[music by Jared Paul]
Speaker 1: How would you define freedom?
Speaker 2: How do I define freedom? To be able to be in my own body, in any space, at any time.
Speaker 3: An extension of my ancestors. What they didn't have for freedom, I do wholeheartedly, I multiply it to honor them.
Speaker 4: Oh my gosh, that's heavy. As feeling your like obligation is to your own happiness and well-being. As the ability to do what you want to do but not in a way that would hurt somebody else.
Speaker 5: For me, it's through dance. As to be accepted for who you truly are and no one saying anything about it.
Speaker 6: As a soul that is free from suffering.
Speaker 7: As no limitations put upon a person.
Speaker 8: As being able to speak without permission.
Speaker 9: It shouldn't be can I? It is what it is. I woke up, I'm free.
[music by Jared Paul]
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. Welcome to the show. Ayana Mathis published her first novel in 2013. It was an intimate enriching family story stretching across generations and set in the midst of what's known as the Great Migration, the movement of millions of Black people from the South to the North and the West throughout the early 20th century. The book became a New York Times bestseller and NPR called it one of that year's best reads.
This week, Ayana Mathis publishes her second novel. It's called The Unsettled, and it's again an intergenerational story of a Black family, but while migration and movement remain a theme, we now meet our characters at a crossroads, with each of them unsure where to turn next in their search for some self-determination. That may be familiar emotional territory for a lot of people right now, it certainly is for me. Ayana Mathis joins me this week to talk about her work, about her own journey, and the ideas she's been pursuing along the way. Ayana, welcome to Notes from America.
Ayana Mathis: I'm so glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: A pleasure. Let's start by meeting the woman whose journey drives much of the action in The Unsettled. The story begins in 1985 with a mother, Ava, and her son, Toussaint, who has just arrived at an emergency housing shelter in Philadelphia. Introduce us to Ava, who is she, and what's happening in her life at the moment we meet her.
Ayana Mathis: Ava, she has a very interesting past. She comes from a place we'll probably talk about in a little while called Bonaparte, Alabama, which is a Black settlement that at one point was thriving, deeply successful, and really kind of singular. When we meet it in the '80s, it's in its death throes. There are just a few people left and most of the young people of whom Ava was one, left. Ava left Bonaparte, she bounced around for a little while, she lands in Philadelphia.
She has a few relationships, she gets married, the marriage does not work out spectacularly so. The spectacular explosion of that marriage is what lands she and her son in this shelter when we meet them. Ava is a woman who's searching for something that she doesn't understand exactly what it is or where she might find it. She's a sympathetic character, I hope, but she also has a little bit of a penchant for self-sabotage.
Kai Wright: Indeed. The first part of the story mostly takes place in and around that emergency housing shelter that Ava and her son arrive at. We get a real sense that she is stuck and she is angry about it. She feels that she's been hurt badly, but she's got a sense that the real culprit is not any specific individual, which is, of course, crazy-making because it means she doesn't know where to direct her anger. There's this line you write, it says-- this is a little later in the book, but it's "You can't kick the system in the face. You can't slit the system's throat." Tell me about that emotion Ava is wrestling with, this tension between a system is what she's really mad at, but she's facing individuals.
Ayana Mathis: I think it's a couple of things. As I mentioned before, she's from this place called Bonaparte which was this all-Black settlement in the south. It was a place that I imagine it, it's a little bit mythical and a little bit real. The folks living in that place were entirely self-determined. Shockingly, so given the historical period in which they exist which is 19th century up through Jim Crow, et cetera. Ava has a sense that there is this thing called white supremacy and there is this wider world that squeezes them, but it is also not exactly the way that she has understood herself. She understands that there is this thing that is squeezing at her that has it out for her.
That is curtailing her ability to make choices and things like that. She also has a sense that perhaps there is some other way to live outside of this thing which is very much the model of the place in which she grew up called Bonaparte, as I said. She finds herself both stymied by the fact that she doesn't know how to navigate the fact that the system is squeezing her so tightly. She doesn't know exactly where to put her anger, as you said. She's also stymied by the fact that she understands that there is some other way, but she can't get back to it or figure out how to make it.
Kai Wright: That's the part that is so resonant for me and I think a lot of people that you're like, "There is something else that I could be doing here, but I can't quite figure out how to get there. There's something that's missing along the way." There's a passage at the start of the book I want to ask you to read that gives us a sense of what Ava is experiencing at the shelter and it's notably shot from the perspective of the person handling her case. Can you read that piece for us and then we'll talk a little bit about it?
