The Secret of Magic

Seeking justice when Separate is not Equal (From NYC to “Jim Crow” Mississippi, 1945-1946):  The Secret of Magic is the kind of writing that inspired this blog.

You can hear the musicality in Johnson’s prose, resonating the cadence of the Deep South.  When the narrator – Regina Mary Robichard, a young black lawyer from Harlem working for Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF) – travels to Mississippi to investigate the death of a decorated black WWII veteran, it’s the same “cadence that strolled through words and that branded Regina as an outsider.”  Prose that sings a distinctive beat evoking Southern sounds, a “syncopated rhythm” reflected in phrases like “jitterbugged” leaves and “uh-uh-uh in the shake of his head.”  Prose that’s a joy to read when recalling the “dense, lush moisture” of the landscape, smells of sweet olive, and an “old-timey” vision of Southern gentility (“dimpled hands holding tightly onto glasses of what looked like iced tea”).  But the prose also tells a tragic story rooted in truth, of a very painful time in our nation’s history when “Jim Crow” laws racially segregated the Southern states where the Confederate flag waved.  The contrast between “something that might look good outside but is evil” couldn’t be starker, more dramatic.  So why, I’m guessing, haven’t you heard about this novel?  With the newly released paperback, let’s hope word spreads.

The ebb and flow of the prose adds texture to the novel’s complexities and paradoxes.  Set in a racially segregated fictitious town in Mississippi at the end of WWII, Revere is unlike Regina’s Harlem “where the races rarely mingled.”  Rather, it’s:

“a place where black people and white people were all jumbled together, had built up a land, and still lived, in a sense, right on top of each other, constantly traipsing in and out of one another’s lives.  So close that they couldn’t just naturally be separated.”

Thurgood Marshall,
attorney for the NAACP
(Library of Congress)

Yet, separated they were.  By law. The injustice and absurdity of proclaiming “separate and equal.”  It is within this historical time period that the novel opens, with the arrival of a thick, fancy envelope at the Fund’s Fifth Avenue office, addressed to Thurgood Marshall, already a legendary civil rights leader.  The package is from Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun, requesting Marshall look into the death of Lieutenant Joe Howard Wilson, son of her family’s long-time help, Willie Willie.  Inside were cryptic news-clippings and a photograph that grabbed Regina – whose character is based on Constance Baker Motley, the first black female attorney who worked for Marshall at the LDF.  “Reggie,” who clerked for Marshall in law school and “idolized” him, convinces Marshall to let her take on the case.  By now, Marshall believes to “really affect this country – we have got to move on to changing the law, not trying the individual cases that break it.”  He agrees, but only for three weeks’ time despite all-expenses paid.  The NAACP, you see, is flooded with cases.

Regina loves the law.  Her mother, a legend in her own right, the first black woman to graduate from Columbia’s Teachers College, has been fighting for justice too: for the passage of Federal anti-lynching laws.  Regina’s father was lynched in Omaha in 1919.

Regina’s drawn to this case for two more compelling reasons:

  • Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun is “M. P. Calhoun,” author of a children’s book she coveted; its title aptly, The Secret of Magic. That novel brought fame and fortune to that author, and inspired Regina with “spunky black heroes in a white book.”  No wonder it’s still banned in the Deep South!  The reader already senses that its murderous tale involving black and white playmates parallels Johnson’s story.  Hence, The Secret of Magic is a novel within a novel, a creative undertaking Johnson pulls off eloquently.  Save the Author’s Note for last, as it appears.  The full impact of Johnson’s art and intentions will hit you.
  • How is it possible that the recipient of the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross survived the battlefields of Italy but doesn’t make it home to Mississippi on an interstate bus? How is it possible that this black veteran singled out for “exceptional bravery” still “does not have the right to vote in Mississippi, his native state?”

A few things to keep in mind about Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun: She’s about twice Regina’s age, with “skin as white and translucent as a good Minton china cup.” Her daddy was the late Judge Calhoun, so powerful he kept the Ku Klux Clan out of Revere.  His portrait still hangs in the county courthouse, where the Confederate Flag still flies, where we see Regina bravely enter.  And yet, he’s also the man who hunted with Willie Willie; taught Willie Willie to read; made sure Willie Willie lived in a cabin behind the Calhoun’s antebellum mansion, not the typical outhouses of the day; paid for his son to attend Morehouse College; and counseled that if his son got out of Revere he’d make something of himself.

That may sound encouraging but the reader already knows that this black hero’s death was no accident, from the moment he refuses to give up his paid seat for German POWs when they board the Bonnie Blue Line bus.  (This is ten years before Rosa Parks makes her stand.)  This tense scene hits Joe hard for even a war – “the long horror of it – hadn’t changed one thing” in the segregated South.

Willie Willie knows his son’s death was no accident too.  Quite possibly, he’s even figured out who’s responsible for his murder by the time he picks Regina up at the bus depot.  Yes, the same bus route the lieutenant traversed, then disappeared.  Still, Willie Willie is an upbeat narrator, explaining to Regina why the town is so “pretty” (saved during the Civil War), dotted with grand “Victorian gingerbread” houses.  It doesn’t seem to matter, thinks Regina and the reader, that they were constructed by slaves.  For this is Willie Willie’s “home place,” the only home he’s ever known.  Could the meaning of home be more potent?  Discrepancies are everywhere.

Take for instance, Regina.  She tells us she’s a careful person, yet she’s thrust herself into the center of attention in a place where everyone is enmeshed in everyone else’s business.  Then there’s Miss Calhoun, raised with fine Southern manners, but she’s gruff with Regina and withholds information.  How could she possibly understand the secrets of a place like Revere?  Everyone in this town bears secrets, including Miss Mary, who has “never been able to figure out exactly who it is I can trust.”  Willie Willie comes closest.  Regina, though, is undeterred.  Watching the dance of their black-and-white female relationship is fascinating.

Little by little, Regina is handed clues by a couple of the town’s characters.  One is Peach Mottley, who did/still does the laundry for wealthy white families (the very same Peach in M. C. Calhoun’s novel.)  Another is a black attorney, Tom Raspberry, whose office is located in Catfish Alley, which “sounded like home.”  It seemed to be the only place in Revere that was like the rest of the postwar country, an “active hive of rebuilding.”  When Regina pays a visit to Tom:

“just being surrounded by black folks again was a relief.  Her shoulders loosened.  Her step lightened.  It was a lot of work to become “American,” like everybody else.  You always had to be on your guard.”

Tom offers hope that “things are changing.  Some deep foundations starting to shake.”   But as the plot thickens, Johnson wants to remind us that “good or bad, throughout the nation, it was the South pumped the heartbeat of so much.”


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