Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s debut novel, ” A Kind of Freedom”, is powerful, sensitive, all too human. The author follows three generations of an African-American family living in New Orleans; the first generation is part of what was once described as a “high yellow” elite in that city, describing the light skin tones preferred by this small group of elite black families in New Orleans. Although the father is actually dark skinned, he’s African by birth and a practicing doctor, which gives him the added status that his skin tone can’t. Living in a big house in a small district, we are privy to some of the rites and rituals of this group of elites, including their own Mardi Gras celebrations and annual presentation of debutantes. Two late teenaged daughters are the offspring in the family, both looking for husbands (and even careers) amongst, again, a tiny number of possibly appropriate male candidates. We might consider this early part of the novel and this family’s status as a kind of Paradise before The Fall.
One of the daughters will indeed become a lawyer, while the other daughter, the wilder and more passionate of the two, marries often and has a slew of children, but the author’s primary interest is in documenting how this daughter falls deeply into poverty, marrying and sticking with a man who becomes addicted to street drugs, and is also a dealer of same. We’ll follow this man in and out of prison twice. But every child who’s born into this family is greeted with the same love and hope that most wanted children are, and the grandparents remain the stalwarts, supporting children and grandchildren to the best of their ability, even opening a child care center as a source of employment for the family. This second daughter, Ruby, has a son, who will also have a son, and the ferocity of the world of street drugs virtually decimates the men in the family; it was a quick slide downward back into the streets of the ghetto, and that’s what makes Sexton’s novel so very powerful, and so timely and topical: the black middle class in America, the writer suggests, lives a tenuous existence in America, and one wrong move can push a family back into the street poverty that the grandparents have so assiduously avoided.
Part of Sexton’s great talent as a writer is to make every character in the novel sympathetic and fully human. Sexton’s writerly abilities are very impressive, too; she uses a pretty spare style of writing, so that the downs of the family resonate with more power accordingly. The author’s particularly good when describing the men in this family when they also have male children; by making the fathers loving and caring (though they generally fall back into the drug trap), she makes statistics fully human beings, and the tragedy of the childrens’ fates that much sadder. By focusing on one family, whose characters are so well drawn, Sexton’s novel avoids being preachy or novelistic sociology. Yet throughout all the trials and troubles this family goes through, they still remain a family and are strongly bonded to one another. Sexton’s descriptions of some of the petty street criminals who enter the lives of this family are exceptionally fine, as are her angry descriptions of any run-ins with white cops, who appear to be uniformly corrupt and/or abusers of power.
Margaret Sexton’s taken on a lot of big territory in this novel, which I don’t think has received much media attention, which is a shame, as the novel’s so powerful, so tender, so complex. This writer has a lot to say, and she says it with grace and beauty and kindness as well as with complexity and decency, and A Kind of Freedom really is one of this year’s sleeper novels, which deserves a wide audience.