reflection: The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson
[i interviewed Nancy Johnson about her book. you can check out our interview on my instagram page.]
“Somehow, she convinced herself that her life began when she drove away from that little shotgun house in Indiana without her baby. She had only been seventeen. A lie could be kind to you if you want it to be, if you let it. With every year that passed, it became easier to put more distance between her old life and her new one. If titles of doctor and lawyer had signaled success back in the day, then engineer had to be the 2.0 symbol that you’d made it. And she had. With Yale University conferring her degree and lending its good name to her, there was no question.
Thank you @williammorrowbooks for sending me an advance review copy of this book.
It’s August 1997. Ruth Tuttle, a teenager, gives birth to a child she conceived with her ex-boyfriend, high school football player Ronald Atkins. This wasn’t supposed to happen. A good student bound for Yale University, she wasn’t supposed to be one of the “fast as popcorn” girls, as Mama called Ruth’s best friend Natasha.
But here Ruth is, surrounded by her brother Eli and Mama, giving birth basically alone in her Mama’s humble Ganton, Indiana home – and not in a hospital - so as to keep her pregnancy a secret.
To spare Ruth from being a teenage mom and thus destroying her Ivy League path to success, Mama and Eli concoct a plan to give Ruth’s child away. Ruth resists, wanting to keep the baby she has just birthed (“It’s my baby. My choice. Actually, it’s our baby. Mine and Ronald’s.”).
But for her own good, Mama and Eli fight back. Eli questions: “You think he’s sticking around to raise a kid?” Mama follows: “How are you going to go to Yale as the Black girl on scholarship toting a baby? I don’t think so.”
What happened to her child is unknown to Ruth, years after, now a successful Yale graduate and engineer married to Xavier, a successful Black executive at PepsiCo. As a successful Black couple who have just witnessed the election of Barack Obama, things are supposed to be better.
Xavier’s calls for him and Ruth to have a child are rejuvenated – but Ruth can’t move forward until she finds out what happened to her son.
Nancy Johnson’s The Kindest Lie is an exploration, as many have said, of race, class, and family. But it is so uniquely an Obama-era book and I think this fact is important so as to contextualize, underline, and bold what it means to be successful and Black in the United States.
The Kindest Lie begins with the election of Barack Obama, and the hopeful feeling is palpable from Ruth’s wealthy and Black Chicago friends. After the high of the election party they host, Xavier turns to Ruth and asks soberly, “You think our kid could be president someday?” having seen what can be possible. During an-all white outfit Christmas celebration, Ruth’s Black bougie friends celebrate Barack Obama “for marrying well” to Michelle Obama, down to her darker brown skin tone and heritage. Tess happily notes: “You don’t have to look twice to know she’s a sister!” Xavier agrees: “I know that’s right. She’s a descendant of slaves. That matters.”
To really understand this conversation, you have to be clued into the conversations that happen within the Black community about colorism and dating as it pertains to Black women especially, heritage (Black – but are you Black-American or foreign?), and class (how do we build wealth within the Black community and what does it mean to be the first?).
But despite talk of this hope, Ruth still can’t get on board with her husband Xavier’s desire to have children. It’s been four years of marriage, and now Xavier is starting to suspect something is wrong. The argument that occurs between them turns into Ruth confessing a secret that she never told Xavier – that she had a child at seventeen which her Mama gave away in order to protect Ruth’s path to success as a Black woman.
What could have made Ruth keep such a secret from her husband but also from her friends? I think it is as simple as shame and wanting to “keep up with the Joneses.” Ruth says to Xavier: “But inside, I’m that poor pregnant Black girl from Ganton, Indiana...I didn’t want you to think less of me, either.”
When any person has a child as a young teenager, the result can often be devastating: teenage parents have a hard time graduating, keeping their friends, and getting support. But especially Black girls are penalized as loose, deviant, a statistic, and are even seen as less intelligent. It makes sense to me why Ruth would have given her child away and kept her secret in order to have a better life.
If you judge Ruth for giving her child away, I think you would first have to think about what her life would have been like had she kept that child.
Ruth heads back to Ganton, Indiana after the argument to find her son. Here, the book begins to split perspective between Ruth and Midnight, a young, low-income white boy who is the grandson of Lena, a family friend to Ruth's family.
Midnight, whose name is actually Patrick Boyd, is nicknamed so in part because he is friends with the Black and brown boys in town, a weird thing to do in a segregated town. Midnight isn’t totally aware of what it means when white boys attack him and call him a “traitor.” Or what his Daddy means when he tells Midnight he’s fighting on the wrong side of the war.
In Ganton, Indiana, not everyone is happy about the election results. a town impoverished by the shutting down of automobile factories, people are less idealistic about Obama. Race has a big part to do with it. The town is split between Black and white, Obama/Biden yard signs and McCain/Palin yard signs.
Midnight’s dad, having been laid off, is not all too kind to Barack Obama, but just generally Black people (“Daddy said Obama’s gonna take away everybody’s guns.” “Is Obama gonna bail me out?”). It’s not too long before Midnight takes on some of the behaviors of his father: Midnight calls a Latino boy the s-word slur, just like he’s heard his Daddy say it. And he tells one of his Black friends, “I think Black people have it better than white people.”
Midnight is not a perfect character, but the book is sympathetic to Midnight’s upbringing. Extremely poor and white, having lost his mother, we can see why Midnight might say the things he does. The relationship that develops between Midnight and Ruth gives them both a more realistic, fuller picture of the various realities for many in the United States.
In Ganton, Ruth is forced to reckon with the lower class environment that she escaped, but that her best friend Natasha, her brother Eli (now without a job) and her Mama live in. Ruth is even forced to think about her own mother, who was addicted to crack and did not raise Ruth. And when Ruth does find her son and his new family, she is forced to reckon with what makes a mother – shared genes or years of rearing?
Meeting Ruth and thinking of her already as a replacement mother figure, Midnight is forced to address the pain that not having a mother left him with but also to question his Daddy’s thoughts on race and the election.
As a reader, though I appreciated Midnight’s perspective, I found it less enjoyable than Ruth’s perspective. But this is really due to my own bias. It’s much easier for me to read the thoughts of a Black woman than a white boy.
I’m going to make an odd comparison but I think it is apt – by how many of you have described Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour, this book explores the same theme. For so many Black people, becoming successful means leaving things and people behind. But why? The answer to this is political, historical, social, economic, and complicated. and these books forces us to reckon with this trade-off.