Jam on the Vineby LaShonda Barnett
An explosive debut novel that chronicles the life of a trailblazing African American woman journalist through the start of the twentieth century.
Jam! On the Vine is a new American classic: a dynamic tale of triumph against the odds and the compelling story of one woman’s struggle for equality that belongs alongside Jazz by Toni Morrison and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
Ivoe Williams, the precocious daughter of a Muslim cook and a metalsmith from central-east Texas, first ignites her lifelong obsession with journalism when she steals a newspaper from her mother’s white employer. Living in the poor, segregated quarter of Little Tunis, Ivoe immerses herself in printed matter as an escape from her dour surroundings. She earns a scholarship to the prestigious Willetson College in Austin, only to return overqualified to the menial labor offered by her hometown’s racially biased employers.
Ivoe eventually flees the Jim Crow South with her family and settles in Kansas City, where she and her former teacher and lover, Ona, found the first female-run African American newspaper, Jam! On the Vine. In the throes of the Red Summer—the 1919 outbreak of lynchings and race riots across the Midwest—Ivoe risks her freedom and her life to call attention to the atrocities of segregation in the American prison system.
Skillfully interweaving Ivoe’s story with those of her family members, LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s Jam! On the Vine is both an epic vision of the hardships and injustices that defined an era and a moving and compelling story of a complicated history we only thought we knew.
“Weaving actual historical records throughout, Barnett creates an ode to activism, writing with a scholar’s eye and a poet’s soul.” —Tayari Jones, O the Oprah Magazine
“As addictive as your mom’s fresh-baked buttermilk biscuits, and just as delicious.” —Essence
“[A] big, bold bildungsroman of a debut.” —The Guardian.com
“This wonderful debut novel takes the early 20th century and brings it to life . . . a wonderfully vibrant, fully realized vision of the shadowy corners of America’s history.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This compelling work of historical fiction about a black female journalist escaping Jim Crow laws of the South and fighting injustice in Kansas City, MO, through her reportage, will bring wider recognition to the role of the African American press in American history, especially during 1919’s Red Summer of lynchings and race rioting in northern cities.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“An impassioned historical novel chronicles the early-20th-century resurgence of African-American activism through the life of a poor Texas girl who channels a lifelong love of newsprint into a groundbreaking journalism career . . . Barnett excels here at what for most writers is a difficult task: evoking what it feels like to grow into one’s calling as a writer through psychological intimacy as much as immediate experiences.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A celebration of beauty, boldness, of the flowering of family, and the triumph of liberty against the odds that freedom and justice always face, this big-hearted kaleidoscopic novel illuminates our history and Barnett’s indomitable protagonist lifts up the reader.” —Amy Bloom
“By telling a sweeping story of one remarkable woman and her family, Barnett carries us through the joys and horrors of the black experience at the turn of the past century with such immediacy that we feel the events personally. Ivoe’s story becomes our story as she gathers the courage to become her truest self by founding her own newspaper and finding her voice. Barnett’s language is lyrical and gritty, salty and funny and piercing all at once. Bouyed by the indomitable spirit of her heroine, she carries us with a steady hand through a crucial history, which gains an eerie relevance in light of today’s racial dynamics.” —Margaret Wrinkle
“From the cotton fields of Jim Crow Texas to Kansas City to Paris and back again, Jam On the Vine‘s story of family, courage, and love will grab you and not let go. I loved this novel so much I wanted to start reading it again as soon as I finished.” —Marie Myung-Ok Lee
“In lyric prose Barnett delivers a vivid portrait of life in America under Jim Crow in early 20th century. From the rural south and through the Great Migration to the cities of the industrial Midwest, she delves deeply into the lives of characters who endure the oppression and violence of racism. Jam On The Vine is a stunning and vital novel that heralds an essential and important new voice in American letters.” —Jeffrey Lent
“Jam On The Vine is a wonder of a first novel. Following the struggles of one remarkable family through generations of adversity, this powerful and beautifully-written story resonates with historical significance and shines in the end with the triumph of the human spirit.” —Amy Greene, author of Bloodroot and Long Man
