I really wish I’d written this shortly after my last sweet moments with the book Lazaretto, by Diane McKinney Whetstone. I prefer writing through the satisfied haze of having just spent intimate time in a dream world where good character is rewarded and villains see just ends.
I read my first McKinney Whetstone novel twenty years ago, as she reminded her fans on her Acknowledgement Page. I owe my love for her, and for Black women’s fiction in general, to my mother- my other favorite writer and the woman who introduced me to Tumbling, a story with many threads that is ultimately about the way that a community comes together to heal in the wake of tragedy.
Lazaretto is also about a Black community in Philadelphia that, in the wake of President Lincoln’s murder, bands together to do what we do- find creative ways to survive white supremacy. But Lincoln and white racism are really tangential, as they are in most McKinney Whetsone’s novels. Like Toni Morrison, McKinney Whetstone usually writes whiteness as a troublesome spectre which black communities resist when it can’t be ignored. In this novel, the community becomes intimate with white, orphaned brothers who are in relationship with one of their own.
Hence, Lazaretto is a story about chosen kinship. It starts with two teen girls whose lives and prospects have seemingly been laid out for them before their births. Sylvia, who is training to be a nurse, has inherited her aspirations from her middle class family, though she rejects their prejudices. Meda, who is an indentured servant to a wealthy white lawyer, is pregnant with a child her exploiter has fathered. On the fateful night of their meeting, the lawyer has brought Meda to the nurse Sylvia works for to terminate a pregnancy that is already too far along. When he finds that the baby was delivered alive, he orders Sylvia to hand it over so that he can “handle the matter.” This is Sylvia’s first experience with the life-negating power of whiteness. Meda’s first child and Sylvia’s first delivery bind them in a moment of loss made more even more profound by news of the President’s murder.
What I found healing about this novel is the girls’ navigation of their own power to choose the love that heals in the aftermath of this brutality. Sylvia chooses a sister friend from the other side of the tracks (literally), a working class neighborhood her parents have forbidden her to visit. Meda chooses to care for two white infants at an orphanage near the midwife’s office. She also chooses to have a romantic relationship with the head of the orphanage, a woman who is both a Suffragist and Abolitionist. These choices (a reminder that power exists at multiple locations) help the girls thrive through years that unfold as their stories intertwine in thrilling ways.
My nerd self is most impressed by what seems to be a nod to Mark Twain. Puddn’head Wilson is a lesser known novel of Twain’s that was published during the period known as reconstruction. Roxy, a woman who is enslaved, is carrying the plantation owner’s son (I am struggling with the language of parenthood that is so tied up in capitalist patriarchy). What I am trying to say is that plantation twins preceded what some folks derisively call “project twins” in that the owner’s wife and the people she legally owned were often carrying siblings. The system was brutal and I don’t want to make light of it here. But the wonder of this story is Roxy’s choice to switch the boys at birth. The “white” boy is raised as a slave while her own son is raised as a free white man. The results are as disastrous as the construct of whiteness. On the one hand, Twain could be read as illuminating this construct, which allows men to behave as animals with little consequence. On the other hand, Twain could be read as making the Birth of a Nation-ish argument that freedom is just damned dangerous in the hands of Black men.
Lazaretto has saved me from caring about these counter arguments as it presents a third way out for whiteness, a more hopeful imagining of what could happen when boys are disconnected enough from the inherited privileges of whiteness while in loving community with a Black woman. Loving a single Black woman isn’t enough for racial reconciliation or the overthrow of patriarchy. If it were, slavery wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did in this nation, as the sons of brutal men would have chosen their Black caregivers over their power. But when there is no power to be gained just by living long enough to become a man (oh how I love the Underground series on WGN for illuminating this truth)– when, in fact, the only love or sense of community you’ve ever known has been Black, then a person stands a chance at immunity to white supremacy. At least these characters do, and that’s enough hope to last me for a little while.