Barnett tells the story of Ivoe Williams, an inquisitive black girl growing up in Texas in the late 1800s to a Muslim mother and African American father. Her world is wide open and her quick mind leads her to attend college where she finds her first love— journalism. It is during her college days she also experiences same gender attraction and finds a mentor who values and cherishes her. After college, Ivoe finds the doors of the newspaper world closed to her as a journalist, but gains entry as an office worker at her hometown newspaper. An attack on her sister, and the disdain law enforcement shows in return, spurs her to write a blistering column about how black women have no recourse when grieved by a racist society. She continues to use the printed word to advocate for her race after she moves to Kansas City with her family. She faces a tremendous backlash from the white power structure. She remains unbroken and rises from the ashes of a fire set by a bitter ex-lover to form a new publication that delves deeper and stronger into the world of African American maltreatment. Her paper, Jam on the Vine, shines a blinding light of the prison industry’s mistreatment of black men and lynching culture. Throughout it all, Ivoe has her family and her community to keep her uplifted and supported.
The strength of this novel is its historical accuracy and Barnett’s meticulous research. It is not often that a novel weaves in the horrific details of Red Summer of 1919, the acceptance of lesbianism in the black community during the early 20th century, and the power of the black press. Barnett details the squalid conditions of the prison where black men languished, the sheer depravity of people who participated in lynch mobs, and reveals Ivoe’s unabridged enthusiasm at being among other journalist champions when she travels to Paris.
Barnett soars with her attention to historical details, but other aspects of the novel were less developed. Ivoe is the main character, but some of the supporting characters wound up withering due to being left unplucked. A great deal of attention was paid to her parents’ relationship in Ivoe’s younger years, but little was made of how her parents interacted after a tragic turn of events leaves them separated for several years. Additionally, her siblings experienced situations relevant to the issues Ivoe covers in her paper, but their roles weren’t expanded and they remained background players. Overall, these weaknesses do not diminish the sweetness of a remarkable work.
Jam on the Vine is suggested reading for anyone who is a fan of journalism, love, and purpose. While the characters are African American, (and some same-gender loving), they all symbolize standing up for something and working to see it through no matter what happens.
Reviewer: La Toya Hankins
La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Durham, NC. Hankins considers writer and fellow Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member Zora Neale Hurston as her role model for her ability to capture the essence of the African American Southern experience and living the motto, “I don’t weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” You can connect with LaToya on Facebook and Twitter.