SEPTEMBER 17, 2020
THIS PAST APRIL, the Cleveland-based indie press Belt Publishing released The Last Children of Mill Creek, a memoir by Vivian Gibson. At just 150 pages, the book is a spare, elegant jewel of a work, chronicling the author’s childhood growing up in segregated St. Louis in the 1950s. In 1959, when Gibson was eight years old, her thriving downtown African American community of 20,000 was razed under the banner of “slum clearance” in order to make way for a freeway to the expanding all-white suburbs. On June 2, Belt founder and director Anne Trubek tweeted her disappointment that, despite a four-month publicity campaign and dozens of galleys sent to critics nationwide, the book had still received no national coverage. The critical radio silence baffled Trubek, especially considering that they “promoted it during that ‘publishing has a problem!’ ‘publishing needs more black and brown authors!’ American Dirt moment.”
The pervasive whiteness of the publishing and book criticism worlds is nothing new. Roxane Gay drew attention to it in a 2012 column in The Rumpus, where she and her graduate assistant undertook an informal survey of all books reviewed in The New York Times in 2011. Of 742 total books reviewed, 655 were books written by white authors. According to a 2019 survey conducted by children’s publisher Lee & Low Books, 85 percent of publishing industry editors — including acquisition editors — are white. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder this past May and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, the evergreen question of Black representation in the book world resurfaced again. Wasn’t The Last Children of Mill Creek precisely the kind of story that the industry had pledged, time and time again, to promote, Trubek wondered.
But even a good-faith pledge by the industry to publish and amplify more work by Black authors will be insufficient if the guidelines for what counts as an engaging, marketable Black narrative continue to be defined largely by white readers. As YA author Kekla Magoon writes in a recent essay on the persistence of “minstrelsy” in contemporary Black writing, today’s Black creators “are constantly, inevitably engaging with white expectations for how we portray Blackness.” Stories about Blackness are expected to adopt a certain tone, to cover certain ground, to rehearse specific well-worn narratives. And so, as Magoon concludes, “the (often-unconscious) expectations and desires of publishers who are genuinely interested in promoting diversity sometimes undercut their ability to actually do that.”
The Last Children of Mill Creek is a book for which one would be hard-pressed, in industry lingo, to find “comps” — short for “comparable titles,” previously successful books to which a work just entering the market might be usefully compared, and thus a driving determinant of that work’s market value. In terms of tone and theme, Gibson’s memoir is certainly not without precedent within the African American literary canon. The reader hears in it echoes of Zora Neale Hurston’s rich, sensuous descriptions of rural Black culture in Their Eyes Were Watching God. At other times, Gibson’s prose channels Gwendolyn Brooks’s quiet attentiveness to the beauty and texture of everyday life in Maud Martha.
But the book doesn’t fit neatly into any of the more predictable plot formulas that white audiences have come to expect in Black coming-of-age narratives: that is, stories where Blackness is primarily defined by its confrontation (and possible reconciliation) with whiteness. The Last Children of Mill Creek is joyful, nostalgic, mischievous — a love letter to Gibson’s childhood. It contains nary a white character. It is more Speak, Memory than I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; more The Secret Garden than The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Gibson’s guiding literary topos is Black childhood as idyll. It is little wonder most white reviewers didn’t know what to make of it.
Vivian Gibson grew up in a five-room house on Bernard Street in the Mill Creek Valley section of St. Louis. Her paternal grandmother shared the top floor with a series of rotating boarders, while Vivian’s family — eight children in all — occupied the three first-floor rooms. Her father, Randle Ross, stern and abstemious, worked for the city maintaining its trolley tracks, shoveling snow and salting streets in winter, and hauling municipal garbage. In the evenings, he worked as a church janitor. Vivian’s mother, Frances Elizabeth Hamilton, Gibson describes as “an alabaster beauty” from a middle-class Alabama family; Frances’s pregnancy out of wedlock during her first year of college led to a break with her family, and precipitated an early marriage to Randle.
Family life was centered in the kitchen, which had running water but no hot water, and a wood-burning stove as the sole source for heating and cooking. The reader is introduced to a rotating cast of sibling characters: studious Vern; bad boy Randle; moody Beverly; beautiful Jean; sweet Honey; cheerful Tootie; dutiful Vivian, and baby Ferman. We follow the brood through their domestic rituals, from the joyous to the harrowing: pouring boiling water into a number three zinc tub for baths; making corn bread (with the batter “just loose enough to pour, but not runny”); chopping wood for the stove. In such cramped living quarters, “lining up” became second nature: Gibson recounts lining up to receive a wax paper–wrapped baloney sandwich before school; lining up to have her hair pressed and curled at Cousin Brownie’s kitchen parlor on the Saturday before Easter; lining up for licks from her father’s belt when she and her siblings had failed to do their chores.