Ayana Mathis: Happy to. Ms. Simmons, this is the social worker handling Ava's case. "Ms. Simmons sat across from her 1:00 PM appointment Ava Carson. She'd given her an additional two days to settle in before this second assessment. Some of them took their arrival here harder than others. This Carson woman seemed a little fragile. Plus, there was something odd about her. Could be a secret boozer, though she didn't look it. Clear eyes or a user, but she didn't look like that either. Psychiatric problems, maybe, though the psych social worker said she'd passed the evaluations but that didn't mean anything.
People could be depressed, couldn't they? They could have something seriously wrong and still know the day of the week and who was president. "She's fine," June said, after the evaluation. June was a little put out about that. June didn't like a pretty well-mannered woman taking up her time if she wasn't a little out of her mind. "Fine with me," Ms. Simmons thought. "I'll take the Ava Carsons of the world any day, even if she is a little strange." Just yesterday, a resident had told her very calmly that she'd left her previous place of residence because her father, who was apparently a bastard and dead, had taken control of the Hi-Fi system and was talking to her through the speakers.
It seemed this father could now be heard through the radio on Ms. Simmons' desk, and the stink coming off that woman. Hadn't washed in God knows how long. This, while she bounced a two-year-old on her lap. So Ms. Carson? I mean, sure, I feel sad. We don't have anywhere to go. Ms. Simmons didn't care for crying, though it was unavoidable in her line of work. She didn't want this Carson woman welling up and spilling tears down her front. She did not like when things overwhelmed their boundaries. Her job was to impose order on chaos so these women could get out of there and live like other people.
Kai Wright: So these women could get out of there and live like other people. This is fairly early in the book, right away, we get this idea, this picture of Ava as outside of society, as pushed outside of society. We start to hear these ideas about what someone like that is. Just tell me a little bit about why you wanted to have that perspective early in the book, that lens on Ava early in the book.
Ayana Mathis: I think a lot of the book, and I think Hattie was too, but this book in particular is about people who are struggling to find something meaningful on what we might call the margins of society. We have a lot of ideas about the people on the margins, right? People who might not decide for the conventional modes of happiness or morality or whatever it is. The people in this book, Ava in particular, but also her mother, also her lover, who we'll meet later, these people all are looking for something else.
They're looking for something else psychically and spiritually, that is, their personalities want something else to feel fulfilled, but they're also looking for something else politically and socially. These people, Ava wouldn't use these terms. Sorry, Ava, I'm putting words in her mouth. I think that what she's looking for is something like freedom. She's looking for something like autonomy. She's looking for agency as a Black person, as a Black woman, for herself, for her child, for her community.
Necessarily, I think, at least in the scheme of this book, in order to try to find a way to fully inhabit those things or take a realistic shot at getting those goals, you end up being outside of the mainstream.
Kai Wright: Some years ago I was in an editorial meeting and we were talking about what drives our work, and I said for me, I'm invested in freedom for Black people. That's my north star, this freedom thing that Ava is chasing and I'm chasing and we're all chasing, and a non-Black colleague asked me, "What does that even mean? What do you mean by that?" I felt some kind of way about the question at the time if I'm honest, but I did also not have a good answer.
That exchange came to mind as I was reading The Unsettled, and so I figure as somebody who's obviously thought about the question of freedom and Black freedom in particular a lot. Before we go to break here, do you have a succinct definition for yourself? What is Black freedom?
Ayana Mathis: I don't have a great answer either. This book is actually I think more of a lot of questions about what that might be than answers about it, but I think it has something to do with, in this country, we think a lot that we have freedom to. We have freedom to create things. We have freedom to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We have freedom to do all these sorts of things. Is the narrative, but what impedes that freedom is a certain freedom from. We don't have freedom from racism, we don't have freedom from white supremacy, we don't have freedom from all of these things, so as long as we don't have freedom from, we can't have freedom to.
Kai Wright: What about for you? What about for Ayana Mathis?
Ayana Mathis: I feel really fortunate. I have a lot of creative freedom. I have a certain amount of autonomy and agency that I didn't grow up with that my mother and my grandparents didn't have. Some of that is circumstance, some of that is the times. I understand it as a blessing. I feel free to talk about the things that I don't have freedom from, which is a great deal of freedom actually.
Kai Wright: To not then be violently beaten for saying such things.
Ayana Mathis: Exactly.
