The Ugly Poverty of Violence: Michael Datcher’s “Americus”

November 28, 2018   •   By Peter J. Harris


Michael Datcher

AMERICUS IS Michael Datcher’s fictional meditation on intimate and social brutality and how it formed and forged men during apartheid America from 1893 to 1927. Overlaid by an Egyptian “primordial narrative,” the novel traces the tragic story of identical twin brothers Asar and Set Americus.

Starting on the twins’ 10th birthday in 1893, East St. Louis, when “they were officially big boys,” the historical novel chronicles their complicated, at times tortuous, umbilical connection to their father, Keb Americus, heir to AMERICUS & SON FUNERAL HOME.

Keb is the scion of founding patriarch Big Grandpa Nema, a man “too mean to die,” who still influences, if not poisons, the lives of his extended family. He sneers and dismisses tenderness. He drops creaky proverbs about what makes a man as well as the place and role of women. He slams doors and otherwise wreaks havoc with whimsical mendacity, all imparted with the pride of the self-made Race Man.

Datcher, like a forensic poet of death, plunges readers into textured descriptions of an equal-and-opposite physics, in which family violence is played out in a locale — “Bloody Island,” East St. Louis — that is more a charnel house than an American city, where the industrial ecology, including labor relations and the noise of railroads and slaughtered livestock, reverberates into the psyches and bleeds into the bodies of Black men, women, and children.

Throughout Americus, shrouded by living memories of the race riot of 1917, the brutality of men toward each other, men toward women, capitalist bosses toward Eastern European immigrant “bohunks,” unfolds within a Jim Crow era of white racist violence against the Black community.

Via the Americus men, who embody the “structural sexism” of the 1890s, Datcher also explores and engages the incendiary matter of how these men love and manage “strong women, beautiful and smart,” as he described it in an interview after a summer 2018 reading from the book. At that inflammatory crux, the twins’ mother Nut says to her stubborn husband Keb: “[Y]our good judgment led you to choose a smart, capable wife, now keep trusting that good judgment and let your smart, capable wife help you raise some smart, capable sons.”

Keb doesn’t take his wife’s advice, and surrenders to a cloistered, claustrophobic, and constricted chaos. Everyone is tortured psychologically and is a prisoner of their rituals, keystone among them being that older sons are more important than next born, even if the oldest son was born merely minutes before his younger brother. As Datcher opens Americus: “Being born seven minutes behind Asar had taught Set the bad math of birth order.”

The men in Americus adhere to a hypermasculinity, as well as to a hyper Home Training, as if both were invocations and talismans offering protection against the hyperviolence of a racist world. Trapped within the novel’s governing myth, the characters in Americus are compressed by violence into a preordained climax that is meant to be a cleansing sacrifice.

As the novel unfolds, Vitiligo, a disease sapping the melanin from Set’s skin, is deftly wielded as a symbol of the implacable force of white racism, as devastation of a proud community’s assertion that “Black don’t crack,” and as a creeping leaching of Set’s love and faith in his mother Nutilda Bravefoot-Americus, whose herbal ministrations fail to remedy her son’s feeling that he’s “disappearing.”

Reckless eyeballing — a concept considered a crime worthy of lynching — is used by Datcher to both describe Nutilda’s face, suggesting a flat Egyptian drawing on stone, and to etch Set’s violent nature, which has him gouging out a sheep’s eye and ultimately one of his own.

Datcher seeks to infuse Americus with its own sense of mythology. Fundamental tensions weaken that quest. By adapting or modernizing an ancient myth, characters are essentially fixed; we know that Americus will culminate in tragedy. And transposing Egyptian names (e.g., Asar/Set/Nepthys/Auset/Heru) into the late 1890s/early 1900s begs for cultural/community context.

A similar dissonance mars the rhythm of the book’s first half. Too often, Datcher’s staccato, excessive use of compound adjectives dampens our ability to gain insight into this complicated family. Among the most clunky are: “deep-voiced, barrel-chested minister”; “Frederick Law Olmsted-designed grounds”; “Egyptian-influenced, Greek-inspired white columns”; “fear-induced, pre-nuptial calm”; “wide-eyed, breath-gushing wail”; and “stare-catching eyes.”

Also, there’s Datcher’s distracting use of food metaphors to describe characters and circumstances: “buttermilk face”; “peach-cobbler-crust-face”; “lima bean-shaped white spot”; “walnut-sized cheekbones”; “watermelon-sized grave”; and “watermelon-rind face.”

Americus picks up velocity in its second half, when Datcher finds his stride in simplified and compelling prose that is moving and successful as a brave, unflinching meditation on how violence informs the map-making of “man making,” and how it stuns and stains a family to its intimate core.

In one mesmerizing moment, Asar muses how he’s seen his father Keb be

the caring Daddy who would do anything for his family and the next moment [be] filled with an intense rage that didn’t seem to match the situation. A process that made Asar sometimes feel very tiny butterflies in the pit of his stomach when his father was around. Even when Daddy was smiling, Asar didn’t always trust those smiles — or his father. Asar never had a good sense of what exactly would unleash the spontaneous acts of intensity, so his strategy was just to focus on making his Daddy proud.

Asar rarely feels so dimensional, stunted by his painfully one-note role in the governing myth guiding Americus. “What do I have to do to be capable of love?” Asar once plaintively asks his grandfather. Meanwhile, Set is a “rambunctious baby boy turned divisive grown man,” a malicious whirlwind of dynamic evolution, whether because of Vitiligo, or as he nurses anger and violence from childhood into adulthood, when he must fulfill his agonizing destiny against his brother.

That destiny, as in the Egyptian myth, culminates in Datcher’s demanding sequence that has us experience a ritual dismemberment, and the subsequent discovery of the body parts by the dismembered man’s dismembered son, himself 10 years old. The son must examine the remains of his father — “a naked Negro laid to rest inside a kaleidoscope” — as both a budding undertaker and as a vulnerable child swaying, perhaps swooning, within an imposed sexuality.

Americus, saturated by emotional taboos and an overarching miasma of racism, reads as a mortician’s journal of an extended embalming. The book echoes the heavy diction of works such as Richard Wright’s Native Son. Consequently, Americus, with Datcher as ancient scribe, as American medium, is a myth in earnest quest of its mythology. A difficult read, Americus finds its voice as a sober rendering of one Black American family trapped within the ugly poverty of violence, its DNA, and its impact across generations.


Peter J. Harris is the award-winning author of the poetry collection Bless the Ashes and the book of essays The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My Unalienable Right.