Such Agonies Suffer Our Men of War
Reading Witherspoon, one is moved by its aesthetic and its morality. Lance Jeffers does not depend on mutilation of language, allusion to the arcane, or puzzles in logic to achieve effects. He is too good and too honest an artist to engage in easy tricks. He knows, as wordsmiths have known since the pre-history of Africa, that a good story told in language the community can understand is not to be surpassed. The grace and strength of fiction are located in its ability to show us our lives with more order, insight, and clarity than we can normally obtain. Good fiction pushes us toward recognition, toward a profound, relentless honesty about ourselves and others. It forces us to make moral decisions while satisfying our penchant for narratives about man’s endless contest with the fate of being human. Because it fulfills these criteria superbly, Witherspoon is a fine, important novel.
In the poem “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand,” Jeffers wrote:
I see my children stunted,
my young men slaughtered,
I do not know the mighty power of my hand.
I see the power over my life and death in
another man’s hands, and sometimes
I shake my woolly head and wonder:
Lord have mercy! What would it be like…to be free?
Lucius Witherspoon, James Corwul, and Willie Armstrong are characters who, in varying degrees, come to know the power of their black hands, their interrelated life-stories being metonymic: the essence of Black life and the complexity of Black male psychology in the South are compressed in their ability or inability to assert power. Through these characters, Jeffers examines what it means to be unempowered and how Black men and women do possess the inner strength (and latent social power) to be great and human without ambivalence. Witherspoon does not seek to tell what it would be like to be Black, free, and Southern. It shows what the unsung heroes among ordinary Black folk must do to achieve individual and collective freedom. And what they must do involves tragedy and love, the willingness to push one’s humanity to irreversible extremes, and determination to stare death straight in the eye. Black people, especially Black men, will know the power of their hands when they know themselves totally.
Witherspoon does not validate how we are now, nor does it evade the Black man’s critical problem of confronting, in the words of Robert Staples, “the contradiction between the normative expectations attached to being male in this society and the proscriptions on [his] behavior and achievement of goals.” With the skill of a surgeon, Jeffers performs an operation in the underexplored depths of Black male psychology. Therefore, he enables us to discover the agonies suffered by our men of war and the long journey they and we must take to find psychological freedom. The great achievement of Witherspoon is the destruction of the historical and social myths behind which men try to mask.
Evoking the wisdom of the spirituals (a fact apparent in the novel’s original title The Lord is a Man of War), Lance Jeffers has given us fiction that is convertive and blacktrocuting. In its affirmation that descent into the inferno of racism leads to rising like a phoenix, Witherspoon offers to us the grandeur that is ours. Witherspoon is the sorrow song of our new day, the martial song for Black men who would know the power of their hands. It is an ode to the invisible men and women whose authentic humanity must become the model of our own.