Some Sing, Some Cry is a sweeping family saga that spans seven generations of the Mayfield family. It begins with Ma Bette, the Mayfield matriarch, and her granddaughter Eudora as they leave Sweet Tamarind, the planation where they’ve spent their entire lives, and head to Charleston to begin their lives anew. In the generations that follow, many of the Mayfield women spread out to New York and even cities in Europe as they follow their dreams .
The characters that sisters/co-authors Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza created are all strong women who endure hardships and sacrifice all that they have in order to succeed, or at least help their children succeed.
The prose is rhapsodic from the outset; music is not only plays a part of each of the characters’ lives, but is infused in the composition of the sentences as well. Take, for instance, this excerpt describing African American soldiers doing the grunt work assigned to them upon landing in France during World War I:
They unloaded five thousand tons a day in twenty-four-hour shifts…Together, the men sounded one note that was simultaneously a chord, in harmonies so close they were dissonant though whole, broken buy holding as one great rolling arc of power—the baritone voices of a hundred men, a palimpsest. Might was subverted into song. Like saints cloaking the aura of orishas, the words spoke another language in the tones. Locking in the harmonies and rhythms, the hammer of Ogun cracked, driving them onward.
At times, though, the prose can become a bit grating. Shange’s and Bayeza’s background as playwrights is telling, as the prose sometimes crosses the line from third-person narrative to almost-soliloquy. The first chapter, especially, has a tendency to do this, and the effect is a bit jarring.
The time transitions between generations also feel disjointed and leave much to be desired. The authors do an excellent job of building suspense, and many of these characters’ stories could become novels in their own right. However, the endings of several of the chapters are aggravatingly choppy; one minute you’re reading something intense, and the next minute you’re reading a few hastily written paragraphs that cover a large span of years–sometimes even decades–of a character’s life.
The last chapter also feels like an afterthought. Several of the characters are given at least a hundred pages for character development. The last chapter, the “coda,” is only about six pages long, and nothing from it is particularly memorable.
That said, the strengths of the book far outweigh its faults. The authors’ ability to believably incorporate some of the less-remembered events from African American history is admirable. In 1939, for example, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall before an integrated audience; with the assistance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson was able to perform before tens of thousands of people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At one point in the novel, several of the characters travel to see Anderson’s historic performance. Numerous other historic events and African American cultural movements are subtly incorporated into the novel.
The hardships that single women in New York City faced and the standards they were held to were also acknowledged:
The YWCA wouldn’t accept women with children…The home for unwed mothers didn’t approve of Lizzie’s choice of work. Such carryin’-on, they said, set a bad example for the other girls. The house matron at the Urban League expected her to be in by ten. “How’s a woman spozed to work!”
One aspect of the book that some may find off-putting was the way the dialect was written: the spellings changed constantly. Shange and Bayeza address this at the end of the novel, stating that they decided against standardizing the dialect because it would, “suggest the fluidity of language [the characters] lived in as they made their way from enslavement to liberty and from the countryside to the city…we say no reason to force a linguistic uniformity onto this family story.” This might slow the reader down at first, but overall effect adds to the way the prose flows.
I also appreciated the fact that even though most of the main protagonists experienced extreme hardships caused by poverty, racism, and sexual assault, they were not all sympathetic characters. Given some of the stuggles the characters faced, it would have been very easy for Shange and Bayeza to paint them solely as victims rather than nuanced characters with faults of their own.
Some Sing, Some Cry is far from perfect. It’s lyricism is frequently cut off by hasty transitions, and the plot development is at times hit-or-miss. Still, Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza have crafted a compelling novel that is well worth the read.