“From Juneteenth in Texas, to the 1925 Pan African Congress in Paris, Barnett combines an historian’s craft with a novelist’s heart. Her heroine is propelled through innovative tropes: the ingenuity of her Muslim mother, her love of knowledge, passion for women, and determination to use the printed word as a tool for freedom. A romance of the Black female intellectual that is compelling, informative and triumphant.” —Sarah Schulman
One of NBC’s “14 Books to Read This Black History Month”
One of the Guardian.com’s “Best Books This February”
Usually a morning like this found her in the grove—a quilt pallet under a tree, the sun dappling shadows on the pages of a good book or the newspaper. But the day ahead and its ruckus left no time to the novel that had vexed her all week. At seventeen, she was well practiced at drawing out a book long after its last page. Conversations with the characters in her head helped her hammer out opinions on why the heroine had chosen the wrong lover, or why the hero deserved his victory. None of that was possible with The Clansman. Miss Stokes had given the agonizing read as a graduation present so she had pressed on with a troubled mind and particular longing to know Reverend Thomas Dixon Jr.—to shake him till his eyes popped from his head. For writing such degrading drivel, he deserved worse. Dixon’s Negro characters were shiftless and depraved when anyone could see her people had been holding up the sky while white folks walked through the world for a very long time. By and by her veil was being lifted.
Papa and Momma deserved a prize, or punishment, for shrouding the shameful truth of their lives. Borrowed copies of The Colored American and the teacher’s recent gift helped Ivoe to see what had been hidden during childhood. Negro life was the worst. Certainly no cause for celebration. She slammed the outhouse door shut, frowning at the day ahead.
1. While this is a novel about one young woman’s determination to be an advocate for civil rights and to uplift the black community amid the challenges of early twentieth-century America, we also take note of the bustling presence of many people around her. Ivoe is loved and supported by her mother, Lemon; her father, Ennis; her siblings, Irabelle and Timbo; and others, such as Susan Stark, Miss Stokes, her young lover Berdis, and her typesetting and journalism teacher, Ona Durden. Which of these secondary characters is most memorable to you? Why?
2. Miss Stokes, the teacher who works hard to continue educating the children of Little Tunis after the school burns down, is one of four women who supports Ivoe as she grows up in the town, the other three being the wealthy Susan Stark, who opens her library to the voracious young reader; sage May-Belle; and Ivoe’s hardworking and wise mother, Lemon. Discuss how these four women are different from one another and the ways in which you think they influenced Ivoe. Discuss also what it means for this book about a black community to be populated by strong women such as them.
3. Though the relationships among strong women are a joy in this story, another relationship that is a source of great love and joy is that between Lemon and Ennis. Across many trials and hardships, their marriage remains stable and passionate. Why do you think this relationship and their joy in each other is such an important part of the story, even though it is not the central love story? What does it contribute to our idea of a striving black family in that period? Does it assert or challenge stereotypes? How so?
4. A little bit of literary play: In two meaningful instances, a pear fruit makes an appearance. First, Ennis appears with one on a day when Lemon is contemplating aborting her pregnancy. Years later, Ennis spots a pear high up on a tree and sits to rest, when he meets the man who will lead him to agricultural work that, tragically, will also lead to his imprisonment. What do you think is the significance of the pear? How does the presence of this fruit help us to think about possibility and loss in this story? Does it have any relation to Lemon’s knack for gardening and her renowned preserves?
5. On that note, Lemon’s skills and perseverance in gardening are a delight to read throughout the novel. What do you think is the significance of gardening and harvesting in this story? What do Lemon’s skills—and her preserves—mean to the family, and what do they come to mean to us readers?
6. Turning to a darker episode in the story: After Ennis and Irabelle are harassed and humiliated by a sheriff, Ennis instructs his daughter, “Don’t you never tell nobody about what happened” (p. 79). Why do you think Ennis wants to keep that incident a secret? What is he trying to hide from the rest of the family? What does it tell us about Ennis and how he sees his role as a father?
