Hattie Shepherd, her sisters and her mother left Georgia in the 1920s for Philadelphia following the murder of their father at the hands of white men who shot him and casually walked home carrying their guns. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (M) by Ayana Mathis begins with the devastating story of the deaths of Hattie’s infant twins – deaths, which in a more just world, would have been preventable. The title’s twelve tribes begin this these twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, and continues with Hattie’s next nine children and her granddaughter Sala.
As a girl Hattie is lovely and optimistic but poverty, death and disappointment wear her down and harden her. Her children both fear her and crave her love. Having failed to sustain life in her first born children, Hattie could only manage to clothe, feed and keep the remaining children alive. Only a few of them received any overt maternal affection and they were the ones who were near death. Their life in Philadelphia was a struggle with their father August, who succumbed to his addictions, unable to provide for his family and a constant disappointment to his wife. The children were representative of every crisis that could afflict a family — illness, both physical and mental; a son conflicted by his sexuality; another consumed with religion, but not following a righteous path.
While this might sound bleak it is really a bittersweet story made quite beautiful by Hattie’s strength and resilience. Hattie’s family is representative of others who experienced the hope and the disappointment of the Great Migration in the 1920s. In The Warmth of Other Suns: the epic story of America’s Great Migration (M), Isabel Wilkerson writes of this experience.
“With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.” publisher
“Once the home of poor Irish and Italian immigrants, Brewster Place, a rotting tenement on a dead-end street, now shelters black families. This novel portrays the courage, the fear, and the anguish of some of the women there who hold their families together, trying to make a home. Among them are: Mattie Michael, the matriarch who loses her son to prison; Etta Mae Johnson who tries to trade the ‘high life’ for marriage with a local preacher; Kiswana Browne who leaves her middle-class family to organize a tenant’s union.” publisher