Book Review: The Feast of All Saints

I can't remember whether I saw the movie or read the book first, but The Feast of All Saints by Ann Rice is a book I hold very dear to my heart. The book covers the life of a young man who is a member of the gens de couleur libres (free people of color) in New Orleans during the 1800s. Despite being penned by a white woman who specializes in gothic horror and erotic ficion, the story moved me in a way no other historical fiction novel has.

I read this novel in high school, and given the subject matter, wouldn't recommend it for anyone younger. The story is wonderfully written with a few tastefully done references to sex. (I didn't know the author had a history of writing erotic fiction until well after I read the novel, so fear not, it isn't anythin too racy). The characters are wonderfully fleshed out; there will be times when you despise characters, but every character makes perfect sense and because of that, you will yearn to see where they end up.

This book should be required reading. The author did a wonderful job of researching the history of the gens de color libre and bringing that history to life. I learned so much about complexities of racism and American histrory from this novel, and I wish everyone understood these complexities.

Lessons I Learned

The following section is for those who have already read the book or seen the movie (or don't mind spoilers). Since the bulk of why I love this novel stems from what I learned from it, I feel it is impotant to share that, but I'm not sure I can do that with out spoilers. As such, anything you read from this point on may contain spoilers.

The Love of A Mother

By far, the worst character in the book is Cecile Ste. Marie, the mother of Marcel. The first time I read the book, I despised her character. I thought she was just a horrible person with no redeeming qualities. Truthfully, I still think she's a horrible character with no redeeming qualities; however, as over time, I actually came to undestand her character. Cecile was born and raised in a world where white people were the only ones with rights. By participating in plaçage,[1] Cecile sets her children up to have the best chance she can give them in the world they live. Her "relationship" with a wealthy white man grants her son a promised college education in France (even though this fell through) and her daughter the ability to pass for white. Although this is recognizably problematic in today's society, the truth is, she set both of her kids up for a privileged life. There's a lot about her character that I think was selfish and not particularly motivated by the desire to better the life of her children, but it did remind me that there were women during this time who made similar decisions for their children.

Black Masculinity

Marcel and his best friend Richard are young boys growing into manhood. Marcel is privileged and looking forward to a trip to Paris; Richard is in love and ready to marry. However, when tragedy stikes Marie (Marcel's sister and Richard's fiancee), neither of them have the right to do anything because the perpetrators are white men. Throughout history black men and the black family structure have targeted. Today you will often hear black men say things like "black women won't let men be men," and while we could probably do a whole post on that sentiment, the origin of emasculating black men started in slavery. White men could defend their wives and children, even their property. However, black men were powerless to stop white men from raping their wives, selling their children, beating their family members, etc. The trauma of this dynamic has been passed down and learned throughout our generations.

Colorism

Colorism is another topic that is too large to fit into a single paragraph, but The Feast of All Saints surprisingly taught me a lot about colorism. Colorism actually has many layers. Black people were taught to hate ourselves and developed an unhealthy desire to fit European standards. We bought into the lie that they were the standard of beauty. Within the black community there has been a history of favoring light skined women over dark skinned women. It has only been in recent years that dark skinned women such as Lupita Nyong'o have been showcased as the beautiful women they are. Yet, colorism is a lot deeper that. One of the things I learned from this novel was that proximity to whiteness wasn't just about color

In the novel, Marcel's family lives lavishly because their white father is footing the bill. Though relationships between slaves and masters can only be considered rape, sometimes these white slave owners took a "liking" to their bi-racial children. In real life, the only slaves Thomas Jefferson set free were his own children. In the novel, Marcel's father renegs on his promise to set his slave child free, but does spare both the child and the mother from having to work in the field. Marcel was granted a "gentleman's education" and in real life, many children of white men were able to learn how to read because they were raised in the house with the white man's white children (who wouldn't have understood at young ages that black children were not allowed to read).

Remember how I talked about the fact that Marcel and Richard couldn't do anything to avenge the crime committed against Marie? Marcel's father's brother-in-law (a white man) takes it upon himself to avenge her honor. You see, being lighter was simply the evidence of a white benefactor. The man who avenge's Marie's honor states that the white men who harmed her "should have seen the family resemblance." A white man encountering a light skinned black person didn't know if their white father was "attached" to them or not. A black person with black family had no recourse, but one with a white family could be avenged.

Seeing how proximity to whiteness wasn't just about color explained a mystery of my own life to me. When a new girl came to my school, she was welcomed with open arms into the rich white circle of my classmates and my teachers. I had never experienced that. We were both black, we were about the same color, and we both came from middle class families. The difference is that she was raised by her white mother. Her mannerisms and influences were very white, while mine were still black. When parent teacher conferences happened, teachers interacted with her white mother, whereas both of my parents are black. She had a different proximity to whiteness because there was a white benefactor directly involved in her life, not simply because she was light skinned. This realization added another layer of complexity to the topic of colorism for me.

Generational Wealth

Speaking of privilege, the book also subtly speaks on generational wealth. The fact that these white men could afford to keep two families is one thing, but the ability to pass something on to your children is a huge deal. Despite America not having an offical caste system, being born into wealth increases your likelihood of continuing in wealth. Marcel's father inherits a whole plantation simply because he is related to a man who's son is too young to take over the reigns. The gens de couleur libres have the money to give their children opportunities and education as opposed to sending them into the field. For example, Marcel ultimately becomes a photographer, but the only reason he is able to jump start this career is because he inherits the house a white man built for his mother and uses it for collateral.

The Fate of Women

The main character of the book may be a boy growing into a man, but the book gives a heartfelt commentary on sexism and the hardships women of that time felt. Every single woman in the novel experiences some form of trauma and heartache. Marcel's grandmother kidnaps his mother in desperation because she is barren and lonely. Marcel's mother resigns herself to sharing a man who doesn't really respect her just to live a comfortable life. Marcel's best female friend, Annabella, is forced into plaçage when Marcel can't (or won't) speak up for her. Dolly Rose runs a brothel of sorts to avoid the lies of plaçage but maintain an income. Marie is drugged and gang-raped in her attempt to escape the cycle of plaçage. Each woman in the novel experiences loss and heartache because they are not allowed to be independent. This was my first experience with the concept of intersectionality, though I wouldn't learn the word until much later.

I Highly Recommend

Despite the adult themes, the harsh realities of this book still effect the world we live in today. You could read scholarly articles on the topics I meantioned above, and you probably should, but this story will make the topics come alive. It humanizes the theories and philosphies.

References

  1. Plaçage". Wikipedia; visited September 11, 2020

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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