Read an Excerpt of Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks
It’s 1957, and after leaving the only home she has ever known, Alice Young steps off the bus into the all-Black town of New Jessup, Alabama, where residents have largely rejected integration as the means for Black social advancement. Jamila Minnicks’s debut novel, Moonrise Over New Jessup, is both a celebration of Black joy and a timely examination of the opposing viewpoints that attended desegregation in America.
Read this excerpt from Moonrise Over New Jessup now:
The moon rises and sets, stitching eternity together, night by night. Love-spun thread binds family when even years, or blue skies, stand between one and another’s touch. Generations travel the same footprints, reach hands to the same climbing branches, and warm the same brown skin under the Alabama sun. Maybe “family” brings to mind only blood, marital relations, and it’s easy to understand that way of thinking. Love by my hand tethered generations to generations, as well as kin by skin, in this place where all in me, and of me, can thrive.
Yet even the strongest thread will snap with constant tension and no slack. The heavens overflow with memories lost. So as life requires, I hold taut and I give. In most ways, my people know, if, in some, they never will. But in all ways, my moon rises and sets for family.
So, in eternity, the time had come for me to leave the home where I was born. The sun was setting and the half-bald red sweetgum around the fields announced November just a few days coming. But 1957 was still October-old when our landlord ended up facedown on the ground for trying to drag me behind him to the toolshed. I was the last to leave the home house in Rensler: Daddy had passed a couple weeks before, and I had settled him next to Mama, though his burial left me scrambling for the rent. My sister Rosie was rooming with a nice family in Chicago, doing hair, and my need to keep a roof over my head had mellowed my worry to wonder about when her next letter would arrive. There was plenty of gleaning left to make November’s payment, and then I’d scratch around for whatever came available to buy myself some time. I had never planned, or wanted, to leave Alabama. But with old man Todd shouting curses at my back, his face split open and gushing sweetgum-red, my plans to stay began to fade.
After sleeping a night at the neighbors, and an hours-long walk with the dawn, I arrived at the bus station with just my thrown-together knapsack. The man behind the counter assured me that my little money would carry me to Birmingham. Not Nashville, or Louisville, or Cleveland, let alone Chicago. Birmingham, he said. And no further. In those hours I waited on the bus to depart, the world came undone piece by piece. Unable to get to a place I never wanted to go, with ticket in hand to a place I knew not a single soul, first, the landscape flattened. Direction was next—north, south, east, west, all headed towards the unfamiliar. Then finally color, until everything faded to black and white. I rode the bus into this flat, directionless, colorless world, until it shushed to a stop in my new home.
Not that I knew it at the time, no. My ticket read Birmingham, and all I knew was that we had stopped somewhere between nowhere in particular and the big city. We had traveled a hundred country miles, or maybe ten. Stopped once, twice, four times—I don’t know. I was huddled against my window, watching the world blur by as the man seated next to me kept up one-sided conversation about returning north after visiting with his wife and children down country. Somewhere along the way, he started worrying me about the brown paper bag on my lap, and the chicken grease soaking through to my dress, but that oily stain hardly ruined anything. The grayed threads had known color when I first sewed it. Red plaid. But that stain just turned light gray to ash, and ash gray to black, so somewhere near Needham, I offered him the chicken. He took it and finally left me alone.
We shushed to a stop and the bus emptied—some, getting off, hugging loved ones “hello”; some taking luggage from the belly of the bus; and most everybody stretching, smiling, and laughing underneath the blue-sky day. But the stops were all the same to me, so I stayed inside with my head against the glass, feeling the sun’s warmth on the window. That’s when a red-heeled shoe clicked its way up the sidewalk. Two of them, if I’m honest, though it wasn’t so much the shoes that caught my eye, but the bronze stockinged legs inside them. They continued up the way towards a sidewalk café before disappearing through the front door.
My eyes traveled from the café to the paved sidewalk to the row of brick-front shops lining the wide avenue. The sun gleamed from the white tile at the bus depot, and a polished chrome dog leapt over the door. But a couple folks—one, like me, and the other, nothing like me—looked around, unsure of what we were seeing. When the man seated next to me returned smelling of cigarettes and shoe polish, he urged me off the bus with a dime from his own pocket.
“Miss, our next stop ain’t for quite a while, and this here is a good place to stretch your legs. Why don’t you go on inside and get yourself a Coca-Cola before we pull off again?”
Before stepping foot to pavement, I hovered in the doorway of the bus. To the left and right, the avenue, the sidewalk, the storefronts, extended to the horizon in either direction. But reaching the front door of the depot, the Colored entrance was nowhere in sight. To my right, a shoeshine man chewed a toothpick while studying the shoe, and the polish, in his hands from every angle. Behind me, from the bus window, the man urged me through the door; only, the last thing I needed was to be arrested for going through the front just to buy a Coke.
“Help you, Miss?” asked at shoeshine man. Until the words eased from his mouth, he’d done his level best to ignore me. With the weather-beaten hand-me-downs on my feet, it was no wonder why.
“I’m looking for the Colored entrance, please,” I said to the pavement, not wanting to be pegged ignorant of city ways and where they hid the Negro doorways.
“You won’t find one of them here,” he said. “Just walk in.”
“I’d prefer the Colored entrance. Please,” I insisted. He seemed an unusual man, perhaps a prankster of some sort, with the long limbs, triangular head, and bulging eyes of a chameleon. Just the sort to make trouble for folks and dart away.
“We ain’t got one of them because ain’t nothing but Negroes in this town, is what I’m telling you. Look around and see if you see any whitefolks other than these sorry few from the buses.” He smirked and returned his attention to the shoe in his hand, satisfied he knew the lay of the land.
A dark brown man sold bus tickets and answered questions inside while two soldiers in Army-issue khaki rushed past me: one, with the deep mulberry skin of the ready harvest, and the other, my same sun-gold cinnamon with dark freckles on his cheeks who placed a hand to his peaked cap. A light-skinned woman with a wild mane of bottle-red hair rushed into a yellow cab driven by a portly man of pecan complexion. He sped past an ebony police officer in white gloves holding palms up, meaning “stop.” A deep bronze man across the street wore paint-covered bib overalls, smoking a cigarette next to another bib-overalled man—cocoa-brown. And the family by the drink machine? The mama, she was high yellow, but her husband was a rich, deep brown to match some good, peaty soil. One child favored him, one her, and one fell to a brown somewhere in the middle. And that was just within those few feet of me at the depot. Up and down the avenue, Negroes of every shade came together like the dusk in a fall forest.
I should’ve been glad, relieved, to find such a sight on my journey, but my knees gave out and I sank onto the bench next to the shoeshine man. I buried my face in my hands and sobbed.
“Ain’t our folks’ usual reaction when they first arrive in New Jessup,” he said, patting my shoulder with the light taps of a man unaccustomed to comforting people. I stopped crying in time to wave the bus off, too exhausted to shed another drop.
“Is there a church house nearby?” I asked.
“Pastor and Mrs. Brown’ll take right good care of you up at Morning Star Baptist,” he said, and with walking directions, he sent me on my way. But after I took a couple steps up the sidewalk, he called out. When I turned, he spoke to the stain on my dress and the marks on my arm that weariness had me forgetting to hide. “But Miss, if you looking for whitefolks, and I don’t imagine that you would be, but say you are? Well, you’d have to get all the way to the other side of the woods to find a single one.”