7. On a similar note, after Irabelle is attacked by two boys, ostensibly for her clarinet, Lemon and Ivoe try to file a complaint at the sheriff’s office. The sheriff refuses to take the complaint seriously: He says, “Must be a mighty strong gal you got to be fighting off two boys. . . . What you feeding her?” and “For the trouble this gone bring on you, you be better off if you just get the girl another clarinet” (p. 141). What do you think this exchange shows about authority and justice in Little Tunis society? How does it amplify the horror of the initial attack on Irabelle? How do you think this experience changes everyone in the family, particularly Ennis? Finally, thinking of both this attack and the previous incidence of assault on Irabelle, both sparked by her clarinet, what do you think the clarinet comes to mean in this story?
8. Susan Stark is a rare white woman in Ivoe’s life who supports her education. After recounting to Ivoe her own life, marked by struggle and not easy by any means, she says, “If you really want to know the truth, Ivoe, ain’t nobody free. . . . In the matter of all that living I just told you about I didn’t have a say in a lot of things. . . . That’s what it means to be just a woman—no say. But an educated woman has a say and choice! Ivoe, you’ve got more education than every white woman I know” (p. 134). What do you think it meant to Ivoe to hear these words from a wealthy white woman? How do these thoughts complicate what we may have assumed about the privilege of white people in that town and at that time? What does it tell us about the role of education in the lives of women?
9. College is a time of great personal growth for Ivoe. She realizes, for one, that she is attracted to women. How do you think her identity as a lesbian shapes her life? While we do not read too much about this aspect of her life, do you think it influences her advocacy work? Does it lead her to think differently about freedom and empathy?
10. College is also, of course, a time of intellectual growth for Ivoe. At dinner with Ona Durden, Ona asks Ivoe, “What work are you doing for the race?” (p. 102). Discuss how this question resonates across Ivoe’s life. How does Ivoe see her responsibility to her community growing and changing? What kind of groundwork does this question lay for Ivoe’s career?
11. Ivoe’s first lover, Berdis, is a passionate and spirited young musician when we first meet her. But over the years, failed relationships and soured ambitions change her, so that when we see her again, decades later, she is consumed with bitterness and is envious of Ivoe and Ona’s relationship. She cannot stand to be around their happy companionship. How do you think the choices Ivoe and Berdis made about their careers and life partners affected how their life stories played out?
12. While they are still in a relationship, Berdis and Ivoe have an argument over boycotting streetcars. Ivoe insists that, given the segregation of colored passengers—they may only occupy the last two seats of each car—they ought to boycott streetcars altogether. Berdis says, “Colored people choose the wrong things to be proud about. We’re barred from the best music shops, pay the same entrance fee at theaters . . . to sit in the buzzard’s roost, muss ourselves entering and exiting establishments through back alleys . . . Why is a damn trolley seat so important?” (pp. 112-13). How do you think you would respond to Berdis?
13. After disappointments and injustices on the job market in Kansas City, Ivoe finally takes a position in a candy factory. Here, she is frequently compelled to have sex with the forewoman. Was it a strategic choice on her part? What does this tell us about the way women contributed to the oppression of other women?
14. Timbo is portrayed as a somewhat idle, unfocused man, inclined to gamble and be inadequately present for his family. Roena admits sadly to Lemon that perhaps she ought not to have married him. In Kansas City, however, he finds a purpose: “Hell if Timbo knew where the thought came from that he alone could get colored men organized, but it was the first time in his life he had his own thoughts on something important and he was excited to see where they might lead him” (p. 200-01). Why do you think the author chooses to portray Timbo in this way, letting him meander in his life before finding purpose? How do these authorial choices translate into your experience of reading him? What impression of him do you come away with, and how does it inform your imagination of what society was like for young black men?
