Wow! We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge was a really interesting book! The commentary on race and racism were enlightening, and the commentary on families, sisterhood and motherhood were, at times, heart-wrenching. Overall, I’m glad I read it. However, despite a few lovely descriptions of western Massachusetts and less lovely ones of Dorchester, the book really could have been set just about anywhere, so it wasn’t the best choice for my reading challenge.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the people, history, or geography of the particular state. Right now we are in Massachusetts.
Although the story takes place in Massachusetts–the fictional Toneybee Institute is in the Berkshires–the mother, Laurel, grew up in Maine, and there are a few flashbacks to her childhood that are important to the story. In particular, the backstory of how she (and therefore her children) began using ASL (American Sign Language). Although none of her family are deaf, Laurel learns ASL and then teaches her children, which leads to them being chosen for the experiment that is the basis of the book–teaching ASL to a young chimp. The importance of ASL to this story is a link to Between, Georgia, where Nonny grew up using ASL with her adopted mother, and becomes an interpreter. I was particularly interested in learning a bit more about different “dialects” of ASL–or “black sign language” as Charlotte refers to it in the book.
College was the first time [Laurel] tried to sign to another black person, her roommate, Dorothy Marshall. Dorothy watched Laurel’s hands for a bit and then she laughed at Laurel for a long time before telling her she signed like a white girl. … When she left school, she made a pact with herself to always sign black. But when she applied for jobs at deaf schools, her potential employers shifted uncomfortably in their seats when they saw her sign and politely suggested she apply for assistant positions, not lead teachers. … She took the assistant positions, and when her daughters were born, she taught them to sign with the accent. But because she wouldn’t sign standard, she was never promoted. … When she got to the Toneybee, for the first time in a long time, with the scientists and the lab assistants at least, Laurel signed white. But at night, when they were gone and it was just her, just her and Charlie, she signed with the drawl.
I was fascinated by this subtle distinction and not-so-subtle discrimination, and, of course, the parallels to spoken language–the bias that exists toward people who speak English differently, whether that be with a strong New York or Boston accent, a Southern drawl, or a “less educated” or “English as a Second Language” accent.
However, there was another unexpected link to Georgia in Laurel’s backstory: The Colored Motorist’s Guide to America. I know this tour guide was mentioned in The Last Buffalo Soldier, and it may have been mentioned elsewhere.
Being the only black family for a one-hundred-mile radius had one benefit. Laurel and her parents were famous. For nearly a decade running, the Quincys’ tree farm was the only entry for the entire state of Maine in The Colored Motorist’s Guide to America. They were, officially, the northernmost Negroes in the United States. … The Colored Motorist’s Guide told them where they could and could not sleep, in what towns the citizens would shoot them if they stayed there after dark, and here, in a book that listed what was possible and what was not, was the impossible printed plain on a page: Negroes in Maine.
The guide itself (actually published as The Negro Motorist Green Book–Green for the name of its creator, Victor Hugo Green) did exist, and provided information as indicated in the quote above from We Love You, Charlie Freeman.
As I said, there were some reminders here and there of the Massachusetts setting.
Outside of the car it was dark and hot and early morning August in Dorchester. Through the crack of the window, I could smell every part of the city—every slab of asphalt, every rotting plank of wood siding, every crumbling stucco wall, every scarred and skinny tree—I could smell all of it beginning to sweat.
Contrast that description of Dorchester with the landscape along the way to the Berkshires.
We were going west, past empty fields and aluminum-sided barns and an alfalfa farm with a sweet scent that filled the car as we approached, then spoiled into the stink of manure as soon as we passed.
But there are lovely New England descriptions as well:
LATE NOVEMBER WAS when Courtland County became truly beautiful. That busy, condescending green that greeted us a few months before softened and deepened until the whole world, despite the winds, despite our breath hanging frozen in the air, closed in around us and felt warm. It was so beautiful it hurt. Even Adia felt it. The day before Thanksgiving, dismissed early from school, we walked to her house, both of us gathering up handfuls of red-and-orange ombred leaves and scattering the bouquets across her bedroom floor, until her sheets, her hair, her skin, smelled like seeded earth.
And I loved the tidbits we get about being black and feeling out of place in western Massachusetts.
Above the crooked lobes of each heart [Callie] drew their hair: short spiraling Ss, for their matching Jheri curls. The hairstyles were new. Another thing my mother insisted on changing before the move. At Danny’s His and Hers on Massachusetts Avenue, the hairdresser actually gasped at her request for a cut, to which she replied, defensively, “There won’t be anybody who knows how to do black hair where I’m going. This is the easiest solution.”
This is Greenidge’s first novel, and I’m looking forward to reading more from her in the future, but overall, We Love You, Charlie Freeman wasn’t a great book for getting to know Massachusetts. Hopefully some of our other picks will work better for my challenge.