Virgin Soul is Judy Juanita’s first novel; it is, at heart, a conventional coming of age story despite taking place in 1960’s San Francisco and Oakland, during the rise of the Black Panthers. What gives the book its center is that it does feel, to me, more like Judy Blume than Ralph Ellison. This is not meant as a negative. What I mean is that, this novel is not about the larger events, but about a woman coming into her own in this turbulent time. Yes, the heroine becomes involved with the Black Panthers, but this novel is more about her thoughts and struggle to move forward. In this way, Ms. Juanita is able to integrate into the novel a discussion about the role of revolution and the form of social change.
The story opens with Geniece Hightower entering a 2-year college. She recognizes that it is the best path for her to progress to a 4 year school, in terms of what was available to her and what she can afford. The first part of the book deals with fairly mundane… bourgeois… concerns. The novel is elegant in how it portrays the varying pressures on Geniece; despite the general sense that Geniece is doing the right thing, there’s a fair amount of negativity in the comments her family makes to her. But what carries Geniece through is that she can distinguish between talk and action. She sees enough acquaintances who have tried and failed to move up, and she sees relatives who are actually successful. She later realizes that talk is just that; she understands that’s the type of person her Aunt or grandmother may be. If they are jaded it may be because their experience has taught them to put little faith in the process.
Another aspect of the book that I liked is that it is filled with the details of living. We see Geniece form friendships and think through day to day problems. There’s enough money issues, finding work, making sure she had enough to eat, and juggling school work so that she can attain her prize. It would have been easy to recount the list of injustices that blacks have faced, but Ms. Juanita chose to approach it from the bottom up. I happen to think that institutional difficulties are easy to dismiss because they are victims of their own generality. It is almost like knowing a story third or fourth hand, where someone knows someone who might have passed by a person who had the problem. Instead, the sum of the novel is a collection of the difficulties that a poor, black person, let alone a woman, would have faced.
The presentation here is masterful; we simply see a woman we grow to like, encounter trouble and soldiering on. Another fine touch is to show that, her most immediate problems stem from people around her, who happen to be her peers and from members of the Panthers. I think to highlight the massive scale of injustice, perpetrated not even by whites, but by institutions set up by whites, would have detracted from the story of Geniece’s growth and also the power of the novel.
Geniece is a subtle character; she is strong in the least obvious way: she knows herself. In her interactions with men, she comes as an equal. Her relationship begins as an infatuation, turns into one of mentorship, then into love. She eventually outgrows Allwood. It is with Allwood that Geniece comes to witness the rise of the Black Panthers.
Through Allwood, we begin to see the complex interaction of bottom up and top down revolutionaries. The characters have it wrong. While the Black Panthers and other such movements are populist, the goal might have been to impose change by cutting off the head of the existing power. Hence revolutionary change. The bottom up way is the change by evolution. Geniece is only one example. Allwood is another. An interesting point in the book is that Allwood eventually accepts a scholarship to Caltech, leaving the militant brotherhoods behind. It is a focal point for one of these arguments: the revolutionaries want people with guns and the threat of violent upheaval. The threat of societal upheaval is the only way to move the powers that be. Allwood simply states that you can’t replace engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen unless you actually have engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen. The brilliant move here is that Ms. Juanita simply has each party go their separate ways.
For a short time, Geniece sides with the revolutionaries. As many have pointed out, it is amazing how revolutionaries talk of change while always ignoring half of their constituents: the women. Despite all the meetings that Geniece attends, women generally remain in the kitchen and service the men, both as maids and as lovers. Geniece is actually ignored, and in one instance with Allwood, he was all but told to control his woman.
Here is where some of the weakness in the story comes through. There’s generally a bit of reworking history so the author can inject herself into significant events via the proxy of Geniece. So we see her sitting in on Black Panther meetings, meeting Huey Newton, hosting Stokely Carmichael, and having Elridge Cleaver complementing her work and installing her as the editor in chief of the Black Panther’s newspaper. **
** A huge mea culpa. In my research, I found that Ms. Juanita was a member of the Black Panther party, but I missed that she became the editor-in-chief of the Black Panther Intercommunal Newspaper (see comment by arthouseflower. See this interview and this essay by Judy Juanita that came out after I filed the story and after I left for vacation.) Although I had thought that this “authorial indulgence” was a negative (and I had to look hard to find the one thing that bothered me about the book), it clearly… isn’t. Ms. Juanita had an insider’s perspective on the BPP, and so this segment of the novel actually carries the power of the autobiography. Let’s be clear, though, I am not confusing this element with an actual work of documented, non-fiction. I am simply recognizing that there is great power in “writing what you know”, and, in this case, what one did.
There are some interesting things to come out of this part of the book. We see the marginalization of women in this revolution. Again, it is because of the idea that war is looming. No thought really is given to a continuation of society, or even what to do once the war is won. The pie in the sky idea is that somehow, everything will continue as before but with more blacks involved.
So we see Geniece come to a nuanced understanding. We see her rage building, but it is telling that Ms. Juanita has her continuing to compile credits. She will finish, but she is torn; it seems like she will conform to the system if she gets her degree. She even exploits the 2% rule, which was in place to allow some flexibility in the allocation of matriculation spots. Why not use this rule to admit black and underprivileged students? So at the same time she is fomenting change quickly, she is also enabling a true bottom up movement. The most obvious point is that, we need a feeder system to create a professional class of blacks. Even if change happens overnight, who will be a proficient doctor when that spot opens up?
To my mind, I think the most significant point is that she spends a lot more time ruminating on what makes for successful social change. Yes, Ms. Juanita’s makes sharp observations about the marginalization of women in “revolutions”. But the strongest indictment of revolution is that the talk and action are easy. Stealing from whites, white gratifying, is in the end stealing. If the point of the revolution is to force whites to understand that blacks are equal and deserving of dignity, destroying their property, stealing from them, and threatening them with violence seems to be a counter message. This seems obvious: pleas for humanity and dignity from a hooligan is ironic to say the least.
One final note about Geniece; when she started college, of course she was more concerned with finding friends than with movements. Generally, she falls in with black student societies, all with a liberal bent. Until we arrive at her Junior year and her awakening of social injustice, I did not see rage and anger. At one point, Ms. Juanita has Geniece reflecting on how her anger had caused her to seek out these outlets, and drove her to set a goal of getting a bachelor’s degree. I’m not sure; I really think the first part of the book revealed much of Geniece’s upbringing and development. I would not count anger as the main tone. It is refreshing in that she had a fully formed goal of getting a degree, that her writing heroes were mostly white, and that she really had what we would might describe as a bourgeois/middle class intellectual upbringing. It is this self that meets the revolutionary persona, and the second half of book explores how Geniece reconciles the two. In this sense, it is a classic coming of age story.
There is much to recommend about the novel. However, I think the nuanced portrayal of a woman coming to terms with the world is what sets this novel apart.