Oprah Winfrey has selectedby author and MacArthur Fellow Jesmyn Ward as her . Winfrey announced her choice on “CBS Mornings” Tuesday, and said “Let Us Descend” will leave an impact.
Ward, noted for her poignant storytelling, holds the distinction of being the youngest recipient of the Library of Congress’s Prize for American Fiction. Her new work, “Let Us Descend,” is already garnering attention for its heart-rending narrative and depth of historical research.
“Let Us Descend,” published by Scribner — an imprint of Simon & Schuster which is a division of CBS News’ parent company Paramount Global— chronicles the trials of Annis, an enslaved teenager. The storyline details her grueling journey from a North Carolina plantation to her subsequent sale in New Orleans.
“We witness how both the mind and spirit are vital to her survival,” said Winfrey.
The novel opens powerfully with the line, “The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand.” Ward said the metaphor speaks to the protagonist’s protective relationship with her mother.
“Her mom is preparing her for life in that world generally and also I think life without her because her mother knows there’s always a danger that they would be separated,” Ward said.
Writing “Let Us Descend” was a personal journey for Ward, as she navigated the loss of her husband amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was in the throes of fresh grief,” she said. “And so, I think that grief allowed me to better understand Annis and what she was going through and her journey to figure out what her new future, or what a new life without her mother and without these people that she loved and I think that sort of served as a model for me to begin to figure out what this new version of my life would look like.”
Read an excerpt below. Follow along with the reading schedule at OprahDaily.com.
The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand. I was a small child then, soft at the belly. On that night, my mother woke me and led me out to the Carolina woods, deep, deep into the murmuring trees, black with the sun’s leaving. The bones in her fingers: blades in sheaths, but I did not know this yet. We walked until we came to a small clearing around a lightning-burnt tree, far from my sire’s rambling cream house that sits beyond the rice fields.
Far from my sire, who is as white as my mother is dark. Far from this man who says he owns us, from this man who drives my mother to a black thread in the dim closeness of his kitchen, where she spends most of her waking hours working to feed him and his two paunchy, milk-sallow children. I was bird-boned, my head brushing my mother’s shoulder.
On that night long ago, my mother knelt in the fractured tree’s roots and dug out two long, thin limbs: one with a tip carved like a spear, the other wavy as a snake, clumsily hewn.
“Your fingers long.” My mother taps the center of my palm, and my fingers close fast.
“You practice with my staff, tonight.
“Here,” my mother says, digging out the weapon Mama Aza left her. She runs her grip down the long, thin limb, stained black and warm from the oil of her hands, and Mama Aza’s before. Mama Aza taught my mama to fight with it, determined to pass along this knowing taught to her by the sister-wives across the great ocean. Mama tosses the weapon to me and picks up her childhood staff, jagged as lightning. I sweat, fear spiking my armpits.
My heart thumps in my ears. Mama whips her spear, and we begin to spar: with every spin, every strike, every stab, my mother becomes more fire, less herself-more licking, liquid flame. I don’t like it, but then I don’t have time to like it, because I must parry, block, jab. The world turns to one whipping, one humming, and us spinning with it. When we return to the cabin, Nan and her two oldest children are asleep. Nan and her family share the cabin with us. Her youngest two are awake, and they cannot stop crying.
They hold each other in their blankets, breath hitching from sobbing, while their mother and siblings doze. Nan has always diverted her love for her four children. She throttles it to a trickle, to an occasional softness in her orders: be still, hush, don’t cry, and the rest of her care is all hard slaps and fists.
She won’t love what she can’t keep. My mother reaches out to me, and I grasp her hand as we tuck into our bedding. Mama has always been a woman who hides a tender heart: a woman who tells me stories in a leaf-rustling whisper, a woman who burns like a sulfur lantern as she leads me through the world’s darkness, a woman who gives me a gift when she unsheathes herself in teaching me to fight once a month.
THE NEXT MORNING, MY mother wakes me before the sun; she smells like hay, magnolia, and fresh game meat from last night’s midnight sweat. I’m exhausted. I want to roll over in our blanket, yank it over my head and eat more sleep, but Mama runs a firm hand down my back.
“Annis, my girl. Wake up.”
I pull on my clothes, tuck my blouse into my skirt as we walk toward my sire’s house. Can’t help the sulkiness dogging my tucks, dragging my steps. My mother walks a little ahead, and I punch down my resentfulness. Mama is almost running: she has to get to the oven, needs to light and stoke the fire within it, heat it so that she can do the morning baking. I know she is ordered to the house just as much as I am, what with all I have to gather and deliver and clean for her, to aid her in this morning, but I am short-tempered and tired until my mother begins to limp, a little stitch in her walk. Last night pains her, too. I trot to her, slip my hand through the crook of her elbow, and rub her arm. Look on the soft down of her ear, her woven hair.
