Morgan Jerkins is a woman writer on fire who we are all benefitting from. At 29 she has written and published three books, two nonfiction and one novel and in the highest compliment I would ever give anyone, I will say that her novel Caul Baby, published in April of 2021, reminds me of those of one of my all-time favorites: Toni Morrison. I felt such joy when I read the following because of that recognition and resonance:
“There were cracks on all four corners of Maman’s bedroom, and they were hungry. Black, jagged, and deep, they resembled outstretched hands whose claws leaned toward the center, anticipating when they could devour her whole. They were Maman’s biggest nuisance. Over the years, she’d squandered thousands to get them painted over, but there was no polymer in the world that could overpower a vengeful spirit. She knew their brownstone was askew ever since Iris had been born. Cups stained in the cupboard minutes after they had been washed. Subtle sounds like fingernails scraping against windows or sharp winds on the inside persisted”(CB 96).
These happenings are related to and a result of all the lives Maman and other Melancon women, have chosen not to save. They are the dead come calling. Why have they chosen not to save certain people’s lives? Well, it’s complicated.
Read our piece on Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Woman Writer on Slavery and the Haunting that Persists
As in many of the novels of Toni Morrison, in the character of Maman in Caul Baby we have a woman who is a survivor. Though her choices are questionable to the reader and the other people in her family and neighborhood, they are made in the context of the need to survive in a world where she has very few options and has been moved and removed from her own life and land time and time again. Maman moved North from Louisiana with her husband for a better life but Harlem did not rise to the challenge for her.
“Moving to Harlem had brought its challenges. The camellia red beans, White Lily flour, Creole seasoning, and Louisiana hot sauce did not cook so richly here. In the summertime, the scent of fried chicken wafted through the air. Then in the colder months, the air smelled of nothing but rain. They substituted their gardens for flowerpots, lawns for stoops, camphor oil for their bodies. But at least they owned their brownstone outright”(CB 98).
When she catches her husband with another woman, a singer whose identity revealed at the end of the book may be missed by some readers, (hint hint), she kicks him out and needs to make it on her own with her two daughters.
Maman is from of a lineage of caulbearing women. Their magic, medicine and ability to see into the future was known and respected in Louisiana but here, in Harlem, it is reduced to one function: small pieces of their caul being cut off their bodies and sold as talismans for luck, health and safety to those who wear them.
The caulbearing lineage means these women are born with a thick caul covering them, like another layer of skin. The caul is shiny and noticeable to others. This added layer of skin or membrane regenerates itself when cut or injured. It is believed to have magical powers and can ensure fertility in women, safety of the child in their womb if pregnant, and heal people of all kinds of sickness and ailments.
The recipients must wear or carry the caul close to their body. Many wear the small piece in a vial as a pendant around their necks. They may pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire this extra piece of skin. Because of the risk of poverty, Maman is reduced to selling the caul – pieces of her and her daughters and eventually granddaughter’s skin – to a special group of clientele who can pay those prices: wealthy white people.
This creates the defining tension in the novel: because this line of caulbearing women is black, other black members of their community are unhappy with the Melancon women’s practices and choices. They feel that that they are unwilling to help many of the people of their own community and race who cannot pay such prices while catering to this elite white population. Many of them also are displeased with them selling their bodies to white people and indulging their old ways and superstitions. The plot spins off into many interesting directions from there, covering a lot of ground and exploring many issues.
“The Melancon family were accustomed to precarious living situations. Before migrating, they lived along the Cane River in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Each family owned a home on heir’s property from the river to the back swamp. The ranch in which Maman resided was on land between the river and an artificial levee, the living room itself right along the central waterway, a risk whenever there were high tides and hurricanes. …When caulbearers lived peacefully, they distilled oil from their camphor trees and sold them as medicine and perfume as a side hustle to everyone from the neighbors to the priests”(CB 98).
In one passage where Maman is reflecting on her past, we learn how this tradition of cutting pieces of their bodies, pieces of the caul and selling them to others for magical reasons came to be.
“Only women could be caulbearers. Though most stayed alive well past their centennial years to watch their descendants grow, their deaths were voluntary. Caulbearers were immortal under one condition: they could not be stripped entirely of their caul. Most stayed alive well into their hundreds, so stories began to circulate that caulbearers were found stark naked in the bodies of Lake Pontchartrain and Cane River, or buried in some unmarked lot in Isle Brevelle. Days after their disappearance, people would be walking around with cauls adorning their necks.
It was Maman’s great-great-grandmother who thought it was best that they sell themselves before anybody killed them for what they had”(CB 62).
If the book is about Black Mothers and their children, as Jerkins has said in interviews, and in the Dedication of her book “To Black Mothers (Past, Present, and Future)” then Maman is one of the bravest mothers. There are many more however and there is much more to the book. So don’t worry. I really didn’t give anything away. Maman is reminiscent of Morrison’s characters of Sula and Helena from the novel Sula, and Sethe from Beloved: women who are survivors and who live life on their own terms.
Read our piece about Toni Morrison’s novel, Sula: Toni Morison’s Sula: Available To And For Her Own Imagination-A Rare Kind Of Freedom And A Black Woman Writer’s Manifesto
Though Maman dies in a blaze and explosion at the end of the novel, along with her beloved brownstone, marking the end of an era and a lineage, it is a blaze of glory and magnitude. Through this transformative fire perhaps the lineage can rise again, in a new context, in a different form. For indeed lineages never really die.
I love watching the evolution of Morgan Jerkins’ writing and look forward to seeing what she has to offer next. A couple of years ago I read her collection of essays, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America. Then I saw she had another book out in 2020: Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots. As I was reading that book, I saw she had a novel coming out which I preordered and read immediately when I received it. That novel is Caul Baby.
In an interview with Deesha Philyaw in The Rumpus online magazine in 2018, we learn that Jerkins “speaks six languages.”
In that interview Jerkins says:
“I think what has drawn people to my work is that I’m able to be vulnerable. I say, look, I don’t have all the answers. Here are my experiences. I’m a Black woman, but here are my privileges. And not every Black girl is the same. I’ve said that right off the bat so people don’t assume this is just a universal story.”(https://therumpus.net/2018/01/visible-women-writers-of-color-morgan-jerkins/)
I think it is this and so much more that draws readers in.
I was very grateful when I read This Will Be My Undoing that Jerkins was willing to expose herself and her experiences as a Black woman in America so that I could better understand her and her reality but I also wanted to read more because she tells a good story and is a very talented writer. Her voice is intimate, assuring and non-arrogant so, as she says, that it lets the reader in no matter who they are. Though she may be young, it sure doesn’t feel that way. She feels like a wise elder.
Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots reveals she is also an historian. Born in Southern New Jersey, she realizes she doesn’t know her roots. And so she goes on a roots journey to the South to reclaim and understand the roots of her lineages as far as they go back here in the U.S.
“My story is not uncommon. From 1916 to 1970, six million African Americans made a grand exodus from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast in search of a better life. This exodus is most commonly known as the Great Migration. Some had families waiting for them at the other end, while others just took a chance to start anew in a place where no one knew their names. Many families allowed their memories to evaporate along with the steam of the locomotives on which they arrived. Many didn’t want to talk about their traumatic experiences in the South. Folks like me are the result of these omissions. I’ve spoken to people whose families are generations deep in the North, to investigate this pestering suspicion that we are still intuitively linked to the South. Often, at the start of these conversations, I’d hear an apology. The people I spoke with didn’t know where their families migrated from, and if they did, they never visited. Or they knew where their families migrated from, but didn’t know why their ancestors left or if any family remained on ancestral land” (WSL 5).
In a remarkable and successful effort, she decides to explore her roots, and in this provides an invaluable service to all Americans. She takes us with her on what she calls a “liberating and healing pilgrimage”(WSL 8) to many places in the U.S. in search of her ancestors, roots, history and beyond. In each location, she locates people who are actively invested in preserving the memories, recovering the history, holding the stories and reclaiming the land of her forebears. It is a groundbreaking contribution to the documentation of the history of African Americans in this country and I am so grateful to her.
“For this book, I traveled to the Georgia Lowcountry, to South Carolina, and to Louisiana to speak to some of the oldest microethnic groups of African Americans before traveling west of the Mississippi to further detail the effects of migration on memory and black identity in Oklahoma and California. I followed the migratory roots of yesteryear and discovered surprising similarities among African Americans of these particular regions regarding what they feel is at stake in their communities and who they are as a people”(WSL 8).
Part of her investigation is through the foods she has come to understand as important to her culture. Through this initial inquiry into why certain foods are eaten at certain times, she is led to learn about the Gullah Geechee people, the oldest sub-ethnic group of African Americans from the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina.
“The Lowcountry is a two-hundred-mile stretch of land that spans the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, along with the Sea Islands. It is believed that over half of the 388,000 Africans brought to the lands that became the United States first arrived in the Lowcountry. According to the International African American Museum, 80 percent of African Americans can trace an ancestor who set foot onto a Charleston dock first”(WSL 18).
This is an amazing statistic and it is even more amazing to go with Jerkins as she traces these roots back and goes to these places gathering stories, history and connecting the dots. When she ends up in Houston and Louisiana searching out her Creole roots, we see the seeds and origin of her Caul Baby novel being planted when she states:
“In African American folklore, those born with a caul are said to have psychic and healing powers”(WSL 67).
It is an exhaustive study of so many subjects. Jerkins is doing recovery work, she is doing healing work, she is doing reparations work with a voice that is strong, powerful and good.
In Wandering in Strange Lands she assures the reader:
“Despite all the differences I encountered, I ultimately came away from my journey feeling that all is not lost. Much of our cultural history that has not been retained can be found in people you have yet to encounter and places where you have not yet traveled”(8).
I bet Jerkins will continue to take us there.
Morgan Jerkins is a #Nasty Woman Writer, Activist and Historian.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Jerkins, Morgan. Caul Baby. Harper. April, 2021
____________________. This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America. Harper, 2018.
_____________________. Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots. Harper. 2020
Philyaw, Deesha.”Visible: Women Writers of Color: Morgan Jerkins.” https://therumpus.net/2018/01/visible-women-writers-of-color-morgan-jerkins/