In a powerful essay for The Nation, Toni Morrison recalled “feeling helpless” in 2004’s political climate. A friend called, cheering her. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” he said. “Not when everything is fine, but in times of dread.”
Morgan Jerkins has already shown herself as a writer who goes to work in turbulent times. Her 2018 essay collection This Will Be My Undoing, which explores racism and misogyny in America, earned high praise from Roxane Gay for “weav[ing] the personal with the public and political in compelling, challenging ways.” Her second book, Wandering in Strange Lands, received similar accolades in 2020. Now, Jerkins’s incisive social commentary shines through in her fiction debut Caul Baby, which takes on Black motherhood and gentrification with a touch of magical realism.
The book opens in late-nineties Harlem, with rents rising “not enough to panic but enough to brace oneself.” Laila wants more than anything to become a mother, but has suffered several miscarriages. She hopes the Melancon family might help her; they are infamous in the community for their caul, a layer of skin with healing powers. The Melancons fuse this precious membrane to their babies at birth so that it can later be cut off and sold, mainly to wealthy, white customers. When Laila tries to obtain a piece to protect her unborn child, she is rejected, and the baby dies. Caul Baby spans over twenty years as Laila’s niece, Amara, becomes a high-powered attorney who works to shut down the Melancons’ business. Meanwhile, the youngest Melancon, Hallow, starts questioning her origins and her family’s traditions.
While dissecting contemporary social issues is familiar territory for Jerkins, veering into fiction allows her to infuse her subject matter with magic. “Clawlike cracks on the walls” of the Melancon brownstone grow each time we see them, and spirits invade. This haunting seems related to the family’s failure to help their neighbors in rapidly-gentrifying Harlem. As white families displace Black families nearby, the Melancons prioritize business, choosing not to sell caul to those who have lived near them for generations. The physical pain heals after the caul is cut, but other wounds linger; before long, the Melancons must face the “uproar coming from outside” in Harlem as well as the lost souls within their home.
Jerkins conjures empathy for even her most complicated characters. She gives the unflinching Melancon family matriarch, Maman, brutish lines (“Drag her into the corridor and bring me my utility knife”) while still making room for her humanity. We come to see that Maman’s choices mean her family can stay in the brownstone that’s been theirs for generations, giving them financial freedom “so that [they] don’t have to answer to anyone or anything.” Jerkins’s expansive prose helps us see all sides of the thorny decisions her characters must make, so we can decide for ourselves who they are. “A mother will do whatever she has to, to ensure her child’s happiness,” Jerkins reminds us, “even if it has to hurt.”
Jerkins uses sensory language that emphasizes the joys and sorrows of motherhood. After Laila’s child is stillborn, she rocks her baby in a harrowing scene, disconnecting from her pain. “The weight she held in her arms felt like a pair of pomegranates,” she convinces herself. “Sweet things. Sweet, sweet things….yes, that’s right. Red juice staining her hands and fingers from all the pomegranate picking.” Laila’s community rallies around her after her tragedy, which readers feel deeply, but we also see the joys that other births bring. Hallow Melancon is named after “the high and the low” during an emotional home birth. None of the mothers in the novel choose to have their babies at hospitals, which serves as a reminder of the myriad of ways the U.S. health care system fails Black moms. Jerkins’s characters seek alternative options instead. Hallow volunteers at Blessed Waters Doulas, a Black-owned birth clinic smelling of eucalyptus with some of “the warmest people you’ll ever meet” and a mural of Angela Davis on the walls. “We’ve lost no mothers and no children,” the founder says. “That’s an impressive feat given what we know about Black motherhood, don’t you think?”
Laced with generational pain and sprinkled with magic, Caul Baby is a sweeping family drama with no shortage of action. During a pandemic that has laid bare a nation’s inequities, Jerkins’s work feels more relevant than ever. She approaches the complexities of Black motherhood, gentrification, and capitalism with urgency and care. What does it look like when a family reckoning with so many outside forces also suffers from within? What is the path forward in these times of dread, when so many long-held traditions no longer serve us? Jerkins offers solutions all her own in this blazingly original debut.
By Morgan Jerkins
Published April 6, 2021