River, Cross My Heart
A remarkable new writer makes her debut with a novel of tragedy and triumph in the life of an African American family in Georgetown, circa 1925.
Eight-year-old Clara Bynum is dead, drowned in the Potomac River in the shadow of an apparently haunted rock outcropping known locally as the Three Sisters. In scenes alive with emotional truth, River, Cross My Heart weighs the effect of Clara's absence on the people she has left behind: her parents, Alice and Willie Bynum, torn between the old world of their rural North Carolina home and the new world of the city to which they have moved in search of a better life for themselves and their children; the friends and relatives of the Bynum family in the Georgetown neighborhood they now call home; and, most especially, Clara's sister, twelve-year-old Johnnie Mae, who must come to terms with the powerful and confused emotions sparked by her sister's death as she struggles to decide and discover the kind of woman she will become.
This highly accomplished first novel resonates with ideas, impassioned lyricism, and poignant historical detail as it captures an essential part of the African-American experience in our century.
Breena Clarke grew up in Washington, D.C., and was educated at Webster College and Howard University.
Her writings have appeared in the anthologies Contemporary Plays by Women of Color and Street Lights: Illuminating Tales of the Urban Black Experience.
She currently administers the Editorial Diversity Program at Time Inc. in New York City. She lives in New Jersey.
Dangerous ideas come to life and spread like sparks on dry twigs. It could have been Lula who thought of it first. Or it could have been Tiny or possibly Johnnie Mae. Somebody said, "Let's walk on down past there. It's cooler there." The small troupe — Mabel, Lula, Hannah, Tiny, Sarey, and the sisters Johnnie Mae and Clara — never actually decided to walk to the Three Sisters. It began as an idea that one or the other had and became accomplished fact without planning. The afternoon was hot and the advancing dusk brought no relief. Heat clung to the low-hanging branches of trees and permitted no breeze to stir them. The girls' raucous laughter was not muted by the shrubbery that lined the C&O canal towpath, and the seven pairs of bare feet simply walked westward toward the Three Sisters.
Higgins Hole is a spot on the C&O canal where colored children used to gather daily in summer and clamber over debris in order to swim. Water still sluices southward through the abandoned locks of the old canal, no longer used for muledrawn barge transportation from Cumberland, Maryland, through Great Falls and Little Falls, under Chain Bridge, and down through Georgetown below M Street alongside the Potomac River.
Gnats and wildflowers are thick on the towpath beside the canal. Some fishers after carp and catfish drop lines from footbridges over the canal or from spots nestled in the shadow of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Water-loving trees lock boughs far above the heads of strollers on the path.
In the late afternoon on hot days, Johnnie Mae, her baby sister, Clara, and their playmates collected at Higgins Hole with their swimming suits on under cotton shifts. Other groups of boys and girls, older and younger, gathered there too. Some of the girls came just to stand around, but Johnnie Mae always stripped off her shift immediately, pulled on her swimming cap, and plunged into the water, stroking, cavorting, and sponging up coolness.
Since they opened the public swimming pool for white folks only on Volta Place, right across the street from her aunt Ina's house, the pleasures of Higgins Hole were diminished for Johnnie Mae. In that public pool the water was so clear! Clara said it must be ice water. Clara said they must get big blocks of ice from the ice man on Potomac Street and put them in there. She was certain of this because the white boys and girls they saw through the fence and bushes surrounding the pool were always shivering.
The water at Higgins Hole, though not brackish, was not transparent like the water in the swimming pool on Volta Place. The canal carried the husky bouquet of decaying organic matter rather than the scent of chlorine. There were things growing in the canal that clouded the surface and entangled the ankles of swimmers. There were fish, and some times dead fish floated on the water's surface. Higgins Hole had begun to feel like a secondhand pair of shoes to Johnnie Mae. It was useful as a place to swim, but it was no longer special.
Below M Street, below Higgins Hole on the canal, the Potomac River looks calm and quiet on its surface but roils behind its hand. The Potomac River, brood sow for spots, rock, carp, and herring, is also a foam-bedecked doxy lounging against verdant banks, carving out sitting places and lying places and sleeping places all the way from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to the Chesapeake Bay. The Potomac River jumps massive rocks and roars downstream at Great Falls. Its spray shoots toward the clouds before falling quiet and running headlong toward Georgetown and Washington and then proceeding past them.
Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower. According to the most famous tale, the river has already swallowed three sisters — three Catholic nuns. Yet it did not swallow them, only drowned them and belched them back up in the form of three small rock islands. They lie halfway between one shore and the other, each with a wimple made of seabirds' wings.
The Three Sisters is a landmark. When you say "the Three Sisters," people know you're going to tell about something that happened on the river to cause grief. And it isn't really clear whether it's the boulders or the river at that spot that causes the grief. Nobody in his right mind goes swimming near the Three Sisters. The river has hands for sure at this spot. Maybe even the three nuns themselves, beneath the water's surface, are grabbing ankles to pull down some company.
