Ivoe Williams, the heroine of LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam on the Vine, is an African-American girl born in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Texas to poor, hardworking parents. Ivoe isn’t very interested in toys or clothes (though she wouldn’t mind a new pair of shoes). She’s a bookworm—or would be, if books were more readily available. Because they’re easy to pilfer, newspapers become Ivoe’s preferred reading matter instead. She pores over the articles—“like stories only better because they were true”—and glories in showing off her knowledge of world affairs to her teacher. This childhood pleasure blossoms into an adult vocation, and through the story of Ivoe’s trials and triumphs as an aspiring journalist, Barnett delivers a vivid depiction of the black experience during one of the ugliest periods in American race relations.
Ivoe’s family, including parents Ennis and Lemon and two siblings, Timbo and Irabelle, live in the small black settlement of Little Tunis, a satellite to the land holdings of the wealthy Stark family. Ennis is a metalsmith, and Lemon works as a domestic in the Stark home—she does, at least, until she insists on taking a day off to look after her gravely ill son and is fired as a result. Uncowed, she decides to forgo employment in favor of entrepreneurship, setting up a business selling homemade preserves. Lemon’s independent streak extends to religion; she’s one of very few practicing Muslims in Little Tunis, and she dismisses her husband’s attempts to draw her into the Christian fold. (A substantial number of the Africans brought as slaves to the U.S. were Muslims, and although the faith was violently suppressed by slave owners, it survived among a few. This is one of many small history lessons Barnett slips into Jam on the Vine.)
Lemon’s strength makes her the emotional core of the Williams family, but Ennis is no weakling, and the parents together provide a stable, loving home that nurtures Ivoe’s confidence and intellect. Love, however, offers no protection from the violence and humiliation that are a part of daily life. A family friend and his son are lynched because the father’s success in business annoys whites. Little Irabelle is subjected to terrible abuse, and Ennis and Lemon can do nothing but seethe and mourn. Timbo’s perception of his lot as a young black man is harshly realistic: “Facts were simple: most Negro men lived till somebody saw fit to kill them.”
Ivoe, though, somehow keeps her dreams intact and goes off to college, where she makes her first steps toward a career in the newspaper business. She also falls in love with two women: first with a gifted fellow student and then with Ona Durden, who teaches her printing and guides her early efforts at journalism. Ivoe is not conflicted or confused about her sexuality; the world’s disapproval barely intrudes on her romantic life.
The second half of Jam on the Vine follows Ivoe as she slowly and with great difficulty establishes herself as a newspaperwoman. Changing conditions in Little Tunis lead the family to move to Kansas City. Once there, Ivoe and Ona found a paper for the city’s black community called Jam on the Vine, a reference to KC’s Vine Street and a tribute to Lemon’s culinary enterprise. Ivoe makes it her mission to become a voice for the voiceless, exposing the racist unfairness and cruelty in the criminal-justice system and joining a national chorus of outrage against lynching. She witnesses some of the terrible violence of the “Red Summer” of 1919, when vicious riots broke out in cities across the U.S., and she becomes a victim herself when her paper offends white sensibilities.
Through Ivoe, Barnett gives readers an understanding of the particular challenges faced by ambitious, well-educated blacks during the Jim Crow era. A century ago, newspapers were truly essential, and the African-American press wielded considerable influence; Ivoe is thus a person of importance within her own community, as well as a woman of culture and personal achievement. But in the white world Ivoe is just “a Negro,” denied all opportunity to use her talents and subjected to the same abuse and intimidation that any black woman would face, and sometimes worse. Barnett manages to convey some sense of how women like Ivoe survived that contradiction—or failed to.
Although Barnett is clearly interested in giving her novel a broad historical context, Jam on the Vine is fundamentally a story of love, both within a family and between devoted partners, and the novel doesn’t shy away from any expression of that love. Lemon and Ennis are dedicated parents, but they are also passionate lovers. Ivoe and Ona’s relationship is frankly sexual, as well as tender and nurturing. Although there is considerable violence in the narrative, the final impression it leaves is soft, even uplifting. The beauty of living survives in spite of the horrors human beings can visit on each other.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has attended the Clothesline School of Writing in Chicago, the Moss Workshop with Richard Bausch at the University of Memphis, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in White Bluff.