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7 Reasons We LOVE Mia McKenzie’s Novel, “The Summer We Got Free”

A BuzzFeed article often has an audience similar to myself - young adults who like concision in their reading, but still enough substance to get a message across. In the age of meme culture and technology, a well-placed gif is much appreciated. Humor and “staying woke” are two huge trends across millennials and, being fluent in this language myself, I intend to appeal to the millennial mindset while also giving praise and critique to a fantastic novel. I will list the major themes present in the novel and describe how they affect the overall meaning of the story while also tying in the ideas discussed in Eubanks’s “Poetics and Narrativity”. The whole of McKenzie’s novel draws plot from story-telling, so much of its meaning is tied to that method of recounting. Eubanks understood that humanity and memory is much based off of narrative and story-telling. Through this use of storying, McKenzie is able to relate to her human audience in a way that is both heartbreaking and beautiful. In the following list, I intend to illustrate the strongest ideas present in the novel while also highlighting the story’s strengths and weaknesses. Warning: Spoilers!

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1. It's about a black lesbian artist

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Ava Delaney is the main character of McKenzie's thrilling novel: black, lesbian, a woman, and an artist. Because of this, Ava has a certain "placement" in society that limits or dictates what behavior is acceptable for her. In her church, she is often the subject of much attention – positive and negative. The main constraints to her character are her race and sexuality, but all of the aspects of her character are drawn into question strategically throughout the novel. The novel comments on the social inequity of different people based on arbitrary tradition.

2. All of the things we learn about Ava’s and her family’s past is told through narrative, often at the questioning of Helena, her husband's sister

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As Eubanks states, “Over the past couple of decades, cognitive scientists have studied story grammars, the specific structures of stories and they have concerned themselves increasingly with the social aspect of cognition.” In other words, storytelling is our culture’s way of memory-saving. When Helena’s questioning leads Regina to divulge the truth about her father’s death, the story is burned into each listener’s memory and the culture’s memory forever. Lynchings were not totally uncommon in those days, and to admit to being a victim of such extreme racism is to remember culturally the travesties of the time - when such terror was so commonplace. This novel is at first a reminder to all Americans to remember these injustices and hopefully begin to move toward a more equal society.

3. Lambda Literary calls it, “simultaneously critical social commentary, ghost story, murder mystery, and queer love story”.

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Black culture is as diverse as – or more than – white culture. There are stereotypes and superstitions in Black culture that some white people never encounter such as certain concepts regarding spirits. In Black culture, there is a strong tie between the living and dead. Because of this, all three Delaney women at some point in the novel see a spirit of somebody from their past. The overlap of genres allows McKenzie leeway in her representation of Black culture through exploration of those genres and a development of all four of them. Through her attempt to encompass as many aspects of life in her narrative as possible, she explains that Black culture and white culture – though different – are similar in complexity and density. Black people experience all of the emotional depth of white people and all of the artistic beauty which – I believe – is sometimes lost on people. When we oppress a minority, we dehumanize them, but McKenzie rebuts that concept by re-humanizing that minority and displaying their emotional struggles and inner strife.

Lambda’s review just proves how diverse and critical McKenzie’s novel is.

4. Each individual narrative depicts an aspect of Black culture, reciting the story of the people

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Let’s start with Helena. Our first description of her is primarily about her skin tone, “Paul was brown. But Helena was black. Very black. Black as forever,” Throughout the whole novel she is seen as “devilish” because of her dark black skin. To me, it was surprising that an oppressed minority group would oppress other members of that group, but the commentary here is that the prejudice is so ingrained in the people that they have come to hate themselves and each other for their blackness.

With George, there is a similar issue. He is ashamed to admit to being gay, so he lives much of his happiest and most vulnerable moments secretly. He has never been described as pleasant or easygoing, on the contrary he is uptight and constantly on edge. He is abusive to his family in fear that he may be found out. The worst part? He projects his fears on his children.

Sarah, the sister, has given up on her own happiness at the beginning of the novel. She believes that nobody “sees” her or recognizes her value because she is often overlooked for her sister.

Ava is an artist. From the beginning, she is shown to not have fear of others’ judgement and for that she is bullied and harassed, but artists need to have the ability to comment on society – good or bad. As the plot progresses, it’s relevant that Ava’s erratic tendencies are repressed due to her brother’s fear of danger to her. This symbolizes the ways in which victim groups often have to curb their behaviors in order to avoid being targets of violence.

This list could go on, but it all leads to this: Incarceration, violence, crime, stigma, and low self-esteem are all encapsulated in the human experience for black folks. The Delaney family is just trying to get along and instead or peace, they’re persecuted.

5. There are (at least) two layers of commentary throughout the entire novel

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McKenzie understands racism, that much is clear from the beginning. She shows us by describing the internalized self-deprecation that all family members take part in, seen the worst in George Sr. Even deeper than that she depicts the lack of acceptance of people in the queer community by their neighbors and church through George Sr., Ava, and Helena. If the characters in this novel could have been accepted and loved by their community, there would be no need for the novel.

6. The novel forces its readers to question their preconceptions about racial, gender, and sexual equality

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Thus far, you’ve probably gathered all the negativity about the story, it almost seems as though the book is just a huge downer, but that’s not true. McKenzie gets her readers emotionally invested in the characters and, for me, that made me hope for a better future for them. Sure, what they went through was really, really hard. But maybe by the end of the novel the characters have reached a point where they can start growing again and making their worlds better. The air of negativity is necessary for a privileged person to be able to understand what life is like for the underprivileged. Ava did not choose her race or sexuality, but still she was persecuted and ostracized for it. Such dense discussion calls for serious critical thinking.

7. McKenzie frees all of us with a cathartic, healing ending

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The moment of greatest healing is when Regina visits Lena Ellis, her foil. She has finally come to terms with George and Chuck’s relationship and decides to free herself. Not only is Regina an exceedingly strong character, she develops into a much more peaceful, wise person. Later, when George is on his deathbed, he begins to realize that it didn’t matter who he loved in his life, rather how he loved. As he passes away, his memories become intermingled and the shame disappears. He is happy.

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All this social commentary and symbolism adds up to an extremely powerful, moving novel. McKenzie's flawless style and deep meaning truly challenge a reader, but the struggle is worth it in the end to have such a meaningful message.

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