Have you ever heard anyone say, “Every time you drive on a Martin Luther King Jr. Road, Boulevard, Street or Avenue you have to assume you’re in the ‘ghetto.'” It’s certainly not a compliment to this man that inspired so many people with his speech on the Washington walk, and so much more. In saying that, people carry the deep remnants of racism and prejudice to cities everywhere.
I think about it each time I pass Martin Luther King Jr. Rd in Raeford, NC. The biggest thing in Raeford (the only thing in Raeford) is a chicken plant that sits on acres and football fields of land behind a small forest of trees just off the highway. It’s a commune of chicken processing. If you live anywhere near Raeford, you’ve been stuck behind a chicken truck on a two-lane road and you would recognize the smell anywhere, it heats the air. It comes in through your air conditioning vents and leaves everything stale and full of shit. You’ve seen feathers drift from the back of the truck, beaks in between caged metal. Chicken exhaust.
I think about my friends in the City talking about Martin Luther King Jr Blvd in Raleigh. How they don’t drive South on MLK because it leads straight into project housing. In Raeford, MLK leads straight into fundamentalist America, chicken processing and chicken packaging. It’s what we eat and what we survive on. Filled with toxins or not, it’s the heart of hearty America. Not that either of these represent the legacy of MLK, which is the point it took me two paragraphs to get to, the legacy of MLK shines through in Virgin Soul, Judy Juanita’s new novel from Penguin.
In the novel, Juanita hardly discusses MLK, but it’s the unsaid that has the biggest impact on her reader. In all honesty, this novel made me extremely uncomfortable. It was a discussion of the origins of the Black Panther Party in California through the eyes of a naive, but insightful college student. Geniece is a wonderful narrator because she’s incredibly smart, but makes unnerving and deliberate decisions. She made me uncomfortable the more she became invested in the violence of the Black Panther Party movement. The more she became “indoctrinated” as her Aunt Ola says, the more she becomes so sure about her role in the movement and less sure about her entire life.
There’s a deep tension in this novel that Juanita does so well. Geniece is on the edge of everything, she’s the secretary of the movement and because of this we hear about the riots, the burning of neighborhoods, and the arrests by “the pigs” second hand. It isn’t until she becomes the Editor of the Black Panther paper that she actually begins to see a different story unfolding in the revolution. She starts to see her own revolution through the story of these two young girls with a drunk mother and constant police calls. These two little girls who are dressed in their perfect Sunday best for a Christmas dinner at the Children’s house, who’s mother is drunk and broken in bed, her face swollen from a boyfriend’s boot, they are the game-changer in Geniece’s life as a revolutionary.
The story of the revolutionaries, the black house, the Black Panther Party is one I wasn’t aware of until I read this book. I’ll admit I’m knowledgable about Vietnam and knowledgable about the “funnies” of Hippie history, but I knew nothing about the Black Panther Party. I dabbled in Malcolm X’s biography when my kids were reading it at the teen center after school. I love what he says about the dictionary during his time in prison. (You can read “Learning to Read” here). Geniece’s story is one of “on paper equality.” On paper in this story, black people were free and equal, however in the reality of the streets, this just wasn’t true. The 1960’s in America was still a war between colors, but when I taught this time period to my student’s this semester, I hadn’t tried to see the perspectives like I had to in Virgin Soul. In 1992, just 21 years ago, we had the LA Riots over racial injustice so I can’t even say that we’re fully equal now beyond the paper saying that we are. I used this article, The Roots of Racism, with my students this semester while they read To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it says a lot about how we categorize people in the 21st century.
While Virgin Soul made me uncomfortable and the tension became even more traumatic as the pages escaped behind me, I think it was worth reading, just for the subtle hints at a history that I had never studied. History teachers always say that history is told from the perspective of the winner and Virgin Soul tells how true this is. The brief fictional history of the Black Panther Party from the perspective of a woman no-doubt, and a woman who was deeply imbedded, but also stuck to the outskirts for her womanhood, was definitely worthy of competing for its historical place.
I think it’s deeply ironic how Geniece’s womanhood keeps her from the heavy battles that ensue during the novel. Here she is watching the violence unfold around her, watching the boys she’s trusted to lead her into power, and unable to really involve herself within the movement other than through words. I appreciated Juanita making sure she took over the role of editor by the end. Wars start with words, not with guns and it made Geniece become a more dynamic character because she was in control of the words behind her movement. Even then, she was visiting members in jail to hear the news, and the read-all-about-it experiences that needed to be shared out of The Bay Area.
This book is just in time for its coming-out party. With President Obama running on the Change campaign in 2008, Virgin Soul is the book that highlights the change that America has been trying to make from the beginning. How many moments of change have we tried to fight and how many have we accepted without much fuss. I wonder now.
Virgin Soul gives readers a glimpse at the beginnings of change. People so often start knowing what they want to move, but don’t often know how they’re going to move it. How will you get something to budge. How large, how tall, how obtuse, how deep is the well of the problem and how far are the movers willing to stir.
Reading wise, this book was slow. It probably needed to be slow though so it unfolded like a pamphlet given out by a member. I was at times shocked by the brutality, the sexual exploration, and the choices that Geniece would make (like Barry with his “funk,” BLEH). Then I realized that not only is Geniece a member of the Black Panther Party, she’s a girl who is going to college in the hopes to earn her degree and get out of everything that she’s fighting for. She wants to grow into a woman who is known for the education she holds rather than the mistakes she’s made. If I were to write the history of the college girl in a sentence I would say, we retreat into someone else’s ideas until we find our own during the outbreak of education.