Scenic and engaging, My Soul Looks Back recounts the years author Jessica B. Harris spent on the periphery of a circle of friends that included literary powerhouses James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. The memoir spans the globe and several decades to describe the fascinating group.
Harris was in a relationship with Baldwin’s close friend Samuel Clemens Floyd III in the early 1970s, during which time she met and mingled with arts luminaries in locales as far-flung as Greenwich Village, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, and the south of France. “That they knew each other was interesting,” she writes. “That they partied together, savored each other’s company, encouraged each other’s endeavors, celebrated each other’s achievements, and mourned each other’s losses is extraordinary.”
Harris insists she was tangential to the group, grudgingly accepted as a sort of appendage to Sam. “The story was there to be told and that step away from it was in many ways the reality of the experience,” she says. “I wasn’t up in the middle of it, I was on the margins.”
Still, she was connected enough to have had front-row seats to some incredible performances. She stayed at Baldwin’s Provence home, took him treasured bottles of Red Devil Hot Sauce, and listened as he read aloud the complete manuscript of what would become If Beale Street Could Talk.
It’s an odd stance for a memoir—to cast oneself as an outsider and tell your story only where it joins that of others’. Yet narrating from the sidelines here has the benefit of presenting the familiar literary figures from fresh angles. She describes Angelou at home in Sonoma in the ‘70s making chicken curry and decades later throwing grand New Year’s feasts in her New York brownstone.
My Soul Looks Back isn’t a story of intimate connection, but rather one of fleeting interactions and intersections scattered through time. As such, it raises questions of intimacy, memory, and friendship from an intriguing vantage point.
Friendship here is often episodic, momentary even. It evidences closeness that’s more recurring than abiding. Harris shared pasta and red wine with Toni Morrison on multiple occasions and read the French translation of
The Bluest Eye at Morrison’s request to ensure it captured the author’s nuances. Yet when they crossed paths after Maya Angelou’sfuneral decades later, Morrison had no recollection of Harris and asked simply, “Was I kind?”
Despite a penchant for collecting things in overstuffed homes in Brooklyn, New Orleans, and Martha’s Vineyard, Harris has few artifacts of her Sam Floyd years—no photographs or correspondence to document the time they spent. Yet she recalls meals, books, and music of the era with evocative precision. “It’s almost like synesthesia, a memory brings back a taste, a color, an image, a sound,” she explains.
And so the reader is treated to vivid descriptions of the restaurants, groceries, and meals that defined the circle’s haunts, from the sangria and barbecued pork of El Faro in Greenwich Village to Mikell’s uptown, the place for jazz, stiff drinks, and conversation. She even offers playlists for each chapter that capture the sounds of the times—popular music as well as tunes of particular personal resonance for her.
Ultimately, Harris hopes readers will revel in the joy of the relationships the distinguished friends shared. “They had truly and absolutely found their tribe,” she says. “All of those people kind of came into fame, came into who they were, not necessarily simultaneously but at parallel points. They came along together.”
Harris is quite comfortable standing on the edge of her own memoir. “I am old enough to be in the generation that you were told not to talk about yourself,” she explains. “I’m not the selfie generation, if you will.” But she’s a compelling subject in her own right, and this book whets the appetite to hear more about her life and adventures in the weeks, months and years apart from Floyd’s circle. Perhaps there’s another memoir in her future.
Maya Payne Smart writes book reviews and musings.