(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bright Shadow is a love story. It continues the life of Abyssinia Jackson where it left off at the end of Joyce Carol Thomas’s first novel, Marked by Fire (1982).

Abyssinia is attracted to Carl Lee Jefferson, a fellow student at Langston University. Her father, Strong, does not like the boy because of his family. Carl Lee is the son of the town drunkard. Abby’s mother, Patience, has a sister, Serena, who lives next door to the Jacksons. She is sixty years old and has just married a former minister named Rufus Jordan. This minister, who recently moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma, from Houston, Texas, has an evil look in his eyes. His demeanor and booming voice frighten Abby.

Against her father’s wishes, Abby invites Carl Lee to her house for a visit. Strong tells Carl Lee the story of Abby’s birth. This narration fills in background material from the previous novel, Marked by Fire. It explains the close relationship that Abby has with her Aunt Serena. Strong alludes to another unusual birth, that of Carl Lee, the winter before Abby’s, but drops the subject when Patience gives him a warning look.

A few days later, Abby has a bad dream about Aunt Serena. It leaves her with a feeling of dread. That Saturday, when Carl comes over to help her rake leaves, they visit with her aunt over the fence that separates their two properties. Abby is given a bouquet of blue iris from Serena’s garden. After Carl leaves, Abby tries to find out what her aunt thinks about this new beau. Aunt Serena says that he is a fine boy and that she likes him.

Every day for a week, Carl Lee and Abby observe Serena and her new husband as they go to a nearby cornfield. When they get there, the Reverend Jordan preaches a sermon with only the cornstalks, a scarecrow, and Aunt Serena to hear him. When the moon is at...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. Complete history of the African American novel and its practitioners. Argues that 1983—the year of Bright Shadow’s publication—was a crucial transition year for the form.

Caywood, Carolyn. Review of Bright Shadow, by Joyce Carol Thomas. School Library Journal 30, no. 5 (January, 1984): 89-90. Mixed review that calls the book’s melodrama contrived but that praises Thomas’s “sensuously descriptive passages celebrating the physical beauty of the black characters.”

Davis, Thulani. Review of Bright Shadow, by Joyce Carol Thomas. Essence 14, no. 12 (April, 1984): 50. Warm review by a respected dramatist and novelist.

Earhart, Amy E. “Joyce Carol Thomas.” In Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Critical biographical essay on Thomas, accompanied by a bibliography of works by and about her.

Rollock, Barbara. Black Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland, 1988. Useful factual summary of Thomas’s career that discusses her editorship of the black women’s newsletter Ambrosia and her lecturing in Africa, Haiti, and the United States.

Thomas, Joyce Carol. Marked by Fire. New York: Avon Books, 1982. Thomas’s acclaimed first novel about Abby Jackson and her family, for which the author won an American Book Award.

Valkeakari, Tuire. Religious Idiom and the African American Novel, 1952-1998. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. Study of Christian imagery and rhetoric in African American novels of the second half of the twentieth century. Useful for placing Thomas’s use of church music in context.

Yalom, Marilyn, ed. Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1983. Notes that women are central to Thomas’s fiction and that her characters are drawn from people she has known in real life.