Who Gets to Be Vulnerable

This essay is a review of Jesmyn Ward’s first novel, Where the Line Bleeds

One of the high points of 2017 was my discovery of Jesmyn Ward. I picked up Sing, Unburied, Sing in the late fall and immediately became transfixed by its impactful prose. After finishing it, I knew that I wanted to explore this talented author’s other works.

Following a few other reads, ranging from Little Fires Everywhere to An American Marriage, I encountered Where The Line Bleeds – her first book. I completed the novel earlier this year, and it sent my mind soaring.

Set in fictional Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, it follows the lives of twin teenage brothers during the summer after their high school graduation. It explores the themes that are often found in Ms. Ward’s other pieces – including race, financial woes, and drug addiction – while conveying its various messages in extremely relatable ways.
As Joshua and Christophe, the protagonists, navigated their ways through job hunts, romances, and family drama, I found myself contemplating my own journey and considering how precarious some of its roads can be and have been.

To put that reflection in greater context, I must travel back in time by nearly a decade. Though I am now an attorney working in D.C., I was once a twelfth-grade student living in suburban central Ohio. I committed to attending Howard University early on in my final year of high school, so I fully embraced my newly-appreciated ability to just be a teenager and have fun.

Like Christophe and Joshua, I chilled with my friends, smoked pot, and spent time thinking about what the future had in store. Unlike the twins, I was spared the apprehension of not knowing what was going to immediately come next, but I definitely connected with them on the general anxiety of being a young Black American man.

It is worth noting that a source of tension arises in the novel when Joshua gets a job on the docks and Christophe remains unemployed. This occurrence follows an admittedly hilarious scene in which Joshua and Christophe show up high to fill out applications for positions on the docks. Christophe eventually turns to the twins’ cousin, Dunny, who puts him on the weed selling game.

As Christophe delves deeper into the trade, he begins to associate with another member of their community, Javon, even more. A daily practice emerges in which Christophe hangs out at Javon’s home during the daytime, simultaneously hosting clients and being constantly aware of the potential presence of the police.

This portion of the novel made me recall an incident close to my high school graduation. I joined a few of my friends – two white guys and a Black young woman – for a night of typical senior revelry. We ultimately decided to smoke a joint near an undeveloped plot of land across from one of the shopping centers in our suburb.
Casual conversation turned into a ritual with which many teenagers are familiar – the blunt got passed around the car as we each puffed in turn. Smiles emerged among the barely veiled haze, and we began to speak about the upcoming graduation ceremony.

As the rolled cigarillo approached its final roach form, we noticed a police cruiser approaching the back of the van. I imagine that we all registered its presence at the same time. One of my friends surreptitiously tossed the contraband out the window, and we became silent. The officer walked up and posed the typical commands and inquiries.

License and registration.

What are you kids up to?

I stayed quiet as one of my white friends took on the primary speaking role. We all subconsciously knew that this method of engagement would be the best way to escape legal trouble. After a few minutes, the officer wrapped up his exchange with us and wished us a good night – though he more than implied that he should make our way home.

On the ride back to our neighborhoods, the same friend who had done the talking wondered out loud if the outcome would’ve been different had it been just me and our woman-friend. It captured our thoughts well in that moment. I’ve pondered that exchange off and on for the past nine years, particularly given where we all ended up.

We became lawyers, world adventurers, and non-profit starters. The factors of that night aligned in a manner that made it possible for us to be afforded the best outcome – to merely walk away unscathed.

As I read Where The Line Bleeds, I was certainly reminded that not everyone gets off so easily in this racist and oppressive system. Though a police officer doesn’t enter Javon’s home in the story, one could ostensibly imagine what would have happened if one did come in that space.

An additional frustration comes from envisioning my own alternate reality vis-à-vis the realities of myriad other Americans. Even if my friends and I had been arrested and charged that night, our parents would have been able to step in, hire lawyers, and minimize the damage to our future trajectories. For Christophe and Joshua, young men who had to deal with a relatively absent mother and a drug-addicted father, the stakes – and risks to their freedom – would have been much higher.

The combined effect of reflecting on the event before my high school graduation and reading Where The Line Bleeds inherently pushed me to consider this current political moment quite pensively. After finishing the book, a question formed in my mind and remains there:

Who gets to be vulnerable?

Stated another way, who gets to be human?

In this climate, which is marked by rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia, the imperative nature of these questions gains magnitude every day.

Did me and my friends, as suburban high school kids, get to be vulnerable?

Do Christophe and Joshua get to be?

Do Black and Brown victims of the prison-industrial complex, currently behind bars, get to be human?

Do drug-addicted folks in the Northeast get to be?

The answers to these questions likely vary – fueling the root problem. Each person, with their unique qualities, skills, and personality, should feel uninhibited in their pursuit of vulnerability. That is the fundamental power of Ms. Ward’s phenomenal writing – she creates stories that reinforce the humanity of some of the most marginalized people in our society.

As she indicated during her second, historic National Book Award acceptance speech last November, the joy and sorrow of poor Black Americans along the Gulf Coast are universal. The triumphs, fears, and excitement of Christophe, Joshua, and all the members of the Bois Sauvage community should resonate with each of us. Moreover, they should inform our approach to investments in public benefits, education, and substance abuse treatment – optimally unclouded by the racial bias that has traditionally pervaded these American systems.

Take the opioid crisis, for example. It is quite jarring to witness the current, negative impact of heroin, prescription drugs, and other harmful substances on so many Americans. However, it is also disheartening to juxtapose the federal government’s response to this crisis to its reaction to crack cocaine just a few decades ago. A punitive, harsh-on-crime approach has been replaced by a restorative one focused on public health solutions.

In this situation, it is clear that the differences in these reactions turn on the race of the people who were most impacted. It would be hard to imagine Jeff Sessions directing the Justice Department to not prosecute the Black citizens of Bois Sauvage who are addicted to drugs. On the contrary, given his actions as the Attorney General so far, he would instruct his prosecutors to slam the book on them and, quite ludicrously, recommend the death penalty for some of them. These actions would stand in stark contrast to drug treatment practices in racially homogeneous places like New Hampshire and Vermont.
Even considering all of this, and though we live in difficult times, I am encouraged by a number of things – most relevant in this setting is the end of Where The Line Bleeds. Without explicitly ruining the conclusion of the story, I must express that it wraps up with a hopeful refrain.

Christophe and Joshua both realize that, as humans, the challenges and adversity that they face all play into the resilience they develop. Despite the struggles that exist on the horizon, ranging from financial insecurity to caring for their ailing, nearly-blind grandmother, they likely have a sense that the full-circle nature of the universe will pan out in their favor. I personally think back on my life so far and realize that theme has been a recurring one. From living as a bright-eyed teenager full of limitless possibilities to working as a civil rights lawyer during the Trump Era, I recognize the beauty and interconnectedness of it all.

I thank Ms. Ward for her timely and gorgeous writing, a characteristic that has been a hallmark of the work that has built her amazing career. More importantly, I’m grateful for the characters that she has deftly created – people who make me reflect on the qualities that unite us all.

They, along with Ms. Ward, motivate me to continue to fight for a world in which all people can fully experience their humanity and vulnerability.

About andrewrhairston

Andrew Reginald Hairston is a civil rights attorney, writer, and doting uncle who divides his time almost equally between Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. He loves, fights for, and writes about Black people.
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