The Good Negress: A Novelby A. J. Verdelle
Twenty years after its initial publication, The Good Negress continues to be an important part of the literary canon, as relevant and necessary as ever. Set in 1960s Detroit,/i>/b>/i>/i>
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“Haunting . . . To read The Good Negress is to fall under a spell, to open a window, to fly.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
Twenty years after its initial publication, The Good Negress continues to be an important part of the literary canon, as relevant and necessary as ever. Set in 1960s Detroit, the novel centers around Denise Palms, who leaves her grandmother’s home in rural Virginia to reunite with her mother, stepfather, and older brothers. As a black teenage girl, Denise is given scarce opportunity beyond cooking, cleaning, and raising her mother’s baby. But an idealistic, demanding teacher opens Denise’s eyes to a future she has never considered, and soon she begins to question the limits of the life prescribed to her.
With lyrical, evocative prose, A. J. Verdelle captures Denise’s journey from adolescence to womanhood as she navigates the tension between loyalty and independence, and between circumstance and desire. The Good Negress is an unforgettable debut—simultaneously the portrait of a family and a glimpse into an era of twentieth-century America.
Winner of the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the
American Academy of Arts and Letters
Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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- 4 MB
Read an Excerpt
This Rain Coming
I knew I was sleepin too long. And as I have come to know myself, I think I felt her leavin, the door closin behind the belly at the end of my rope. When I did finally shake myself awake, I was at Granma'am's house. I got out of bed, tiptoed down the hall, and peered around the door frame into the quiet front room. Nobody there, or in the front yard. I walked back toward the kitchen, and, there at the line where the floor planks got wider, I had to stop and take a look: one boiled egg, bacon, and glass of brown juice, all sittin so orderly in one place on the table. I dragged a chair over to the open window and climbed up on it. I hung my neck through the window and looked out to the backyard. Granma'am was outside in the bleachin sun, bent over, pullin tomatoes off the vines.
I stretched farther out the window to see where Mama stood. She would be standin more in the shade, havin conversation. Or maybe foldin clothes she was takin off the line. I reached farther out to see her feet underneath the long white sheets. No feet. Granma'am must have heard my elbow slip. She turned as if I called. "Well, good mornin, sleepyhead," she said, and she was inside, the screen door slappin, before I got down off the chair.
"Hi, Granma'am. Where's Mama?" I answered.
Granma'am had red and green and yellow-orange tomatoes stretched out in a dip in her upturned housedress. "Well, hi is you, Baby Sister? You ready for some breakfast?" She has turned her back to me before I can nod my head. One at the time, she lays the tomatoes on the wood board by the sink. Then she brushes off her dress front with her hand and goes over to the big blackVulcan stove that anchored the kitchen's back wall. Her cotton stockings were thick, and she had them rolled down below her knees. There was a bulge on each right side, a knot she had twisted to hold her leggings up.
"Sit down to the table, Baby Sister." My place at the table was set directly across from the stove. In time, from that place, and that kitchen, I will know all the Vulcans dents and injuries. I will cause some more.
Granma'am lifted warm bread across the table and onto the white plate with the yellow-green flowers round the edges. She pushed the plate closer to the egg. And then, in one of the wide chairs with beige and brown flecked vinyl seats and backs, the one to my right, Granma'am sat down. "Say your blessin, and have your breakfast, Baby Sister." Her hand stretched out and pressed down my hair where sleep had rumpled the edges up. That was the end of the sentence.
"Where's Mama?" I was screaming; my voice was quavery, wild, quick. I jumped up. The chair legs scraped against the kitchen floor. I stood as tall as I could on the floor. I looked directly at a face and mouth that did not move, eyes that looked surprised but ready too, somehow. The whole situation answered, with a shudder and a sucking sound: she's gone.
I tore away. from the table, my arms heavy like they was wet and wrung out. They swung very late behind my hurly-burly hurt. I upset the neat breakfast place with my wet rags for arms. Off the plate and the table went the swiped boiled egg, it landed in the chair, it rolled off onto the floor. The shell crumpled at the compact hit, and the egg rested there, displaced and on its side. The cracked pieces of shell hung together; it was that tough-but-thin inside skin. One boiled breakfast egg, preserved through the fall.
