Black History Month is a time to honor and celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of the African American community, and the release of author Daniel Black’s novel, Don’t Cry for Me, is a remarkable way to do just that. As a professor of African American studies, Black is familiar with the struggles his community has faced, and he’s able to capture the authentic, poignant, and gut-wrenching qualities of humanity in the characters he writes about.
In Don’t Cry for Me, Jacob is dying from lung cancer and struggling to scribble down his life lessons, his regrets, and most importantly, relay the love and appreciation he has, not only for his son but also for a family that has long passed. In the letters to Isaac (his son and only child), Jacob describes his childhood, growing up in rural Arkansas with his brother Esau, being raised by his grandparents after the death of his mother and disappearance of his father, and the lessons he was taught as a young Black man only two generations removed from slavery. Jacob tells of the trials they faced growing up in the South, how education wasn’t important, and what mattered was working hard, being tough, obeying your elders, and earning your keep. In one letter Jacob states, “Slavery did a number on Black people. We haven’t survived it yet. The institution is over, but its aftereffects still linger.” Jacob’s upbringing was rigid and held little room for mistakes, which inevitably shaped him into the man he grew to be – one who, unfortunately, also held rigid views as to how his son should behave. He explained, “Even after freedom, we were not free.”
In addition to the everlasting effects of slavery Black people have been forced to endure, the book also explores an overarching theme of gender roles and, specifically, Jacob’s antiquated, inflexible notions of what those roles entail. Throughout the letters, Jacob delivers anecdotes about what it means to be a man – how they are expected to act and what their role is in society as well as in their family. “When I was a boy, we knew what a boy was.” Jacob’s view was, of course, skewed, and it caused a chasm to form between himself and Isaac at an early age. When Isaac shows interest in dance and theater and repudiates baseball and “typical boy activities,” Jacob begins to feel a sense of dread and makes it his mission to toughen Isaac up and teach him how to be a man. During a tender flashback, Jacob remembers, “You reached for my hand, but I didn’t surrender it. I just stood there. I wanted to hold your hand, needed to hold your hand, but I couldn’t.” His whole life he’d been at battle with himself, with what he felt in his bones to be somehow acceptable, yet he fought against it all in the name of “being a man.”
The true crux of the story comes when Jacob is introduced to books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley or The Color Purple by Alice Walker. His intolerance is thwarted by the need to understand where he went wrong and how he can do better. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that, as I read, my imagination came alive. I began to conceive things I’d never thought of before. Like what it really meant to be Black – not just look Black.” We see many instances of what “should be” and what’s “normal” within the letters Jacob writes to Isaac. The beginning is riddled with these antediluvian, sexist, and homophobic ideas that Jacob was raised with. However, as Jacob reconciles these beliefs with a newfound appreciation for reading and relevant discussion, we see an awakening within him and his priorities shift. He no longer cares about who his son loves, just so long as he’s happy and healthy. He no longer cares that his wife had a mind of her own, but instead regrets derailing her education and causing resentment between them. At one point Jacob writes, “Reading taught me that a man’s life is his own responsibility, his own creation. Blaming others is a waste of time. No one can make you happy if you’re determined to be miserable.”
And therein lies the relevance of this repentant, dying Black man who more or less shuns his homosexual son and begrudges his wife for being an independent, educated woman. Jacob says it best himself after reading The Color Purple: “The more I read, the more I saw myself. Knowledge is a funny thing, Isaac. It informs by exposing. It shows you precisely how much you don’t know.”
Although the epistolary format of the book takes away the opportunity to get the perspective of Isaac, or really anyone else, it does allow Jacob to be more vulnerable, and it demonstrates that this man has come a long way from where he started – a boy who couldn’t read or write much and whose station in life, he thought, was concrete. It demonstrates that no matter how much you think you know, you can always know more – there is always room to grow. As a society, we have the capacity to allow history to repeat itself, to let the mistakes of the past become the fears of the future. Yet, as individuals, we also have the overwhelming ability to learn, cultivate new ideas, and prepare future generations to do better than those that came before. Jacob was able to do so with the help of the challenging yet affecting literature he read, and Don’t Cry for Me will no doubt be that book for someone else.
Don’t Cry for Me
By Daniel Black
Hanover Square Press
Published February 1, 2022