Refuge, Possibility, and Black Place: On Ayana Mathis’s “The Unsettled”

By J. T. RoaneMarch 9, 2024

Refuge, Possibility, and Black Place: On Ayana Mathis’s “The Unsettled”

The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis

AYANA MATHIS’S important new novel, The Unsettled (2023), bears within its title the affective work that it accomplishes. Through entanglements of generational memory, placemaking, loss, nostalgia, family, community, and social dissolution, the reader is dislodged from the comfort of neat resolution.

The novel weaves the story of Bonaparte, a historically Black Alabama town, with the fraying social edges of Philadelphia during the fiscal and housing crises of the 1980s. Mathis toggles between these two worlds in their present by tracing one family across three generations. The grandmother, a former blues performer named Dutchess, settled in Bonaparte with her daughter, Ava, and a new husband after retiring from the road. We sense that perhaps Ava is the product of sexual violence—a common risk for Black women navigating the Jim Crow era—giving Bonaparte’s protecting fold deep personal significance for these characters.

When an aggressive development company called Progress encroaches upon Bonaparte, Dutchess fights back. The developers seek to extend the historical violence of Bodine, an all-white town across the river. Mathis models Bodine on real Southern towns that emerged from plantations and have grown themselves through predatory relations to Black places. These towns have been researched by scholars such as Danielle Purifoy and Louise Seamster, who analyze the evolution of plantation relations between white towns and unincorporated Black places into the present.

Though Bonaparte is in the capitalist crosshairs, it has also been a site of refuge and possibility for Black people after Emancipation. Bonaparte is isolated but takes shape through Black communal visions for autonomy, which its citizens secure by employing self-defense and by planting the land to sell its literal fruits as preserves. Here, Mathis’s fiction again touches historical and present Black geographies. In her recent book How to Lose the Hounds: Maroon Geographies and a World Beyond Policing (2023), geographer Celeste Winston documents the evolution of Black communities in Montgomery County, Maryland, where people who fled slavery developed institutions within spaces of state abandonment, creating their own forms of well-being and security outside the purview of policing.

Eventually, Ava’s stepfather is murdered by Bodine residents, which accelerates generational displacement within the family. After taking to the road in a replay of Dutchess’s movements, Ava comes to live in Philadelphia, pregnant with her son, Toussaint. She marries a man named Abemi, and they follow the fleeting promise of stability to the suburbs.

When Cass, Ava’s lover and Toussaint’s biological father, suddenly reappears at their house, it fractures romantic bonds and draws Abemi’s abusiveness to the open. Abemi, despite a strict Christian devotion, casts Ava and Toussaint into the street. They make their way to a shelter for dehoused women and children in Philadelphia.

Mathis narrates the backdrop of 1980s Philadelphia as a place defined by deteriorating living conditions in its working-class neighborhoods. Displacement is compounded by the loss of 100,000 industrial jobs and new real estate investment near Center City and in residential communities. Reaganomic housing policy has ascended, and the “war on drugs” has further criminalized vulnerability. Mathis shows the interplay among the violence of large state and economic transformation, interpersonal abuse, and forms of ineptitude that flourish among police as well as punitive shelter staff, social workers, and school administrators, framed as the everyday interface between dehoused Black people and the state.

The official face of the government is most pointedly embodied in Melvin, the security guard at the shelter where Ava and Toussaint seek refuge. Melvin hustles the vulnerable mothers for food stamps, which he sells to get them cash, but not before taking his own cut. He weaponizes snacks in the shelter pantry and pushes women for sex. Corrosive violence is also embodied in the antagonistic social worker, Miss Simmons, who castigates and interrogates the women and threatens to kick them out of the shelter unless they keep applying for jobs that don’t exist. Miss Simmons’s violent disregard comes to a head when she sends Ava to a telephone company job interview bruised and concussed after Abemi has beaten her.

Mathis’s characterization of bureaucratic violence is important. Just as demeaning and intimately connected with policing, some call it slow violence: the forms that eat away at life outside the eventful deaths of a firebombing or police raid, the product of anticipated impairment through poor housing, underfunded schools, and joblessness met with surveillance and imprisonment.

The heat of the novel centers around the charismatic figure of Cass, a former physician and Black Panther. He begins to organize the residents of a tent city and calls his group “the Ark.” Just as Ava and Toussaint are about to leave Philadelphia for Alabama, a speech from Cass draws them back. History-minded readers will recognize a real-world cognate in MOVE, a group that aroused the reactionary ire of Mayor Frank Rizzo in the 1970s and violent firebombing by police under Mayor Wilson Goode in 1985.

Cass uses his training as a physician to treat the neighborhood residents, who are often unable to receive treatment for a range of ailments from sprained ankles to venereal disease, hypertension, and diabetes. The group also feeds the neighborhood children.

Cass’s authority within the Ark becomes near total as police violence and surveillance increases. Conflict with the city intensifies, and Cass uses his power to control most of what the group eats, says, and thinks. Toussaint, meanwhile, connects with Dutchess through letters and phone calls, despite having never met her. This relationship is facilitated by a neighborhood pastor, who feeds and talks to the children of the Ark after other neighbors begin to refuse them.

Responding to police repression, Cass seeks a new location for the Ark, away from the heat of Philadelphia. He settles on Bonaparte, where he had traveled prior to forming the Ark. Dutchess, assuming he is an agent from Progress, shoots and wounds him, but she heals him with antibiotics and traditional herbs and medicine. In return, he fixes up the homes, fences, and yards of the few elders who remain in Bonaparte.

Cass also burns the houses in the new developments along the river, apparent retribution for Progress agents burning an old store that had once been at the center of life and collectivity in Bonaparte. After the arson, Cass disappears from Bonaparte, but not before confiscating the deeds and title to Dutchess’s land.

When Ava learns that Cass has stolen her mother’s land, she calls the police to tell them that the group has weapons. This doesn’t come as an easy decision, given her devotion to Cass, but shows the complex and situated course she walks as Toussaint’s mother. The novel ends with the likelihood of Toussaint returning where he has never been—to join Dutchess in Bonaparte, with Ava imprisoned.

Mathis’s work develops a profound sense of Black place within a wider ecology of violence from historical plantations to shelters for the dehoused and prisons in the late-20th-century US city. Bonaparte and Philadelphia imbricate through movement, association, affiliation, memory, nostalgia, pain, loss, and disavowal. Mathis illustrates how the long arm of slavery, even across time and setting, makes lives come apart. But she also shows how they are remade and come together anew through the vitality that precedes and exceeds violence.

Though the work ends with the uncertainty of Toussaint’s journey back to Bonaparte, the glimmer of refuge provides a small opening where we can imagine his future outside confinement and violence. With this novel, Mathis seeks to unsettle, and she succeeds.

LARB Contributor

J. T. Roane is the author of Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place (2023), producer for the experimental short film Plot, and a board member of a food justice organization, Just Harvest—Tidewater. He is an assistant professor of Africana studies and geography and Andrew Mellon Chair in the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers University.


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