In her debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton was praised for her nuanced portrayal of intergenerational relationships between strong female black characters. In her much anticipated second novel, The Revisioners, Sexton returns with a lyrical family saga that traces multiple generations from the antebellum South (on the brink of the Civil War) to the Jim Crow era to post-Katrina New Orleans in the 2010s. The novel concerns itself with the inheritance of family histories and how those histories, even when full of trauma and loss, trickle down to the present and remain a source of strength.
Sexton’s novel is deftly structured into three parallel narratives, each intimately describing a woman in crisis seeking to free herself from a form of captivity.
We are first introduced to Ava, a half-black, half-white single mother in 2017 New Orleans. She has been laid off from her paralegal job and decides to temporarily move in with her white grandmother, Martha, who has shown signs of mental deterioration and is desperate for company. After Ava and her son, King, settle in Martha’s house, she finds her grandmother growing unhinged and prone to lapses of prejudiced speech, anger, and a neurotic fear of separation.
In the second narrative (during the Jim Crow era) Josephine, Ava’s great-great grandmother, is an elderly ex-slave who owns a tract of land outside of New Orleans. Josephine becomes friendly with a white neighbor’s wife, Charlotte. Josephine later discovers Charlotte and her husband have become members of the Ku Klux Klan. When one of Josephine’s laborers chops down a tree controversially close to her neighbor’s property, tensions escalate between the two neighbors. The Klan threatens Josephine’s family with acts of increasing violence.
The third narrative follows young Josephine as a slave living with her mother and father on a plantation, subsequently attending secret religious meetings with a group of slaves called the Revisioners led by Josephine’s mother, and ultimately their tortuous escape to the North.
The three narratives are thematically connected through mother-daughter relationships in which mothers strengthen their daughters against harsh realities. Both Ava and Josephine have mothers who are pious women of deep Christian convictions and serve as trusted spiritual guides in their respective communities. Ava’s mother, Gladys, is a doula who uses prayer and meditation to provide emotional support and promote soundness of mind to pregnant teenaged girls, many of whom have two jobs, lack stable housing, and are dependent on fickle baby daddies. Ava recognizes that her sturdiness is a result of growing up beside a mother who has been hardy and resilient. She remembers when her mom “would walk me to school every morning and tell me things with her hand in mine: three squeezes, for instance, stood for I love you. She taught me to visualize a white light encasing me, protecting me from harm.”
In the novel, both Ava and Josephine’s mothers encourage in their daughters the acquisition of a powerful form of spiritual knowledge. The mothers instruct their daughters in the practice of an intense prayer, in which they must envision a desired future where they are released from a particular form of oppression. The title of the novel refers to a religious group of slaves who believe in revisioning — that is, altering reality through their prophetic visions.
For Ava and Josephine, the act of visualization possesses a supernatural ability to determine the near future. When Ava imagines the “white light encasing her,” she is protected from kids who taunt her for the color of her skin and the hurt of an absent father because “there was at least a small chance that that white light she mentioned was blooming from inside me.” Young Josephine is taught by her mother that the “crisper the picture, the more likely the vision was to take place.” During her time on the plantation, she often envisions herself running towards the North, represented by a “big fiery ball” of sunshine, a scene which actually comes to fruition during her escape to freedom. Of course, there are limitations to the magic of these visions but both Ava and Josephine, through the guidance of their mothers, realize the power of intense prayer as a means of recovering agency and belief.
In the novel, black women reclaim their voices within suffocating, racially oppressive circumstances through a mode of storytelling that is passed down between generations of mothers and daughters. On the slave plantation, for Josephine and her mother, the act of revisioning is essentially a form of storytelling in which one lucidly imagines the future one desires. When the Revisioners gather, Josephine’s mother starts the sessions by inviting the others to share their lamentations. Then they start to praise and show gratitude for the blessings they have been given and finally, they envision a happier future. Revisioning refers to unburdening one’s troubles through raw, unadulterated vocalization and shoring up belief in the possibility of change. Josephine’s mother insists to her that revisioning is the “only good thing in this world,” that it is “our power to step outside it.”
In one of the novel’s subtle continuities between past and present, Gladys and Ava inherit Josephine’s mother’s work when they serve as doulas in a modern form of revisioning. They listen to the troubles of pregnant teenaged girls and counsel them by helping them visualize themselves as mothers leaving the hospital with the newborn in their arms.
Though revisioning often refers to a dream of the near future, it also becomes a means for dreaming up the past. For Gladys and Ava (who always carries a photograph of Josephine), their ancestor’s heroic story of liberation from slave to free property owner represents a source of assurance in their own ability to endure. When Gladys’ cancer worsens, she starts to receive visitations from Josephine who narrates her previously unknown stories of farm life and warns her of Martha’s danger to her family. Revisioning becomes a way of recovering family voices that have been lost, of reconstituting one’s past like the restoration of an ancient urn’s tableau. Ultimately, revisioning is an act of identification with generations of women that have come before.
When Ava wavers in counseling one of the mothers during labor, she relies on channeling both her mother and Josephine’s fervent prayer. She sees Josephine standing in her farm, “holding two children’s hands in hers, a girl around the age of five and a much older boy” and she feels a power that lends her hands “a force they wouldn’t have possessed on their own.” In this uplifting, graceful novel, the recovery of one’s ancestral past is an act of empowerment — one that heals grief, clears one’s heart of hatred, and replenishes one’s hope in the future.
By Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Published Nov. 5, 2019