‘Wade in the Water’ explores legacy of racism and colorism

Nyani Nkrumah’s debut novel is set in ‘80s-era Mississippi.

Nyani Nkrumah’s fiction debut “Wade in the Water” uses an unlikely friendship to examine the impact of racism from two drastically different angles, one from the point of view of a little Black girl named Ella who lives in a segregated town in 1980s Mississippi, the other from the perspective of a middle-aged white academic who moves down the street from Ella one summer day. Both are survivors of the systems that raised them and have endured unconscionable abuses. By placing these contrasting characters on a collision course, Nkrumah has woven together a tragic tale — yet one not lacking humor or hope — about two people seeking to triumph over circumstances beyond their control.

Life has been stacked against 11-year-old Ella since before she was born. The result of her married mother’s infidelity, wedged between her stepfather’s children in birth order and ostracized for possessing the darkest skin color in all of fictional Ricksville, Mississippi, she has struggled to find the place where she belongs.

Katherine St. James is a woman who has turned her back on a past she believes she has overcome. The favored daughter of a KKK leader responsible for unconscionable hate crimes, she was raised with venom firmly planted in her heart. After a series of brutal aggressions land her in a psychiatric hospital, she sets out on a quest to renounce her ingrained racism and reclaim her life. Now pursuing an advanced degree at Princeton, she returns to her home state and settles in the nearby town of Ricksville to research and write her thesis.

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.


FICTION

“Wade in the Water”

by Nyani Nkrumah

Amistad

320 pages, $27.99