LaShonda Katrice Barnett

Jam on the Vine

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Jam on the Vine Summary

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American author LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s first novel, Jam on the Vine (2015), a historical fiction, follows young protagonist Ivoe, the child of free-born African American parents, as she struggles to live happily as a black girl in America at the turn of the twentieth century. After Ivoe steals a newspaper from the bedroom of her mother’s boss, she gradually comes to undermine oppressive local and national social structures in ways both blunt and subtle.

The novel opens in the white Texan town of Starkville, several miles from the family’s small cabin in Little Tunis, Texas. Ivoe’s mother works as a housekeeper for the extremely wealthy Starks, who built most of the town and endowed it with their name. Nine-year-old Ivoe steals a local paper from the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Stark, and runs, exhilarated, from their mansion all the way home. She does so at great personal risk: even after she is home free, she grapples with the guilt of committing a theft and risking her mother’s job, as well as the residual fear of having stolen from powerful white people. However, she recognizes that her theft is just a minuscule reaction to a criminally unjust society.

Meanwhile, Ivoe watches white supremacists run rampant through both Starkville and Little Tunis. White Starkville residents, many of whom belong to the Ku Klux Klan, freely permit white nationalist demonstrations. At one KKK rally, a group of arsonists in white sheets burns down Ivoe’s school, a place she loves dearly. Ivoe’s family debates current local and national events at the dinner table, touching on subjects ranging from the meaning of citizenship to the contentious topic of whether black people should be allowed to enlist in the army. Ivoe writes to President McKinley asking for a change in the Army policy on behalf of her brother. She submits it to a contest and wins a trip to travel to Austin’s All-State Educators’ Conference. There, she reads it to McKinley in person. This event is especially important to Ivoe’s activist sensibilities. Ivoe begins to write prolifically on political topics.

Ivoe grows up, becoming the first member of her family to go to college. She befriends and then falls in love with Berdis Peets, a pianist. One of her professors, Ona Durden, is especially impressed by Ivoe’s journalistic drives and encourages her to work for the school newspaper. Together, they revitalize the publication, using it as a medium for discussing political issues even as the state of race relations worsens in greater Austin. Berdis, to Ivoe’s chagrin, considers her activism excessive, exposing his deep anxiety about the riskiness of rallying against racism.

After she graduates, Ivoe moves back to Little Tunis. There, she finds that the same racial problems she had addressed as a journalist have devastated the town. Most of the families, too poor to live there, have moved north. Her family decides to move to Kansas City to see if they can find better livelihoods. There, Ivoe gets an interview at the local paper. She prepares diligently only to watch as the editor blatantly hires the only white male interviewing for the job. Meanwhile, the rest of Ivoe’s family strives to find new career paths: her brother, Timbo, works for a union, and her sister, Irabelle, becomes a jazz musician. Lemon, their mother, uses her small plot of land in the city to run a small business.

Ivoe flounders until she learns that Ona is moving to Kansas City. They resolve to create the United States’ first newspaper run by African Americans, calling it Jam! On the Vine. The paper proactively prints stories that were misreported or ignored by predominantly white syndications. They also directly address the specters of police brutality and the wrongful arrests of African Americans.

Ivoe’s journey from troublemaking child to activist responds to the privileges implicit in stories about nineteenth-century women. Her desires to transgress and speak out against her racist environment suggest that one’s development as an individual is not always contingent on one’s passage through institutions where one passively internalizes social norms. Rather, Ivoe’s story is one in which activism is a social necessity and an engine for personal growth. Jam on the Vine shows that action and language are both symbolic and that even their smallest manifestations can exert huge political power on the world.