I am not sure where The Darkest Child caught my eye. Maybe it was just browsing at my library. I have been on the waitlist for it at my library for months. I expected a young adult book, but this is a book with young adult characters and adult themes and realities.
Tangy Mae Quinn is one of 10 children, all of different fathers. Her mother, Rozelle, was first pregnant at 13 and found herself on her own. Set in rural Georgia early in the civil rights era, Tangy Mae and her siblings are surviving as best they can. Tangy Mae is bright, top of her class, despite missing a lot of school.
The Darkest Child is a brutal story. There is rape, forced prostitution of children, lynching, death, racism, wanton cruelty and much more. But there is also love and with almost all of the characters, even the cruelest and basest behaviors, have a glimmer of understanding that gives the reader sympathy or understanding for the position they have been put in, even if the act is clearly wrong.
What comes through clearly is the interrelated nature of sin. One sin, begets another, which impacts someone else, and the impact cascades throughout a community. But also hope and light also can come from one act that leads to another and another. The interrelatedness of sin and hope is real. We are never only in a space of sin without God’s light and we are never only in God’s light without the reality of sin breaking through in this life.
As I read The Darkest Child, I could envision someone reading the book as a screed against the broken black family, a call to reform black culture. That would be a misreading of the book. I am not going to give spoilers, but the tragic circumstances of Tangy Mae’s life is because of the tragic circumstances of her mother’s life. Her mother’s and the whole Black community were within Jim Crow society, which was influenced by slavery, white supremacy, colonialism, etc. Sin is not only social or only individual, there is a complex relationship between the individual, the communal, this historical, and the broader culture.
This is also a book that is largely about Black women. Black women doing what they need to do to survive because they had to. It isn’t that there are no good men here, there are few. But the few good men are threatened and limited in power because of the system that restricts them from openly doing more. Prostitution and sexual abuse/assault of is throughout this book, often somewhat clouded because the book is being told at first from the perspective of a 13 year old, but it become much more clearly detailed over time.
The abuse and devaluing of women is a result of male sin. Not just the individual men that are abusing women, but the other men that allow the abuse or just the demeaning of women. In a similar way, the abuse of Black people in The Darkest Child is not just the result of a few individually bad White guys, it is a system. At one point Tangy Mae starts working as a housekeeper for an adult brother/sister that have newly moved into town. They essentially have no category for a Black person other than ’n****r’ and assume she is there to be her slave. It is clear from Tangy Mae’s perspective that she has no love for them, but Tangy Mae also believes them to be a bit ‘simple’ because they are unable to really see what is in front of them. The cultural system that assumed White superiority and a lower Black status did not acknowledge either the work of individual Black bodies that was exceptional or the reasons for why there was mass disparity. All that could be recognized was simple confirmation bias.
Stories like The Darkest Child are not happily ever after stories because they are historical. The Civil Rights Era did not have a simply happy ending. And we need to know that.