HAYLOW, A Novel by Gray Stewart
Gray Stewart’s novel, Haylow, tackles the issue of race in America in a modern satirical manner. It is no accident that the main character, history professor, Travis Hemperly has landed a position at Morehouse College, an African American institution in the heart of Atlanta. Stewart taught for over a decade at Morehouse College, and his familiarity with the school and the city of Atlanta is genuine. More recently, some authors have given voice and history to those who have been otherwise muted by discussing the taboos around the Jim Crow South and the barbarous act of lynching. Travis’s father, Henry Hemperly, tells a young Travis about a lynching he witnessed in Haylow, Georgia. While the narrative centers around discovering the truth and how Travis’s family history fits within the past of the Old South, Haylow is also a powerful and contemporary story that examines the present-day South.
Haylow is set after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996; there’s disparity, homelessness, and gentrification are pushing African Americans out of their home to “sanitize” the city. Travis must reconcile with being the minority for first time in his life. At his job, travelling on MARTA, in his neighborhood, and even going grocery shopping he is acutely aware of his whiteness. The African Americans he encounters on a day to day basis are described in varying hues of black and the sheer number of times Travis considers color and his own lack thereof begins to make the reader uncomfortable. This was cleverly done—an intentional act imposed upon the reader to make him or her aware of his or her own race, something we are undeniably aware of regardless of whether prejudice is a factor. Although Travis wants to reconcile his family’s part in the alleged lynching, he discovers the truth is blurry and not so black and white. One of the best lines in the novel was: “He’d hoped to settle the lynching question at lunch, get it out of the way and focus on more important things like the night ahead…(139).” This line encapsulates the absurdity, in a humorous way, of not only the lynching but how Travis contemplates its resolution.
Haylow challenges the reader to consider multiple points-of-view, giving a chapter to a character when needed rather than adhering to any pure rule of structure. The novel is written in present tense and dips into stream of consciousness in a progressive way that isn’t over the top or too heavy. It also leans into the magical realism genre, but the reader could discount these incidents as madness from a delusional character until the very end.
The characters are more like vehicles that represent various extremes of the race card. Three of the most compelling characters are: Travis’s father, Henry Hemperly, a Confederate hate radio host; Travis’s co-worker, Dr. Kalamari, an African American Morehouse College professor on a mission to educate his people about the injustices facing blacks (present and past) as well as their rich world history; and “Uncle Remus” who appears in the book in the form of a homeless black man. The irony is that the voice of hate, via Henry, has the power of speech through a captive audience and following. Dr. Kalamari, a highly educated man, keeps finding himself unable to articulate himself. The very people he wants to reach tend to ignore him. Of course, Uncle Remus is dismissed as a drunken vagrant.
It would be advantageous to have read the tales of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit prior to reading this novel, but it is not necessary. At one time, the consensus on the Uncle Remus character was that he was a nostalgic throwback who perpetuated the Antebellum South and stereotypes of African Americans. The tales, themselves, were derived from African American folklore and as such are historically relevant. The Wren’s Nest is attempting to rehabilitate Uncle Remus and the discussion on their website it worth reading. One argument is that Uncle Remus addressed racism in the only way it could be received culturally and Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the tales, intended them to alleviate racial tensions and address the injustices facing African Americans at the time. That has not been always been the predominate view of the Uncle Remus, however, and Haylow certainly continues the dialogue around this controversial character.
In addition to the Wren’s Nest, there are some other iconic Atlanta landmarks in the novel. Travis, who lives near Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, searches for his family plot, looking for more answers on his quest. When Travis enters the gift shop at Oakland, he is struck by “the rarified air of the Old South and” he notices…Confederate soldiers, sabers raised…[and] Black Americana sitting on the shelf enjoying watermelon (187).” It is doubtful the author intended to disparage the Oakland Cemetery, a place that at least by today’s standards is definitely cognizant of race and the impact it had on the cemetery and the South’s history, much like The Wren’s Nest is. These are iconic historical locations in Atlanta. Perhaps, these trinkets landed at the Oakland Cemetery because it was convenient for the plot, but then again, the novel was set in 1996. Certainly, these reminders are sold in antique shops around the South to this day. Why is there still a sensitivity around protecting the heritage of the South’s icons while simultaneously disrespecting those afflicted by it? That is a question explored in Haylow. Joyce Carol Oates said, “the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo – that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.” Stewart asks the reader to question why we are so protective of items that celebrate a history that was largely revised as a means of avoidance and why we don’t confront the negative head on.
The ending is ambiguous; there were a couple of loose ends that could have been resolved. For example, what happened during the panel discussion at Morehouse? Maybe, it would have been too predictable to give the reader this showdown. Also, vague endings allow the reader to create his or her own ending. Travis doesn’t find the answers he is looking for, no blood on a tree where the black man was executed, or the Klan to explain the atrocity. In a surprise twist, Travis experiences a hallucination—Uncle Remus’s furry friends visit him at Haylow. Why the disconnect from reality? The answer is there are no answers when it comes to race. The hallucination is simply an explanation of the absurdity. Much as we shake our heads and ponder gun violence at schools or at entertainment venues today, Travis cannot get his head around the horror of a lynching his family was privy to. In this way, the ending was quite fitting. Haylow is a novel that should be read by all, but also read more than once. It pushes the dialogue that we all should be having regarding race…whether we want that conversation or not.
For more on Haylow and the author, Gray Stewart, visit: https://www.graystewart.com/