I ran out to the front yard again, in just what I had slept in and in my bare feet. I wrapped my fingers around two of the boards on the gate. I looked in one direction down the what-they-called road. I didn't recognize the place or its colors. It had no blocks or comers or streets, no other two-families with shutters. No traffic lights, no pavement. No Detroit. Disbelief is an emotion, you know. Like an ocean and its major pulse, it can overtake you. it can blind your eyes and block your ear canals. It can knock you to a depth.
Both my hopefulness and my faith in my mother went flat. I felt so completely betrayed.
After many choked breaths, I collapsed at the gate. Left by Mama second and by Daddy first, now I was sent away. My behind on the dirt was naked, and the soil wasn't dry or rich. It wasn't grainy or rocky under my skin. It wasn't cold, but grass wasn't growin. It was in between everything, thats how ordinary it was. Ordinary, just ordinary dirt.
When I finally started to see again I noticed that the dirt in the yard had been raked. Overtop of the lines of rake teeth were two crazy curvy paths. My dashing feet -- yesterday in shoes and today without. Down the middle of all that dashing hurly-girly were two other lines. The little small ovals of my mother's high heels. I stayed there and looked hard a while, my mouth hanging open, my tongue drying off.
I had this tantrum at Granma'am's front gate, where I had run to to look for my mother. This was my down home coming-out scene, a slow motion moment when I got left where Mama grew up, in history. This was when the years started to yawn. I opened my mouth wide, and I roared. Anybody could hear knew I was there. I stomped, and I wailed. Some people walked by, nobody I knew, and since I wasn't seeing so well at that moment, it all went by me, their slowing and staring and shared looks with my granma'am.
Meet the Author
A.J. Verdelle was born and raised in Washington, D.C., graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in political science, and went on for two postgraduate degrees in statistics and writing. She is founder and owner of Applied Statistics and Research, a consulting company in New York.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The Good Negress is a classic in the tradition of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, The Color Purple and The Bluest Eye. Through the eyes of Neesy, the main charactor, the author provides a keen insight into the down-home life of a young lady raised in the loving bosom of the south, and her attempts to aclimate herself to both a strange yet familiar city and family. All of the charactors are real; the grandmother who is loving, wise, and life-smart as opposed to book-smart; the beloved, handsome and 'no-good' brother, the older, hardworking, reliable yet boring brother, the formerly glamourous mother, the stepfather who is kind but cannot take the place of Neesy's real father . . . the list of charactors goes on and on, and each one is so real, so accurately represented that the reader feels as if these are people that we know, perhaps from our childhood. As Denise begins her transformation from a shy, countrified, child whose interests are too big for her home town, into a woman who's quest for knowledge and information drives her to study day and night, and as she struggles to keep her family together and her past alive through images and rememberances of her father, the reader is taken on a ride that most will be loath to end. As someone who reads a lot of current so-called 'African American' fiction, I can tell you quite honestly that buying and reading this book was like walking into a restaurant on a hunch, and finding out that it has the best food in the city. It was fulfilling, delicious, and money well spent.
Denise Palma is a young woman who must help her mother prepare for a baby. The family is poor and Denise will have to forego her after school lessons with her teacher who recognizes Denise's budding abilities and intelligence. This is a contemporary tale, a coming of age story about a young woman who struggles to rise above the dire circumstances of her life and reach out for a better future. The author tells the story through flashbacks, going back and forth through time. Although I felt this made the story a little disjointed and a bit rough to read, there is much poignancy and fodder for thought. The characters are wonderfully real with their own flaws and strength. Overall, a very passionate tale.
A.J. Verdelle tells the compelling story of a young girl who is destined to become a working class drudge just like her mother until the intervention of an uncompromising educator who recognizes her brilliance. Miss Pearson inspires Denise to shrug off her country ways and don the mantle of the educated, but the task is not completed before an addition to the family threatens Denise¿s further education. The Good Negress is an earthy coming of age story whose realism took me back to some of my grandmother¿s favorite sayings and doings. The only disappointment was the disjointed flashbacks which make the story choppy at times. Still, the language is lyrical and the characters amazingly drawn.
THE GOOD NEGRESS would have gotten a higher rating from me if it didn't shift so much in time frames. First she's in the country, then she's in the city, then she thinks about the time that something happened in the country that was relevent to the present, and the story takes us back there, then stays. Then, we are back in the present, without so much as an acknowledgment of the transition. WHEW!! Still, this coming of age story was pretty good. It felt like more of a filler during my downtime, but had enough to keep me interested.