(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

On the surface, 1959 recounts the rite of passage of Katherine “Willie” Tarrant. Through the use of a first-person narrator, Davis presents an evocative portrait of a young African American teenager living during the 1950’s, an era beset by injustice and growing racial unrest.

The novel opens with the razing of Turner, Virginia. Above the sounds of bulldozers rumbling over what were once modest wooden bungalows, the adult Willie Tarrant muses over the history of the town. She imagines the arrival of an African woman three hundred years earlier. This woman, abandoned by a slaver because she is sick and therefore not a marketable commodity, has no name. Willie opts to call her “Gambia.” A woman of immense dignity and fortitude, Gambia does not die. By her very survival, she becomes the progenitor of Turner’s African American community. Subsequently, Willie regards Gambia as her spiritual kin. Although the town has been leveled and the mythical Gambia lives only in Willie’s imagination, Willie the adult has returned in triumph. What follows is her story told in retrospect.

On the same day in July, 1959, Willie Tarrant turned twelve and Billie Holiday died. Willie’s world is the world of most adolescents, one characterized by preoccupations with music, clothes, and the opposite sex. When her father, a college professor, tells her that twelve is the age of reason, Willie sees this as the opportunity to have her childish braids cut off in preparation for her first date.

Willie reveals that her interests transcend the teenage world of boys, clothes, and music. She is mesmerized by the exploits of prominent dictators in the news, among them Fulgencio Batista, Papa Doc Duvalier, and Fidel Castro. Willie’s fascination with dictators and guerrillas stems from the white community’s concern over Cuban affairs, which she equates...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Burn, Gordon. “Review of 1959.” The Times Literary Supplement, May 29, 1992, 21. Discusses the duality of the Willie Tarrant narrative and the broader implications of the civil rights experience, especially in the context of how the events set in motion transform the town.

Gates, David. “Review of 1959.” Newsweek 119 (March 9, 1992): 60. Sees the civil rights activities in the novel as a microhistory of the Civil Rights movement and as an emblematic prophesy of the African American experience. Analyzes Davis’ fictionalized account of how an African American community discovers its inherent power and the limits of that power from the standpoint of persuasive discourse.

Hull, Gloria T. “Review of 1959.” Women’s Review of Books (May, 1992): 6. Identifies the influences of Toni Morrison’s works on Davis’ novel. Views the novel as an affirmation of the spirit and dignity of people of the period described. Offers a brief analysis of Davis’ employment of characterization, asserting that the revelation of character through situation is poetic. Overall, Hull deems 1959 to be an excellent first novel, one that is lively in tone and subject matter and evinces the author’s talent.

Knight, Kimberly. “Thulani Davis: Writing the Untold Stories.” Essence 23 (May, 1992): 60. Discusses how Davis has drawn upon her own life and family experiences in her writing of 1959. Provides limited biographical information on Davis.

Levine, Beth. “Review of 1959.” The New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1992, 18. Examines how the novel presents a moving testament of communal power, a power that ignited the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Points out how Davis’ deft use of time and place, especially the function of the town’s history and Fannie Tarrant’s diary in the narrative, evokes that power.

Molesworth, Charles. “Culture, Power, and Society.” In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Concisely deals with how contemporary American writers in general address and thereby illuminate the question of power. Considers the issue of social and political consciousness in the postwar era. Of particular interest is a discussion of the presence of adolescent sensibility in the contemporary novel, a device that allows postwar novelists to explore the notion of power versus powerlessness.