Kai Wright: I still don't quite have an answer for myself either, but I know it means a lot to me. [laughter] we need to take a break. I'm talking with Ayana Mathis about her new novel, The Unsettled. It tells an intergenerational story of a Black family and each member's frantic effort to define for themselves what it means to be free at the close of the 20th century. When we come back, we'll meet more of Ayana's characters and we can take your calls. Can you define what it means to be free today? It's a massive question I know, but maybe it's the defining question of all of our lives. I don't know. Let's see what you guys can come up with. This is Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. Stay with us.
[music by Jared Paul]
Kousha: Hey everyone, this is Kousha. I'm a producer. This week Notes from America is celebrating its first birthday. A year ago we launched on radio stations across the country. Today, we're on more than 100 stations, and we've been able to talk to and hear from listeners in New Mexico, Baltimore, Chicago, and of course, everywhere you listen on podcasts. Thank you for making this show possible. Your comments, your engagement, that's what makes it all happen, and hey, we do this show for you. If you want to help us celebrate, visit us on Instagram. We're getting love all week from other shows, former guests, and listeners just saying happy birthday and sharing episodes they love.
If you want, we'd love to post a message from you too. If you're on Instagram, record yourself, post it as a story, and tag us in your story. Our handle is @noteswithkai, that's K-A-I. You can also send us a voice message. Just go to notesfromamerica.org and click on the green button that says record. I wish I could offer you some cake, but that would cost a lot in postage, so in lieu of that, just thanks again, and hope to hear from you soon.
[music by Jared Paul]
Kai Wright: Welcome back. It's Notes From America. I'm Kai Wright, and I'm joined by bestselling author Ayana Mathis. This week she publishes her second novel called The Unsettled. As the title suggests, it's a story about searching for home, for safety, and ultimately for this elusive idea of freedom. Ayana, we've been talking about your main protagonist Ava. As you mentioned, she grew up in a place called Bonaparte. Now, this is a fictional town in Alabama, and her estranged mother, Dutchess, still lives in Bonaparte. Tell us about this place Ava grew up in, what was is it at the time she lived there?
Ayana Mathis: At the time that Ava lived in Bonaparte it was still doing pretty well. They were a cooperatively run community. They owned something like 10,000 acres in my mind at the time, [chuckles] so they farmed, some subsistence farming, but also selling crops. They had a bunch of businesses. They made preserves there. Ava's stepfather was a renowned furniture maker in the area, and people would come from all over the place to buy his furniture that was custom-made, so it was a really thriving place. It was a place that had only white here things, even through Jim Crow.
I said a little bit earlier, near the top of the hour, the place, it's a spiritual homeland. It's a physical reality in the book, but I think also in my mind it's a little bit of a myth. There's one way into this town by land and then one way out by sea. That's it. They're in a bend on the Alabama River. They've got guards in the trees. It's a little Wakanda.
Kai Wright: It's mystical-
Ayana Mathis: It is.
Kai Wright: -but you know what, it's not entirely fictional. Honestly, there are a number of towns like this in the history, and we've talked about some of them on this show in the past that were these all-black towns where there was freedom, and that have since faded to some degree. What did Bonaparte become? By the time we meet Dutchess in 1985, we are introduced to a very different Bonaparte. What has happened over the years?
Ayana Mathis: Several things have happened. The easiest thing to say that's happened is most of the young people have gone. When we meet Bonaparte in the mid-80s, it is Dutchess there, Ava's mother, and four other people, and they're all in their 70s and 80s, and they've become custodians. They're trying to hold this land and hold this legacy for what they don't know. None of them are convinced that their children are going to come back, but they're holding onto this land as the legacy to give to their children.
The roads are broken up, the fields are overgrown, et cetera. Here's a little bit of the mythical aspect I suppose. It is kind of cut off from time, so there's an aspect of the book in which Dutchess, one of these main characters, she looks out at the river and she keeps seeing this mist which she's convinced is getting thicker and thicker almost by the day. It's almost as though time and circumstance is cutting off this place, is disappearing it from history.
Kai Wright: There's an exchange I wanted to ask you about that's just stuck with me. It's a moment where there's a strange visitor who comes to town and Dutchess is telling this person about the history of Bonaparte, and she starts talking about people who have disappeared. That's the word she used, disappeared. She says, "We got off the track of our own time and back onto white people's time. Maybe this place can't exist in white people time. Maybe it'll just fade away and stay gone." What's she on about there? That just really stuck with me.
Ayana Mathis: I think she's referring to a couple of things. One is this actual extent political circumstances because they've also lost a lot of land to things like eminent domain. There was a kind of invasion by the state onto their land. There are white developers. There's a company called Progress, which is slowly buying up the land as people become unable to pay its taxes, et cetera. There's this actual real encroachment that's happening. In some way she's talking about that, that the forces that be, will not allow this place to exist any longer.
