By Ntozake Shangi and Ifa Bayeza
St Martin’s Press (2010)
Some Sing, Some Cry is a novel tracing seven generations of a fictional African American family from slavery to the election of Barack Obama. The authors are sisters and the first half of the book is based on family oral history.
The novel’s matriarch originates from on an island off the coast of South Carolina and takes the name of a prominent plantation owner who has fathered children by both her mother and herself. The family are forced off their land when Reconstruction ends, migrating to Charleston.
The first half of the book is the strongest, with its poignant depiction of family members being stripped of their newly won freedoms as Jim Crow laws ban them from most occupations. To a large extent, the plot revolves around complex prejudices within the African American community against family members with darker skin. In one instance, the plantation owner kidnaps an light-complected male child and raises him as his heir. In another a “bright-skinned” uncle passes as Irish to evade trade union rules that ban Negroes.
The novel’s main focus is the role newly freed slaves played in the development of modern American music. The reader gets the strong sense that many Mayfield family members turned to working in minstrel shows, music halls and clubs when Jim Crow laws banned them from other occupations.
The sections dealing with the great northern migration, Harlem renaissance and birth of ragtime and jazz are also quite riveting. I came away with a totally new insight into the African American origin of the dance crazes of the “roaring twenties,” eg the “Charleston” and the “Black Bottom.”
This was also my first exposure to the extreme discrimination African American soldiers faced during World War I. Unlike white troops, they weren’t issued gas masks. Forced to improvise, they covered their faces with urine soaked rags to protect themselves against mustard gas.