Before you read this book, I feel that it’s important to remember that it is partially true. I heard Bernice L. McFadden talk on the Harlem Renaissance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last year, alongside Garnette Cadagon, where she explained (amongst many other interesting things) that she wove this book out of stories from her own grandfather’s life as well as fiction. Even if her grandfather only lived out a small part of the titular character’s story, I would be astonished at his ability to survive.
The Book of Harlan opens with the courtship of Harlan’s parents and his 1917 birth in Macon, Georgia. After his prominent minister grandfather dies, Harlan and his parents move to Harlem, where he eventually becomes a professional musician. When Harlan and his best friend, trumpeter Lizard Robbins, are invited to perform at a popular cabaret in the Parisian enclave of Montmartre – affectionately referred to as ‘The Harlem of Paris’ by black American musicians – Harlan jumps at the opportunity, convincing Lizard to join him. But after the City of Light falls under Nazi occupation, Harlan and Lizard are thrown into Buchenwald – the notorious concentration camp in Weimar, Germany – irreparably changing the course of Harlan’s life.
As you can guess from the blurb, this is not always a happy book. Many parts of it are heart-wrenching and I did have a few moments when I wondered how on earth so many terrible things could happen to one person. Then I realised that perhaps I am being naive and that this book is a testament to the will of human beings to survive.
There were a couple of points in this novel that I found particularly interesting. First was the characterisation of concentration camp survivors. I imagine that not a whole lot of people even realise that black people were persecuted under the Nazis and there is a short essay at the end of this edition by Stephen Bourne that explains this. Besides shining a light on the perhaps lesser known victims of the Nazi regime, I appreciate how McFadden does not finish the novel with Harlan’s release. We forget that these people often went on to live for years after their release, years during which they were inflicted with often crippling trauma. Lord knows that if you were both a World War Two survivor and black, you would go on to face a whole other round of terror when you arrived back in America. I know that it is sometimes easier to assume that survivors of horrible events are tough enough to survive, so should be tough enough to move on and resume life as normal, not matter what it throws at them. Because nothing can be as bad as what they have already been through, right? But in a time when we are so much more aware of issues like PTSD, this is not an acceptable way to think and I applaud McFadden for exploring the short, mid and long term effects of being a trauma survivor.
Secondly, I found McFadden’s exploration of passing thought-provoking. (Small spoiler alert) In this novel, it is not passing in the ‘traditional’ sense (a black person passing for white) that is discussed, but the reverse. I could spend my whole life exploring the complexity of passing and reading about whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, so of course I was interested to see how McFadden framed ‘reverse passing’, which has been particularly contentious since the whole Rachel Doleful story came out. It is always problematic for a white person to assume a black identity, because they have the option to ‘opt out’ of being black and the persecution this can bring, whilst a black person obviously cannot do this. McFadden’s example, however, has an extra layer of complexity to it, in that it shows a Jewish character (arguably a ‘minority white person’) passing as black. As well as prompting an effort to think about the issue of ‘reverse passing’, this then leads on to the idea of the ‘hierarchy’ of whiteness. But I am digressing. In summary, I would like to thank Bernice L. McFadden for causing me to pull apart ideas, dissect beliefs and simply think when and after reading this book.