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COURTESY OF RIVERHEAD BOOKS

November 12, 2017

Multitudes of Identities in Multitudes of Stories: Emotional Empathy in Five-Carat Soul

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In James McBride’s latest short story collection Five-Carat Soul, McBride tackles an era of history dominated by contentious social and racial dynamics through the a lens that humanizes the oppressed. Through each story, McBride reveals social truths about groups ranging from PhD students at Columbia University to war veterans to lower class African Americans in the wake of desegregation. Each story takes the reader through emotional, often heart-breaking encounters that demonstrate different pains of the human condition: love, trauma, injustice and acceptance, among others.

Through his clear but poignant prose, McBride emulates the sort of rational and telling voices of historic authors whose literature exposed cultural norms, even if such norms were unflattering. His prose is didactic guised as charming, thus going beyond simply conveying the multiple personalities and experiences, but more broadly conveying an era of post-traumatic stress, whether it be racial, economic, political, or a hybrid of the three.

To delve into these aspects of American culture, McBride treats emotion from a detached, almost objective narratorial perspective that turns the characters into allegorical souls. Perhaps the most poignant story of the collection is “The Christmas Dance.” The story tells of a Columbia PhD student researching an unrecognized group of soldiers. To write his thesis, he interviews two men from Harlem about their wartime experiences. The men, reluctant to relive these painful memories, release their story in small pieces in a way that reveals the irrevocable emotional damage inflicted on these men. Each section of the story dwells on the mysterious “Christmas dance” that seems to hold even more significance than their own accounts of the events of their battle. At the end of the story, it is evident that the most influential aspect of their experience is not the violence or politics of the war, but the way the loss of life has inflicted deep emotional wounds. It is the loss of fellow human life that equalizes these men, who had experienced racial prejudice among their peers. McBride uses this equalizing power of emotion, or rather pain, to demonstrate unity among all men, even where there is racial and cultural disunity.

Despite this reduction of humans to emotion, however, McBride is sure to demonstrate the power of racial identity and how it reverberates through American history. Whether in his use of dialect and specific stories of racial injustice or the cohesiveness of the racial identities in Harlem, McBride is sure to acknowledge the significance of identity and the way it simultaneously can be estranging and uniting in cultural and social spheres. Throughout the stories, emotion is closely connected to human connection and the way social groups unite over common threads of experience. It is through this fusion of human emotion, connection and fallibility that arouses such poignant nostalgia in Five-Carat Soul that ultimately calls for a deeper sense of cultural empathy.

 

Victoria Horrocks is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at vrh23@cornell.edu