If Sons, Then Heirs
by Lorene Cary
Reviewed by Lori L. Tharps
Lorene Cary doesn't shy away from telling complicated stories about race in the United States. In Black Ice, her critically acclaimed memoir of integrating the elite St. Paul's boarding school, and in The Price of a Child, her novel of a slave woman's escape to freedom, she distilled taboo topics into moving and accessible works of literature. She does it again with this latest novel.
In If Sons, Then Heirs, Cary examines race and racism through the prism of land ownership in the South. We learn how three generations of an African American family are affected by property purchased by the family patriarch, the aptly named KingNeedham, and how holding on to that land through some of the most violent and racially charged periods of American history brings them a fair share of power, privilege and pain.
The story is seen mostly through the eyes of King's great-grandson Rayne, the child abandoned by King's granddaughter and raised by King's second wife, Selma. Thirty-year-old Rayne has made a comfortable life for himself in Philadelphia. He lives with his girlfriend and her son, runs his own construction business and is about to make his annual pilgrimage south to visit his step-great-grandmother, Selma. But what starts as a perfunctory visit becomes a stumble down a memory lane strewn with generations of sorrow and regret. Arriving in South Carolina, he discovers Selma has aged considerably; she can scarcely manage upkeep on the land and wants Rayne to take over. And there's a dark family secret plaguing the Needhams that Rayne must finally confront.
The novel is epic in scope -- King Needham bought his land during the Great Depression, King's great-grandson communicates by texting -- but Rayne keeps the story grounded in the here and now. Cary clearly wants to expose the often-overlooked history of African American land ownership and the overwhelming obstacles, including racist laws, threats of sadistic violence and even government thievery, to keeping hold of the land. Sadly, many failed. "Fifty years ago, as a people, we owned 14 million acres....Now we own little more than a million," a legal expert tells Rayne as he tries to figure out if he should sell the family property.
Cary makes a powerful statement about African Americans' generational wealth -- or lack thereof -- with a heavy nod toward the injustice of property laws that could ignore a woman's stewardship of the land, her decades-long struggle to pay taxes. "Nobody helped her cut the wheat or grind the flour or bake the bread," Rayne says of Selma, who carried the burden of the family's inheritance alone, or nearly so, for more than half a century. Despite the book's evocative title -- inspired by the Bible promise, "In Christ you are not slaves, but sons, and if sons, then heirs" -- Cary shows that more often than not, the riches of the earth are inherited by the few.
Lori L. Tharps is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and author of the novel Substitute Me.