Free Enterprise by Michelle Cliff Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Free Enterprise recounts the lives and interactions of two women dedicated to the abolition of slavery and the very different outcomes of their involvement in the antislavery movement. The novel begins near Carville, Mississippi, in 1920. Annie Christmas lives near the riverbank in a house that appears to be slipping into the river. The trees in front of her house are decorated with an odd assortment of ordinary bottles whose lingering aromas reawaken the past for Annie. She remembers her girlhood in the Caribbean, the first time she met Mary Ellen Pleasant (M.E.P.), and how she came to be named Annie Christmas.

The novel recounts the meeting of the two women at a lecture given in Boston. M.E.P. invites Annie to supper at a restaurant called Free Enterprise that is owned by a black fisherman and his wife. During the meal, M.E.P. suggests she take the name of Annie Christmas, a woman who had worked barges on the Mississippi River.

The story returns to Carville, Mississippi, and Annie’s involvement with a leper colony. The lepers of the colony join Annie in telling stories. These stories are oral histories that conflict with the official versions of history: They present historical events from different perspectives and with different facts than do standard accounts.

The novel then reproduces a letter sent by M.E.P. to Annie. M.E.P.’s letter recounts an unpleasant evening at Alice Hooper’s home. The occasion is the unveiling of...

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Free Enterprise Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cliff, Michelle. “History as Fiction, Fiction as History.” Ploughshares 20, nos. 2/3 (1994): 196-202. Cliff explicates her goals in writing Free Enterprise.

Cliff, Michelle. “Journey into Speech—A Writer Between Two Worlds: An Interview with Michelle Cliff.” Interview by Opal Palmer Adisa. African American Review 28, no. 2 (1994): 273+. Cliff discusses race, oppression in Jamaica, resistance as a form of community, and the importance of women in the history of resistance.

Edmonson, Belinda. “Race, Writing, and the Politics of (Re)Writing History: An Analysis of the Novels of Michelle Cliff.” Callaloo 16, no. 1 (Winter, 1993): 180-191. Useful analysis of Cliff’s propensity to seek out obscure events from history and her ability to work with multiple perspectives.

Elia, Nada. Trances, Dances, and Vociferations: Agency and Resistance in Africana Women’s Narratives. New York: Garland, 2001. Elucidates Cliff’s use of alternative and oral histories, and her representation of sexual and racial passing. Chapter 3 provides an analysis of Annie Christmas. Useful bibliography.

Hudson, Lynn M. The Making of Mammy Pleasant: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Contrasts Cliff’s portrayal of M.E.P. with her portrayal in Mammy Pleasant (1953), Devilseed (1984), Pale Truth (2000), and Sister Noon (2001). Illustrated.