In Her Fiction, Ayana Mathis Refuses to Ignore Black History

THE UNSETTLED, by Ayana Mathis

As a novelist and a student of history, I’m interested in the question of whether Black novelists must acknowledge history in our work, or if it is possible, in the name of artistic freedom, to truly set it aside. I, for one, submit that Black history will always hover over American literature, whether or not the author intends it to. As Toni Morrison wrote in 1992, the Black American population “preceded every American writer of renown and was, I have come to believe, one of the most furtively radical impinging forces on the country’s literature.”

Ayana Mathis’s explicitly historical second novel, “The Unsettled”— appearing nearly 11 years after her acclaimed debut, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” — makes a strong case for the fact that the past can never truly be shaken off. Mathis follows three central characters across time and geography: the emotionally delicate Ava, a young mother trying to create a sense of home for herself and her son in 1980s Philadelphia; her wonderfully profane mother, Dutchess, who still lives in Ava’s tiny, all-Black hometown in Alabama; and Ava’s precocious son, Toussaint, who is arguably the book’s protagonist. He begins the novel with a short prologue in which he’s 13, has run away from foster care and is heading down to Bonaparte, Ala., to find Dutchess. Ava is now in prison.

The novel introduces these mysteries — Why is Ava in prison? Where is Toussaint’s father? Why is the boy running toward instead of away from Alabama, as so many Black folks have done since the Great Migration? — before jumping back a few years, to 1985, when Ava drags 10-year-old Toussaint into a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. The mother and son have been thrown out of the home they shared with Abemi, Ava’s abusive husband and Toussaint’s stepfather, in New Jersey. What brought them to this point?

Mathis renders Ava and Toussaint’s time in the shelter in poignant, heartbreaking detail. The staff members are at best cold and insensitive, at worst sexually exploitative. Though Ava tries her best, she increasingly loses connection with reality, reminiscing about her past with Toussaint’s father, Cass, in a series of disorienting, fragmented memories. These episodes, along with the residual trauma from Abemi’s abuse, prevent her from nurturing Toussaint, who is left to his own devices, essentially adultified. Her maternal neglect tests the reader’s sympathy as she leaves her child to ready himself for school, forgets to take him to the shelter cafeteria for their meals, doesn’t search for him when he disappears for hours at a time.

Things come to a head when the charismatic Cass comes back into the picture, recruiting Ava for the Black collective he’s founded called Ark — where Ava cuts her hair, becomes a vegetarian, and continues to ignore her son as she falls under the sway of Cass’s unhinged magnetism.

Down south, Dutchess is in a painful predicament of her own: trying to save Bonaparte from white supremacists seeking to displace her from her land, which has been occupied by formerly enslaved African Americans since Reconstruction. “Ava’s pop said Bonaparte was a place for free people,” Mathis writes, “they and the Indians had been helping each other stay free for a hundred years.” Now, white citizens are arriving from the surrounding areas to physically attack the Black residents, with the support of the county’s white sheriff; and local white lawmakers are using legal shenanigans (allegations of unpaid taxes and deeds never filed) to slice off acres of land from Black ownership.

The difference between mother and daughter, however, is that Dutchess is much stronger than Ava — why, we never really find out. Perhaps because she stayed in Bonaparte? Is this where Dutchess learned to fight and to hold onto what is real?

Throughout these two story lines Mathis skillfully and subtly drops allusions to historical events, sending the reader on a kind of intellectual treasure hunt. The title itself evokes the aftermath of settler colonialism, the centuries-long ejection of nonwhites from their homes, which continues to wreak havoc on this country’s Black and Indigenous citizens. And there is the son’s namesake, Toussaint Louverture, the formerly enslaved Haitian general who led the Haitian Revolution and became a hero in the African diaspora. Bonaparte itself is reminiscent of Alabama’s historic Africatown, founded by descendants of the stolen passengers on the slave ship Clotilda. (The name Mathis gives this place is presumably a nod to the French exiles who received plots of land from the U.S. government after the Napoleonic Wars — land formerly inhabited by the Choctaw tribe — on which to settle and grow olives and wine grapes.)

But perhaps most crucial to Mathis’s plot is the 1985 bombing, by the Philadelphia Police Department, of the West Philadelphia rowhouse that was home to MOVE, a collective of radical Black activists committed to self-determination and to their shared ancestral lineage (all members assumed the last name “Africa”). Where the MOVE compound attracted police attention for noise and trash pollution, in “The Unsettled” the police focus on Ark for drug crimes. In using MOVE as a model, though, Mathis nudges us toward residual outrage and grief over this bombing. Yes, the MOVE activists conflicted with their neighbors, but the bombing ordered by Mayor Wilson Goode — the city’s first Black mayor — killed 11 occupants, including five children. The inhumanity of this act continues to traumatize Philadelphia’s Black community nearly 40 years on.

Over the course of the novel Mathis toggles frequently between third-person and first-person points of view, including those of the protagonists and satellite characters alike. It’s not always clear why she chooses to inhabit a given mind, like that of a rude and classist social worker who clearly takes personal offense at other Black women experiencing emotional and financial distress. And there are other perspectives that are left unexplored, like that of the white sheriff who harasses Bonaparte. The shifts in perspective can try the reader’s patience, but they mirror the reality that every historical event inspires multiple, conflicting points of view.

Together, the melding of history and fiction in Mathis’s moving prose reveals a fundamental truth: Black folks want to lead a life of self-determination, free from white supremacist oppression. We’ve been searching, fighting for this self-determination since Europeans forced our African ancestors across the wide water. As “The Unsettled” shows, for Black writers, our history remains ready, eager to shout or whisper onto the page.

THE UNSETTLED | By Ayana Mathis | 321 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $29

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