RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is the beginning of the 20th century, and a young African-American woman named Ivoe Williams is determined to carve out her own path in the world. As a black woman attracted to other women and determined to become a journalist in the Jim Crow South, she will have no choice but to make her own way.
Williams is the central character in the debut novel from LaShonda Katrice Barnett. The book is called "Jam! On The Vine." And it guides the reader through this dark chapter in American history and the story of one woman who tried to change it with a printing press. LaShonda Katrice Barnett joins me now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
LASHONDA KATRICE BARNETT: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So this woman, Ivoe Williams, how did she come to you?
BARNETT: When we read literature from the Jim Crow South, we encounter certain tropes of black women - domestic, maids, cooks, women who can't cease in childbearing and in child rearing. But we rarely encounter women who are able to receive an education and to embark upon career that they have some passion for. At the same time, I have always been aware of the very important journalists, Ida B. Wells who investigated southern lynchings, and Charlotta Bass, who was the first African-American woman to own and operate her own newspaper.
MARTIN: So these were women that informed the creation of this character, Ivoe Williams.
BARNETT: Absolutely. They inspired Ivoe.
MARTIN: Let's talk a little bit about her story. She is introduced to reading early on in her life. And she does seize on this idea of being a journalist. How does that go down with her family? How do they respond?
BARNETT: Well, actually, she becomes a journalist rather by accident. When we meet Ivoe when she's nine years old, she has a deep love for reading. And she's steals newspapers and has a love affair with the printed word at night when the house is still. She is able to secure a scholarship to attend the fictional all black women's college, Williston College, which is based on a real black college that was opened in Austin, Texas, at the time called Tillotson College. And she actually matriculates as a person who will learn to set type for a newspaper. It's only rather by accident that Ona Durden, who has been her printing instructor, invites her to become the editor of the college newspaper. And slowly but surely, she begins to develop into this indefatigable journalist.
MARTIN: As you mentioned, Ivoe ends up getting a scholarship to go to school in Austin, which is this remarkable opportunity for her. And this is where she meets Ona Durden. And this is really the central relationship of the book. They fall in love over many years. But can you describe what they see in one another? What do they need from one another?
BARNETT: I think that Ona sees in Ivoe the desire to lead an original life and a fire that Ivoe possesses, a fire that's to not merely make it, not merely live, but to have agency over her life and to make a difference. And I think that's what move Ona about Ivoe. Ona is an incredibly gifted and generous teacher. And that's what draws Ivoe to Ona - her generosity in teaching. And she's very community centered. And I think that it's one of the first people that Ivoe encounters in her life who is very vocal about what needs to be done to help uplift the race. One of their first meaningful meals together, Ona actually turns to Ivoe and asks her specifically, like, what are you doing to help the race? And it's a question that has never been posed to Ivoe before.
MARTIN: Eventually, Ona and Ivoe make a partnership together. Ona moves to be with her, and they secure a printing press. And they eventually start this newspaper. And in the paper, Ivoe uses that as a way to tell the truth about black life and the ways in which society and the justice system in particular were failing African-Americans. And the stories that Ivoe writes for the paper feel very specific. I mean, you've got great detail in there. I wonder what kind of research you did. Clearly, you were looking at newspapers of the time. Did you look at some of these specific cases?
BARNETT: Absolutely. I spent quite a bit of time in archives reading black newspapers of different tones. What was very interesting to me was during the progressive era, black newspapers seemed to take one of two roads - either there was a militant aspect to black newspapers, very in-your-face tone about fighting racism and the ravages of Jim Crow. Or there was what people refer to as an accommodationist tone, and the accommodationist newspapers were more geared towards helping African-Americans earn the respect of the white race. And Ivoe actually takes that road when the newspaper Jam! On The Vine is born. And after more time in the city and coming to really understand the oppressive tactics of Jim Crow, she changes the tone of the newspaper.
MARTIN: I mean, we talked about the central relationship between Ona and Ivoe. But there's another really important dynamic at play. And that's the relationship between Ivoe's mom, Lemon, and her father, Ennis. It's not the primary relationship, but it was beautifully told and epic in scope.
BARNETT: Thank you. It was very important for me to write about a functional black family because in so many of the stories that we've encountered about Jim Crow, there's such toil and drudgery. And it would seem to me, well, you have to ask yourself what would compel black people during this period to wake up and get out of bed and to face each and every day? And of course, the answer to that question is what would compel any of us to do that despite our age or race. And those answers are love and family. With Jim Crow constantly at African-Americans' backs, the only thing that would make life worth living and that would also offer me some reprieve as an author would be to create a loving home. And with Ennis and Lemon's marriage, it gave me a wonderful opportunity.
MARTIN: These are such rich characters. And you were so invested in this story on so many different levels. Are you done with them?
BARNETT: I am done with them.
MARTIN: Are you?
BARNETT: Yes. I picture Ivoe - to this day, she's in the city in another time period, but she's in the city. She's got her shoulder to the well, and she is the voice for the black community in Kansas City's vine district. And she's happy. She's got her work, and she's got the woman of her dreams. What else is there?
MARTIN: The book is called "Jam! On The Vine." It is the debut novel from LaShonda Katrice Barnett. She talked to us from our studios in New York. LaShonda, thank you so much.
BARNETT: The delight was mine. Thank you.
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