Harlem Is Gentrifying, but Black Women Still Have All the Power

By Morgan Jerkins

In 1998, the Melancon family of women resides on West 145th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, in a “brownstone on a quiet, picturesque block,” their house guarded by a fleur-de-lis-adorned gate “that made the entrance inaccessible.” Harlem is changing. White residents are multiplying, and rents are increasing. The Melancons afford their home and lifestyle not by the bodega they own down the street, but by selling sections of their skin, or caul, to those who can afford it, primarily white clientele. When worn close to the body like a charm, the legend goes, caul can miraculously make a barren womb fertile, heal cancer or remedy any number of other physical afflictions.

Laila Reserve — a local “Black elite” — has had too many miscarriages to count, leaving her emotionally and psychologically fragile. When Maman, the Melancons’ matriarch, refuses Laila the enchanted medicine, Laila blames them for her stillbirth, and spends her recovery in the psychiatric ward of Mount Sinai Hospital. Meanwhile, Laila’s niece, Amara, a 20-year-old Columbia student, tries everything to abort a secret, unwanted pregnancy. Her daughter, Hallow, is magically, conveniently born with the caul, and, unbeknown to Amara, raised by the Melancons. For the next two decades the child’s power drives the tension of Morgan Jerkins’s first novel, “Caul Baby.”

Over the course of the novel, Jerkins (who has also written two books of nonfiction) shifts her focus from Laila to Amara and from Maman’s daughter Josephine to Hallow, each perspective buttressed by that of another sister. This wide-angle approach diffuses narrative weight, challenging the strength of any one character and therefore of the novel. I found myself wanting someone on the page to take me aside and share what hadn’t yet been fully expressed. Meanwhile the men in these women’s lives — godfathers, fathers, partners — are merely cursory figures, falling away quickly without accountability or complexity. This disappointment aside, the true strength of this book has a profound impact: in conveying the life-giving and life-sustaining power of Black women’s bodies, and the blood relationships between them.

Within these two interconnected families and these pages, symbolism and metaphor hang heavy, pulling at the reader to see the ways in which these Black women are both condemned by their community and sought out as sources of comfort by those who exploit them. They sacrifice themselves in order to heal others. “We do what we do,” Maman says, “not because we enjoy the process. It is a means to an end. … We get on with it because we have to.”

Beyond the walls of their particular brownstones, the white families who bid tens of thousands on the Melancons’ cauls continue to gentrify Harlem until it is unrecognizable to longtime residents. The youngest generation of Melancons — Hallow and her sister, Helena — train as doulas and work at a birthing center that pays homage to a Yoruba water spirit who protects women in labor. The relatability of this pair, like the center itself, is a welcome relief. They defy the wisdom of Maman, who once taught Hallow that “everything here was maintained by us, by our bodies, so that we don’t have to answer to anyone or anything.” Despite this, as the world around it changes, the Melancons’ brownstone deteriorates, and threatens to consume the lives and spirits within it.

Running for Manhattan district attorney in 2018, Amara seeks to put the Melancons out of business. Her reality spins faster and faster out of control the closer she gets to discovering that within the walls of West 145th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard lives the daughter, now a young adult, whom she gave away moments after birth. On top of this, a wealthy, white private investor wants to take the Melancons’ caul to the lab to explore its broader potential. The axis of all this spinning remains fixed throughout: How high is the price of lasting freedom?

While much of the fantasy in “Caul Baby” can feel opportune and inconsistent, it is nonetheless purposeful. The novel surprises us with a tidy conclusion that I found myself disbelieving even as I craved it. The women Jerkins creates do not need men or any other outsiders to rescue them; they rescue themselves.

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