Then I think in another way, she's almost talking about something psychic and spiritual. She's asking a question about whether or not we have progressed so far in society that it is possible anymore for anybody much less Black people to live autonomously and freely, so it's a double-edged question I think.
Kai Wright: My mother grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, which is a real place, not a fictional place, but that was founded in part as a place for a certain, we will have say class, middle-class of Black Americans and era of Jim Crow to have their middle-class lives because of the segregated nature of it. Inside that segregation, they had these lives that were largely free. I would spend my summers in Tuskegee with my grandmother. I grew up in Indianapolis.
It struck me reading this book the relative freedom I felt in those summers in Tuskegee relative to back in Indianapolis, which is not a comment on Indianapolis one way or the other, but there was something about being in that space, and the way my grandmother moved through it. by that point, it was a place that was fraying at the edges where it was mostly old people. [chuckles] I say all that to say, I'm not sure what. [chuckles] These do feel like places that maybe integration, maybe that's where I'm going here. Integration always felt like it was the thing that interrupted life in Tuskegee. I don't know why I put that to you.
Ayana Mathis: No, I think that's a good and interesting point. You made the point earlier about a place like Tuskegee, but places like Mound Bayou, all of these settlements. Many of which faded well before the question of integration actually politically got onto the table. A lot of these places popped up through the reconstruction after the Civil War, and by the time we get going good with Jim Crow around 1900, they're beginning to fade, but some of them remained.
There's a great writer named Al Murray. Some listeners might be familiar with him. His name is Albert Murray. He lived a very long, wonderful life. He wrote several books of fiction and nonfiction as well. In one of them, he talks about not necessarily having understanding himself as a Black kid, but not really understanding himself as a Black kid in the same way, because everybody around him was Black and everybody around him--
All the roles around him in the place where he grew up, many of those roles were fulfilled by Black people. His teacher was Black, et cetera, et cetera. As opposed to, let's say my mother who grew up in Philadelphia, which is where I'm from. My mother's experience is entirely different. My mother grew up with white teachers, white doctors, white everything. Not her neighborhood, but everything else was, so she is defining herself necessarily over and against, and other in a way that people maybe in a town like Tuskegee or the fictional Bonaparte wouldn't be defining themselves.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with Ayana Mathis, whose new novel, The Unsettled is out this week. It is a story of a Black family searching for freedom in a variety of ways. Listeners, I want to hear from you. Can you define what it means to be free today? A massive question I know, but maybe the defining question of our lives. We can also take questions for Ayana Mathis, about her work, or about either of her two novels. Let's go to Angel in Woodbridge, Illinois. Angel, welcome to the show.
Angel: Hello. Thank you. I wanted to comment on what Black freedom means, or a definition of it. I do have resources, which I think is the other word for money, and I think to some degree, that buys you some freedom to make choices, especially for your children. I feel as though I still can't relax and, I just want to go to the store, go to the park, go everywhere, but I find that I'm always scanning and I'm always looking out for my kids.
Sometimes I see people staring at my kids. I'm like, "Why are they staring at my kids?" I'm always thinking, always just, I don't know, maybe everyone is always thinking, but I think that's the freedom I'm looking for. I went to Hyde Park, went to a restaurant, and it was full of Black people. It's a comfort that you notice that you gain, and you notice when it's not there.
Kai Wright: Through security.
Angel: I just think that's the last step.
Kai Wright: It's security you're talking about. Is that fair to say?
Angel: Yes, that feeling.
Kai Wright: Thank you for that, Angel.
Angel: That feeling of just comfort. Thank you.
Kai Wright: Thank you for that, Angel. Let's go to Barbara in Westchester County, New York. Barbara, I understand you have a song that defines freedom for you, right?
Barbara: [chuckles] It's a quote from Nina Simone. I'll preface this by saying that I am nominally white, so to speak.
Kai Wright: Nominally?
Barbara: I've heard of wonderful-- [chuckles] I always put that in quotes.
Kai Wright: It's all a fiction, Barbara. It's all a fiction.
Barbara: Yes, exactly. [chuckles] I saw a wonderful interview with her a few years ago, and she was asked, "What does freedom mean to you?" She looked straight into the camera and said so fiercely, "No fear. No fear" That made such a powerful impression on me because it made me realize I don't have to think that way, and it's stayed with me ever since.
Kai Wright: Thank you so much, Barbara. That's wonderful.
