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 with the furor over the civil rights struggle in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Interspersed within Willie’s narrative is the story of Willie’s dead Aunt Fannie. What Willie cannot glean from her father’s family stories about Fannie, she imagines. Thus Fannie becomes a mythic figure within the novel. Fannie, Willie has learned, often sneaked out of the house to see minstrel shows, in defiance of her parents’ wishes. Her niece shares her fascination with the Tambo/Mr. Interlocutor routines. Willie often begs her father to recount what his older sister had told him. Dixon is wary about re-creating the old routines for his precocious daughter. He does, however, tell her that the minstrel shows “were in a different language. It was a hungry language and all the words were a complicated code that grew more and more intricate. And all the words said, ’I’m a fool, but I’m not a fool,’ or ’I’m just here and I don’t understand but I know exactly what is going on.’”
The linguistic code of turn-of-the-century minstrel shows becomes the code of the town when the school integration issue is raised. Many parents, including Dixon Tarrant, are concerned with what might happen if selected students from Ida B. Wells Junior High were to be sent to the all-white Patrick Henry Junior High. Fearing for their children’s safety, the parents call a town meeting to discuss the issue. Eventually, they decide to send the top six students if the desegregation issue is forced. One of those students is Willie Tarrant.
Willie’s remarkable teacher, Mae Taliaferro, rigorously prepares her students for the possible move. She refuses to teach the erroneous and biased material covered in the out-of-date textbooks that the all-white board of education has provided for the Wells students. One of the board members, Herman Shaw, is outraged by what he, a white supremacist, views as Mae’s teaching of communist thought, and he calls for her dismissal. The African American community, however, stands behind Taliaferro, and Shaw’s edict is...
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