Where I Must Go

Where I Must Go

by Angela Jackson

Lyrical, penetrating, and highly charged, this novel displays a delicately tuned sense of difference and belonging. Poet Angela Jackson brings her superb sense of language and of human possibility to the story of young Magdalena Grace, whose narration takes readers through both privilege and privation at the time of the American civil rights movement.

The novel

…  See more details below


Lyrical, penetrating, and highly charged, this novel displays a delicately tuned sense of difference and belonging. Poet Angela Jackson brings her superb sense of language and of human possibility to the story of young Magdalena Grace, whose narration takes readers through both privilege and privation at the time of the American civil rights movement.

The novel moves from the privileged yet racially exclusive atmosphere of the fictional Eden University to the black neighborhoods of a Midwestern city and to ancestral Mississippi. Magdalena’s story includes a wide range of characters—black and white, male and female, favored with opportunity or denied it, the young in love and elders wise with hope. With and through each other, they struggle to understand the history they are living and making. With dazzling perceptiveness, Jackson’s narrator Magdalena tells of the complex interactions of people around her who embody the personal and the political at a crucial moment in their own lives and in the making of America.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Poet and playwright Jackson traverses the freshman year of protagonist Magdalena Grace, revealing the indignities that Maggie and her friends and family endure during the civil rights era. The loosely plotted narrative follows 17-year-old Maggie to Eden University in September 1967, where she is one of a few African-Americans on campus along with roommates Essie Witherspoon and Leona Pryor. Jackson portrays their youthful uncertainties, their desire to fight discrimination and their hesitancy about the future. In a series of vignettes, Maggie dips into black high culture, is a shaken observer to sudden violence, faces overt racism, is beset with family problems, learns the power of sexual attraction and, eventually, helps her friends mount a potentially dangerous protest. Overwritten and suffering from too large a cast of characters, the dazzling turns of phrase do not make up for a lack of cohesiveness. Admirers of Jackson will enjoy the poems that are sprinkled throughout the novel, but its sheer talkiness is a disappointment. (Sept.)

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Where I Must Go

Copyright © 2009

Angela Jackson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5185-7

Chapter One Eden Bound

Now my father picks up the heaviest suitcase and takes it to his car. He is humming under his breath. His eyes distracted with some private dream. I carry the next suitcase and my mother takes the hair dryer and typewriter and places them in the backseat, where I will sit. She is efficient and nervous. Something in her twittering. Checking everything twice. My way is hers, so I take the letter from the Eden University Student Housing Office and read it again, even though I could probably recite it by now. The letter said incoming freshmen (that's me!) must arrive at their residential halls by 9:00 p.m., Sunday, September -, 1967. The brochure "Your College Room and You" that had come with the summons had thrilled me as I lay across my parents' bed and read it three times back-to-back. It was paradise Eden University promised. There was a bed up there for me and me alone. A dresser and a desk. No more homework on the kitchen or dining room table. No more drawing in the bathroom with a brother or sister banging at the door. No more mile-long treks to the library in the corpse-cold dead of winter. Eden University beckoned warmly, and I scrambled toward it. I do not want to be late for the heaven of home away from home.

Last year my brother Lazarus, who used to be Littleson, got in trouble just by running home at dusk. Two policemen, one White, one Negro, stopped him in his fast gait. They said, "Hey, you," and "Over to the squad car."

After they beat him, they put him in the lockup. He made one phone call. Mama put on her heels and stomped down to the police station. Madaddy left the three-to-eleven shift to get his second son out of jail.

At the station house Lazarus wanted to meet the Negro policeman outside, but Mama said no. When they all got home, a window broke from the inside. No one had laid a hand on it. Screaming pummeled the walls.

"But I wasn't doing nothing," Lazarus hollered till veins big as cobras trembled in his neck and temples.

"What you want me to do?" Lazarus hollered at Mama and Madaddy, who were harsh and upset because he 'd gotten into trouble and almost stayed there, beyond the wringing of hands. "You want me to let him beat me to death?" Lazarus's outrage hammered in my chest so hard I could hardly breathe. I wanted to scream with him. "I can't let nobody kill me, Mama. I'm a man." Lazarus is a man.

