The Good Negress: A Novel

The Good Negress: A Novel

by A. J. Verdelle

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“Haunting . . . To read The Good Negress is to fall under a spell, to open a window, to fly.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
Twenty years after its initial publication, The Good Negress continues to be an important part of the literary canon, as relevant and necessary as ever. Set in 1960s Detroit, the novel centers around Denise Palms, who leaves her grandmother’s home in rural Virginia to reunite with her mother, stepfather, and older brothers. As a black teenage girl, Denise is given scarce opportunity beyond cooking, cleaning, and raising her mother’s baby. But an idealistic, demanding teacher opens Denise’s eyes to a future she has never considered, and soon she begins to question the limits of the life prescribed to her.
With lyrical, evocative prose, A. J. Verdelle captures Denise’s journey from adolescence to womanhood as she navigates the tension between loyalty and independence, and between circumstance and desire. The Good Negress is an unforgettable debut—simultaneously the portrait of a family and a glimpse into an era of twentieth-century America.
Winner of the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565128675
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 01/03/1995
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 115,401
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

A.J. Verdelle was born and raised in Washington, D.C., graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in political science, and went on for two postgraduate degrees in statistics and writing. She is founder and owner of Applied Statistics and Research, a consulting company in New York.

Read an Excerpt


I KNEW I was sleepin too long. And as I have come to know myself, I think I felt her leavin, the door closin behind the belly at the end of my rope. When I did finally shake myself awake, I was at Granma’am’s house. I got out of bed, tiptoed down the hall, and peered around the door frame into the quiet front room. Nobody there, or in the front yard. I walked back toward the kitchen, and, there at the line where the floor planks got wider, I had to stop and take a look: one boiled egg, bacon, and glass of brown juice, all sittin so orderly in one place on the table. I dragged a chair over to the open window and climbed up on it. I hung my neck through the window and looked out to the backyard. Granma’am was outside in the bleachin sun, bent over, pullin tomatoes off the vines.

I stretched farther out the window to see where Mama stood. She would be standin more in the shade, havin conversation. Or maybe foldin clothes she was takin off the line. I reached farther out to see her feet underneath the long white sheets. No feet. Granma’am must have heard my elbow slip. She turned as if I called. “Well, good mornin, sleepyhead,” she said, and she was inside, the screen door slappin, before I got down off the chair.

“Hi, Granma’am. Where’s Mama?” I answered.

Granma’am had red and green and yellow-orange tomatoes stretched out in a dip in her upturned housedress. “Well, hi is you, Baby Sister? You ready for some breakfast?” She has turned her back to me before I can nod my head. One at the time, she lays the tomatoes on the wood board by the sink. Then she brushes off her dress front with her hand and goes over to the big black Vulcan stove that anchored the kitchen’s back wall. Her cotton stockings were thick, and she had them rolled down below her knees. There was a bulge on each right side, a knot she had twisted to hold her leggings up.

“Sit down to the table, Baby Sister.” My place at the table was set directly across from the stove. In time, from that place, and that kitchen, I will know all the Vulcan’s dents and injuries. I will cause some more.

Granma’am lifted warm bread across the table and onto the white plate with the yellow-green flowers round the edges. She pushed the plate closer to the egg. And then, in one of the wide chairs with beige and brown flecked vinyl seats and backs, the one to my right, Granma’am sat down. “Say your blessin, and have your breakfast, Baby Sister.” Her hand stretched out and pressed down my hair where sleep had rumpled the edges up. That was the end of the sentence.

“Where’s Mama?” I was screaming; my voice was quavery, wild, quick. I jumped up. The chair legs scraped against the kitchen floor. I stood as tall as I could on the floor. I looked directly at a face and mouth that did not move, eyes that looked surprised but ready too, somehow. The whole situation answered, with a shudder and a sucking sound: she’s gone.

I tore away from the table, my arms heavy like they was wet and wrung out. They swung very late behind my hurly-burly hurt. I upset the neat breakfast place with my wet rags for arms. Off the plate and the table went the swiped boiled egg, it landed in the chair, it rolled off onto the floor. The shell crumpled at the compact hit, and the egg rested there, displaced and on its side. The cracked pieces of shell hung together; it was that tough-but-thin inside skin. One boiled breakfast egg, preserved through the fall.

I ran out to the front yard again, in just what I had slept in and in my bare feet. I wrapped my fingers around two of the boards on the gate. I looked in one direction down the what-they-called road. I didn’t recognize the place or its colors. It had no blocks or corners or streets, no other two-families with shutters. No traffic lights, no pavement. No Detroit. Disbelief is an emotion, you know. Like an ocean and its major pulse, it can overtake you. It can blind your eyes and block your ear canals. It can knock you to a depth.

Both my hopefulness and my faith in my mother went flat. I felt so completely betrayed.

After many choked breaths, I collapsed at the gate. Left by Mama second and by Daddy first, now I was sent away. My behind on the dirt was naked, and the soil wasn’t dry or rich. It wasn’t grainy or rocky under my skin. It wasn’t cold, but grass wasn’t growin. It was in between everything, that’s how ordinary it was. Ordinary, just ordinary dirt.

When I finally started to see again I noticed that the dirt in the yard had been raked. Overtop of the lines of rake teeth were two crazy curvy paths. My dashing feet—yesterday in shoes and today without. Down the middle of all that dashing hurly-girly were two other lines. The little small ovals of my mother’s high heels. I stayed there and looked hard a while, my mouth hanging open, my tongue drying off.

I had this tantrum at Granma’am’s front gate, where I had run to to look for my mother. This was my down home coming-out scene, a slow motion moment when I got left where Mama grew up, in history. This was when the years started to yawn. I opened my mouth wide, and I roared. Anybody could hear knew I was there. I stomped, and I wailed. Some people walked by, nobody I knew, and since I wasn’t seeing so well at that moment, it all went by me, their slowing and staring and shared looks with my granma’am.

She stood behind me, calm as her age, in the yard near the front of the house.

I wanted to take to bed, in the spirit of my mama, but Granma’am’s ideas did not allow that. Granma’am didn’t rush me to be happy, but she didn’t permit no aimless layin round. She let me sleep until the sun was high up in the middle a mornin, as she was prone to say. I got up about eight, and then I helped her with things.

First, we made dinner. We washed and seasoned meat, cut up onions, cooked vegetables. We set out ingredients for a cake or pie so they would warm while we cooked. We mixed dessert last, and put it in the oven or the icebox to set.

We had breakfast sometime in the midst of all this. Granma’am would heat up milk for me, and pour a little taste a her coffee in it. Then after breakfast, while I did the dishes, Granma’am would start to fry or roast, whatever the day’s meat called for. Seemed like I washed dishes all morning. Time the first set a dishes was done, Granma’am would have flour or cornmeal all over some others, and she would need the table cleared in order to roll out her dough.

I came to like bein in the kitchen with her. Anywhere else in the house, I was by myself. We talked as much as any two strangers, one who knows and knows she knows, and the other who is young.

“Hi you feelin this mornin, Baby Sister?”

“Fine, Granma’am.”

“You ain’t got nothin else to say this mornin, Baby Sister?”

“How you, Granma’am?”

“I’m jes fine, thank you for astin.”

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