It doesn’t take long for St. James to recognize Ella’s need and intellect, and the two strike up a rapport. Ella doesn’t have many friends. Her cruel mother considers her “the sin that she couldn’t wash out” and prefers for Ella to stay away from home. The encounters Ella has with her stepfather are terrifying to endure, his abuse psychological before it turns physical. Her light-skinned siblings barely acknowledge her, referring to her as “Oreo” and never letting her forget her position outside the family fold. If it weren’t for her faith in God and a few older friends in the community, Ella wouldn’t have anyone on her side.
St. James has also suffered from, and born witness to, gross atrocities while being raised by her father. Abuse factors heavily in this narrative, and both characters provide a glimpse into brutality that’s disturbing to read about but important to understand. As the storyline flashes back to St. James’ formative years and the way her KKK father treated his Black laborers, the sheer rawness of the intolerance depicted is as powerful as it is infuriating.
Delving into this backstory provides Nkrumah with a foundation for examining ingrained racism and the legacy of hatred. Through St. James’ belief that she’s left her father’s way of thinking behind, the complexities of unlearning imbedded behaviors are put on display. There’s a gap in St. James’ narrative thread between when she’s a child coming up in Jim Crow Mississippi and a woman completing her master’s thesis in New Jersey. Nkrumah uses this to explore how St. James had a breakdown, recovered, and set her sights on the future, but didn’t do the deeper work to identify the complex cracks and hidden fissures of intolerance she carries inside.
One day while discussing the 1964 Freedom Summer murders that left three voter-registration workers dead by the hands of the KKK, Ella begins to pick up on St. James’ bias. “The real question is why were they racist?” St. James asks Ella. “Who were the winners and losers when the migration and civil rights laws happened?” Despite the red flags, Ella goes to bat for St. James, whose presence has created an uproar in the community. But when an encounter at the local diner turns hostile, Ella faces even more ostracization for her association with the outsider.
Mr. Macabe, Ella’s wise, elderly friend, provides a counterweight to St. James’ position. While educating her about the history of their people, from African kingdoms to enslavement to the present day, he encourages Ella to expand her definition of beauty to include her own features and color. At times his assertions come off as more of a sermon than a conversation, but he provides a clear overview of the history of colorism and interjects a critical balance to the bigoted depictions present in other parts of the book.
Religion plays a major role in the lives of the characters in “Wade in the Water,” and Nkrumah demonstrates the ways people use their faith to survive as well as how they manipulate it for their own ends. Ella’s devotion to God allows her to believe she is worthy of love and provides her with a source of optimism, even as she grapples with disappointment when her prayers aren’t answered. Ella’s mother uses church to measure her status in society. When Ella becomes saved during a church service one day, her mother beats her for daring to draw attention to herself and for reminding everyone of her mother’s sin. And St. James’ father, who believes “church and the ministers were the cause of all the problems in the South,” uses his rejection of religion to justify his belief in white supremacy.
So where is the humor and hope in this world bubbling with mistreatment and injustice? That would be Ella. She’s a ray of sunshine determined to bust through the murkiness that surrounds her, a fighter who clings to God’s promises and refuses to accept she’s invaluable. She is a marvel and an inspiration.
“Wade in the Water”
by Nyani Nkrumah
320 pages, $27.99