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Debut Novel Emphasizes the Power of the Press

Jam on the Vine

LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s 2015 debut novel Jam on the Vine is this year’s book to savor. Barnett’s story of early 20th-century African-American woman Ivoe Williams and her goal to empower her people through the written word is hard to put down and easy to recommend.

Jam on the Vine begins in 1897’s racially-segregated Little Tunis, Texas and introduces 9 year-old Ivoe. Daughter of a Muslim cook and a metalsmith, smart and observant Ivoe is an exceptionally good reader who, being poor, does not own anything to read. Newspapers and books from her teacher and the home of her mother’s white employer help Ivoe continue her education when her schoolhouse is burned by white supremacists.

Inspired by her brother’s service in the Spanish-American War, Ivoe writes to President McKinley asking him to remember the contributions of black servicemen and suggesting ways to protect them overseas. Ivoe’s growing awareness of America’s racial inequality in the South’s Jim Crow era leads her to study journalism in college and found Missouri’s Jam on the Vine newspaper in 1918. With her female lover, she travels to Paris and enjoys relative equality there. Those personal triumphs show Ivoe progress against her race’s struggle but also how much more needs doing, chiefly through the black press. Ivoe faces racism, sexism and personal upheavals but unflinchingly writes on the state of race relations, boldly revealing the inaction of political officials and policies while enumerating black deaths and the burning of black neighborhoods.

Jam on the Vine gets its title from the tomato jam that Ivoe’s mother makes and sells to support her family. The book is a historically-inspired coming-of-age novel and a primer on the American zeitgeist after Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that decreed separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional if they were equal. Barnett’s best writing in Jam on the Vine involves actual events and policies that decry the myth of equality for blacks. Her descriptions of the mass violence of 1919’s Red Summer is a clear illustration of the lynchings, shootings, and other violence against blacks, most notably in Chicago, Washington, D. C., and Phillips County, Arkansas. A passage about the Missouri State Penitentiary’s illegal use of black prison labor and the lack of recourse to the practice reveals the many levels of abuse of power so often experienced by the era’s black citizens.

Barnett, a book editor and college professor, writes with a directness and refreshing lack of much allusion or metaphor that would detract from the seriousness of the subjects. In dauntless activist Ivoe, Barnett has created an inspiring, memorable female character who, in fearlessly pursuing parity for others, finds some for herself. As George Santayana supposedly said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore make Jam on the Vine a must-read for those committed to amending the USA’s often poor record on civil rights.