Book Reviews

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s A Kind of Freedom

By Lindsay H H Smelt

July 2018

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s concise tale of three generations of a black family in New Orleans is a most impressive debut novel. Born and raised in New Orleans, Sexton deftly moves the story along from student dating in the 1940s to black incarceration in 2011. The family grows, America changes but Sexton shows that the challenge of being black in America’s deep south still pervades and shapes American life today.

The novel commences with an unlikely love story between Evelyn, the daughter of a well-to-do black doctor, and Renard, a battler from a poor black family. Evelyn’s father is determined that the relationship not proceed. His concern revolves around his daughter marrying into potential instability and poverty with the earnest young Renard. Ultimately, mother and daughter win out over the father. Yet the father’s imposing figure and warnings cast a shadow that cannot be easily shaken.

He was right to be worried but he wasn’t right about Evelyn and Renard. Their relationship thrives and endures. Their love story provides a welcome shot of hope in an otherwise bleak American landscape. The following generations would not be so lucky – their lives are shaped by drug addiction, absent fathers, working poverty and imprisonment.

Renard recalled the low expectation of his fifth grade teacher – “Nobody’s going to get any free rides in this classroom. The last thing I’d want to do is deprive the world of a good garbageman.”

His grandson T.C. held promise as a basketballer but a torn knee ligament put pay to that career. The end of his basketball career, Hurricane Katrina and the death of his mate Daryl left T.C. at rock bottom. However, the ecstasy of the birth of his son would change all that:

He walked back to the elevator now though feeling like a different man… as if he had been reacquainted with the boy he’d been, who’d held so much promise, but the promise wasn’t specific to basketball or anything really, it was all encompassing, and there was no way he wouldn’t be able to parlay it into something real.”

This is the core of the novel. The family lives in the land of the free but everywhere their possibilities and hopes are constrained. Promise is left unrealised and often tragically smashed.

The black characters in Sexton’s novel live in ‘a kind of freedom’ where racism at work is a daily humiliation, where communities are broken by drug addiction, where work returns little pay, and a natural disaster swept away the dignity of housing.

Social disadvantage in rich countries can grow from many seeds, to name just a few: addictions, violence, an economic downturn, financial stress, health issues or just plain tragedy. The outcome of such seeds is visible to me every day – I see the men and women living on the streets in my home city of Melbourne Australia.

Yet for some countries, including the US and Australia, some disadvantage stems more deeply from a structural, racist history. Slavery, dispossession of land and an absence of political and economic rights robs not only the unfortunate victims of the day but their future generations as well. An economic as well as a social future is stolen.

A free family can buy land, build up wealth, invest in education, and access debt to speed up the journey towards middle class (and higher) prosperity. For communities locked out of this world, the slightest set back can be terminal – socially and economically oppressed communities simply don’t have the support networks to bounce back. This is the kind of inheritance presented in ‘A Kind of Freedom’.

Sexton’s story does have moments of hope and success for the family. There is great love and determination, especially from the women of the family. But all too often Sexton’s picture is far bleaker. Hope is washed away by waves of drugs, crime, absent fathers, poverty and the perhaps the most corrosive force of all – racism.

We all need to do better for future generations. Recognising how the past shapes our present and our future is a good place to start.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s website: