Diversity in literature is about more than just authorship and characters’ skin tones. Cultures generate unique storytelling strategies that are often overlooked or afforded less critical significance than white, Western master narratives.
The award-winning collaborators Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney excel at presenting biographical tales rooted in Black culture’s oral histories, theater, poetry, music, art. Complex and evocative, “Loretta Little Looks Back” spans three generations of children in one fictional Mississippi family enduring a new type of enslavement (sharecropping, under the Jim Crow laws of segregation) and ultimately triumphing over new types of voter suppression (a literacy test and a poll tax).
Based on interviews and oral histories culled from sharecroppers who lived in the South in the 1920s through the 1960s, including Andrea Davis Pinkney’s own family members, the novel interweaves the voices of Loretta (speaking from 1927 to 1930); her little brother, Roly (1942-50); and Roly’s daughter, Aggie B. (1962-68). They represent the many who bore witness, from a child’s-eye view, to trauma. Pinkney’s subversion of adult perspectives and leadership proves all the more powerful when Aggie B. (“B” for bold) becomes the first in the family to volunteer as an activist, the youngest in her town to help register Black people to vote.
Like scenes in a play, each chapter begins with setting, time and action, some literal and specific (as in “Holly Ridge, Miss., September 1927,” where we find Loretta standing in a cotton field), others not: “Someplace between here and the other side of tomorrow. Shrill sirens wail. Flashing lights. Red. White. Blue. Aggie is on her knees, buckled over, hugging herself tightly, working hard to breathe.”
Sparkling with Southern diction and rhythms, peppered with poems and songs, Pinkney’s monologues invite readers’ out-loud participation. “Some say, this what they call oration,” Loretta announces. “I call it truth-talking.”
One point could use a footnote. Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy murdered in Money, Miss., while visiting his cousins, is briefly referred to this way by Roly: “The child’s crime was making eyes at a white woman.” In 2017, at 82, the white woman, Carolyn Bryant, admitted she’d falsely accused him — though Roly, in 1955, couldn’t have known she had lied.
An orphan “found in a bed of hay,” Roly is a “Night-Deep child” (out of African diaspora folk magic) with “a special connection to the earth’s abundance and its creatures.” His gifts lift the Littles from sharecroppers to landowners, thus providing sustenance for generations.
Brian Pinkney perfectly marries art to his wife’s prose. Circle-shaped watercolor and India ink images capture her vignettes’ drama, spotlighting the players.
The novel’s back matter is a treasure trove: an article about Southern sharecropping, a salute to the real-life heroes in the book (Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr.), a photo of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s extended family that puts faces to the people who inspired her characters.
Aunt ’Retta, Pa Rollins and Aggie B. conclude her ambitious montage as a chorus. Aggie B. sings out: “My eye is on what’s happening next. / On freedom. / On hope. / On the vote.” Black voices, “go tell it” for the world to hear.