After reading Christina Hammonds Reed’s novel The Black Kids, I wanted to return to the concept of “nobody” from Emily Dickinson’s poem. Reed refers to the poem both directly and indirectly throughout the text. As a reminder, the poem goes like this:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!-Emily Dickinson, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? (260)”
The word “nobody” strikes me because it is at once corporeal (“body”), identity (the label “nobody”), and cerebral (as both “know body” and “no body” allude to the mind). The word conveys both presence and absence at once, to be known and unknown in the same breadth. It is a useful word to make some sense out of the last third of the book. In order to do so, I created a customized dictionary of words associated with “nobody,” “no,” “know,” and “body.” Then, I mapped the frequency of those words throughout the whole novel, as seen in the graph.
Chapter 20 jumps out to me, as it might to you. That is the chapter where we see a spike in usage before the novel dips into its conclusion, and it is where Ash learns about Grandma Shirley’s fate: her suicide after a lifetime of bearing the pain of watching her hometown and community decimated by a white government fearful of black excellence.
It is Morgan who fills in the details for Ash:
“How did our grandmother die?” I ask Morgan. “Nobody’s ever told me that part.”
The appearance of “nobody” there is profound. It means both an absence of person while also conveying an activity. Like nothingness somethinged me. After describing their grandmother’s last hours, the author writes of Morgan:
“We gotta be careful, you know,” Morgan whispers, and taps on her head. “It might be in us, too.”
This moment drives home for me the ongoing tension throughout the book between the body and the mind, how one’s body is perceived in one’s own mind and also the minds of others. Maybe it’s clearer (and alliterative) to say the tension is between consciousness and corporeality. Ash struggles with the role her body plays in the world throughout the novel, regarded on a whiplashing continuum with superficiality at one end and supremacy at the other. But Morgan’s comment–that “it might be in us, too”–can be regarded as the key lesson Ash needs to learn in the story: that whatever one experiences in the external and corporeal world, one must be conscious of it. Consciousness is a form of control, and potentially of power. One must not hide from the complexities and injustices that await one’s opened eyes. Morgan’s comment suggests that Grandma Shirley lost control of her mind, her power to know was overwhelmed by the wear and tear and injustices inflicted on her body day in and day out. Her soul gave in. The significance of Morgan’s words is that while she appears to be suggesting that madness lies inside one’s mind, by explicating its possibility she is also asserting the power of one’s own consciousness.
One must know the body. One cannot hide from the realities of the world, as Ash and her family can be argued to have done (save Jo). That is, one cannot realistically achieve the paradox that Dickinson puts forth in her poem, being both somebody and nobody at the same time–known and unknown. Even Ash’s father appears to start to learn this. He cannot be somebody (i.e. well off, big house, fancy job) by eluding the consciousness of the blackness of his body, his family’s history, his brother, his mother, his family’s presence.
It makes sense to me the words associated with nobodiness would emerge so starkly in Chapter 20. Grandma Shirley, and her fate, unifies the main characters in the text. As Morgan again puts forth at the chapter’s conclusion:
“We’re here. We’re alive, and we got each other. We keep surviving. That’s not nothing, right?” Morgan whispers.
No, it’s not nothing. Nor are the characters nobodies when they assert their consciousness (to be known) over the way others perceive and act upon their bodies. But it must begin with each of them, individually through each other.
Ready to explore The Black Kids for yourself? You can search for your own key words and create your own line charts right here.