"I didn't say, 'Let somebody kill you,' Lazarus." Mama fidgeted guiltily and soothed conciliatorily. "Just calm down."

"Shut up," Madaddy hollered at Lazarus. "I had to take off work for this mess."

"Just be quiet now, Lazarus," Mama urged.

"If I'd let that policeman beat on me and keep kicking me I'd be quiet all right."

"If you'd a been on time for work you wouldna been runnin late and you wouldna been running and you never woulda been in trouble." Madaddy heaved the judgment across two rooms. That was it. Lazarus should have known to stay out of trouble. It was all his fault. He should have known. We all should have known. We 'd seen trouble coming. Our father tried to tell us with his harsh protection and fierce law that trouble was coming to us the day we were born. Like a fist directed at a dark face, you know it's coming so you damn well better duck.

Every traveler knows that a part of you goes even before the body follows. Some quick, breathless piece of the soul dances down the road before the body starts lumbering liltingly behind, and then, curiously, the same part or its sibling self lingers in the footprints or wheel marks that we leave behind. So my vanguard self is moving away. Moving away from this house of grace and all my noisome and pretty sisters, away from my brothers, away from this street called Arbor after the many, many trees that used to live here before we did and the fewer trees that remain, away from the kitchen smells, and the sirens and the street games and the hopscotch marks on the sidewalk. Away from my mother and father. Away from the Missionary Baptist church next door where we went to youth meetings on Saturdays and the Catholic church and school on the corner where we went everyday.

There in grammar school some boys with jokes and tricks up their sleeves refused to be desked beside me-the party pooper who was never in trouble. My one known transgression against goodness-tardiness, chronic and nerve racking. In first grade I tagged behind the line of the last class to enter the school doors from the playground, behind the seventh and eighth graders, and the seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, Sister Bernard, who wobbled like a fat pigeon on too-short legs beside Sister Callista, the principal, fierce and scatter toothed.

Sister Callista espied me, a little first grader in a red hat with a brim and built-in ear coverings I could hear very well through. Did the vanity that seeped through my Christmas hat into my skull bones make me move slowly? Walking so slow that every tree on Arbor Avenue could see me.

"Get a move on it, Lady Jane." Lady Jane. Susie Q. Miss Whatever-Your-Name-Is. The nuns had the name that announced your most intimate sin. Sister Callista cackled while Sister Bernard twittered like the principal was the wittiest woman she'd ever known. And Sister Bernard, old enough to know better. Hadn't she grown up on those movies from the thirties? Didn't nuns go to movies or stay up for the Late Show? Both of them long past fifty and looking it, looking down at me as I scurried through the Bible-thick doors of the school.

"A late Grace," Sister Bernard tittered as she let me scoot by. Then they cornered me in the hall.

Sister Callista bent down toward me. Her face, huge and freckled; her teeth like distant relatives to one another. Spit sprinkling through them. Her face framed unbecomingly in white, the neck choked in white. The rest of her in black like a permanent night of mourning. "We don't tolerate tardiness here, Lady Jane." Sister Callista spit lavishly in my face as she warned me. I touched the brim of my red hat to block the nasty rain that fell from her skinny mouth, to shield my eyes from the too-close sight of her and to shield from her eyes the nongoodness hot in mine.

She almost broke the brim of my red Christmas hat when she flipped it up to glare at me and wash me with her saliva.

"Oh, Lady, Lady, Lady Jane, what is this insolence? You look at me when I'm talking to you. You look me in the eyes and you listen good, young lady. You will be on time and you will take your correction. Now get to your classroom."

Whereupon I stumbled blind and reprimanded to first grade, where I cried the rest of the day till Lazarus, who was Littleson then, and Pearl came to get me to take me home for lunch. It was being late that had almost undone me once. I don't want to be late. So I get mad when Mama has to go back upstairs to use the bathroom again. Not just because she has a weak bladder from nine babies pressing against it, but because she must delay.

I suck my teeth when Mama gets back out the car and parts the bevy of girls. She looks back into the car at me, apologetic. "I'll be right back." Pain in her face. Shame in her eyes, because her bladder is weak and hurts her and I am annoyed. And Madaddy is too.

