My husband was the first to notice that Vivian, the main character in my most recent novel, On The Rooftop, had a bit in common with my mother. In the book’s opening, Vivian has fled the Jim Crow South for San Francisco with hopes for a relative reprieve from racism. When she arrives, she realizes with disappointment that “[white people] in the West had watched the same minstrel shows as the ones in the South.” She marries and has two children, but soon after she learns that she’s pregnant with her third child, her husband dies, and she’s left to raise her daughters alone. It’s 1953 in the Fillmore District, dubbed Harlem of the West because of its vibrant jazz scene. As her daughters grow and Vivian recognizes their talent, she funnels all of her disappointment, her misplaced hope, and her yearning for freedom, into their journey to become singing sensations.
As I was writing the early drafts, I had no idea that my book’s main character mirrored one of the main characters in my own life. The thing is, I didn’t create Vivian the way I sometimes craft my characters, with ample forethought and active effort. She just came to me. I knew intuitively that she was more of a force than a woman, that she was a visionary, a relentless coach, and a powerful advocate. I knew that she would love her daughters fiercely, and for that reason, she would be exacting. I knew that she had a vision for them that exceeded their imagination. I knew that her stringency stemmed from the circumstances—in 1953, there were only so many ways to protect Black daughters, and Vivian would have been raising hers on her own. I knew too that it wasn’t about stardom for her, nor the fancy cars, nor the flashing lights either, it was about safety.
My own mother was also a force. Initially, her strictness applied almost exclusively to sex. I was the 5-year-old in the theater watching The Terminator but even at 12 or 13, any movie involving more than a kiss on the cheek was absolutely out of the question. I think she thought if she could prevent me from knowing about the concept, then I could never engage in it. Braided into that reasoning was that if I was busy being tutored, or, later, with SAT prep on Saturdays; if I was pursuing her dream that I get into an Ivy League school, then I wouldn’t have time for boys. It’s funny to think back on it, even as I realize as an adult that she was afraid. Teenage pregnancy was on the rise in New Orleans in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and she didn’t want me to become a statistic. She had had me at 23, and though she wasn’t a teenager, her young age had made things harder for her. She wanted me to have a soft life. If I was educated and well on my way before having a child, she could trust that I would be safe. Like Vivian, it wasn’t about the grades or the degrees or the big jobs, it was about how she could use the means that she had to shelter me. If I had thought about it earlier, I surely would have recognized that the same drive—and the same source of it—that was in Vivian, was also in my mother. In retrospect, I wonder if that’s why I saw Vivian so clearly.
On the Rooftop by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton is out now in paperback published by Magpie, Oneworld.