her husband Emory would treat his own child differently than how he had been treated, but the wounds are deep ones. And Genesis may have hoped that love and relationship would override the death-dealing logic of her grandmother’s traditions, but the hold is deeply rooted, reinforced in the present tense as it had been way back when: by white supremacy. And we see, in the novel, a family struggling to acknowledge the trauma without enabling or excusing its harmful consequences.
“Don’t look at me like that! All they ever teach during Black History Month is Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. Anybody else, then you’re on your own” (99).
The past impacts the present and ignoring it only creates confusion–and it disempowers the youth in the novel. At every withholding you observe a character at a loss and after a story is told you see them gain advantages. Genesis is able to (incrementally) be a better friend to Sophia when she learns Sophia’s story of OCD and bullying (as learned incrementally). One of the few other students of color in her school, Troy, tells Genesis that his parents required him to read two texts early on [The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois and The Autobiography of Malcolm X] and he is able to draw wisdom and strength from those narratives. Mrs. Hill shares Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald with Genesis–women to identify with and draw inspiration and solace from; fuel for her own voice. Genesis discovers Etta James, and it helps inform her of bother herself and her father (who mysteriously hums an Etta James song). It’s Mrs. Hill who not only encourages Genesis to find her voice, but she inspires her to learn the stories, to consider how life and legacy inform how a song is heard and performed; how internalization finds expression.
These must be all those old singers and musicians that Mrs. Hill identifies us as. Like when she said I was a Billie Holiday, it was a good thing. Billie Holiday opened my ears and showed me that there’s a way to ooze out pain. Even though she didn’t peg me as Ella Fitzgerald, Ella reminded me to bring out the positive amid the hurt. But now I search on my own, not sure what I need. […] It’s another song about a broken heart, but the way she sings it, man…I feel it deep in my belly. I finally found it–then I think with a laugh, no, Etta James found me. (314-5, emphasis mine)
I recall every bad memory, every negative word, because when I sing, I’m gonna conjure the loneliness of Billie Holiday, the joy of Ella Fitzgerald, the soul and longing of Etta James. I’ll sing for every girl who feels like…feels like me.” (347)
Genesis gets curious and begins to seek her own stories. Did she have a powerful slave narrative, a spiritual passed down through the generations like Mrs. Hill? Her father Emory, who is quick with history, hides his own personal stories, but it is Emory sharing his story that allows Genesis to gain a healthier perspective. Her grandmother’s story brings certain modes of thinking into the light, to be interrogated, and exposed. Her mother brings a new intimacy that Genesis needs–she’s so isolated and vulnerable with it.
Genesis’ struggle with her blackness will mean self-harm and I don’t mean just negative-self-talk. There is that and it is a violence unto its own, but the lengths Genesis will go to be lighter become increasingly more physically violent–and yes, I think the whitening cream is an act of physical violence on par (if not worse) than an industrial strength scouring pad. You begin to mark the patterns, the relationships between the trigger and response; cause and effect.
Any praise for the novel that marvels at how Williams brings about her protagonist’s shift out of Genesis’ own depth is a sentiment I echo. Not one character is responsible for Genesis’ shift toward positive self-acceptance, but multiple characters do contribute–and not always through positive means. You see this dynamic working in other characters as well–them coming to their own decision about themselves (Sophia, Troy, Nia, Sharon). Like her medley, Genesis draws on her influences, both historical and present. She wasn’t seeking to be lighter skinned because she’d given up on herself, it was because she want to become someone. As Troy suggests, the image she’d set out for herself (set out for her) was wrong-headed. So all that energy, that longing and determination is redirected.
Genesis Begins Again is not left with a pat ending. There’s still work. Like the talent show trophy winner, she has to keep showing up. This next time may be a new iteration, a truer performance. No, the ending is a beginning, again. Another eviction, of maybe another sort, is going to occur and like before, some things will come along with the next beginning, but some things/people/places are going to be left in the past. The past may inform the present, but it can be left where it belongs.
A few notes:
…I was (and still am) deeply affected by Genesis’ pleas to God, her sensation of punishment meted, and the religious aspect to her grandmother. It’s a dimension that can’t go without saying and attending to. I haven’t the words and I know I’d go to much greater length of writing on it when they’re found.
…I am also appreciative of the complicated narrative surrounding Sharon’s choices; of her heart and mind; of her search for a way forward, not only for her daughter’s sake, but for her own; that she models a journey, not an arrival….
…I didn’t speak about the navigating middle-school and friendships; the discovery of a capable mind, of being a good friend, of (re)creation. Williams writes a solid, top-notch middle-grade novel surrounding these popular genre themes. Sophie and Troy, and Nia are marvelous…as is Mrs. Hill.
Recommended for all the libraries and book clubs; and not just for Black History Month reading lists. If you read award-winners, this one will be up for significant medals–go ahead and get a head start.
I highly recommend finding some Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and Miles Davis records to play. Take reading inspiration, too, from books mentioned in the novel: York; Out of My Mind; Bud, Not Buddy; As Brave As You; Brown Girl Dreaming; The Jumbies…
I read this in proximity to Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance, and I highly recommend doing the same.
Alicia Williams is a graduate of the MFA program at Hamline University. An oral storyteller in the African-American tradition, she is also a kindergarten teacher who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Genesis Begins Again is her debut novel.