Tara M. Stringfellow’s newest novel, Memphis, captures the beauty of Black culture and how beauty is perceived by her characters. The brutality of life strips beauty away so quickly and so permanently that storytellers often pair beauty with trauma as if they are two sides of the same coin. Stringfellow manages to avoid those trappings while also separating Blackness from trauma, two things also too often paired and fetishized in pop culture and media. She highlights the importance of acknowledging Black beauty as it exists on its own, and how it prevails in the face of adversity. Dark skin is repeatedly adored and desired by the women of the book, beginning with ten-year-old Joan who admires the darkness of her aunt and wishes she herself were darker. Beauty is not the only essence of Blackness worth capturing, but Stringfellow’s emphasis lies in how she imbues every moment of the novel with the highest value. Each passage of the book is a testament to Stringfellow taking her time to make arguments that upend the traditional standards of beauty, so that her characters, and presumably her readers, may both see their own value.
Joan, the first of four main female characters, introduces the reader to the world of Memphis from her view as a young artist. With her charcoal and sketch pad always at the ready, she extracts and enhances the beauty that surrounds her. From the moment she arrives on her aunt August’s doorstep with her mother, sister, and dog—a family fleeing their abusive patriarch—she begins to take tally of everyone and everything that will eventually become models for her art. Joan’s perspective eloquently translates the beauty of Black, Southern culture onto canvas the same way that Stringfellow translates it through her language on the page.
Through such strong female characters, each with their own special gift, Stringfellow demonstrates that the relationship between beauty and trauma is not symbiotic. That which is beautiful exists despite its proximity to that which is considered ugly. The protective response of a neighborhood when one of its members, Myron—the first Black homicide detective on the Memphis police force—is lynched by his colleagues, is powerfully illustrated by how neighbors watch over the home of his wife Hazel who is a highly skilled dressmaker. Later, Hazel’s daughter August blames God for the death of her mother and, as a result, she withholds her remarkable singing voice, even though it is powerful enough to cause anyone within earshot to speak in tongues. Her gift did not arrive the moment her mother collapsed in the garden. It always existed as a beautiful superpower that everyone around town knew about and wished she would wield more often at church services, funerals, or weddings. The trauma of losing a loved one is not the fuel that propels these women into discovering new abilities. Their gifts are preexisting, adding beauty to the world in a literal sense and connecting community members to each other in a way that amplifies the beauty they possess as a necessity.
Memphis wastes no time before the emotional gut punches begin. A childhood rape and scenes of domestic violence set a tone that may be triggering for some readers. However, Stringfellow does not present trauma for the sake of shock but uses it, among other things, to subvert the tiresome “strong Black woman” trope that can be harmful when not handled with care. The women in this story are not punished for existing. They push back. They have autonomy and are driven by internal ambitions that fly in the face of class, violence, gender, and any other difficult circumstances or constraints. When Miriam packs up her family to move back to her childhood home to live with her sister August, she finds the means to contribute to the household while following in her mother’s footsteps to become a nurse. Miriam’s decision forces her daughter Joan from her home, where her father has become a danger, to live instead with the cousin who violated her as a toddler. But when her high school art teacher offers an opportunity to put her remarkable talents to better use and study abroad, Joan and her aunt work with the other women of the neighborhood to develop a portfolio that brings her unsuspecting mother to tears.
What Stringfellow and her protagonist Joan share is apparent by the end of the novel: artistic vision. The book bounces between the four women’s perspectives, spanning three generations of the same family. But Joan is the only character whose chapters are narrated from a first-person perspective. Her unmatched attention to detail, and the thoughtful language she uses to describe how she sees her subjects, does double work in Stringfellow’s novel:
And now it came with such clarity, watching my Auntie August drop green tomatoes into sizzling hot grease, that I took after my aunt. And she was a vision. Her skin was the color of late evening. I imagined drawing her. I wanted to get the length of her limbs just right, the curve of a high cheekbone. I wanted to put her on paper. Have her live there. Proof of dark beauty. I wanted the world to see and to be ashamed.
Each printed word in Stringfellow’s Memphis is as powerful as a stroke from Joan’s paintbrush or a scratch of her charcoal as she, too, portrays her community. What Miriam experiences at the sight of her daughter’s work—unbridled reverence for the images of the Black women she knows so well and thinks are beautiful but has never seen captured just so—is what readers can feel if they visit the author’s version of Memphis through the pages of the book. Although the troublesome men of the novel do not have to answer directly to the women they harmed, the way women in this novel thrive, and the vibrancy with which they do it, cannot be overlooked. Joan earns the opportunity to go abroad because she has surpassed what her current school and neighboring college can provide for her. Miriam is able to pursue her dream career and support her sister, who eventually has her own struggles. These things collectively compose the author’s vision of Black beauty. It is such a simple act to provide alternative narratives within Black culture that oppose the stories commonly told across mediums. What makes Stringfellow’s work so special is her, and Joan’s, vision. Memphis revises how Black women are viewed in the world, particularly in literature, and what she manages to capture is worth putting on display for all to see.
By Tara M. Stringfellow
The Dial Press
Published April 5, 2022