Red at the Bone By Jacqueline Woodson
Reviewed by LaToya Council
Ever masterful, Jacqueline Woodson gifts to the literary community another account of Black life that can be read through the lens of Black feminist traditions and thought. In the 208 pages of Red at the Bone, she shows readers how multiple family, personal, and societal histories inform present and future lives and outcomes.
The novel begins with sixteen-year-old Melody and her family at her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Melody is in her room preparing for her cotillion—a celebration that welcomes young girls from upper-middle-class and elite backgrounds into womanhood. A few minutes later, she stands at the top of the stairs, waiting to descend into the living room, reflecting on an earlier conversation she had with her mother, Iris. During the conversation, Melody learns that, if Iris had revealed a month or so earlier that she was pregnant, Melody would not have been born, which would have unknowingly altered the lessons about family history, race, class, gender, and choices readers are able to learn.
Although Red at the Bone holds within its pages many starting points and layers of complexity, the ceremony for Melody and the individual musings of her grandparents and parents regarding their memories teaches readers how much our past informs our present and the choices we believe we have access to. As Melody descends the staircase to join her family in the living room, Woodson pauses the ceremony to introduce readers to her parents and grandparents, and to tell their personal stories as to how they came to be in that moment—celebrating her. Melody, simply, is a symbolic representation of her parents, who are two individuals from different class backgrounds and who became parents as teenagers—binding two families, showing the uniqueness and complexity of Black family life and the not-soclear- cut class boundaries between middle- and working-class Blacks. Thinking about how best to summarize and review Red at the Bone, I am choosing to highlight two among many critical lessons the book offers readers: the importance of family history and historical context in shaping individual lives, and the “greyness” of choice as it relates to Black womanhood.
Drawing on Black feminist traditions and thought, historical context tends to be a lens utilized to theorize about the individual and collective Black experience, particularly when discussing Black folks and family patterns. In simple terms, Black families cannot be analyzed without the inclusion of the historical context shaping their experiences, because historical context tends to illuminate some of the present reality for many Black people. Readers learn, for example, that fire and gold are historical influencers shaping the lives of the book’s characters. Readers are told a story of Black life during Jim Crow and the domestic terrorism inflicted on Black communities by white supremacists. Although this story is not a main theme of the book, the reference to fire, gold, and the historical family account illuminates resiliency among Black families when faced with structural violence and strains. Iris’s mother’s family could have given up when domestic terrorists destroyed their community, but their ancestors stated, “You rise. You rise. You rise.”
The idea of rising and its relation to Black families’ historical context is displayed throughout the novel. Rising during and after violent encounters with entities and systems in place that tend to constrain Black Americans reveals how embedded the legacy of resistance is within the Black community. Without her realizing it, this historical legacy impacted Iris as she navigated identity from teenage years to adulthood. Although the challenges that she and her mother faced were different from those of their ancestors, they were able to tap into a legacy of rising against adversity.
As her eyes burned in the dim light of the reading lamp,” Woodson writes, “she knew it was her mother and her mother’s mother and on back to something that couldn’t be broken that was driving her. The story of her life had already been written. Baby or no baby.” A second lesson on historical context that Red at the Bone offers readers is the intentional and not-sointentional perpetuation of class and race inequality. A common question I receive when teaching undergraduate students is, “Why do people who live in poverty lack the will to strive to do better?” After cringing and holding my breath, I answer the question with the comment, “That is the wrong question to ask.” Instead of focusing so much on an individual’s actions, I challenge my students to think about income inequality and its connection to inadequate resources, which disproportionately impacts communities of color— emphasis on Black communities. Red at the Bone captures the complexities of being a Black family from a particular class; as Woodson says, “One day chicken, next day bone.”
