Crossing the River Ohio by Hazel Clayton Harrison

Crossing the River Ohio

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Harrison (Conversations with Love: Poetically Speaking, 2014, etc.), in an atmospheric memoir, contrasts segregated life in the South in the 1950s with new opportunities for African-Americans in the North in the ’60s and ’70s.
With this personal story, Harrison sees herself adding “to the body of literature by and about African American women.” The memoir opens in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1980, with the author’s mother lying in a coma; the present-tense narration and African-American dialect lend immediacy and authenticity to the scene. After this bittersweet prologue, the book looks back to 1950s Georgia. Harrison’s apt metaphors complement the sights and smells of the South: She describes her mother’s skin as being “as smooth and creamy as peach ice cream” and her Aunt Josephine as “meaner and crustier than an old alligator in a swamp.” Church services, folk tales and family stories also add color to this section. A chapter on “Soul Food” is a particular highlight, as are family photographs and transcribed letters. Harrison was just 2 years old when her family moved north “to escape boll weevils and Jim Crow.” Practicality and ideology intertwine as Harrison goes on to balance her education with life as a single mother. After early, violent sexual experiences, she obtained a scholarship that helped her attend Kent State, where she witnessed the Black Power movement and the infamous campus riots of 1970. Moving to Atlanta with daughter Angela, the author again experienced persecution. Her lyrical language sets the scene while also revealing racial tension: “Confederate flags waved from atop stately buildings. Pilloried plantations rose from hilltops.” However, the book’s punctuation and spelling errors (the musical group “the Beetles,” “Jeckle and Hyde”) are distracting, and some of the erotic vocabulary may sometimes make readers cringe (“[H]is hammer tore down the walls of my secret garden”). The memoir’s habit of identifying years by their music and television shows also lacks subtlety. After chronicling multiple moves and marital trouble, Harrison ends abruptly with her mother’s funeral in 1980—a hint that a sequel may be forthcoming.

An often inspirational, if uneven, memoir about overcoming racism and personal trauma.
Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 2014
Publisher: JAH Light Communicattions
Program: Kirkus Indie
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