Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s grandfather graduated from college and six of his children followed suit. But the next generation struggled to keep pace even as the specter of Jim Crow receded. “I wanted to know why,” she says, and chose fiction as her probe.
The Dartmouth and UC Berkeley Law graduate’s research revealed the war on drugs and mass incarceration as modern barriers to opportunity. Her challenge became illuminating the culprits in narrative form. That is, writing a page-turner, not a sociological treatise. “I wanted it to be a book that also had a plot,” she says. “Because a lot of times I read books and they’re so deep, but it’s like you’re plodding through them.”
In just a year’s time, Sexton found a way to explore the fragility of the black upper class through three generations navigating systemic racism, familial strife, and ill-fated romance. She penned A Kind of Freedom in 2016 during a year-long Djerassi fellowship with novelist Jane Vandenburgh and had a book deal with Counterpoint by early this year.
Spanning from 1944 to 2011, her account moves back and forth through time and perspective. We meet Evelyn, the daughter of a Creole mother and a physician father of Senegalese descent, when she’s a Dillard University nursing student falling in love with a poor suitor. Then Evelyn’s daughter Jackie’s life and circumstances in the 1980s come into focus followed by her grandson T.C.’s post-Hurricane Katrina subsistence.
It’s a uniquely New Orleans story, set largely in the city’s Seventh Ward where Cajun spices and the perfume of passé blanc debutantes once scented the air. Addresses, hair texture, skin color, and other markers of privilege and lineage were closely scrutinized. When Evelyn discovers her suitor’s Twelfth Ward address, she’s surprised. “Though she knew he wasn’t one of them, she didn’t think he was that far off,” Sexton writes. That social distance proves ominous and, for some of their descendants, insurmountable.
Sexton’s writing shines in its portrayals of the poignance and persistence of black love in continually trying times, keeping what could be a grim tale fascinating and optimistic. This is especially true in her portrayal of T.C., Evelyn’s grandson, who is consumed by thoughts of Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans he navigates is haunted by old residents. Dilapidated buildings, FEMA trailers, and even new construction all remind him of the drowned and the displaced. People like his best friend Daryl whose body was found weeks after the levees broke, lifeless in an attic under a moldering sofa.
“What I tried to convey in the story, in the book, is just that level of sadness and despair, and just what it might feel like to have your things washed away and be kind of unmoored,” she says. “People talked about Katrina so much when it was happening, and they talked a lot about fixing houses and things. But I don’t think people really have spoken enough about the psychological damage that Katrina did, especially to children.” A Kind of Freedom redirects our attention to this oversight, using lyrical, compassionate storytelling as a lure.
Maya Payne Smart is a writer living in Austin.