“You ain’t strong like she is. You got a soul that cain’t be still. Your mama did too at one time, but she wrestled it down. Yours look like it’s running you.”
Ayana Mathis’ debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is a collection of short stories that speak life to the complexities of Black motherhood, healing and the loss of and search for peace. Threaded by the intersecting lives of the children of Hattie Shepherd, The Twelve Tribes tenderly, yet honestly examines issues of Black social mobility, sexual identity, disillusionment with religion, and mental health.
Hattie is a prideful, sacrificing mother disappointed by the way her life has turned out after migrating from Georgia to Philadelphia. Loss surrounds Hattie from a young age. After the murder of her father forces her family to move North in the middle of the night, she meets her husband August and gives birth to twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, named for the hope of a new life for them all. After her babies die of pneumonia just seven months later, 17 year old Hattie mothers nine more children, yet a part of her dies with the twins. She closes herself off to the people she loves, lest life snatch them from her grasp as well. The stories that follow portray the effects of Hattie’s mothering on her surviving children and one grandchild.
Called The General by her children, and described as a “lake of smooth, silvered ice, under which nothing could be seen or known,” Hattie approaches motherhood in a way that is familiar to many Black parents and children – from a place of protection and preparation for the cold world that awaits them. Love is shown as food, clothing, shelter and discipline, and there is no time for affection, vulnerability or the dangers that love brings. Hattie admits not knowing how to care for her children’s spirits, and her “tenderness […] was always hard,” but she kept them alive, safe, healthy and ready to meet a world that would bring them new disappointments and challenges.
The novel is heavily character-driven and Mathis does an excellent job of digging deep into their psyches and breathing life into them. The members of the Shepherd family are authentic, every day people that readers will find themselves easily connected to. The layers of their lives, circumstances and personalities are familiar; it is easy to see yourself in one or more of them as they attempt to cope with, heal from or even escape their past. The stories told are the stories of our family members. The Shepherds are our uncles, brothers, mothers and grandmothers.
Mathis’ writing is graceful and descriptive; the dialogue intimate and natural as it changes not only with the characters, but also with the time. Over a period of 55 years, the stories take place primarily in Philadelphia and the Deep South (mostly Georgia and Alabama). In that time she weaves in glimpses of the socio-political world that surrounds them, through run-ins with a would-be lynch mob, the Vietnam War, and references to the sit-ins. Mathis doesn’t focus on those issues – to do so would make the book about those issues, I think – but she makes them a part of the characters’ everyday lives.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is captivating – it reads like an (fictionalized) historical narrative from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, an incredible, extensive historical study of the Great Migration. Mathis has justifiably been likened to Toni Morrison, through her rich and moving writing voice, but also in the way she portrays the realities of Black motherhood. It also brings to mind Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood in its depiction of the hardships of mothering, maternal sacrifice, and culture and community expectations of such. The portrayal of love, both distorted and clear, recalls bell hooks’ Salvation: Black People and Love, in which she discusses how racism, sexism and economic inequality color our expressions of love as children, parents and partners.
The lives of the Shepherds are hard and full of struggle. There are definitely more downs than ups, but the story doesn’t dwell in darkness. It’s not morbidly sad or emotionally overwhelming; it is authentic. The uplifting twist at the end mirrors life’s unexpected minor, yet significant changes.
Its raw honestly plays a significant role in the healing element that comes through reading these stories and coming to understand these characters – both in the book and in our lives. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will reach tired, honest and understanding mothers – and their children everywhere.