Decades after Julia McKenzie Munemo’s father committed suicide, she learned that he had made his living writing interracial pornography under a pseudonym. A white woman and a mother of mixed-race sons, she hid the stack of her father’s old paperbacks from her Zimbabwean husband — and from herself — for more than a decade.
In The Book Keeper, the journey of finally reading those pulpy paperbacks set during slavery entwines with questions about Munemo’s father’s mental illness, the tale of her own love story, and her exploration of the fears she carries for her sons in a country where, as we continue to be reminded, black men aren’t safe jogging through their neighborhoods, 14-year-old black boys aren’t safe from police brutality, and unarmed black men and women continue to die at the hands of those tasked with protecting us.
As she struggles to cope with this violent American history on anti-Black racism, she also understands that in a few short years, her sons will leave the safety of the home she and her husband have created. Driven by her fear for them, and by the need to mother her sons with honesty and integrity, Munemo realized she had to face her legacy.
In another section of her book, she says it like this:
My legacy is the white supremacy that runs this country, and despite the fact that I’m raising sons in a place that will call them black, in a place that seems hell-bent on destroying the black body, my legacy contributes to what this country is. As Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us, “the police reflect America in all of its will and fear,” and isn’t it will and fear that kept on my blinders? “The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories.” And didn’t my dad write some of those? My legacy is “the brightly rendered version of [this] country as it has always declared itself” that Coates urges us to look away from.
When she finally looked away from the dream and chose to face where she came from, she opened the first of her father’s slavery porn and started reading. The excerpt that follows picks up her story after she’s dug as deeply as she can into the tragedy of those novels and what they reveal about her father.
Two days after the police murdered Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, one day after the police murdered Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a black man named Michael George Smith, twenty-two years old, was found hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georgia. The media called it a suicide. Then they moved on.
I hear about it early that July morning, whispered in the rooms of a writing conference, and the fear is electric. The familiar fear for my sons — a fear I grow close to these hot, hateful days of a deadly summer. The familiar fear of a hanging — a fear I’ve been close to since I was five and they found my father.
I keep asking, silently screaming, was it a lynching or a suicide? How can we live in a world where we wonder, in 2016, if it was a lynching or a suicide? These twin fears are not accustomed to living so close up inside my white body, but lately everything is crashing together. My father’s madness and the books he made his living on. My children’s safety, my husband’s safety, and this country we try to call home. I’m used to only worrying about one fear at a time, but that isn’t the way of it anymore.
In my bedroom at the conference I scour the media and read that on the trash can near the tree they found a Chuck Taylor shoeprint that matched the Chuck Taylor shoe Michael George Smith was wearing on his foot. In my bedroom at the conference I scour the media and read that there was pollen on the front of Michael George Smith’s shirt. That they thought he climbed up the tree unassisted. But I can’t stop asking if he did.
“What are you hearing about the hanging?” I text my oldest friend, a community organizer in Atlanta.
“Everything I’m hearing is BS,” she replies. “I’ll tell you if I hear anything real.”
Are lynchings as far in the past as we white folks want to believe? Perched on the bed in my room at the conference, I want to fly away from this country and this world and find a land where I don’t have to worry when my people get in a car to drive to the market. I want to fly away from this country and this world and this land where [my son] can’t sleep because I brought him home a book to read and in it the KKK came for the little girl.
I want to fly away.
But there’s something else in my mind, in my body, when I think about Michael George Smith found hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georgia. Because I’m someone else, too. I’m the daughter of a suicide. I’m the daughter of someone who chose to end his life. I’m the daughter of a man who made the decision to die. His name was George Michael Wolk.
In a week or two, I will read about Michael George Smith and his Facebook posts that reveal his reasons for this kind of death. In a week or two, I will be reminded that suicide sometimes feels like the only option, felt like the only option for Michael George Smith, felt like the only option for George Michael Wolk. It feels like the only option when there are no more doors to open. Which will be how those Facebook posts will make it seem it looked for Michael George Smith, unaccepted in a homophobic family. Which is how his medical records made it seem it looked for George Michael Wolk, unsure how to peel off the depression and return to his family.
That night in my anxiety all I know is that I’m raising children in a world with no more doors to open. That night all I know is that I can’t ever hope to keep them safe. That night all I know is what Ngoni said to me when he set off on the highway last week for a five-hour journey alone. “I am in no more peril today than I was yesterday, you are just more aware of it now.” That night all I know is the weight of my own naïveté. I am helpless to change anything. Desperate to change any fucking thing.
In my bed at that lonely writer’s conference, I wonder if I were Michael George Smith and I wanted to fly away from this country and this world and this city in which I could not survive, would I climb a tree in a park, would I use a trash can to hoist myself up, would I make a statement with my body, would I take my last breath with the hope that this time — this death — might finally be the one to get the world’s attention? Would I hope that maybe this one — this death — might get people talking about modern-day lynchings? Because how many more do there have to be?
Maybe, if I’m Michael George Smith and I know my name will expire like a last breath, I hope there can be a statement in my suicide. I might accidentally smudge my shirt with pollen before I tie my own noose. I might want folks to wonder what this death was.
I’m four and huddled in the backseat of the VW squareback. My fingers are dusty from the dirt of the community garden. The patched knees of my jeans are caked and brown. The community garden is a city of square plots with a spigot in the middle, it’s a sea of green beans and lettuce there’s no room to grow at home. It’s communism and free choice and the land of the people. It’s ideals I don’t understand. Home is a left out of the parking lot, and we always turn left out of the parking lot and go home after. But today Dad turns right, and I can hear my heart in my ears when I reach my thumb into my mouth. I have never turned right out of the parking lot, and what is up this hill, what is beyond these gardens, how far does this road go and where will it lead us?
“We are lost!” Dad says, and it’s laughter in his voice, and cunning. “Let’s get lost!” he shouts, and am I alone in the car and how far do we drive?
Lost! The word throbs through my head like lightning and I can’t see out the window but I strain to see something I recognize and my thumb is in my mouth and then I close my eyes but I still see him, wild at the wheel. He drives a cartoon car with television abandon.
We are lost.
Julia McKenzie Munemo went to Bard College before earning a master’s ineducation at Harvard. After building a career as a freelance writer, she earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. She lives with her family in western Massachusetts.
Courtesy of Ohio University Press https://www.ohioswallow.com/book/The+Book+Keeper