Ayana Mathis: It really is.
Kai Wright: Go ahead, Ayana.
Ayana Mathis: One of the things that made me think of, because of the quote from Nina Simone, and I always think about where does art fit into to these discussions. Earlier I used terms like white supremacy and racism, but I don't usually actually use those terms. Not because they aren't true, and not because we don't need them, but because I think I understand my role as a writer and an artist to think about bodies and hearts and minds, and to try to understand what happens in a body or a heart or a mind when they come up against these kinds of things.
I'm making story out of those things, and that's what I feel my role is. We have these wonderful quotes from Nina Simone because she's a genius, but we also have-- she also matters to us so much because of the artistry. Because without using any of these words that we have to use so often, and that we use, sometimes I fear to the point that they almost become meaningless. She embodied that in song and in her whole self, but essentially through her art. I'm so glad that you brought her up and brought a way of thinking about what the arts can do in all of this discussion.
Kai Wright: I too am thrilled that Nina has come into the room because even as I was working on the script today she was in my head. What does it mean to be-- I'm not going to try to say it in this moment. It's a disaster for everybody. One of the things about The Unsettled, itiliz and I think it's true for Hattie too, your previous novel as well, is racism, white racism, white people exist at the margins of the story.
We hear about threats coming from developers and police, but that is not the primary tension or conflict. It's all internal conflict within Black relationships or within oneself. I am reminded of Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun. It's to me, one of the great examples of this where the racism is a looming thing, but it is not at all what the story is about. Was that an intentional choice in this writing? Just tell me about that.
Ayana Mathis: It is 1000 million jillion percent [chuckles] an intentional choice. Because I think one of the things that happens is that we begin to think of people as victims, or we begin to think of them as people who are only ever acted upon, but who are not actors. I think that's dehumanizing. I think it's also untrue. Very much in both of these books, and I hope in the future, I'm very interested in who are these people.
I'm also a fiction writer, and that means that it's my job to make characters on a page. It's not my job to write you a pamphlet, about racism. It's my job to move believable human beings through the space time of the circumstance in which they find themselves. Part of that circumstance, of course, is all of these forces that are pressing on them, but they are first and foremost themselves. They are not perfect. They're deeply flawed. There are all kinds of internecine struggles and problems. They have to struggle with their own psychology, their own proclivities, and all of that stuff.
In as much as I understand these people to be fully human, I was not at all interested in representing them through the lens of someone else, but rather through their own experience of what is happening to them in their lives.
Kai Wright: That the tension, that the conflict is oftentimes with themselves.
Ayana Mathis: Absolutely. There's a guy, I won't give anything away, it's a spoiler alert, but there's a guy who's a very charismatic figure, and he's right about a lot of things, and he's also not really a great guy. I also am not interested in writing these characters that are perfect, but perfect or above reproach in some kind of way.
Kai Wright: Legacy and land ownership becomes central to this story as well, especially as it's connected to Bonaparte. Why is land so important to what you're doing with this story?
Ayana Mathis: I think we think a lot about legacy sometimes in terms of someone really wealthy leaving in a state to their kids or something, which sure there is that, or whether you go to Harvard or whatever. [chuckles] I don't think that there's a human being on the planet who is not thinking about what they might leave to their children. What kind of security, what kind of safety they might leave to their children.
In this case, because the land was so hard won, I'm just particularly talking about Bonaparte, land becomes really central, and it becomes, in fact, the only way that these people could have any degree of actual just bodily safety in the terror years of the height of Jim Crow. In which their bodies were always going to be on the line. Then as it turns out, people's bodies are also on the line in the north too.
Land becomes incredibly important because people are looking for a place. Where do I go from which I can enact some safety and I can leave safety to the people I love and my children, et cetera? Land is complicated in the United States because as Duchess says, the land that is Bonaparte, the ancestors of the people who founded Bonaparte were brought there as enslaved people. They settled there and they begin the trajectory that becomes Bonaparte, but they are well aware that it's not their land. It's complicated but Dutchess talks about it.
I don't have an answer to that. I don't know what to do with that. She talks a lot about, "This is native land. We're here on it, and there's nowhere else for us to go."
Kai Wright: It was stolen in the first place, and now we reoccupy it.
Ayana Mathis: Exactly. What do we do with that? Because it's the only place where we can feel safe. It's the only place where we could feel free to the degree that we can. It's a situation in which an original evil begets choices that are always compromised. You're forced into choices that are perhaps not the best choice but are maybe the only choice.
Kai Wright: I'm reluctant to say this, but it pops into my mind that it's something of the Black American experience. It's somewhat definitional of forced into these imperfect choices.