Her father’s hardscrabble childhood left him with habits of frugality and resourcefulness that were key to the family’s survival. He combs the city’s municipal trash bins, office buildings, and construction sites for useful cast-offs. Partially used notepads, binders, carbon paper, pencils with erasers; scrap lumber, stray screws, and nails swept up from workshop floors — all make their way into the cab of his truck. One day, Vivian’s father comes home from work with two half-empty buckets of bright yellow traffic-lane paint. “The dried skin halfway down each bucket was peeled away to reveal thick, smooth, sunflower yellow paint,” and the kids beg for permission to freshen up the kitchen with it. Vivian and her siblings coat the kitchen walls, then slap the leftovers on their wooden bunk beds. The final, dazzling surprise: “At night, when the lights were off, the window shades were raised high, and the moon was full, our beds glowed in the dark.”
Her father’s instinct to conserve sometimes made him the butt of good-natured family jokes. He loved bone marrow, and would gnaw on bones until they were limp and gray as leaves. Vivian remembers watching him chew pork ribs that he had basted and smoked with vinegar water for hours on the Fourth of July, “chew[ing] and savor[ing] long after others had moved on to dessert.”
But Vivian experiences such budget-stretching and tight living conditions as more game than burden, more imaginative challenge than obstacle. Nothing is more magical than the crafts — hats and paper flowers and crocheted table covers and wallets — that her mother manufactured from scraps and sold to supplement the family budget: “a one-woman hold out in a fading cottage industry.” Lacking a proper worktable, Frances worked from bed instead: a “tan, boxy leather suitcase,” whisked from its hiding place beneath the bed, hid an enchanted cache of crafting tools and doubled as a work surface. Vivian’s mother was most skilled as a milliner, providing all of Mill Creek with fancy hats: “Three weeks before Easter each year, Mama’s bed looked like a plush garden of pastel blooms growing from molded straw and airy netting.” In church on Sunday, her mother was able to gaze out over the crowd of “stylish worshippers” and admire her handicraft. “After the benediction, it was not unusual for women to rush over and ask if the hat she was wearing was for sale. It was.”
The adults’ keen talent for bricolage, improvisation, and repurposing is imbibed by the children, who use it to transform their urban landscape into a magical playground. The neighborhood kids fashion skateboards out of two-by-fours and metal roller skates, or cobble race cars together from milk crates and old baby-buggy wheels. They whittle green sticks into perfect weapons for play fighting, knocking black walnuts out of trees, or chasing cats in vacant lots. They convene in the alley behind the pinball machine factory, collecting scraps of die-cut metal, rubber, springs, flippers, and plungers to repurpose into toys like bottle-cap slingshots and ray guns.
The adults in Vivian’s world “didn’t talk about the perils of what lay beyond the invisible walls of [her] community,” and until 1958 when her family, under threat of expulsion, joined the Black exodus to the western edges of the city, she was “blissfully unaware of the world outside” her immediate neighborhood. “Grandmamma and Daddy were the only two in our family who had daily contact with white people,” Gibson writes. Her father would often rise early to go “shoot the breeze with the white fellas at work,” but these creatures remained almost mythical to young Vivian: when a co-worker dropped her father off in the evening, he never exited the car, so she “didn’t really know what a white fella looked like.” The one white person she sometimes spies is the insurance man who comes to collect a check once a month. While friendly enough in private, calling her mother “Miss Ross,” he shuns the family when they chance to run into him at Sears, ducking into the hardware aisle.
The white family her grandmother worked for was never named and, for all Vivian knew, might not even have proper names at all. “There was hardly a name used that I can recall,” Gibson reminisces; her grandmother referred to her employers as “my white folks.” “Even the children she spent her daylight hours caring for,” Gibson muses, “were infrequently referred to as ‘my chil’ren on the place.’” In one particularly striking passage, Vivian sits on the steps leading up to her grandmother’s second-floor apartment, cutting out paper dolls, when the phone rings: it is one of her grandmother’s little white charges, calling for a goodnight kiss. Her grandmother’s voice changes register, shifting “into a soothing maternal tone that I only heard during these exchanges.” One day, Vivian accompanies her grandmother out to the white folk’s suburban home — “a house that sat in the middle of a yard that looked like a park” — to do yard work. She knows the family is inside, but the house feels oddly quiet and abandoned. “I looked up at the window on the second floor, then the side door, but no one was there.”