"I guess I'll clean up these old windows," he says. So he gets out of the car too and in his good suit picks up the rag and Windex and begins to squirt.

He may as well be squirting tears in my eyes, because they are there. So I close my eyes to shut out the closed door I know will come with tardiness.

I think about first grade some more and how I tossed and turned last night, dream-remembering a day in first grade. The day I acquired an article of vocabulary and knew it.

In first grade of the corner Catholic school, in the front of the room, in the Baby Bear-sized chairs, Black first grade sat, learning words from alphabet. "U, S," said Sister Veronica, who was a colleen not yet come to her majority but just past final vows. Unlike Sisters Callista and Bernard she gave us sweet, encouraging glances, a soft voice, and solicitous inquiries about our homes and health. "U, S." Tiny girl, who was me, heard, and sitting studiously in the Baby Bear-sized chair raised a brown arm and waved a brown hand like a flag.

The kind young nun nodded.

"United States," the brown catholic child proclaimed, proud of her country, proud of her intelligence, of what she's heard on the news on the new TV.

The Irish nun blinked, amazed. "Us," she corrected. "U and S means us."

"Not you" is what her mouth doesn't say, but the unseen leaps into my head and knocks things down. The nun smiles, sweet and startled, flustered. The dark bright girl adds us to her vocabulary. Time spreads its arms and holds everything in the moment in unbreakable embrace. The children, the chairs, the nun who is hardly more than a child, a golden lock unraveling from the discipline of her black habit's veil.

Now my eyes fly open from the dream-memory, and Mama is opening the car door and Madaddy is in it already. And my sisters are stepping back from the curb as they've been told to do a thousand times. And the avant-garde piece of spirit is pulling at the rest of me to be off. And my father's car won't go. It only complains when he turns the key in the ignition. So we unload the suitcases and boxes from that car and line them up beside my little sisters on the stoop, after we've listened to the engine whine for longer than any of us can stand. I'm whining now. And fidgeting and fretting my way into minor hysteria. It is four o'clock now. The afternoon sun leans across the sky and the sunlight isn't quite so tall. Time has flown like a white bird in a white sky. Water rises in my eyes and a scared grumble or pathetic whine slides from between my pouting lips. "I'm gone be late. I'm gone be late."

My little sisters, angry at my leaving that has been delayed long enough to grow on them like an irritating itch, act like imps who've lost a soul and sing like the Temptations' record, "I know you wanna leave me, but I refuse to let you go. If I have to beg and plead for your sympathy, I don't mind because you mean that much to me . . ."

They line up before me, mocking me because they want me to hit them, then the excuse to cry noisily and inharmoniously. And beat me until I cry too and they can let me go.

"How come Maggie get to go somewhere?" asks Anne Perpetua, who always wants to be grown because she's the baby and only seven.

"Age has its privileges, my dearest girls," Mama answers teasingly, knowing this will make them madder and more outrageous and funnier too. "One day you'll go to college too." This scares Mama and she looks down, away from those pretty faces that are already lost to her.

"Maggie just seventeen. It's not fair," Ernestine grumbles. She's a few years behind me. This reminds me I am just seventeen and going away from home, even if it is just outside the City.

I'm so nervous now my mind dances hysterically on every surface of time but the present. What Mama said puts me on the train, pulling into Memphis, and my brother Littleson and me stepping out of the coach car, and Littleson, courteous as any well-raised child of Grace, held the door for me and an old Whitelady behind us. The Whitelady kind of pushed me aside gently like she had a right to and I didn't know some hidden rule. She stepped over the door mark and didn't say "thank you" to Littleson or even look grateful. Acted like he was born into this world to hold doors for her and supposed to do it.

Littleson got a funny look on his face. Then he got loud. "Age before beauty," Littleson yelled and held out his hand for me like he was my private coachman. Once I was across and equal on the platform with the White lady and she had got her butt off the train and no grown people could hear, including Aint Kit, who was already on the ground looking for our luggage, then Littleson cursed in his own way, kinda like Madaddy. He said that rude Whitewoman was whipped with an ugly stick. And she was so old and ugly she babysit for Adam's shit. That was the first time I heard Littleson curse ever. Because he didn't talk like that around me. Because he didn't talk like that. But that White lady made him mad. And Aint Kit made him madder when she caught him cussing and we told her what had happened.

