Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.
— Toni Morrison in Sula
THE DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS is in the news the day that my cousin and I choose to visit it. Rumors swirl about its world-class collection being put on the auction block to help pull the city out of bankruptcy, but my cousin, Angie, doesn’t believe that will happen. They can’t relocate or replicate the museum where Diego Rivera painted his famous Detroit Industry murals, which show the suit-clad boss calm behind his desk in one panel, and the muscled, straining laborers toiling in another. Nevertheless, there is an air of “catch it while you can” when we enter the museum five minutes late for our guided tour and hustle past Rivera’s murals to catch up with the group.
The group consists of the sort of people Angie and I imagine run the DIA: elderly, white, comfortably middle class. We fall in behind a man in a wheelchair as the guide discusses Picasso’s Melancholy Woman as an example of how the artist was influenced by Cézanne. I see another Picasso painting closer to me, Bottle of Anis del Mono, and I point it out to Angie as evidence of Picasso’s West African influences. We whisper about how Picasso was famously dodgy when it came to acknowledging African sources in his work, despite the undeniable aesthetic hallmarks. The guide asks for questions or comments about Melancholy Woman, and I consider making my Bottle of Anis comment but decide against it.
We round a corner and confront the dazzling, nine-foot-tall equestrian portrait by Kehinde Wiley, Officer of the Hussars. Angie and I gasp in unison. A sword-wielding black man in a muscle tank, silky purple jacket, jeans, and Timberlands rides a white stallion, its curly, shampoo-commercial mane billowing. The background is a bold gradient of reds and pinks, with a brown battleground landscape at the bottom. Gold filigree swirls around the man and the horse, deliberately flashy-classy, like pretty much any item of clothing put out by streetwear labels in the early 2000s. The guide faces the painting.
“Can anyone describe the expression on the man in the painting’s face?”
“He looks strong,” Angie offers. Then she leans toward me and whispers, “And he is fine.” I nod in agreement.
The guide explains how Wiley recruited subjects for his Rumors of War series on the streets of Harlem. She calls our attention to the info placard next to the portrait. Under the standard card listing Wiley’s birth date and how the museum acquired his work is a print of Officer of the Hussars, created by Théodore Géricault in 1812. It too is a dramatic equestrian portrait, but its subject is a French officer of the Imperial Guard. The original hangs in the Louvre. Members of our group crowd closer to see it, then they step back and scrutinize Wiley’s portrait anew. The guide talks about Wiley’s desire to explore the concepts of masculinity and nobility by reimagining these portraits of once powerful men. She again asks for questions or comments.
“I just wanted to thank you for pointing out the original painting and explaining the connection,” the woman pushing the man in the wheelchair says. “I would have walked right by this new one, otherwise.”
Angie wears the look I imagine I have on my own face: affronted disbelief. If a nine-foot-tall Technicolor portrait of a good-looking brother in Timbs on a horse doesn’t warrant a minute of a museum-goer’s time, how does a tiny print of a white soldier on a horse change things? I want to yank the info placard off the wall.
If I tell you that Cynthia Bond, a debut novelist, has written a novel that channels Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer, does that give her work more value? Or, does it work the opposite for literature? Do you assume that this is a book you’ve read before, another depiction of a sleepy town full of lively gossip, a collective longing for elsewhere in the midst of institutionalized racism and maybe a dash of the fantastic? Bond’s novel Ruby does contain all of these elements, yet it achieves something apart from its influences as well, something that is well worth stopping to look at.
Thirty-year-old Ruby returns to Liberty, Texas from New York City in 1963 to bury her cousin Maggie. Once back in the South, her past finds her in the form of haints, tarrens (child ghosts) and an evil Dyboú spirit. Ruby plans to stay for just a few days, but once she is confronted by spirits of the past she is unable to move, and ten years pass. The townspeople watch her slide from sophisticated cosmopolite to repugnant, feral woman, a kind of living ghost. Most folks in the town despise her. One man, Ephram Jennings, a gentle soul, has loved her since she was a child, loves her still, and tries to work up the nerve to tell her so. His love for Ruby began after his mother was carted away to an asylum and before his father was lynched. The enduring love is the sliver of hope readers can snatch at in this novel, but it is a fragile hope, and it is an understatement to say that both characters have much personal work to do before they can rise to the occasion of romance.
The best word to describe Ruby might be “committed.” Bond commits to depicting situations that require readers to go places they’d rather not venture. Places like hell. Hell is the Neches, Texas brothel in which 6-year-old Ruby must earn her keep, where she must fight even to keep the fistful of quarters her abusers have left her as tips. Where the Johns (called “friends” by the brothel owner) are able to indulge any sadistic whim, including beating to death a fetus and a young woman, for an extra charge. Hell is the survivor’s guilt that follows Ruby throughout her life, making it impossible for her to love herself or anyone else.
