To say that last week has been quite a week seems to downplay that 2020 has been quite a year. To encounter this past week while reading Alice Walker’s inaugural novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland, proved a context suited for a movie’s framing. During his first two lives, Walker’s Grange Copeland is absent when present and present when absent. He abandons his wife, and his absence haunts his son after his mother’s death. Grange Copeland’s third life acquires purpose in raising his granddaughter Ruth after his son kills her mother and faces extensive jail time as a result. Ruth’s love melts a coldness afforded to Grange as a black man in America, and she is a muse for the martyrdom he earns by the end of the novel. Grange dies after taking the justice robbed of him, epitomizing black power as a flame extinguished by white fear.
Walker, in her afterward, calls Ruth and Grange the soul-survivors in the book, a term that proves unquestionably resonant given the present times. Particularly, as we consider the lives lived and left behind, the soul speaks when the body no longer can. Grange Copeland, a man who dies refusing to live on his knees, delineates souls as able to survive what the body cannot.
The black collective witnessed something similar this week when the soul of Kwame Ture made its way into the late Senator John Lewis’s funeral. Though Kwame Ture’s body may have joined the earth, his soul survives as a flame that still has the power to scorch white supremacy. His soul still lingers in the labyrinth of white supremacy as an escape route, as a constellation that bears the foreboding promise of freedom to an oppressed race.
To contemplate the spirit as the part of our souls that survive engenders one to ponder the parts of ourselves wish to leave behind. As Africans in America, do we wish to be popular or do we wish to be powerful? Although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts, the two rarely overlap for the African in America. The popular emanate an oppressive power, the powerful challenge the oppressive status quo. Kwame Ture, though popular with those exasperated with waiting in a white supremacist world, was not popular with those afraid to uprise or those afraid of the uprisings. Many attain popularity because rather than throw rocks at the king, they juggle these rocks, or simply live a life where their trajectory is solely to hone a place in a white supremacist space. Moreover, popularity, exuded in national and even global reverie, illuminates the necessary social reproduction integral to keep things as they are.
Thus, soul survivors encompass what keeps things, people, and places from staying the same. We may learn their names when they can no longer say them, we may read their words long after they write them, but what the soul survivor leaves behind frees those with the courage to listen, live, and even learn what is not popular.
Walker’s Grange Copeland left behind a legacy in his granddaughter who lives knowing she is worth dying for. Kwame Ture left behind a bad taste in America’s mouth for making white supremacy harder to swallow. Together they evidence that in a human experience where our bodies are on borrowed time, only the strong and unpopular soul survives.
What will you leave behind? Will you choose popularity or power?