She looked nervous and said real prim, "Age has its privileges." I wasn't sure if that meant grown people were free to curse the way Aint Kit did so extravagantly and vehemently, or if it meant old Whitepeople were free to act ungrateful to others and ignorant too. I wasn't sure.

So I asked. But Aint Kit couldn't say. That's real unusual for her. Not to say or have a quick response.

Now Aint Kit comes quickly in response to Mama's distress call. Cousin Bay comes too and shows the girls on the stoop how to do the booty green. She sashays bony hips from side to side and slaps her behind with one hand, then the other. A fake diamond tinkling on her finger. The booty green is old, but Bay still likes that dance best of all. We've seen it a thousand times. Mama says it's like the black bottom she used to do when she was six and her daddy set her up on the counter of the general store in the country outside Mimosa so she could do the black bottom and the Charleston for the population's delight. The booty green is new and glamorous every time Bay does it like she does it. Because Bay does everything with energy and savoir faire. My little sisters look at her admiringly. They say, "Bay, you know how to do it. Ooh, Bay."

With this encouragement Bay does it better, while Aint Kit, Mama, and Madaddy go upstairs for coffee because Aint Kit lets everybody know again and again that she is tired and she is only here out of the goodness of her heart and her love for me, her niece who is going to Eden. This required courtesy is only time lost to me and another nail in the coffin in which I will arrive late to college. Distraught, I flounce around the sidewalk while the booty green goes on all around me.

Sometimes I think of Bay and she is a hurricane suggesting repose. She slaps her hip now and smiles at me. And it is a smile that must be answered. She slaps another hip and I think of the time she (named Winona, called Bay from Baby Doll) slapped the man who slapped her in front of the family at the Fourth of July (a day so long we called it a place). He ran, stuck his dirty hand in the pitcher of lemonade, grabbed a cold handful of ice cubes, and threw them at her and ran. She caught him by the patch of shirt between his shoulders and punched him clean past the potato salad, spaghetti, and paper plates and cups into the smoking barbecue grill. The orange-hot coals burned his arm in a zigzag Bay swore was an angled B.

She said, "Mess with me you so bad looking for trouble, that's my last name. Baby Doll Winona Trouble."

And sometimes Aint Kit would say Trouble was Bay's last name because Kit was Bay's mother by virtue of finders keepers, losers weepers. She found Baby Doll one morning on her kitchen table down in Mimosa, Mississippi. It was the only day in her life Aint Kit missed work. She told her White lady Miss Geraldine she'd just had a baby and she'd be in tomorrow. That day she went over to Bellie Johnson's house on Eighth Street to ask Bellie 's daughter, Gussie, whose boyfriend got in her trouble, if she was sure she wanted to give up her child. Gussie said she guess so because she heard Kit had money and needed a child and could take care of one. Gussie knew she was a girl and "didn't have nothin'." So she guess she wanted her baby to stay with Kit if Kit let her visit her baby whenever she wanted to.

So Bay grew up calling two women Mama, at least until Kit bent the bargain and moved north to the City, curtailing Gussie 's visiting privileges. Bay called Aint Kit's husbands Papa and then their name. She didn't call any man Daddy until she met her boyfriend, Ben, whom she put her brand on. She called him Daddy. We called him Daddy with the B on His Arm.

When Bay came home from jail she came by our house. Face heavy with shame and her breath thick with shame, she pulled a baby girl, Anne Perpetua or Frances, onto her lap. She pressed her cheek against baby cheek and looked at Mama with eyes that begged to be innocent. We knew she was in trouble. She had to appear in court, before a judge in a raven-colored robe who intoned sentences in a sleep- or death-inducing drawl. So said Bay. Make you want to die.


Excerpted from Where I Must Go by ANGELA JACKSON Copyright © 2009 by Angela Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author

Angela Jackson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, raised on Chicago’s South Side, and educated at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. Her Dark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes of the Spinners, winner of the 1993 Chicago Sun-Times Book of the Year Award in Poetry and the 1994 Carl Sandburg Award for Poetry, and her selected poems, And All These Roads Be Luminous, are both published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >