Julius Lester's "Do Lord Remember Me," a novel about a black evangelist and his family from slavery to present-day Mississippi, has the hypnotizing weariness of an old voice but the touching piquancy of a child learning its first words. It is a naggingly familiar tale -- a minority struggling against social and economic adversity through the ages -- but Lester writes with such a poetic ease, evoking a strong emotional response in the reader, that the situations seem distinctively fresh.
In the opening pages, the Rev. Joshua Smith, in ill health, is composing his obituary, wracking his brain for details, as if the memories flooding forth would validate all that came before. "Dying wasn't nothing but going back to the beginning," he muses, adjusting himself to the sensuous tugs of memory, repeating anecdotes about his ancestors to himself as if they were mantras.
Joshua remembers as a child hearing his father tell about his great-grandfather, Tremble Smith, a house slave, who informed on other slaves planning an uprising and won his freedom -- a startling bit of information, morally horrendous on the surface, which surprisingly produced a swell of pride in Joshua's father. (By informing, Tremble saved the innocent slaves from indiscriminate lynching and also blackmailed the slaveowner into giving Tremble and his family land and freedom.) Joshua's father was a stumbling-down drunk every day of the week except when he awoke on Sunday to take the pulpit and dazzle the community with his hellfire and brimstone preaching. When Joshua asked his father why he would often laugh aloud in the middle of a sermon, his father said, "Son, it seems like sometimes I get so filled with loving God, I just got to laugh."
That Joshua had inherited his father's propensity for the unexpected became apparent when Joshua interrupted his own sermons years later by bursting into spirituals that some church members hadn't heard in 50 years. Called the "Colored Billy Graham" by the newspapers, he was known as the "Singing Evangelist" all around the country. Although a phenomenon as a traveling preacher, he never kept his own parish for long, despite his personal popularity, since he married a light-skinned woman who was discriminated against by other blacks wherever they settled.
"Do Lord Remember Me" is woven almost entirely of this prickly, ironic kind of narrative twist. Painful memories and incidents are dredged up without judgment being made on them, and the emotion and anxiety that surround them are sometimes left unresolved. Similarly, despite the mistreatment of blacks through the ages -- slave children eating out of pig troughs, lynchings, police beatings during the civil rights movement -- the narrator's emotions and pent-up rage are effectively held in check by the matter-of-fact storytelling.
Other times, as happens in real life, familial slights (and imagined slights) come to a head 20, and in some cases, 50 years later; the resentments, misunderstandings, and guilt explode in paroxysms of emotion. Joshua's carefree son, home from the Army, suddenly confronts his father about a time years before when Joshua whipped him after a white store owner cheated the son out of 50 cents and the young man refused to apologize for his "mistake."
Remembering a separate incident, Joshua, feeling a flood of shame overtaking him, asks his wife Carlotta, "Did you ever forgive me?" Although they hadn't spoken for five decades about the time when the proud husband slapped her for taking a domestic job with a white family, Carlotta knows exactly what he's talking about and responds dryly, "I stayed, didn't I?"
Part of the reason the novel is so affecting is that the cast of characters is not composed of the saintly ghosts which that haunt other such tales but, rather, people so flawed and so adept at the art of familial intrigue that the reader can't help caring about all of them. (Conversations between siblings ring true. At a reunion, one brother says of another, "He looks like Death playing hooky from the graveyard.") The delayed confrontations, the unresolved emotions, the seemingly irrational loyalties are home truths, which that, juxtaposed with forces out of the characters' control -- the racial hatred, social violence, and subtle discrimination that push family members to positions of humiliation and compromise -- combine for a quietly dignified novel which that has a knockout emotional punch.
At one point, Smith replies to an accusation of Uncle Tomism, "Once you know you got your own soul, saying 'yassuh' to a white man don't harm you." This is the common thread that strings together all the narrator's seemingly disparate memories: Surface compromises are sometimes necessary not only to survive but to keep the soul intact. Once self-knowledge is lost, hope is abandoned; and then all is lost, even memory. "Do Lord Remember Me" celebrates memory's validation of a life fully lived.