Some Sing, Some Cry by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza

Some Sing, Some Cry is co-written by sisters Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza, both well-known in the theater world. Their novel is a family saga that begins on Sweet Tamarind, a plantation an island off the coast of North Carolina where Ma Bette is saying goodbye to her buried relatives. Born a slave, Ma Bette became the “favorite” girl of the slave master, Julius Mayfield. Though Ma Bette feels she was Mayfield’s “true” wife because she has children with him and is treated better, he is also married to a white woman and won’t emancipate Ma Bette. All but one of Ma Bette’s children have died, to her knowledge — slave children were often sold directly after birth — but she’s been raising her granddaughter, Dora. The novel opens when the Civil War is over. Dora wants to lead a more civil life, something away from the voodoo and swamps close to Ma Bette’s heart, so they leave the island and head for Charleston, much to the surprise of Ma Bette’s living daughter, Blanche.

After marrying into a stable family and rising in Black society, Blanche thinks herself quite fancy. It was her assumptions about people who live on Sweet Tamarind that gave me a strong sense of how divided the U.S. could be in terms of what people believe. There were people on the islands “. . . who still couldn’t speak English and wore amulets and potions round their necks to ward off evil, disease, and such.”

Ma Bette is one of the Gullah Geechee people, who live in a small area along the south-eastern coast of the U.S. and descended from African slaves. Isolated from the continental U.S. on those islands, they developed a unique mix of African and European language, culture, traditions, music, religion, and food. So, while Ma Bette knows who she is, her granddaughter Dora yearns to becomes a society lady. Dora’s skilled sewing and talent for dress design make her in demand in Charleston, though her status as a black woman in the south prevents her from being paid fairly or getting rooted in an existing clothes store (because they’re owned by white people).

Some Sing, Some Cryis a saga, and many sagas leave me wanting more because I get so invested in the first generation or two and then lose interest as the author races through great- and great- great- grandchildren. Shange and Bayeza avoid such a pitfall by utilizing a common practice in the black community: multiple family units raising children. When a character doesn’t fit in New York City with his parents and siblings, he’s sent back to Dora in Charleston to live a slower-paced life and find his feet. Almost every family member is musical, and when one woman plans to travel and find fame, which doesn’t include a baby girl that is a product of sexual assault, the baby is left with a sister who needs the baby; she lost two of her own children during the 1918 flu pandemic. Because a family unit is fluid, and people live where they best fit, Shange and Bayeza created a huge cast of characters that were not hard to keep straight. When I finished the book, I made a family tree from memory — no need to consult the text — which is a testament to their writing and characterization.

Part of what makes characters so memorable is the dialogue. Lizze was a particular favorite of mine, and though her diction is intense, it fit her perfectly, matching her acrobatic singing and piano playing ((she even plays piano with her toes) with one of the most determined, unstoppable personalities surely to grace the pages of fiction. Even the racial tension and prejudice in the early 1900s couldn’t stop her from trying out for a spot in a club:

“What the fuck is buggin’ you” [asks LIzzie’s manager]

“I got cramps, shit!”

“That still ain’t no reason to go bananas!”

“If they didn’t like my dancin’ I can see it. If they didn’t like my singin’, well all right. But somebody say somthin’ bout my color, I’ll kick they ass.”

“What are you talkin’ about?”

“” ‘What color is that? What color is that?!’ I’ll show him what color, I’ll knock that muthuhfuckuh black and blue! I don’t care who he is!”

I can already predict which of my readers are asking themselves “Did Melanie have to quote so many curse words?” Yes, yes I did. And fair reader, not everyone talks like this in Some Sing, Some Cry. It’s mostly Lizzie. But everything from her passionate self-pride to her willingness to say she’s on her period endeared her to me.

Although Lizzie’s attempts to become a famous performer are interesting, and I loved Ma Bette selling curses and charms while Dora designed and sewed clothes, Shange and Bayeza shifted to make several subsequent generations want to be famous singers. It was too repetitive. I’m not sure how these author sisters split the writing of this novel, but the last third in which everybody just had to sing on stage actually read differently. In order to capture a time, place, and new character, the author/s name dropped famous musicians like Etta James, Sly and The Family Stone, Tina Turner, even Joni Mitchell. Instead of becoming people, a couple of the later generations walked, talked, sang, and moved like the famous folks of the time, and I found my eyes going a bit faster than they can take in words. I do believe we call that skimming.

Talking to my buddy reader, Biscuit, about the novel, I realized that Some Sing, Some Cry would have benefited from cutting out the last two generations, which are the ones not fully realized. If the authors had circled around to continue following Lizzie while keeping track of her sister, Elma, who is raising Lizzie’s baby, Cinnamon, the novel would have been more interesting in the end. This is not to say I recommend against Some Sing, Some Cry. You should read it for the excellent setting, characters, historical perspectives, and (for me) an introduction to the Gullah people. However, prepare yourself for an ending that has to wrap up and drag a bit, because what saga doesn’t?

13 comments

  1. I’m reading Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston, which is set in the South in those post- “Surrender” years. It seems the whites were not/are not willing to give up the slave owner mindset and the obverse was probably true too of former slaves.
    I’m not a fan of family sagas either. One novel, one protagonist is my motto.

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    • Yes, there were a number of years when enslaved people didn’t even know about the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is a celebration of the emancipation of people who didn’t know they had been emancipated for almost three years already.

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  2. “I found my eyes going a bit faster than they can take in words. I do believe we call that skimming.” LOL! I have a horrible habit of needing to complete everything, so when I find myself skipping over words I have to go back to read properly… I’m always afraid of missing something, but it can be a drag when there’s really nothing there! I think the next time I notice it happening I’ll recall your easy attitude toward skimming and try to just move on for once, haha.
    And that’s a good point about family sagas not always focusing on each generation equally- sorry to hear there were a few characters in this one that weren’t given the same careful attention, especially after it sounds like the earlier generations were written well. Great review!

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    • The funny thing is this book didn’t need to be a saga. It kind of did spirals instead of moving straight forward, so there were plenty of characters to follow. One character that I wanted to come back so hard did not! My mom and I laughed and moaned at our loss.

      I think the only saga I ever read in which I was interested in all generations was a Sweet Valley saga! I knew eventually we’d get to the twins, so it was like I had a target.

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  3. I so know what you mean about family sagas losing steam by the end. I become so invested in the first few generations because that tends to be the focus, and by the time the grandkids come along I just wish I was back with the elders!

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