I’m not sure there could be a better time than now for this impressive debut novel from Kaitlyn Greenidge. She addresses racism, white privilege, female relationships, family strife, and loneliness in a novel that centers around a scientific experiment spanning some 60 years. Greenidge’s narrators are four African American girls and women who are intelligent but alone and lonely. Each is searching for a missing connection, for a love that has been missing and might even be considered forbidden or unnatural; each has felt alienation within her family (mother-daughter relationships get special attention) and within the larger community. These women/girls find themselves living in predominantly white, upper-middle class Courtland County (just outside of Boston). They are also all involved in an experiment focused on teaching speech to chimpanzees. Each woman/girl has a different attitude toward this experiment and their role in it, and each finds her relationship to the larger community – both black and white — affected by it.
The novel starts in 1990 with the Freeman family, Charles and Laurel and their daughters Charlotte (14) and Callie (9), moving out of Dorchester for the Toneybee Institute in Courtland County. The Freemans are going to live at the Institute with a new member of the family, Charlie the chimpanzee. Since the Freemans know sign language, they are perfect candidates to try to teach Charlie how to speak/sign. Laurel, who had been employed as an ASL teacher, is the one who spearheaded the campaign to get her family into the study. Charles seems willing to go along; he will have a job teaching math at the local high school during the day. Daughters Charlotte and Callie have mixed reactions. Callie seems interested and willing to think of Charlie as a member of the family. Charlotte, on the other hand, is wary. While she wasn’t overly fond of Dorchester, and the bullying and teasing she received in school there, she is also uninterested in becoming a sister to Charlie. Her reminders to the family of the fates of all their previous pets is pretty funny but does her no good. The family is driving in a new Volvo thanks to the institute and will live in a furnished apartment within the institute. The girls will attend the local schools, which are predominantly white, and Laurel will take on her new role as mother to Charlie with gusto.
Greenidge then provides the reader with a flashback to 1929, when the Toneybee Institute began its ape studies research program. What we learn of this experiment comes through our narrator Nymphadora (aka Ellen Jericho), a single African American woman in her thirties who lives in Spring City, home to the black community of Courtland County. As she narrates, we learn that she is an a only child and that her parents, who had been considered successful and respectable members of their community, have died from suicide. Nymphadora is lonely and frustrated. Her mother invested time and money on Nymphadora in childhood, and both women seemed to expect that great things would come to her. Both were quite pleased when a photographer took her picture and included it in an exhibit seen worldwide, but her expectations are thwarted in adulthood. After her parents’ death, Nymphadora is stuck in Spring City and becomes the school teacher. She spends recess time paging through the Police Gazette and fantasizing about the women pictured there, white women who seem to have the luxury of sinning without consequence. Nymphadora compares this to her own situation, where “one selfish act” could “mean the downfall of my entire people.”
I envy that their [white women’s] capacity for love is already assumed, not set aside or presumed missing, like it is for us negro women.
Nymphadora’s recess time reverie is interrupted when Dr. Gardner from the Toneybee Institute begins visiting Spring City and drawing pictures of the residents without their permission. Some of the women approach Nymphadora and ask her to please talk to this man about stopping. And thus begins the unusual relationship between Dr. Gardner, a white British anthropologist, and Nymphadora. Their meetings are secret and Nymphadora knows that her mother and all of Spring City would be appalled by the way she speaks to him and what she reveals, but Nymphadora recognizes her own need to be seen for herself.
To be seen was better …: it was better than self-denial, better than shining like a star.
Greenidge allows Nymphadora, Charlotte, Callie and Laurel to speak for themselves, and she gives Charles a chapter as well. Charlotte strikes me as the main voice and she provides the epilogue. In some ways, Charlotte might represent a typical teenage voice: the outsider in a new school, the girl of color in a sea of white. But Charlotte’s story includes more. She befriends another African American student named Adia, whose lifestyle is very unlike Charlotte’s. Adia and her mother Marie, an artist, strike Charlotte as bohemian radicals, surrounding themselves with lofty ideals, intelligence and art. Charlotte needs them but also sometimes feels uneasy with them even as she finds herself attracted to Adia in a sexual way. At the same time, Charlotte’s relationship to Callie is falling apart because she spends so much time away from home and because the two girls no longer share a room. The chapters that Callie narrates are heartbreaking as the reader sees her trying so hard to make up for the loss of her sister’s and her mother’s attention by trying harder to help Charlie speak (and love her). Charlotte’s relationship to her mother was strained to begin with but is further damaged when Charlotte stumbles across a secret of her mother’s which her mother makes her promise not to reveal. And Laurel’s personal history and her reasons for studying sign language to begin with are an indictment of what I might call white racism of omission as opposed to commission — the racism that doesn’t get in your face and use the “n” word, but rather completely ignores the presence of a person of color.
There are a couple of “BOOM” moments in this novel and they both occur within the Toneybee Institute. The Freemans’ Thanksgiving dinner at the Toneybee is perhaps the most dysfunctional family dinner ever. At the table are the Freemans and Charlie, Uncle Lyle and Aunt Ginny, Dr. Paulson (director of the institute), Max the cameraman, and none other than Julia Toneybee-Leroy, founder of the institute’s speech research program for apes. Julia is ancient at this point and has an African American nurse to assist her. But while her body may be failing her, her will and her mind seem as in tact as ever. Charlotte has plans for a confrontation over a discovery she has made about the history of the institute’s research program, a discovery that Nymphadora made back in 1929 and which devastated her, but Uncle Lyle is the one who starts asking awkward questions and pointing out the elephant in the room, i.e., a monkey living with a black family in an experiment with racial overtones. The dinner and the family fall apart in a most spectacular way, and the Toneybee Institute goes on a PR offensive to save its research program from unsavory charges in a new book. Julia Toneybee-Leroy’s “Apology to the African American People” is a cringe-worthy yet spot-on example of whitesplaining, white privilege and the white savior complex. Here is one example:
I hope to play some small part in restoring You, African American people, to bravery and love. In restoring You to hope. In restoring You to Your trusting nature.
Greenidge does a masterful job with Julia’s “sorry, not sorry” apology, which is not surprising; Greenidge recently contributed a brilliant OpEd piece to the New York Times on her own teenage experience at a predominantly white school and living in the projects which is definitely worth your time.
Even though this is turning into a very long review, I feel as if I have only touched on the tip of the iceberg here. There is so much to discuss in this novel, such as the changes that occur and the changes that do not occur, the different views among the characters toward Charlie and the research project, the deep loneliness among our female narrators and their choices as they move forward… And the “we” in the title, to whom does it refer? I am hoping that this novel will get a lot of positive attention and discussion from book reviewers and commentators. It’s a wonderful and provocative read. I couldn’t put it down and I can’t stop thinking about it.