Ayana Mathis: Right. Absolutely.
Kai Wright: Quickly, do you have a relationship to land? You're from Philadelphia. I was also born and raised in the north. I never really had a direct relationship to land itself. Do you have a relationship to land?
Ayana Mathis: No. [laughter] I think about it a lot, but no. I grew up in apartment buildings that were rented. That's how I grew up.
Kai Wright: I hear that. We need to take a break. This is Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright, and I'm talking with Ayana Mathis about her second novel, which is out this week. It's called The Unsettled, and it's the story of one Black family's effort across three generations to figure out what it means to be free. We're taking your calls. How do you define freedom and self-determination in your own life? More with Ayana Mathis and your calls coming up. Stay with us.
[music by Jared Paul]
It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright, and I'm joined by bestselling author Ayana Mathis. Her second novel called The Unsettled is out this week. As the title suggests, it's a story about searching for home, for safety, and ultimately for freedom, this elusive thing. Listeners, you get to drive a lot of this next part of the conversation. Can you define what it means to be free today? Great, big, massive question, I get it but an important one, one that really governs all of our lives.
What to you does it mean to be free? Let's see what you can come up with. We can also take questions for Ayana Mathis about her work and about either of her two novels. Let's go right to Noble here in New York City. Noble, welcome to the show.
Noble: Hi, how are you doing?
Kai Wright: Very well. I understand you've got a question for Ayana.
Noble: Yes. I was wondering why she chose the name Bonaparte for the town, considering the most famous Bonaparte Napoleon was a really hell on Black people. He re-instituted the slave trade, there's the thing with Haiti and all of that. Although to get the historical record fully accurate, he did not blow the nose off the sphinx. [unintelligible 00:33:32]
Kai Wright: Okay, Noble, let me let me get the answer. Thank you for that collection of the historical record.
Ayana Mathis: Thank you.
Kai Wright: Though actually, I can't say whether Noble's right or not. I hope you are Noble. Ayana, why Bonaparte?
Ayana Mathis: Because I'm both concerned with your historical accuracy and not. A lot of that part of the United States was "settled" by the French. At a certain point before the United States or the United States, there's all these folks vying for land. We've got, among others, there's the English, the French, and the Spanish. The French would have been fairly active around that part of Alabama, not exactly, but close enough.
In my mind, I wanted the founding of the town originally to have been by white people who brought African slaves with them, and in my mind, they would have been French or French-influenced, and thus the name of the town. It stands because it is ironic for all of the reasons that Noble pointed out.
Kai Wright: You are, I assume, quite a student of history. Is that the case? Both of these novels are really situated in these sweeps of history. Have you always been a student of history?
Ayana Mathis: I think I have. I think once I realized that history was actually just a collection of people doing a lot of things and that it was stories, I think I became interested. I was not when I was younger when it was just a bunch of dates and battles, and it was disconnected from human activity or human beings' stories. Once I realized that history was actually a thing that was happening inside of people's bodies, then I became very interested in history.
Kai Wright: I think that's happening in everybody's bodies. We had a conversation on the show with this-- oh goodness, now I admit since I'm going to forget the scholar's name. [chuckles] She writes about people who lived otherwise. I thought of that phrasing when you were describing who Ava was, people who lived otherwise, and the way they had been written out of history, and the need to rewrite them into it. Sometimes that takes the work of a novelist.
Ayana Mathis: [laughs] We're both archivists and inventors, I suppose, in a way.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Aubrey in Houston, Texas. Aubrey, welcome to the show.
Aubrey: Hi, good morning or good afternoon now.
Ayana Mathis: Do you have a definition of freedom for yourself, Aubrey?
Aubrey: I do. I was going to say that freedom for myself means being able to live independently, both mentally and physically. That's being from the government, from other people, being able to choose your own way.
Kai Wright: How did you come to that? When did you come to that idea? Because you say it with clarity.
Aubrey: [chuckles] The reason I really called is because when my husband and I after college and everything, we started to put down roots. It was really unsettling to go back to our hometown and not be able to buy land, not be able to buy a home. We had to search elsewhere for that. Not being able to support yourself and be free from the constraints of society which I feel like you have to have land to do that was really disheartening. I feel like it's like that for a lot of young people right now.
Kai Wright: Yes, it is. Thank you for that, Aubrey. One person in The Unsettled who has a clear somewhat strident idea of what it means to be free that is connected to land and ownership is Cass. You alluded to Cass earlier, introduce us to Cass as we meet him in Philadelphia.
