There’s the mythology of the strong black woman, and then there’s the painful truth of how women muster that strength. Like our men, African-American women lost everything when we arrived on these shores in shackles, including dominion over our own bodies. But unlike our men, we also lost what grows inside of us, our power of creation, the mojo of our wombs.
Now comes Detroit author Bill Harris to tell the stories about how black women have coped and triumphed over sexual vulnerability and male domination. In his latest book, I Got to Keep Moving, Harris has given voice to the black women who – by necessity, cunning and unrelenting mothering – carved a much different path through history than did the men who traveled beside them.
Harris is a 2011 Kresge Foundation Eminent Artist, playwright and Wayne State University emeritus professor of English. Although his book is dedicated to his grandmother, mother and wife, Harris said that it wasn’t until he was finished with the collection of linked short stories that he realized how powerfully the female characters had emerged from the narrative.
Originating in the fictional town of Acorn, Alabama, the characters go from enslavement through the Great Migration, ending in the 1960s with the Civil Rights generation. It’s a journey that mirrors his own life, when his mother left Alabama at the age of 22 with the 2-year-old Harris in tow, to seek a better life in Detroit.
“My mother didn’t want to raise a black boy in that place,” says Harris. “It took me years to figure out what she had done, to go to a place so distant that it may as well have been Iceland, in order to make a new life for me. That took grit.” Maybe it’s no mistake that a chapter in the book is called “Grits, 1928,” in which one of the seminal characters, Pearl, makes a critical decision.
Raised on a farm picking cotton, Pearl married the first man who could spirit her away from a life sentence as a sharecropper. It wasn’t long before her husband ran into trouble. He told her that they needed to flee back to the country or he’d land in jail. Pearl, who was fixing breakfast, didn’t miss a beat. “Going back’ll be the same to me as me being sent to jail. I ain’t. That’s my last word on it.” He was incredulous that she’d ditch him and strike out on her own as a single woman with a baby. But Pearl saw no option but to keep moving forward. “The same way I left the country is the same way I’ll leave you,” she said. “Now you want grits, or not?”
The linked stories show how black people made a way out of no way. But it is immediately clear that the way men and women moved through grinding poverty and racism were very different. “Women, in a weird kind of way, had choices that men didn’t have,” says Harris.
Those choices are epitomized by Pearl, the fierce mother who turns up like a bad penny in brothels, minstrel shows and boarding houses. She is blown by winds and circumstance, but is always in control of her own will. She learns to sew, educates her child, and makes her way through life, dignity intact.
More than once in the stories, black and white women alike find themselves sexually exploited or abused. It’s here that the stories pack their greatest punch, helping us to look at the way the women manage to triumph even when they are at their most vulnerable.
Toward the end of the collection, young Emmie, who will eventually become a civil rights leader, wrestles with her white employer and would-be rapist. When she gains the upper hand, she says, “I saw him lose his innocence while he tried to take mine.”
Harris says that his stories come from the margins, and are about “characters who aren’t in the mainstream of American literature.” But, at the same time, they are stories that are embedded in each of us. “We must know our stories about how we got here,” he says. “We are in a constant forward motion, but we are fueled by the past.” And with his epic collection, Harris offers us the pearl of our ancestor: No matter what, we’ve got to keep on moving.