Review: New short fiction from Bill Harris follows Great Migration journey of Alabama families
Bill Harris has been a central figure in the cultural life of Detroit for a long time. The Kresge Foundation gave him their prestigious Eminent Artist Award several years ago, and his plays have been produced around the country. He has also published poetry and innovative interpretations of African-American history that defy any easy categories.
I Got to Keep Moving is a collection of 25 short stories, but they are all so closely linked that the book begins to feel like a novel. There are characters and families that recur in many of the stories, but they are all connected one way or another to Harris’s fictional town of Acorn, Alabama. The book starts there with plantation stories from before the Civil War, and it ends with the broken memories of the place in an old woman’s mind sometime around the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
But the bulk of I Got to Keep Moving, it’s real emotional heart, happens in the Jim Crow South and during the slow movement of the people from Acorn up to the equally racist Midwest. The stories create a rich and diverse album of character sketches. Harris does a beautiful job writing about the complex dynamics of the black communities that his characters live and work in. They are good and bad people, sympathetic and despicable, but they are all finding a way to survive in a larger cultural environment that is designed to exclude them. But they have created their own world, their own culture in which the old human drama plays out with a classical complexity.
Perhaps my favorite characters in the book are Pearl and her blind child, simply known as Son. Pearl managed a brothel while still a teenager. She becomes an advisor to a naïve white woman, then the seamstress to a minstrel show, before she finds her vocation sewing for both the black and white communities in a small town. All the time, she is nurturing and protecting her gifted, “special” son. Harris uses the old classical idea of the blind seer or prophet to portray this boy. Son is a singer who charms his church and the white neighborhoods where he sings to call people to buy vegetables. Their story ends, at least for this book, in a Sunday morning shootout that reads as quickly as a murder mystery.
Harris finds different prose styles to tell his different stories. He can write evocative, lyrical prose when needed, or he can write quick, staccato sentences when character and action demand them. At the end, in the broken prose of the shattered memory, Harris takes the readers of I Got to Keep Moving to an emotional place that might indeed be unforgettable.
Poet and writer Keith Taylor recently retired from teaching at the University of Michigan. He has authored 17 books or chapbooks.
- Bill Harris will be celebrating his new short story collection at the Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave. on Wednesday, November 14, 2018. Bill will read some excerpts, accompanied by Detroit musician and storyteller Rev. Robert Jones, Sr. 5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.