Ayana Mathis: He's a physician. He's a former Black Panther. He is a guy who has some very specific ideas, as you said, about freedom, about what it ought to look like about what community ought to look like. A lot of those ideas are influenced by what he learned when he was a Panther, but he's become disillusioned with the Panthers. He's disillusioned, I think, with many of the Black freedom movements of the '60s and '70s in general.
That's an important part of this book setting in the '80s because I think you're coming out of this period of extraordinary change and upheaval, Black liberation movements and a whole lot of other things, anti-war movement, et cetera, et cetera. You get to the '80s, it all changes. It's 1980, Reagan gets elected, everything is different. You have these folks that in some ways become very disillusioned with what had come before and why it didn't work, and if there were some other way to do it and another possibility. That's what and where Cass is.
He's tough. He's right about a lot of things, as I said, about his ideas, about freedom and autonomy. He's a physician, so he wants to start a medical clinic that's free for everyone. He's got some methods of going about things that are questionable at best, and I'm being generous.
Kai Wright: Anybody who is familiar with the histories of the Black Power movement and that moment will hear echoes of some of the men in that movement in Cass's character. Is that intentional? Are you thinking about that moment as well?
Ayana Mathis: Yes, I was very intentional. I was very well aware of him as a former Panther. In Philadelphia, it was an actual incident in which there was a notorious police chief and mayor named Frank Rizzo, who was the mayor of Philadelphia for quite a long time. He was notorious for many, many reasons, among them, extraordinary rates of police brutality against people in general and Black people in particular. There was an incident in which there was a raid on a Black Panther's headquarters.
Basically, the police pulled all these guys out of the HQ in their underwear. They lined them up against a brick wall, and they photographed them in their underwear. I saw a picture of this some years ago. I didn't know what I would do with it or why it was-- it's obvious why it would strike you, but I didn't know what it meant to my fiction writer self. I clipped it. I found an archive of it. I got it. I printed it out. That was always very much in my mind. The violation of people who were very much interested in trying to create and do something that was better, that was noble and that was good.
Also at the same time, I'm aware of the sexism because that was there. Nothing's perfect. Cass is no longer a Black Panther, so it is not a representation of the Black Panthers. He's got his own thing going on that he's come up with. I did want to represent that tension between the things that he's right about and his very real concerns about Black health autonomy, all of these sorts of things. The fact that he also has this really authoritarian and also deeply sexist other side of him that really shows its hand very strongly. That tension in him is also there.
Kai Wright: As an aside, my producer points out that the author I was trying to think of earlier, the historian, is Saidiya Hartman who writes of people living otherwise. Now I'm compelled to say we will put a link to that episode in the show notes in our podcast for this episode, so you can check it out. Cass has this idea of freedom. It becomes what he calls the Fellowship of The Arc, and it's a road towards freedom. He's troubled in all the ways that you've just described. How would you contrast the ideas of freedom presented in the Fellowship of The Arc with those at Bonaparte? You present these two places as sites of a search for freedom. How would you contrast them?
Ayana Mathis: I've always thought in many ways of the arc as a kind of dark mirror of Bonaparte. Both places are very much interested as we've said in freedom and autonomy. Both places attempt to do that economically as well. One of the questions that I was thinking about in the book was if you tried to make a community like that, what challenges would come up? Aside from the isms that press and threaten, what does it look like economically? How do you feed yourself? What do you do about your kids' education? All of these sorts of things.
I think in many ways that Cass's arc is a thing that comes out of a very good and real intention, but that is muddied by something I think very particular. The thing that muddies it, I think, and this is going to risk sounding a little woo-woo, I think the thing that muddies it is that there isn't love. I don't mean love as a feel-good sappy emotion with puppies or something, I mean love as a force. Like the love that we saw in the Civil Rights Movement or the love that we saw in the Black liberation movements. This real deep love of Black people that moves you towards action. It's not soft. It's not simple.
I think that what Cass has is anger, righteous anger, and they have it in Bonaparte too, but the love is missing. Because the love isn't there, his vision gets clouded. It gets muddied. His worst impulses and worst instincts begin to take charge because there's nothing to counteract them.
Kai Wright: This is such an important point, and it goes back to now I'm thinking maybe I have closer to an answer to what Black freedom means to me because it must include love.
Ayana Mathis: It must.
Kai Wright: It must include love. Otherwise, you end up in acquisition and capitalism and you end up in the spaces that you're trying to get out of, authoritarianism.
Ayana Mathis: You're just recreating it. You'd end up just recreating it.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Natalie in Poland, Texas. Natalie, welcome to the show.