All of her grandmother’s connections to white people, even the most intimate — the white children she bathed and fed and cared for — were, by white design, rooted in exploitation and the tacit denial of her own Black family’s welfare. This rendered the relationships, quite obviously, null and void: and this, not out of any particular feeling of anger or antipathy on her grandmother’s part, but as a simple matter of self-preservation. The six- and seven-year-old Vivian doesn’t yet, of course, understand these relationships. If she thinks of white people at all, it is with mild pity; perplexed by the fragility, skittishness, and dishonesty of these ghosts hovering on the edges of her world, their sad and clownish attempts to maintain a relationship to Black people while simultaneously dodging, faking, and disavowing their very existence.
And then, one day, the idyll comes to an end. In 1958, with the small sum of settlement money Vivian’s father receives after an accident at work, he moves the family to an eight-room house in a quiet, leafy neighborhood at the westernmost reaches of the city limits. They have hot water; a luxurious tub and shower; a furnace and radiators; velvet lawns. Vivian recalls her first approach to the house, driving through “a taupe and pale-green tunnel made of trees that lined both sides of our new street[.] […] The October sunlight that sparkled through the fluttering leaves was like a dream I’d never had.”
When they first move in, a few scattered white families still remain on the block. Like all the white people in her life, these, too, prove furtive; the next-door-neighbor children always run inside when the Ross kids come out to play. One by one, the white families disappear. The Ross family house becomes a neighborhood gathering place, where kids listen to records and sip cherry Kool-Aid under the sycamore trees in the warm summer evenings.
But as Vivian and her family settle into their new home, the demolition of Mill Creek Valley to make way for the Daniel Boone Expressway continues apace. As the last Black families pack up and move out, white scavengers swoop in to salvage what is left, loading trucks with “abandoned iron stoves and door frames with the doors and transoms still attached”; stained-glass windows, wood trim, and pews from the quarter’s abandoned churches. Even before the wrecking balls come, teams of white men “with picks and hammers” reduce the houses to rubble, spiriting off lucrative century-old red bricks piled high on flatbed trucks. The thrifty, cheerful Black scavenging that marked so much of Vivian’s childhood is flipped and plays out, this time around, as cynical white looting. The spell — and with it, Vivian’s enchanted childhood — has been broken.
The Last Children of Mill Creek is an elegy. From the melancholy “last” of the title to the sepia-toned photo of a young girl on the cover and the author’s preface, every element of the book’s framing signals that this is a story about a vanished world. It has the fairytale hush of a children’s book, one where magic springs from unlikely sources and the mundane materials of everyday life can be kindled into beauty and bounty at any moment.
Gibson is no Pollyanna. The controlling conceit of the narrative — expulsion from the garden, and the inevitable fall from innocence into experience — makes it clear that she eventually reckons with the vicious nature of American anti-Blackness. In the final chapter of the book, even as Mill Creek is reduced to ruins, Gibson documents the small, sinister signs that her new quasi-suburban neighborhood is headed for a similarly grim future. Eight-year-old Vivian watches as local white businesses begin to pull out of the neighborhood; white families flee and schools collapse; segregated high-rise apartments siphon off mid- to low-income Black families into what would eventually become “projects.”
In a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose, Toni Morrison balked when he questioned her as to whether she might one day write “a novel not centered about race.” In other words, about something other than Black experience from the Black perspective. Morrison promptly responded that it was an illegitimate question. Critics of Sula, she allowed, had lamented its lack of a “universal” point of view. White critics chided her for her narrowness, her supposed parochialism, insisting that, “‘One day she […] will have to face up to the real responsibilities […] and write about the real confrontation for Black people, which is white people.’ As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.”
In The Last Children of Mill Creek, the confrontation with whiteness arrives. And yet, it does so only as the curtains close; Gibson denies it a place at the center of her story. The white gaze makes its weary, long-expected appearance as stock character only in the closing chapter. This is a story borne aloft by the sheer human joy of storytelling, of memory, of tender love for a mother and a father and for a vanished time and place. It is a book that, while steadfastly refusing the American fiction of color blindness, just as steadfastly refuses to portray Black life through the single warped lens of white-induced pain. In this refusal, Gibson writes a memoir that breaks through the tired, white-publishing-fueled genre conventions that too often prevent a glimpse of Black life on its own terms.
Ellen Wayland-Smith is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (2016) and of The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (2020). Her essays and reviews have appeared in Catapult, The Millions, Guernica, Aeon, and Longreads.