The girls were not supposed to go in the river. Parents regularly warned their children not to swim there. Alice and Willie Bynum, knowing Johnnie Mae's fondness for swimming, had warned her off the banks of the Potomac. Nobody trusts the Potomac River. It's not benign like the aqua-glass swimming pool for the white children up on Volta Place. It is not plodding and dirty like the canal. It is treacherous. It is beguiling. Just walking along the riverbank can be dangerous if you've got a worry spot or a grief stone or an anger or resentment that you can't quite name.
At first the girls stood there. Then they sat among the tall weedy grasses of the littered bank. Much of what gets discarded in Georgetown ends up here, twisted and tangled among black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace. Splintered planks with nails sticking out hide in the shin-high grasses. "Watch where you steppin'! Look out there!" Lula suddenly adopted a big-mama voice and broke the hypnotic silence that had brought them wordlessly to this spot.
"Clara, look where you walkin', girl! You hear me?" Johnnie Mae's voice was an echo of Lula's - a reflex exhortation - a pit-of-thestomach reminder that they had no business here and were tempting fate just by stepping, just by breathing. The earth closest to the river edge was mud. In twos and threes — Hannah and Tiny, Mabel and Lula and Clara, Johnnie Mae and Sarey — the girls sat at the river's edge and dangled their feet in the muddy, gunmetal green water. A rotting, downed tree branch covered with terraces of toadstools jutted out from the bank diagonally into the water and provided a place to sit. Rows of ants marched back and forth along its length. Clara sat cautiously on the low end while Mabel and Lula scooted along the log until they were several feet from the bank, swinging their legs out over the water. Hannah and Tiny climbed aboard the log between Clara and the girls on the outer end. Johnnie Mae and Sarey leaned against the log with their ankles mired in cool mud. Johnnie Mae thought about the glistening girls in the swimming pool on Volta Place. Those girls sat on the sides of their pool and only dangled their ankles in the water. The slimy, cool earth banked her anger.
Clara sat quietly, watching Johnnie Mae and the other girls. Her quiet allowed them to ignore her . She was a constant appendage to her sister and seemed content to be so. None of the other girls noticed Clara moving along the log to the high end that jutted out over the water. Hannah and Tiny slid off the log into the water, causing it to shift.
Clara maneuvered herself along the log to get a better view of the other girls. They swam together in groups, weaving in and out of each other's arms. They dunked each other's heads and cannonaded each other by slapping the water's surface. Mabel, the oldest, pulled her wet swimming suit away from her chest to show the others her nipples, tight and wrinkled with excitement and cold. The girls giggled, they laughed uproariously, they didn't notice Clara.
Johnnie Mae was obliged to remember Clara. It had been her responsibility to watch Clara ever since Clara was a baby. But Johnnie Mae's mind was elsewhere. She was, right then, considering swimming straight across the river to Roslyn on the opposite bank. It didn't look too far. It looked like some thing she might be able to do.
Johnnie Mae did not hear Clara splash into the river when the rotted log collapsed. Johnnie Mae ducked her head under the surface of the river, her shoulders following, then her back and hips. Her flapping ankles churned the water's surface. She arched her back and pulled up to the surface with long, graceful arms. The splashing sound, she thought, was her own body slicing the water.
But it was Clara's body that slid beneath the water. The fingers of the undertow swooped her . The others did not see her go down. They looked at the place on the bank where Clara and the log had been, and now Clara and the log were gone. It was as though the log were a hobbyhorse and Clara was riding it. The canopy of leaves draping the bank seemed unmoved by Clara's sudden absence. The effect was of viewing a scene through a stereopticon: The first image contained Clara and the log, and the second did not.
Johnnie Mae dove twenty times before the others realized what had happened. Johnnie Mae rose to the surface, tread water, and screamed wildly . She filled her lungs with air and she dove again. The other girls grabbed her after it became clear that she would continue to plunge. The girls grasped arms around the struggling, screaming, exhausted Johnnie Mae and drew in close around her, like petals on a daisy. Johnnie Mae thrashed against them at first, then collapsed. They swam in tandem to the bank. A white ribbon off Clara's plait floated on the surface of the river.
1999 by Breena Clarke
The following excerpts are taken from an interview with Breena Clarke prior to her appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The interview was conducted in late October, 1999. These excerpts are an Oprah.com exclusive.
Grief, and a Great Migration
The book is primarily about loss, the loss of a child, the grief that follows. It's also about the great migration of African Americans from the rural culture and the rural towns to the urban environment. I feel that those migrants not only left their towns and came to the city and then benefited by the cities, but I think they brought also some of their rural culture to the cities and enriched the cities as well. So that's much of what I like to talk about in the novel.
It was a very important development, certainly, in our country, the migration that happened between the two wars. They changed the landscape of our cities. The cities that the migrants left behind and the ones they came to. And much of what we know about our cities started there. It was a very important development.
It certainly was important in the development of Washington, D.C., which has seen an influx of African American migrants since the Civil War. So I think it was pretty important to the development of Washington.
