Daniel Black Perfect Peace: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780312571658

Perfect Peace: A Novel

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9780312571658: Perfect Peace: A Novel
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Daniel Black's Perfect Peace is the heartbreaking portrait of a large, rural southern family's attempt to grapple with their mother's desperate decision to make her newborn son into the daughter she will never have

When the seventh child of the Peace family, named Perfect, turns eight, her mother Emma Jean tells her bewildered daughter, "You was born a boy. I made you a girl. But that ain't what you was supposed to be. So, from now on, you gon' be a boy. It'll be a little strange at first, but you'll get used to it, and this'll be over after while." From this point forward, his life becomes a bizarre kaleidoscope of events. Meanwhile, the Peace family is forced to question everything they thought they knew about gender, sexuality, unconditional love, and fulfillment.

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About the Author:

DANIEL OMOTOSHO BLACK teaches at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple University then returned to Clark Atlanta as a professor with hopes of inspiring young black minds to believe in themselves.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Gus stood beside the living room window, waiting for the annual spring rains. They should have come by now, he noted, glancing at the battered Motley Funeral Home calendar hanging from a nail on the wall. It was May 17, 1940, and Gus’s wilted crops made him wonder if, somehow, he had angered Mother Nature. Usually the rains came between March and April, freeing him to hunt or fish the latter part of spring while cabbage, collard, and tomato sprouts strengthened in the moistened earth. That year, the stubborn rains prolonged the daily sojourn Gus and the boys took to the river and back—locals called it the Jordan—carrying five-gallon buckets of water for both their own and the sprouts’ survival.

Gus loved the rains. As a child, he lay in bed listening to the thunderous polyrhythms they drummed into the rusted tin rooftop. Something about the melody soothed his somber soul and allowed him to cry without fear of his father’s reprisal. After all, he was a boy, Chester Peace Sr. loved to remind him—as though his genitalia didn’t—and tears didn’t speak well for one who would, one day, become a man. The indelible imprint of Chester Sr.’s inordinately large hand on Gus’s tender face whenever he wept never bothered the boy who, in his heart, wanted nothing more desperately than to emulate his father. But as he grew, he never learned to control his tears. He learned instead to hide whenever he felt their approach.

The rains awakened something in him. Maybe it was their steady flow that eroded his makeshift stoicism and caused water to gush from his eyes as if from a geyser. What ever the connection, Gus always wept along with the rains. He’d convinced himself that the sky, like him, was cursed with a heavy heart that required annual purging. So every spring since his tenth birthday, when the scent of moisture filled his nose he escaped to the Jordan River and stood amid the rain, wailing away pain like a woman in labor. Whether it lasted for hours or even a day, no one expected his return to normalcy until the showers subsided.

Gus was grateful others didn’t ask why he cried, because he couldn’t have explained it. Had he known words like "injustice" or "inequity" he might’ve been able to translate his feelings into words, but with a third-grade vocabulary, such articulation was out of the question. All he knew was that he cried when things weren’t right. He wept as a child when other children mocked his holey shoes, and then he wept when God refused to grant him the courage and the will to fight. He wept for mother birds that couldn’t find worms for their young. He wept for cows left freezing in the snow. He wept for Miss Mazie—the woman whose husband slashed her with a butcher’s mallet for talking back—and wept even harder when he overheard that they put the man away. Most of all he wept because he thought people in the world didn’t care.

His hardest days were between the rains. At the most inopportune moments, in the middle of the summer or the bitter cold of winter, he’d witness a wrong and water would ooze, unannounced, across his cheeks and he’d be forced to retreat into some private place where his tears wouldn’t be cause for ridicule. Yet these momentary cleansings never resulted in Gus’s complete healing. Only the annual spring rains set his heart aright again, so, after the third grade—the end of Gus’s formal education—he began anticipating the rains’ arrival. As soon as the first buds bloomed, he’d watch the heavens for signs of inclement weather, and when the dark clouds gathered, he’d run to the Jordan and welcome the downpour. After 1910, locals noted the beginning of spring when they heard Gus wailing in the distance and, whether out of fear or simple disinterest, no one bothered traveling to the riverbank to see exactly what Gustavus Peace was doing, much less why.

He needed the rains of 1940 worse than he’d ever needed them, for the impending birth of his seventh child—the only one he had never wanted—incited rage he feared he couldn’t restrain. Yet the rains wouldn’t come. Each morning he jumped from his sleeping pallet on the floor, sniffing the air like a Labrador retriever, hoping to smell the sweet scent of moisture, only to be disappointed when his nostrils inhaled particles of dry, pungent, red dust. Having never mentioned to his wife, Emma Jean, that he felt deceived by the pregnancy, Gus had waited since her ecstatic November announcement to unleash with the spring rains instead of strangling her. His greatest fear now was that an overflowing heart would cause him to crumble before his sons. Each day, his eyes glazed over and his hands began to tremble, and he cursed the rains for seemingly having abandoned him. So far, he had remained composed, but he knew he wouldn’t last much longer.

When Emma Jean screamed, Gus released the curtain, turned from the window, and looked toward their bedroom. It was really her bedroom, he thought, for he had slept on the floor since learning of her pregnancy. He liked it that way. It kept him from touching her and creating another mouth to feed. He wouldn’t have touched her this last time had Emma Jean not convinced him that she couldn’t have any more children. Gus asked why, and Emma Jean said that she was going through the change. He didn’t know exactly what that meant, but he took her at her word. The day she confessed her pregnancy, Gus nodded and promised in his heart never to touch her again. That would keep the children from coming, he reasoned, and that was exactly what he wanted.

"Push!" Henrietta coaxed with her hands cupped around the wet, slimy crown of the baby’s head.

Beads of sweat danced across Emma Jean’s shiny black forehead as she panted. With borrowed might, she clutched the sheets on which she lay and bellowed, "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" tossing her head from one edge of the pillow to the other. "Oh my God! I thought havin’ a girl"—breath—"would be easier than havin’ them big, knucklehead boys."

Henrietta chuckled. She had delivered almost every child in Conway County, Arkansas, since the 1920s, and if nothing else, she had learned that a baby’s gender could never be predicted. "This might be another boy, Emma," she warned softly. "Don’t get yo’ hopes up too high. Plenty women think they havin’ one thing and have somethin’ else. Now breathe and push again."

Emma Jean sighed, refusing to relinquish hope that she was finally birthing the daughter she’d always wanted. That hope lent her strength to push again. "AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" she growled, exposing the rich, deep alto for which folks at St. Matthew No. 3 Baptist Church were grateful. It was this voice that had caught Gus’s attention years ago, teasing his soul one Easter Sunday morning with a rendition of "He Rose" that left him tingling inside. He called the feeling love and asked Emma Jean to marry him. That was fifteen years ago. Back when he was a fool, he always said.

"It won’t be long now!" Henrietta encouraged. "Just a few more pushes and we’ll have ourselves another baby."

Emma Jean gripped the iron bars of the headpost and stared at the ceiling, delirious. She wanted to push again, but couldn’t find the strength. In the meantime, she wondered if Gus had decided upon a name, since he hadn’t liked any of her choices.

"What about Rose?" she’d posed one night, leaning over the edge of the bed.

Gus grunted something unintelligible and pulled the battered quilt over his head.

Emma Jean interpreted the response as a no. "Then what about Violet? Or maybe Priscilla?"

Too sleepy to care, Gus hoped his words would close the matter. "Them don’t sound like no colored girls’ names to me," he murmured. "And, anyway, it’s probably gon’ be a boy, the luck we been havin’."

Emma Jean scoffed. "Just ’cause a girl be colored don’t mean she gotta have no ole, tired, country-soundin’ name."

Gus peeked from beneath the quilt. "You got one."

"I know!" Emma Jean shouted. "But that don’t mean my baby gotta have one."

"Well, it don’t make no difference right now noway. The baby ain’t even here yet. Good night."

Emma Jean stopped discussing names with Gus. Why, she wondered, had she consulted a fool in the first place? What would a man know about choosing a baby’s name?

"I got de head in my hands," Henrietta said excitedly. "Just give me one more good push! Come on! You can do it!"

The dance of the sweat beads devolved into a slow waltz around Emma Jean’s thick brows as she lay exhausted upon the feather pillow. Her good, baby blue sheets, which she had intended to remove from the bed in a few days, would now have to be discarded. Thinking she had at least another week before the baby’s arrival, she had prioritized other more immediate chores, but when her water broke while she was preparing Sunday breakfast, she knew those sheets were history.

Gus and the boys sat in the small living room and waited. Knowing no other way to pass the time, Gus read passages from the Bible—the few he could read—in hopes that something from the Word might still his rumbling heart. He would love the baby, he resolved, but he would never forgive Emma Jean. Never. And if the rains didn’t come, he wouldn’t forgive them, either.

Still in their church clothes, which was a clean shirt beneath their work overalls, the boys anticipated the sister they didn’t have. Of course another brother would be okay, they agreed silently, but a sister would add spice to an otherwise dull house hold. Mister, the youngest brother, didn’t care either way. He simply wanted someone else to be the baby of the family.

"What if it’s a boy?" Mister asked.

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