Jamila Minnicks’ debut novel raises complex questions about the costs of integration — Andscape
On publication day for Moonrise Over New Jessup, first-time novelist Jamila Minnicks felt guided by history. She felt the need to name things — like praying aunties, ancestral connections, and Black communities where making a way out of no way is a habit and a practice — and to call them into the space where she was holding her inaugural book talk.
Sitting in Loyalty Bookstore in Washington recently, Minnicks, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, detailed her love for a place and an idea. New Jessup is a fictional Alabama settlement where Black people have chosen to live free from the gaze, control, and sometimes even the very mention of white people. It’s a place where Black people mind their own Black business, and Black children only ever walk through front doors. It is based on real places Minnicks knows through family, including the Auntie who prayed with her minutes earlier over the phone.
“I’m so thrilled to see how excited we are about Wakanda,” Minnicks said, “but, I’m like, we have these places here in the United States of America that our ancestors built up with their own two hands. And we need to pay proper homage.”
The novel begins in 1957. Alice Young’s parents have died and her older sister, who migrated to Chicago years before, has gone strangely silent. Alice, fleeing her hometown after fending off her white landlord, gets off the bus in New Jessup, and steps into a self-reliant Black world, albeit one that must constantly be on guard against white encroachment.
A dark brown man sold bus tickets and answered questions inside while two soldiers in Army-issue khaki rushed past me: one, with the deep mulberry skin of the ready harvest, and the other, my same sun-gold cinnamon with dark freckles on his cheeks who placed a hand to his peaked cap. A light-skinned woman with a wild mane of bottle-red hair rushed into a yellow cab driven by a portly man of pecan complexion. He sped past an ebony police officer in white gloves holding palms up, meaning “stop.” A deep bronze man across the street wore paint-covered bib overalls, smoking a cigarette next to another bib-overalled man — cocoa-brown. And the family by the drink machine? The mama, she was high yellow, but her husband was a rich, deep brown to match some good, peaty soil. One child favored him, one her, and one fell to a brown somewhere in the middle.
Along with the feel of enveloping Blackness, Alice finds love with a young organizer full of brave ideas. There is also a heated debate among the young people of New Jessup about whether integration is really a road to equality, especially when it comes to resources. Can you get the latter without the former? At what cost? Are the white students, who write “filthy [slur]” in the textbooks passed down to Black children, and the white teachers who allow them to do that, worth the price?
“There’s this real question as to precisely what integration offered,” Minnicks said. It mirrors the conversations that ran through generations of her family, who are from Alabama on her momma’s side. “My mom used to talk about when she went to high school, her teachers looked like her, the students all looked like her … There wasn’t this idea of we are separate but we’re inferior. We’re separate, but we see everything that we’re capable of being. That’s not to say that the resources were there.” Just as in New Jessup, “they’re being siphoned off and they’re being diverted.”
Minnicks grew up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. She graduated from the Howard University School of Law, got an advanced law degree from Georgetown University and worked at the U.S. Department of Labor. She wrote the novel over two months in the summer of 2020, beginning at 4 a.m., a liminal space she calls it, between dreaming and waking, what author Toni Morrison called the edges of the day.
She thought she’d self-publish and share her book with family, but she submitted it for the Pen Bellwether prize about an hour and a half before the deadline. Then she walked around the house manifesting: “I said, ‘I’m going to win this prize.’ Every single day I said, ‘I’m gonna win this prize.’ ”
“New Jessup is its own character!” said Jamise Harper, founder of the #DiverseSpines social media community, who is leading the conversation at the bookstore. “I felt like I was entering into my grandmother’s living room,” and audience members nod. Or maybe it was just me.
New Jessup mirrors actual Black places all over the country. Places such as Africatown, Alabama, where descendants of the Clotilda, the last enslaver ship to land in America, settled. And Demopolis, Alabama, where Minnicks’ mother was taught you have a responsibility to uplift your community. It’s Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated “Negro town” in 1887, where Zora Neale Hurston grew up.
And places such as the Black Bottom Historic District settled by the formerly enslaved in Russellville, Kentucky, where this writer has people; North Brentwood, Maryland, which was first settled by Black Civil War veterans; and Freedom, Georgia, established in 2020 to be a safe haven for Black people.
These are physical locales. But there are also the places where Black writers have long imagined what it truly means to be free, and where Black thought can remap the psychic landscape. Where Black people have a sixth sense for spotting small-bore white rot.
An example of that occurs in Moonrise Over New Jessup: A white auto shop owner cheats his customers, blames it on the Black shop owners across the woods, and habitually tries to show the folks he runs with that he’s nobody’s Negro. Alice co-signs that. “The Fitzhughs were once again out here proving that they were nobody’s Negroes. Not self-reliant. Or talented. Or resilient. And only creative enough for this sleight of hand with their customers.”
Creativity is a recurrent theme, necessitated by white disinvestment and, especially, control of tax dollars. New Jessup was “building higher buildings than they were in Jessup and they were building nicer things. They had paved roads and they sort of made people wonder who’s living on the other side of the tracks from whom,” Minnicks said.
These conversations, which Black people have been having among themselves for generations, can feel fresh because the foundational problem of structural plunder and white supremacy makes the questions of how to navigate America evergreen. But conversations of integration versus separation have to include a discussion of equity, Minnicks said.
“We just need our resources. We’re gonna make our way out of no way. We are going to figure it out, but what sort of tax are we paying and how much better could we make our way were we getting the tax dollars that we’re actually paying into the system?” Minnicks asked.
It’s not that segregation was better, she is careful to point out. It was the law, a degradation that was forced upon Black people. But there remains a more nuanced discussion to be had about the benefits of integration and the benefits of Black space.
“There’s a point in the book where Alice says, ‘What is over there that I need?’ ” Minnicks said. “And so it really turns the question on its ear and says, ‘Make your sales pitch. What’s your best sales pitch for me, abandoning my community, and everything the people around me have built?’ ”
It is yet another question that remains evergreen.