And I wanted to write a novel about Washington, D.C., because I think that Washington has been underserved by novelists. There haven't been enough novels about Washington. It's a pretty interesting city. And I just wanted to add to that.
I believe it to be kind of a treacherous river. There are times when it looks pretty calm on the surface, but you know it's not calm. It's got a lot of undercurrent. It's a real river. You know, it's really bold. We used to take car trips. We'd drive down to Haynes Point and through Rock Creek Park and spots along the river. And you'd look out at it and sometimes it would look very calm and sweet. Then other times it would be roiling.
So it's a river, I think, that has a lot of character. And that's one of the reasons that I felt it, too, was a character in the novel. That it had an identity.
I describe it as being as duplicitous as a $2 whore, and I kind of like that. I think that works. Sometimes it seems very placid. And at other times, you know, very turbulent.
And, of course, the City of Washington itself was built around the banks of the Potomac for obvious reasons. At one time it was used for transportation. Then it was — well, I think it lost out to train travel and other things because it doesn't have the port that, say, Baltimore has. But it was at one time a viable port for transportation, tobacco, and that sort of thing.
I decided to have the girls swimming in the Potomac because my mother had talked about the Potomac and swimming in it, and we knew that it was dangerous. We knew that you were really taking your life in your hands if you got into the Potomac.
One of the things I wanted to do with Johnnie Mae, the protagonist, was to show that she was adventurous. That she had — the word I like to use is moxie. She had a lot of moxie. I
think that's important in terms of her development throughout the novel because I believe that in order to survive this life, and to do well in life, you've got to have moxie. And unfortunately, Clara Bynum, her younger sister, didn't have as much moxie. She was kind of going along — now, she was young, it's true, and the accident that happened to her was purely that, an accident. But she didn't have as much boldness and moxie as Johnnie Mae. The comment that I'm making is that it's harder for someone to survive if they don't have that — that intestinal fortitude.
One of the things that I wanted to accomplish was to include the dead in the story as well as the living.
Now, I didn't want to make a ghost story, although ghost stories are very effective. But I did want to feel that those who had died were included in the story as well as those who were continuing to live. And Clara Bynum, Johnnie Mae's younger sister, of course, has died and is buried at Mount Zion.
So I was thinking of trying to think of a way to include the dead in the story. And I thought of including sort of Halloween thing and then they're running around in the cemetery.
And I must say, I'm not sure that that has any basis in historical fact. I don't know that people ever did that. But it seemed like, you know, a likely thing. I know that Halloween was celebrated in Georgetown and that people, even adults, did dress up for Halloween. So I just decided to invent that.
One of the things I wanted to accomplish was not just to preserve those dead individuals but the whole community. Until you have some loved one who's buried in a cemetery people don't as a rule visit — but there's a lot of interesting historical information in cemeteries. People's names and dates are there and you can get a sense of who they were and how they lived from looking at a cemetery.
Cemeteries have a sense of permanence that a lot of other buildings don't have. I mean, you got to go a ways before you can destroy a cemetery.
Now, Mount Zion Cemetery actually came very close to being bulldozed and a development built on top of it. The cemetery had fallen into disrepair. They had stopped burials. They haven't buried anyone there since the 1950s. And it did fall into disrepair because the church did not have adequate funds to maintain it. So the city was going to allow development on top of it.
But the church was able to convince the city government not to do that. I think the African American Bicentennial Corporation, which was formed in 1976, became instrumental in getting the cemetery declared on a National Register of Historic Places. This, of course, brought in federal funds to do some renovation and at least restoration work and preservation work in that area which I think is very important. Many of the gravestones go back a good ways there.
The novel actually grew out of a short story I was working on. The short story actually progressed from some oral history tapes that I had asked my mother to prepare for me. She was going along talking about Georgetown, as she had in the past, and she was retelling a lot of anecdotes that we'd heard and, you know, she was very optimistic. It was very sunny. I was thinking about that. I said, "Oh, well, this is awfully sunny," you know, and everything about it was really quite optimistic. I was thinking, well, maybe she's putting a real sunny gloss on some things, and that not everything was all that wonderful.
But then her voice changed when she started to talk about the swimming pool on Volta Place. When she was young, it was for whites only and they couldn't go in. They could look in at the pool and they saw it there and she loved to swim. She was obsessed with swimming, and she couldn't go into that pool. It struck me as remarkable that after all these years, you know, fifty or sixty years, she was still affected by the injustice of it. I could tell in her voice. Her voice on the tape just changed, you know, like night and day. I was struck by that, and I said, there's a story there. That's where the story is.
Then I got to thinking about how that incident, something that in the scheme of things was kind of small, because my mother, of course, has been through the Great Depression and World War II and a lot of other developments that an historian would say were large events. Yet this kind of small event, this injustice of segregation, had actually affected her. I think it affected the woman she turned out to be. Someone else's reaction would have been different. But her reaction was to overcome it somehow. To use it as a way of strengthening herself. That has determined the kind of person that she turned out to be, and as a result, has affected my sisters and myself.