Natalie: Thank you. What a great show. I've been sitting here in my garage waiting to hop in. I just wanted to say, what does freedom mean to me? It means having the freedom to exist in all the different spaces that your identity takes you. In my case, as a woman who's over 55, who chose not to have children, who is single, existing in those places and existing in a faith that is Jewish and Christian and all those different places, but existing in the creative spots and places, and yes with love, but not having it projected onto me as what that has to look like.
Whether it's from the dominant culture or even within the African-American culture. What it means to have made a choice not to have children. I think freedom means a lot of things. I know I don't have a lot of time, but I definitely wanted to jump in and just offer a couple of things.
Kai Wright: You do have time. I want to ask you, Natalie, how did you come to that idea?
Natalie: Living it. [laughter] I'm from the North. I'm from Chicago, and moving down to the South has been a little different. The way people respond was, "You don't have children." "No, I don't, and it was a choice." Because not everybody wants to have children. I love children and they're wonderful, but not everybody wants to. The things that people will project onto that what it means to be a heterosexual woman. What it means to be single. Half the population is single, and yet it's Sunday and there are people who go to church, and yet most churches, you never talk about sex.
How do you talk with your faith as a sexual being because we're human and we're sexual beings? Just really figuring it out like we all do in life, is how I came to what it would mean to be free.
Kai Wright: You earned it. You earned the definition.
Natalie: Have people project onto you. Whether it's someone who when you open your mouth, they expect you to sound a certain way because you have brown skin. You're not supposed to string the decent sentence or if it's in the Black community, there's other expectations put on you. I think true freedom, I often think when I hear, "We shall overcome." We will overcome when we stop putting all those pressures on ourselves.
Kai Wright: I'm going to stop you there, Natalie, just for time, but thank you so much for your call. I hope you call us back. We're starting to wrap up here, but I want to ask you about a couple of moments in the book. There's one little moment where it's near the end of the story, and Duchess is pontificating to herself about history and the state of the world. She says, "White people were a terror, but Black people were fools." She says, "We have always been beautiful fools. Me too." Tell me about that line.
Ayana Mathis: That's just straight-up James Baldwin reverence. [laughter] There's an essay in which James Baldwin, he's talking about many of the things, I think it's in the fire next time, and at a certain point, in his soaring preacher rhetoric James Baldwin-ness, he's talking about the wine-stained hallways where he grew up in this building in Harlem. He's talking about all of these things about Black people and describing the life of Black people where he grew up and when he grew up.
He gets through this, it's soaring, it's gorgeous, it's all these things. He's also, of course, talking about white supremacy and the threat to Black life that it poses. After he gets to the end of this long description of the beauty of Black life, he says, and I quote, he says, "What will happen to all that beauty if the forces that are not just," I should say by the way, which Baldwin is well aware of, "if the forces that have arrayed themselves around the dehumanization of Black people win, which also dehumanizes them." We're all in this big boat of being dehumanized together. [laughs] If they win, what will happen to all that beauty? That line is really just directly thinking about that.
Kai Wright: What a wonderful place for us to start to wrap up. Your book launch is this week.
Ayana Mathis: Yes. [laughs]
Kai Wright: You're going to run around the country talking? Where are people going to hear you?
Ayana Mathis: I'm running all around. I'm starting here in New York City on September 26th, I will be at the Center for Fiction. I'm going to Thank You Books in Birmingham, Alabama. I will be also in Atlanta. I am forgetting a lot of things. Philadelphia, obviously, my hometown. Sorry. I will also be in Seattle, Washington, in Portland, Oregon, and I think I've probably forgotten a couple of places, but all around the nation.
Kai Wright: All around the nation. If you heard your city name-checked, look it up. Ayana Mathis is the author of the new novel, The Unsettled. It's her second novel, and it's officially published on September 26th. Thanks for this time, Ayana.
Ayana Mathis: Thank you so much for having me.
Kai Wright: Thanks to everyone who called in. You can keep talking to us. Just go to notesfromamerica.org, look for the green record button, and leave us a voice note. Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. Follow us wherever you get your podcast. On Instagram @noteswithkai. Theme, music by Jared Paul. Matthew Miranda is our live engineer. Our team also includes Karen Frillmann, Florencia Gonzalez, Regina de Heer, Kousha Navidar, Rahima Nasa, David Norville, and Lindsay Foster Thomas. Our executive producer is Andre Robert Lee. I'm Kai Wright, thanks for hanging out.
[music by Jared Paul]
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