What are the lines between truth and fiction, and what kinds of new knowledge may be productively mined through the imaginative process? Kim Coleman Foote asks this provocative question and invites readers to explore it with her in her raw, often difficult debut, “Coleman Hill.”
Foote traces generations of her family from the rural South in the 1920s to modern-day New Jersey. In doing so, the writer shares the debilitating effects of the transition from slavery to sharecropping, Jim Crow laws and social mores, subpar education and housing, factory work for Black men and domestic work for Black women, and internalized sexism and racism across generations. This is an important history to document and examine, but as a Black woman, it was often hard for me to read.
Matriarch Gra’ Coleman emerges as a powerful and vicious force, at times beating her children and grandchildren with pots and pans, cussing out anyone who dares to challenge her, and even throwing her daughter-in-law down the stairs —causing grave injuries, including a miscarriage. Indeed, an entire chapter of the book is titled, “How to Kill Gra’ Coleman and Live to Tell About It (c. 1950),” detailing how the grandchildren grow sick of their grandmother’s unrelenting abuse and decide to get rid of her by putting rat poison in her whiskey.
The plot is unraveled by one of the youngest, who’s favored by his grandmother, but it is a harrowing thing to read: how this plan becomes sensible to the children — and even the reader — as Gra’ Coleman’s irascible, seemingly inexhaustible temper destroys everything and everyone around her.
In a robust author’s note at the end of the book, Coleman writes, “I wrote ‘Coleman Hill’ to expose the continuum between slavery and the collective intergenerational trauma and abuse that so many black families deem normal or ‘cultural’ — the trauma and abuse that I know so many folks are tired of seeing portrayed, but which I plan to keep shouting about until the world stops demonizing the black race, and until we as a people can break from these dysfunctional cycles and finally heal”
While I commend Coleman for her commitment to asking these difficult questions through fiction, there were times when the violence — particularly directed at young Black women and children — was too much for me. Even in the midst of many kinds of neglect and abuse, there has to be a kernel of love somewhere in a family, between someone. I saw it occasionally in the relationships between the sisters, how they defended each other against the physical and emotional tyranny of the older Black women and husbands, but it was far too fleeting to be a dominant feature of the book. I also wished that there were more narrative arcs between and within scenes, creating emotional foreground and background for the characters.
Still, “Coleman Hill” is a meaningful deep dive into family and power, love and survival. It is a cautionary tale about the family legacies we’d rather not see, and are therefore doomed to pass on to those we love the most.
Shannon Gibney wrote “The Girl I Am, Was and Never Will Be: A Speculative Memoir of Transracial Adoption” and co-edited “When We Become Ours: A YA Adoptee Anthology,” due in October.
By: Kim Coleman Foote.
Publisher: SJP Lit, 352 pages, $28.