The emphasis on race and class and their intersection with historical context is beautifully captured with Aubrey, Melody’s father. One way in which Aubrey comes to understand the differences between his class background and his daughter and her family’s class background is through his hands. He struggles, for instance, with placing his hands properly for the cotillion ceremony. Readers also learn that he comes to recognize that the texture of his hands is different from his daughter ’s family’s—being that his hands are used to hard physical labor working-class individuals are known to participate in:
His mother’s hands had been calloused, but he never knew why ... But the first time he shook Sabe’s and Po’Boy’s hands, he was surprised. He had thought all grown-ups had rough and calloused hands. And now his own hand inside his daughter’s felt the way his mother ’s had … He wanted Melody to never have hands like his mother ’s. And maybe that was what being not poor was.
Aubrey’s hands are like his mother’s, he realizes, and thus the old question of “doing better” is addressed in Red at the Bone. Through this example, we see that the impact of income inequality combined with race inequality and combined with family history connects and informs individual experiences and outcomes from youth to adulthood.
Choices, family history, and Black womanhood are complex ideas, often tasks taken up by Black women literary and humanities scholars and social scientists. Woodson continues this tradition in Red at the Bone, as well as providing readers a lens to interrogate the “grayness” of choices as it relates to Black womanhood. Iris engages with choices in her youth, as a teenage mother. Readers learn that she plans to attend college, and with the resources afforded her due to her upper-middle-class background, that is attainable. Iris’s choice and ability to act on her decision speak to her class privilege. They also challenge normative beliefs regarding motherhood and family commitment.
Iris’s choice illuminates the uniqueness of Black motherhood and Black community care. The choice to attend college away from home—the empowered decision to choose self over family and community, an option not always available to many Black women—can be viewed as selfish. Iris’s making this choice is why Red at the Bone is a special novel. I interpret it as a form of sacrifice some Black mothers can make to ensure the well-being of their children and community. Yes, Iris could have attended a school that was much closer to home, but perhaps at the cost of offering her child the best resources she herself was afforded as a child. Further, the option to attend college away from family illuminates the importance of community care work in the Black community. That is, Iris’s choice emphasizes the integral role of “othermothers,” “community mothers,” and kinship ties and networks among many Black Americans.
Red at the Bone is a novel packed with layers, and adds to the canon of literature that highlights an accurate account of Black family life. If I had to summarize it in a few words, I would say it is a literary representation of Black feminist traditions and thought. Woodson marks the personal as political by showing how manifold girlhood, womanhood, sexuality, and motherhood are for Black women. These beautiful pages illuminate how race and class are experienced in gendered, patterned ways for Black women and men. In short, Woodson produces knowledge about Black Americans that pays homage to family history, historical context, and intersectionality—forms of analyses that mark a writer worthy of Black feminist theorizing.
If Red at the Bone had centered on a Black man’s narrative, I don’t think I would have battled with it as much. If I only had Aubrey’s story to lean on, and if he made the choice that Iris made, I don’t think I would have been as critical or surprised. Fathers are often given room regarding parental participation as it relates to their own education and career success—an inequality to which I, too, can fall victim. In short, I wouldn’t have had as a hard a time understanding Aubrey’s choice to leave his child for college. Conjuring these complicated emotions makes the book beautiful. It challenges readers to not view Black women through a one-dimensional lens particularly, as well as the larger Black community broadly. I appreciate Woodson for taking me on an intellectually stimulating journey of highs and lows.
In an April 2019 O interview, Woodson commented to Leigh Haber that “novels tend to find the people who need them.” She is right. Novels such as this tend to find the people who need them, and I am one of those people. Red at the Bone challenged me to reflect on my personal history. I saw my family in those pages. I saw the challenges of being a Black girl growing up in America, where I am constantly trying to overcome family circumstance and understand more of who I am.
A novel told in the traditions of Black feminism incorporates the historical, so we can properly inform, complicate, and challenge conditions within a political moment. Marking the personal as political relies on historical accounts. Such accounts inform the choices we make; they shape who we are—and perhaps where we are going.
LaToya Council is the author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All. A social justice activist and an academic scholar, she is currently working on her dissertation Her Work, His Work: Time and Self-Care in Black Middle-Class Couples at the University of Southern California.