“Book Review: High Cotton”
Reviewed by Joe Walters
A voice to be heard, a story to be told, a life to be lived with High Cotton
I’ve been reading a lot of essay collections lately. I’ve been hearing a lot of voices about topics I want to hear about, learn about, devour, and improve myself with, but none felt quite as striking and intimate as Kristie Robin Johnson’s High Cotton. This essay collection works as a full narrative; each nonfiction story takes on the form of the essay to teach us something along the ride of Johnson’s life. This time, the stories revolve around one small-town Georgia woman bred of five generations of small-town Georgia women, each chasing a life they can love despite the constant battles of being Black in America’s Deep South.
This collection opens with “Dope,” an essay about Kristie’s mother’s crack addiction. We take a stark and honest look at their relationship, the strains put forth on a daughter, and the patience and love she can have for the one who raised her. It’s a glimpse into the life of the affected, the normalcies attached to this addiction, and the tolerance—and, indirectly, even love—for those who are selling the drugs to her mother in order to get by. It’s the first opportunity we really get to know the author and the prose she’s about to set fire to on the page.
I can’t help but appreciate the way Johnson constructs these essays. We dip into a number of different conversations—from colorism to waiting for food stamps to raising an autistic child in a world that sees his race as criminal—and we dip into them with an honest and daring style. One essay (“Humanity at the Grovetown Nail Spa”) is made up of only one sentence, while “Broke, Not Broken” is a second-person account made to distance the author from her own admitted pain. Johnson tackles important subjects in these difficult styles, thus displaying an undeniable command of language and storytelling. You should see the margins in my paperback, all stemming from the same concept—that this prose is legit.
When Johnson speaks of her ancestors, it becomes evident that the life coursing through her veins is one created by the strength of Black women. In “Men Forever,” we learn about these women, including Vinie, her oldest-known relative and a slave woman who had attempted to escape by swimming the length of a lake in order to save her child who had been sold to a different owner. Through Johnson’s prose and the structure of this essay, we come full-circle to see just how much it takes every day to be a Black woman, and how much it took their mothers and mother’s mothers before her.
Johnson’s essays that involve her autistic son Bobby–like “Quintonio’s Lot” and “In Search of Heroes”–hit me hard. The former tells the story of nineteen-year-old Quintonio Legrier, who was also autistic, and who was shot down by police because his father called them for help in detaining him; the police also killed his fifty-five-year-old neighbor Bettie Jones who was at the scene to help. Johnson approaches the subject with her on-point prose and conveys a fear in the question of who she can call if her son has a similar episode. And meanwhile, in “In Search of Heroes,” she shares the story of Bobby returning home from his well-to-do school asking why none of his teachers are Black. When she hears this, we as readers can feel a version of what hits Kristie in her gut, joining her on the complicated exploration of how badly she wanted him to go to a good school in a good neighborhood but which resulted in surrounding him with leaders who don’t look like him.
High Cotton is something I’ll be remembering for quite some time. If it were up to me, I’d say she lands her goal of writing like Tupac, of, “welcoming complication, opening wounds, questioning power, bucking tradition, all without apology;” and it makes for one damn good read.
Publisher: Raised Voice Press
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An amazing debut by an amazing author. I must admit, however, that I am a little biased. The author is my little sister.
That disclosure made, Kristie writes from a place of honesty, and while some of the essays are gritty – and they are – she never recedes into self-pity. Again, an excellent debut.
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