15. In planning for her newspaper, Jam on the Vine, Ivoe conceives of a column called “Woman About Town,” in which she plans to write about customs and manners by which black people might improve their place in society: “Her first published statement would be a gentle reminder of etiquette—to say ‘thank you’ and ‘if you please’ when receiving service and to speak softly. They should refrain from loudness and public ridicule of each other because the loud and blatant were never trusted. They should take all care in matters of hygiene, which was to whites a signal of moral judgment. They should take care in wearing pleasant hair . . .” (p. 230). Later, Ivoe acknowledges that she is ashamed of having offered such advice, which encourages a community to change their ways of life to appear “worthy” to others. What do you think led her to offer that advice in the first place? And how do you think she realized that she was wrong? What changes in her thinking does this shift demonstrate?
16. Along those lines, how do you think Ivoe’s experience of the unrest in Omaha changes her views of how justice and injustice are sustained? How do you think this experience makes her grow as a journalist and a civil rights advocate?
17. It is difficult to read about Ivoe’s journalistic investigation of incarceration, and about Ennis’s imprisonment and subsequent return to his family, without thinking about our present-day debates around the role of prisons in undermining black families and communities and robbing such communities of opportunity and stability. What do you think is the role of this account of the prison system in the novel? What is the author trying to remind us?
18. After having completed this book, what continuities—in terms of gender- and race-oriented struggles—come to mind between early twentieth-century America and the present day? What was your experience of reading this book in light of recent race-related unrest across American cities?
19. While the book touches on broad themes—black life in the south, migration to the north, the injustices of both race and gender—Ivoe’s life refuses to be a tidy reflection of her times. How does Ivoe complicate our views of that history? What does a reading of her life add to the history we already know?
20. A striking aspect of this novel is the use of nonstandard English in the dialogue. Lemon says to Roena, for example, “You and Ivoe the most leavingest gals I done seen. What make y’all generation so restless?” (p. 163). How do you find the experience of reading such English, which is, after all, inflected by histories that are silenced in standardized language? What qualities does it bring to the story? How would the story be different if it was written entirely in standard English?
21. In Paris, Ivoe experiences political freedom for the first time. How does this experience shape her thoughts on American democracy? As the pages of the book come to a close, but Ivoe’s life of activism and advocacy carries on, how do you imagine that her days in France will shape her future efforts? If you were to write the next chapter of Ivoe’s life, what do you think she would be passionate about?
Suggestions For Further Reading:
Crusade for Justice by Ida B. Wells; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; Citizen by Claudia Rankine; The Help by Kathryn Stockett; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker
When I embarked on Jam! On the Vine, I was teaching African American women’s history at my alma mater Sarah Lawrence College, where, inevitably, in seminars on slavery and its aftermath, a silence descended on students. Out of the silence came these questions: “After slavery how did black people survive? How were black communities formed?” The answer? The black press, which became the greatest tool for racial self-help, America’s unsung bulwark of democracy, and would become the impetus of my debut novel. I mined my own family history. My grandmother was a fervent newspaper reader and wheelchair bound. One of my first chores was to walk to the corner store at the intersection of Truman Road and Brooklyn Avenue every Saturday to get her a copy of The Call, Kansas City’s black newspaper. Even as a five-year-old I knew the paper was important. I recall conversations between my grandmother and her sisters in which articles from The Call were often referenced. Years later, completing a PhD in American Studies, I observed that the finest black history texts relied heavily upon the black press for their accurate accounts of black American life. Moreover, important black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote for and established their own newspapers, a claim to a black tradition of literary and political activism rarely acknowledged by the general populace. In the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court legalized Jim Crow, or racial separation, by declaring that states could use their police power to separate blacks from whites as long as facilities provided for the two races were equal. Jam! On the Vine begins in 1897, after this new world order, a nadir in American history and the nation’s most anarchic period. Against the backdrop of white vigilante action by groups such as the KKK and systemic economic oppression, the black press was a beacon, shining a light on black achievement, disseminating advice on everything from employment to the racial climate in destination cities for Southern migrants, and detailing the extraordinary brutality rooted in racism. In the hands of journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, inspiration for my protagonist Ivoe Williams, black journalism shaped a nascent public conscience for blacks a generation removed from enslavement.