Ruby was released in the spring of 2014 around the same time as Roxane Gay’s debut novel, An Untamed State. Gay’s novel chronicles the 13 days during which Mireille, a Haitian-American woman, is held captive by Port-au-Prince kidnappers who gang rape and torture her. Like Ruby, Gay’s novel deals unflinchingly with sexual violence without being exploitative or titillating. If the wonder of literature is that it allows us to imagine the heretofore unimaginable, then it should also help us fathom the unfathomable. Not every writer should take on the abhorrent, but some must, particularly if we are to better understand the lives of women and the dangers and fears that sometimes make up part of their existence.
Realistic renderings of abuse do not make a novel bleak — failing to grant characters who are victims of abuse their full humanity is a far bleaker enterprise. In An Untamed State we see the love Mireille has for her son, her husband, her parents, and Haiti itself alongside her trauma. In Bond’s novel we see Ruby as a woman who can still be tickled by a goofy man coming to court her, who finds peace while sitting in her bare feet under a chinaberry tree, who sees a sort of order in the disorder of her mind and her days.
Magic and mystical traditions might be a way of maintaining sanity in environments fraught with horror and they might bind generations, but in Ruby Bond uses these traditions to highlight a system of male dominance. Early on we see Ruby, her cousin Maggie, and Ephram visit Ma Tante, a conjure doctor who employs tools similar to those used by the New Orleans spiritualists whom Zora Neale Hurston profiled in Mules and Men — jars of roots and powder, gris-gris talismans, animal hair. These are meant to protect Ruby from the forces both alive and dead that are intent on harming her. The conjure doctor’s spells do not work, and later we see why: Ruby has been up against an underground circuit of male conjure practitioners spearheaded by the leaders of Liberty’s black community. They meet in the fields to sacrifice animals to dark spirits.
After describing God as a white man, the leader of the circle explains the need to conjure: “That White man what breathe out frost when he speaks, with them froze eyes like a lake in winter? You got to know he already done picked out who he favor and it ain’t the likes of you.” An understandable claim, considering the life of a black man in a small Texas town mid-century. If only he stopped there, but of course, hatred has a way of losing control as it breeds more hatred. He goes on to blame women for cursing the world and birthing the white man, for tricking black men with lust. In this way he is able to justify men’s dominance over women, to make the violation of them akin to revenge for ancient wrongs. This is the part of the tale that makes all the other parts fit together, the bitter bay leaf at the bottom of the pot. Bond suggests a historical cycle of abuse — no, a snowball of abuse, that black women are expected to stand at the bottom of the slope and accept as it comes. The conjure circle is the perfect vehicle for this exposition, as its existence is an attempt to counteract white supremacy, but it results in more subjugation.
In Morrison’s novel Sula, the titular character and her best friend, Nel, walk through a gauntlet of town men, “a valley of eyes,” on their way to get ice cream. They feel a thrill from these stares, aware that they are now of the age to be ogled unabashedly. One man calls them what the other men are thinking: Pig meat. Virgins. Girls that are the type of vulnerable, baby-soft things that pigs, being the indiscriminate eaters that they are, would devour without hesitation. (I’ve never been able to think about this scene without Rick James’s song “17” playing in my mind. “She was only seventeen/ but she was young and sweet and oh so tender.”) In Ruby, Bond shows us how women navigate a world in which any show of desire might result in being devoured. Ephram’s sister Celia thrusts herself into the role of chaste matriarch, yet she dreams of what it’s like to be kissed, and coddles Ephram in hopes of securing lifelong companionship. Maggie, who is too smart, and likely too queer for the town she lives in — a town in which even 11-year-old boys hear the refrain “ain’t no way to magnetize when it’s the same between the thighs” — works hard for white folks and dies young and alone. Both women find a modicum of agency in eradicating all tenderness, but they never find happiness.
Ruby, damaged as she may be, is still tender. Ephram recognizes this and is careful with her. He does not fit into the prescribed gender roles of the town. He is too touchy-feely, too day-dreamy and perceived as too effeminate to garner an invitation to the conjure circle. He cleans Ruby’s house, feeds her, and — most importantly — he listens. But he does not save her. He can’t save her from the memories of trauma, the decades of distrust. Bond makes it clear that only Ruby can do that.
I’ve been evangelizing about Ruby to my friends, but I have been lying to them. These are young women of color with jobs, children, and student loans to think about. Their days are often peppered with minor insults and microaggressions. If I tell these friends the whole truth of a novel like Ruby — that as much as it is a beautifully wrought ghost story, a love story, a survival story, it is also a multi-generational story of rape — they will not read it. They’re not eager for reminders that freedom and triumph are not supposed to be theirs; they’re busy trying to create something else to be. So I give slant synopses in the hopes of putting a few of my homegirls onto this wonderful debut, which manages to defy any summary I can give, as only good books do. I’ve lied for worse reasons.