The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Well, she’s coming over a bit,” I say.
They look up from their food at that, a mix of concern and shock wrinkling their faces.
“Coming by to do what?” Link asks. She has set her fork down.
“Just to talk, she’s lonely.” I already regret saying as much as I’ve said. There was no need to is all. “She can’t have a baby,” I add.
“I could prepare my bath with white women’s tears,” Link says.
“Not just yours but all of ours,” Theron adds.
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton compares the lives of a single biracial mother who goes to live with her white grandmother in current times and her black great-great-great grandmother who befriends her new white neighbor in the 1920s. What they both learn is that they shouldn’t have trusted the white women because at the end of the day their unapologetic blackness will always cause division.
In 2017, New Orleans native Ava recently left her husband, lost her paralegal job, and is now raising her teen son, King, alone. To cut costs and save money, she accepts an invitation from her white grandmother, Martha, to live in her family mansion. Ava’s black mother, Gladys, warns her daughter to not live with the grandmother she barely knew because her white father was barely there and neither was his family. Ava takes Grandma Martha’s invitation as a way to fix the past between them and start anew. She takes care of her aging grandmother but notices microaggressions against her and her son that she struggles to ignore. As she adapts to her new life, she sees King doing the same, including falling for a white girl at his school. When Grandma Martha’s actions (and admissions) go too far, Ava rethinks her living situation.
In 1924, Ava’s maternal ancestor, Josephine, is dealing with her son, Major, getting married to Eliza, a woman she’s unsure about because of how the couple treats Major’s son from another marriage, Jericho, differently. While Josephine helps take care of Jericho while her son and his new wife adjust to their new home, a white woman stops by her door. It turns out to be a new neighbor named Charlotte, a mousy woman who’s obviously being beaten by her husband. She wants Josephine to help her conceive because she heard rumors of Josephine being able to manifest, or “revision,” such events and they happen. Because she feels pity for the woman, Josephine invites Charlotte into her home. They meet regularly and share baked goods until Charlotte, upset she can’t carry a baby to term, turns her back on Josephine by secretly joining the Ku Klux Klan. Charlotte’s connections then threaten Josephine’s family when a land dispute erupts between the neighbors.
In 1855, young enslaved Josephine is realizing her Revisioner powers with her mother and father teaching her. On the plantation, she becomes a play partner for the owner’s daughter, Miss Sally. Josephine shows her powers to Miss Sally, who eventually asks if she could help her mother conceive. When Missus gets pregnant, Miss Sally is gracious and she and Josephine get closer to the point where Josephine reveals she wants to use her power to be free. Miss Sally laughs, but Josephine keeps the rest of her secret that her parents and another mysterious slave, Jupiter, are preparing to flee.
Both the relationships Ava and Josephine strike with the white women in their lives end up in disaster. Early in the book, for example, Grandma Martha accidentally bumps into a lamp that’s the only heirloom Ava has from Josephine. Though Grandma Martha doesn’t know it’s Josephine’s lamp, the author weaves in the distrust the characters feel for each other over deeply rooted racial issues. Gladys doesn’t feel comfortable with Ava living with Grandma Martha and would rather have her daughter live with her and study to become a doula like her, like Josephine. From the start, Josephine’s friends and family explain to Josephine that she shouldn’t become friends, let alone trade niceties, with Charlotte, as evidenced in the quote above.
Overall, the book shows the history of a bloodline shared by strong black women, with a few having a soft heart for women outside of their race that leads to a hard-learned lesson. They learn though they share a womanly connection it could mean nothing due to racial differences. It reads smoothly flowing through the parts of Ava and the two parts of Josephine, where we see her as a child slave and as a free woman. It’s an interesting story, especially with the juxtaposition of Ava and Josephine living a century apart in the same place and dealing with the same problems but with different outcomes.