Rachel Eliza Griffiths (2023) Promise

I promised myself I’d read Promise. I’ve always a stack of books waiting to be read. This fell to the bottom of the pile and I had to keep starting it again and again and again. I got the set-up. Two black families on the edge of the sea, Salt Lake and a dirt-poor white family, living beside them in a kind of Eden.

Jim Crow laws are being challenged and then (as now) there’s a backlash. Cinthy Kindred is two years younger than her sister, Ezra, and her story, is in a large part, their story, but there are other narrators such as Ruby Scaggs, who goes to the same school as them and is the same age as Ezra. Her white skin and parental neglect doesn’t offend them. They have been drilled not to feel sorry for her. Not to feel nothing for white folk, but to keep their heads down and work hard.

‘THE DAY BEFORE OUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, ALWAYS SIGNALLED THE END of the time Ezra and I loved most. Not time the clocks that ticked and rang their alarms every morning, we knew that time didn’t really begin to end. What we meant by the time was happiness, a careless joy that sprawled its warm, sun-stained arms through our days and dreams for eight glorious weeks until our teachers arrived back in our lives, and our parents remembered their rules about shoes, bathing, vocabulary quizzes, and home training.'

Their father took a job in Hobart as a schoolteacher. Many of the villagers objected to black man teaching white children, especially a man with one arm. To being qualified and educated. The coon had it coming to him was as natural as breathing to the Scagg’s family. A landmark case in the Supreme Court is Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and white students unconstitutional, only applied to Southern States. The people of Salt Point created their own rules and ways of doing things.

Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam outrage is still to come. But the Bitter Fruit, which becomes the Strange Fruit of white supremacists sure of their moral right to hang black men from poplar trees, rotting in the sun, and becoming food for crows after being burned becomes part of the storyline. Ruby’s dad, Johan Ruben Scaggs III, an orphan, become part of the exclusive white men’s club when he witnesses such an event, before an uncle buys him a celebratory ice-cream cone—a rare treat.

The Civil Rights movement is on the move. Deputy Charlie is the law in Hobart. He takes his lead from his Uncle, who owns the land and the people on his land. Black men should know their place. But Ezra, Ruby and Cinthy are reaching menstruation. They’re becoming that age when men notice them. Even if they stand still their world is changing.

The Kindreds hail from a place called Damascus. They carry the weight of knowing, like Nina Simone’s song, their family and twelve children were burned and murdered by white racists. Welcome to the moron’s moron’s vision of a new America.

The Junkett family also own their home in Salt Point. They don’t carry as much familial baggage. Caesar and Irene teach their four children to be proud of who they are not what other folk think they are. They came from Virginia, seeking a new life, a better life.  Caesar's job as a school janitor fits the stereotype of what villagers expect a black man to do. But his dignity and their self-sufficiency mark them out as being different. Offensive to Miss Dinah Alley, the niece of Mr Benedict Hobart, whose word is law.

Miss Burden, the old schoolteacher’s body, had washed up on the shore. Cinthy was two-years ahead of her class. One of Miss Burden’s favourites. Ruby Scaggs hoped to become a pilot and fly in the sky. She becomes Miss Dinah Alley’s pet. In Miss Dinah Alley's world, black girls don't graduate and aren't worthy of attention or education. Not that she’s educated. But she knows how the world works and her purpose is to teach black girls how it should work. Security can become insecurity with the tipping of a coffee cup and the smashing of a glass. Read on.