“Mama?” I say.
“Sometimes I want something sweet,” she breathes, tapping her fingers on mine.
“Naw,” I say. “I want salt.”
“Mama Aza always said it wasn’t good to want sweets. I’d hunt them and eat so much my hands’d stain red and blue.” Mama sighs. “Now having a bit of sweet is all I can think about.”
My sire’s house hulks, its insides pinned by creaks. My mother bends to the stove. I gather wood and haul water and take both up the stairs, peeking into my sire’s daughters’ rooms. They are my half sisters; I have known this since my mother first taught me to fight, yet envy and distaste still burrow in me every morning when I tend to them. They sleep with their mouths open, pink scraped across their cheeks, their eyelids twitching like fish who swim in the shallows. Their red hair snarls in knotted threads. They will sleep until their father wakes them with knocks on their doors, far past the first blush of dawn. I tamp my feelings down, closing my
Face. My sire is at his desk, in his dressing gown, writing. His room is stuffy with cold smoke and old sweat.
“Annis,” he says, nodding.
“Sir,” I say.
I expect his eyes to glaze over me as they do every morning, like water over a smooth stone. But his gaze snags on me, square, then trails me around his room as I fill his washbasin, gather his clothes, grip his chamber pot. He appraises me in the same way he studies his horses, his attention as sure and close as his touch on a long-maned neck, a muscled haunch, a bowed, saddle-worn back. I keep my eyes on my hands, and it’s only when I descend the stairs that I realize they are shaking, his mess sloshing in the pot.
I take care to hide from his gaze. It is something that I have always known how to do: I seal my mouth silent. As the day lengthens, I walk on tiptoe through the wide, dim halls of my sire’s house. I set buckets and basins down softly, ease the metal to the floor in a ring. I stand very still, just beyond the doorway of my pale sisters’ schoolroom, and listen to their tutor read to them beyond the door. The stories I hear are not my mother’s stories: there is a different ringing, a different singing to them that settles down into my chest and shivers there like a weapon vibrating in struck flesh. These girls, sallow sisters, read from the texts their tutor directs them to, ancient Greeks who write about animals and industry, wasps and bees, and I listen:
“Bees seem to take a pleasure in listening to a rattling noise; and consequently men say that they can muster them into a hive by rattling with crockery or stones.” The youngest sister’s voice falls to a mumble and rises. “They expel from the hive all idlers and unthrifts. As has been said, they differentiate their work; some make wax, some make honey, some make bee-bread, some shape and mold combs, some bring water to the cells and mingle it with the honey . . .” I breathe in the pine halls and repeat the most potent words: wax, honey, bee-bread, combs.
“Aristotle refers to the heads of the hives as kings,” the tutor says, “but scientists have found they are female: actually queens. In ancient Greece, Artemis’s priests were known as ‘king bees.’ Bees, too, were credited with giving the gift of prophecy to her brother Apollo.”
The tutor gives a dry laugh. “This is blasphemous superstition. However, Aristotle’s advice on those who labor and the fruits of that labor are sound: leave a hive with too much honey, and a beekeeper encourages laziness,” he says, his voice high and soft, nearly as soft as those of my unsure sisters. I know he is speaking about bees but not-that he is using the bees and the old Greek to speak on all of us who labor. I know he’s talking about my mother making biscuits and stews on the stove in the attached kitchen, about Cleo and her daughter Safi and me, who tidy rooms, beat dust from rags, wipe their floors until they gleam like burnished acorns.
I hurry downstairs to my mother, who reads me as quickly as the tutor reads his passages.
“You’ve been listening again?” she asks.
“Have care,” she whispers, and then bangs her spoon on a black pot. The kitchen is thick with salt meat. “He wouldn’t take kindly to knowing.”
“I know,” I say. I want to tell her more. I want to tell her that I envy my sire’s twin
daughters, their soft shoulders, their hair pale and thin as spider’s silk, their lessons, their linens, their cream-colored, paper-thin dresses. I want to tell her that when I listen at their doors, I am taking one thing for myself, one thing that none of them would give. I say the tutor’s words in my head again, trying not to feel guilty at my mother’s worried frown, the way her anxiety
makes her stab her spoon into the pot. Wax, honey, bee-bread, combs. How to apologize for wanting some word, some story, some beautiful thing for my own?
“I’m sorry, Mama,” I say as I retreat outside to gather more wood.
A lone bee meanders through the kitchen garden: plump, black striped, beautiful. It lands on my shoulder, soft as a fingertip, and I wonder what message it brings, from what spirit worlds. They are queens, the tutor said. When the bee rises and disappears into a nodding yellow squash flower, wind beats through the trees, and I think for a moment I hear an echo drifting down through the branches: Queens.
[[excerpted from pp 1-9 in Let Us Descend]]