I recently watched the 2013 movie Lee Daniel’s The Butler which I thought notable for vividly depicting the struggle for desegregation in Washington D.C. during the late 1950s and early 1960s by both peaceful and radical means. Viewed through the lens of time, it is even more shocking to think that humans treated other humans less favourably based on skin colour alone. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this movie had primed me for the reading of Exile Blues by Douglas Gary Freeman (2019, Baraka Books)* for much of the content takes place in the same time period and in Washington D.C. as well.
What sets Exile Blues out from the crowd (and quite possibly makes it one of the most important Black History novels released in recent years), is that the author, if not well known to you, will become so as he tours to promote this book. You see, Mr. Freeman was born in the DC area as Joseph Pannell (he changed his name when he fled the U.S.) and lived through this historic time for civil rights. He had to flee to Canada after shooting and wounding a Chicago Police Officer in self-defence. You can read more about Mr. Freeman’s story in this Toronto Star article from 2015. See also: ‘Gentle and shy,’ fugitive lived a quiet family life in Canada in The Globe and Mail.
The question that comes to mind is why didn’t Mr. Freeman just write a memoir instead of a novel built around events in his life? Perhaps there are legal issues that would prevent him from doing so at this time. At any rate, I read Exile Blues as if it were his memoirs, and that helped to bring authenticity to bear on the narrative, which is quite brisk and fast-moving. There is plenty of insightful dialogue and situations viewed from the perspective of the street. Places like Lincoln Park and the mass confrontation between protestors and police outside Garfinckel’s Department Store come to life from the perspective of a black youth who had to endure overbearing daily police presence, verbal and physical abuse from them, and even the unwarranted shootings of his friends. While still at a very young age, Preston “Prez” Downs Jr. is told by his Uncle Cadgie: “We don’t go lookin’ for trouble, but if it come lookin’ for us, we deal with it, we take care of it. But remember, son. Never go lookin’ for trouble. You don’t have to. In this world, little Press, trouble will find you.” Prez’ mother and grandmother worry for his future after one of his friends is shot and killed by the police:
They were scared for their Little Preston. He as in the midst of a very difficult rite of passage. They knew at the remnants of his childhood had been yanked viciously him and that he would never be the same again. Moreover, they knew that black children’s stymied childhoods migrated directly to an all-too-often-tragic adulthood. There could be no greater fear for a mother and grandmother than that their manchild would be hurled straight into premature manhood in the belly of the American beast. Whichever turned out to be worse— the violent physical threats of an oppressive American system, or the interwoven racism which was just as brutal—chances were that the man-child in rebellion would not survive to adulthood. He’d be lucky to live long enough to get a driver’s license, much less attain voting age. And it was always the brightest and strongest who met such a fate: bright enough to see through the veils of subterfuge that hid the reality of American apartheid, and strong enough to try and stand up for the truth.
Their fears are not misplaced, for trouble does come, typically wearing a police uniform, but often it is rival neighbourhood gangs that present an obstacle to peace. Prez, while able to fight, prefers diplomacy to violence. He can’t see the point of Blacks fighting amongst themselves when they already have issues with Whites. He is soon able to get the gangs to unify on his terms.
Fast-forwarding a bit, Prez is now in Chicago involved in a Civil Rights course through the University of Illinois. He finds Chicago quite different from DC but is soon enough involved in the civil rights movements there. The Chicago Police are just as bad, if not worse than the police back home. The notorious Chicago Red Squad targets any socialist, reform and radical group. It is in an otherwise peaceful (on Prez’ part) confrontation that the police go ballistic and Prez shoots an officer in the arm before fleeing the city and the country. Now Prez finds himself in a strange city (he lands in Montreal) where he finds his high school French a little rusty. Life is very different here too. He has new friends who look out for him, and he eventually gets a visit from his old girlfriend Tala.
Truthfully, while I liked this book, I was left a little disappointed. With a title like Exile Blues I was expecting to read more about Prez/Mr. Freeman’s life in exile here in Canada. That was not to be. Perhaps another novel from Mr. Freeman down the road will delve into this part of his life. At any rate, what I said earlier stands: Exile Blues could be one of the most important Black History novels to appear in recent years, and Mr. Freeman is a writer worthy of consideration.
“It’s the novel Malcolm X might have written had he not suffered martyrdom.” —George Elliott Clarke, 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016 & 2017)
*This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy of Exile Blues supplied by Baraka Books. It is due for release in October 2019.
Exile Blues by Douglas Gary Freeman
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