Let me preface this review by stating that as a white heterosexual female, I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, but I still found it to be quite possibly the most powerful and illuminating read of the year. Every letter of this epistolary novel made me deeply contemplate some aspect of humanity or it broke my heart, sometimes both in equal measure. The only reason pain destroys us a little at a time is we don’t give ourselves time to contemplate it. We suppress and deny until what remains is a shell of who we once were. Empathy doesn’t flee the human heart overnight. This can be on a more personal level or on a grand scale that alters human history. As people, we can stop ourselves from thinking, but we can’t stop ourselves from feeling. What happens when one allows emotions to overtake without the benefit of thought? People get hurt. That’s why I’ll never stop arguing that proper education is the solution to our societal problems. And a proper education includes fiction. In fact, literature is essential to a proper understanding of history. I am fascinated by history. I love history. But the history I love is not facts and figures.
The history I love is not the date a slave ship landed on the shore. It’s the feeling of the sand beneath the feet of a woman who is grappling with grief from being ripped from her family. It is fear. It is thirst. It is hunger. It’s the confusion she feels and the weight of loss, both the loss of her freedom and of any future legacy she will be able to have because even her name was stolen. It’s the sadness of the young man who will sit in front of a computer one day wanting to know where he came from but knowing he’ll never know. How can you find a person whose sheer existence was erased simply because those in power decided her value didn’t extend beyond the work forced out of her tired and broken hands? Knowing the date asks you to think. Contemplating her existence demands that you feel.
Daniel Black, in his discussion of Don’t Cry For Me, (extremely worthwhile and inspiring watch) said “books transform the heart.” They show us the real history. Even if it’s imagined, it is still the truth, because the truth of any time period lies in the human stories. The real root of the argument surrounding critical race theory is that some people don’t want you to contemplate what that woman and all those like her felt. They want you to keep forgetting she existed at all, because admitting to her existence would force them to admit to the existence of the people who still live with the burdens placed upon them by such an ugly era in our country’s history. Do we really want a whole generation of adults who have only been taught to think about the convenient truths but have never been challenged to feel the complete depth of all truth? Empathy does not grow from apathy.
This is a deeply personal book for Daniel Black. Black is a vibrant and eloquent human who explores difficult realities that have plagued the black community for years. Historically black men in America have been tasked with providing fierce protection, of ensuring the survival of those he loves. The love of a black father can only take one form, his masculinity must be hard edged and focused solely on providing the necessities of survival. The necessities of the heart are for the women and girls. A man doesn’t cry, and a man raises boys who don’t cry. In Don’t Cry For Me, Black introduces us to Jacob, a dying man who is grappling with regrets never spoken aloud. Before he dies, death grants him one last gift of time to seek absolution. With the time he has left, he writes letters to his son, Isaac. Jacob and Isaac haven’t seen each other in more than a decade. The letters are the olive branch gifted from father to son, recognizing and apologizing for his wrongs, for the mental and emotional bruises he inflicted upon the person he was supposed to love without fail and without the burden of expectation.
In literature, the exploration of systemic racism and prejudice is extremely common. There are numerous powerful reads that examine the relationship between the white and black communities and the historical context that’s laid the foundation for the modern issues that are still rampant. Those issues are still explored in Black’s text, but there’s much more focus on the familial relationships and the festering ills that exist within the black community. It’s really easy to look from the inside out and highlight the pains inflicted on your community by another, but it takes a special kind of bravery to look within your own community and tell the world that there are still ways you could be better. That your ancestors and their ancestors had a lot to learn, and you’re still learning. We can recognize they did the best they could with what they had but they could have been better. They could have said I’m Sorry. And they could have said I Love You.
Healing comes with being able to ask for forgiveness just as much as it comes from being able to forgive. While Black focuses the text specifically on the black community, this argument applies to all. There are men and women of every race, religion, and affiliation walking around with scars and resentments inflicted on them by their parents. Black is showing us that judgment must be set aside to make way for enlightenment, for the ideas of masculinity and femininity that have been presented to us to no longer be given weight. It’s ok to love and honor without expectation, control, or cruelty. The world would be a better place if we didn’t have to reach our deathbeds before we faced and spoke aloud the sheer depth of our regrets.
I realize I haven’t given you a whole lot of information about this novel, but what I hope I have done is told you how it impacted me and how it changed me. How perfect is a book that makes you both think and feel in equal measure? This character of Jacob is so real. He’s so vivid. His letters to his son are visceral and unflinching in their honesty. Sure, this book’s message is primarily for a father, but there’s something important for all parents, including mothers. The character I most identified with was Isaac’s mother. If we are being honest, until Jacob’s letters I don’t think Isaac truly knew the depth of his mother’s pain. Her verbalization of that pain and Isaac’s understanding of that would have offered freedom and comfort to both. I’m not sure at this point in my life I could be so completely open about my history to my children. I don’t know that I could bear the ugly parts of my soul to them as a way to help them understand who I am or how I came to be that way. Not just yet, anyway. But what I can do is always say I’m sorry when I screw up and always be willing to tell them how much I love them.
Do the whole world a favor and read this book and let Daniel Black transform your heart. Then read another book. And another. And another. If more people picked up books like this and allowed themselves to truly feel the power of loss and regret and the beauty of a heart transformed just before it’s too late, we could transform the world before it’s too late. 5 Stars for Dr. Daniel Black.
Published Feb 1, 2022 by Harlequin Audio. ISBN 1488213178. Runtime 7 hrs 28 mins. Read by the author.