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The Cost of Settling: From Black Lives Matter to Tayari Jones’ ‘Silver Sparrow’

Silver Sparrow’ reminds readers that there is a generational cost to accepting less than we deserve and that for the good of our collective future, we must resist.

By Ashely Tisdale

After George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, waves of protests broke out across the nation and around the world. During this same time, major media outlets like the New York Times were publishing anti-racist book lists for their readership. Most of these texts were nonfiction or instructional essay collections. Some of the most popular texts on this list, that also appeared on many similar lists, are Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. The apparent goal of many of these reading lists   is to help (usually non-Black) readers better understand the experiences of people that are different from themselves. However, fiction also provides readers an opportunity to creatively engage with history and reimagine future possibilities. In Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones presents readers with a tale of the emotional and physical consequences of settling for less than one deserves. During the sociopolitical moment in which this book is written, citizens and organizers are in constant bargaining sessions with policymakers and Silver Sparrow warns readers to never settle.

Silver Sparrow spans three decades, and tracks two different families linked by bigamy, desire, and lies. Gwendolyn and Laverne, James Witherspoon’s wives, exemplify the long-term consequences of accepting less than they deserve. Gwendolyn and James maintain a secret family with their daughter Dana, co-narrator of the novel. On the other side of Atlanta, Laverne and James build a life with their daughter Chaurisse, the novel’s other co-narrator. To maintain both families’ separation, James provides gifts and promises in lieu of honesty and total commitment to distract his wives and daughters. James’s refusal to be transparent about his failures and transgressions makes it impossible to fully make amends with either family.

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Across the nation, citizens are demanding extreme policy reform—with a growing demand for abolition. Many claim that instead of committing to ending racism and police brutality, political leaders are offering empty platitudes dressed as institutional disruption. One of the most discussed examples is the two-block long #BlackLivesMatter mural painted on the streets of Washington, DC, and commissioned by Mayor Muriel Bowser. Interestingly, the street that the mural is painted on has since been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. The popularity of the mural and street was so great that the late Representative John Lewis visited the site and posed for photos. However, local organizers criticized Mayor Bowser’s “affirmative piece of art” as strictly performative. The Black Lives Matter DC chapter tweeted that the mural is an “…active counter organizing to our demands to decrease the police budget and invest in the community. Black Lives Matter means Defund the police”. Caterina Ieronimo writes that local organizers in DC have been “advocating for the millions Bowser and her government allocate to policing to be redirected to essential, community-oriented services such as housing, non-coercive mental health care, youth programs and employment programs” for years. 

In New York City, certain organizers have requested that some or all the $6 billion dollars allocated to city policing be redirected to youth and other community outreach programs. In response, they were given BLM murals and impassioned speeches. While Mayor Bill de Blasio has stated that he will concede to reallocation demands, he has failed to state when and how much of this money will actually be redistributed to public services. Besides creating murals, some other officials have initiated the removal of decades-old confederate monuments. However, some claim that these removals are an attempt to assuage and distract voters from their demands for immense political change. In addition to calls for defunding the police, some of these political changes include an elimination or reformation of the qualified immunity doctrine which shields law enforcement officers from civil lawsuits. Another important request is halting the hyper-surveillance of Black and brown people, especially in public schools. The rush to rename buildings, paint #BlackLivesMatter on streets, and alter the names of those streets, are quite different from protestors’ requests. 

In Silver Sparrow, James promises Gwendolyn that if she and Dana maintain their silence, he will honor all his promises to them. Whenever either of them become restless or express some dissatisfaction with the arrangement, James offers unsolicited gifts, such as a children’s size fur coat for Dana. On other occasions, James enlists his godbrother Raleigh to support his misgivings and distract the pairs with affection and attention so that they might not notice what James is doing. Jones underscores the power of gift-giving and persuasion, especially when both appear draped in sincerity. The consequence of accepting these trinkets, despite repeated requests for a more sincere commitment, lends itself to trouble. 

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Dana and Chaurisse grow up bearing the consequences of their father’s transgressions and each of their mothers’ settling. Instead of transformative honesty, the women are given empty promises, gifts, and parties. As Gwendolyn and Laverne age, they grow resentful of James and regret the sacrifices they made to maintain a status quo that never served them. As Dana and Chaurisse grow up, they repeat these cycles in their own relationships. Both young women accept empty promises in lieu of respect and fair treatment from their father and partners. 

In their separate sections of the novel, Dana and Chaurisse accept second class treatment having internalized minimal affection as “good enough”. Readers also note that the two express resentment towards their parents, whose decisions to settle negatively impacted their lives. Each of the relationships in the novel serve as models for imbalanced relationships and contentment. Jones reminds readers that there is a generational cost to accepting less than we deserve and that for the good of our collective future, we must resist.

Ashely B. Tisdale (she/her) is a Ph.D. candidate researching and writing about U.S. Multiethnic gothic fiction and critical disability studies. She is also an aspiring culture and film writer devoted dog mom. Follow her on twitter @whoaskedash

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