Living with the Klan and other racists

When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown

r/suggestmeabook: I want to feel what it’s like to live in small town Georgia in 1936 as an 18-year-old Black girl.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 368

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

ARC provided by NetGalley

Depression Era American South

From the publisher: The summer of 1936 in Parsons, Georgia, is unseasonably hot, and Opal Pruitt can sense a nameless storm coming. She hopes this foreboding feeling won’t overshadow her upcoming eighteenth birthday or the annual Founder’s Day celebration in just a few weeks. But when the Ku Klux Klan descends on Opal’s neighborhood of Colored Town, the tight-knit community is shaken in every way.

One of the wonderful things about great fiction is that it allows you to see the world through someone else’s eyes in a way that few other experiences can. Angela Jackson-Brown’s When Stars Rain Down is just such a book, and should be required reading for every American. But it’s not just a great book about race and the challenges faced by Black Americans both then and now, it’s a great coming-of-age story for anyone.

Every girl I knew, Colored or white, was waiting for the day she could become a wife or a mother. That was all we knew. That was all we had ever seen.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

However, I’m going to talk mostly about the first part, about how When Stars Rain Down gave me new ideas, contexts, and imaginative reframings about being Black in the South. The lyrical ode to Colored Town was a perspective changer, as the protagonist, Opal Pruitt, doesn’t see it as exclusion but as a retreat from the demands of Jim Crow, even though the woman she works for, and her household, are “good” white people.

On any given night you might hear soft quarrels, the sounds of lovemaking, or the giggles and laughter that were just natural sounds to hear among those of us who lived in Colored Town. Not one of us was rich, but we had all that we ever needed, and that was each other.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

This is one of the questions Opal has to answer for herself: are there actually any whites who will choose right over white when the issue involves a Black person? The illustration of the well-meaning white girl trying to help but not listening is a lesson for anyone who hasn’t lived the life of the protagonists but thinks she knows best how to help.

I looked at her, really looked at her, and I could tell she was sorry. I had never experienced that before. Most white folks, especially rich white folks, took us for granted and never really thought about our feelings.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

I’m not sure there’s a single movie that captured for me the visceral sense of waiting for the Klan to strike like this lovely book. The oppressive environment, the strain of the impending raid, the deep internal struggles of how best to deal with the Klan, the fear of both what the Klan might do and how to limit repercussions of how the Black community responds to the Klan: all of these are given visceral reality.

I guess if you live in a world where angry white men can come out of the blue and burn down your property without any fear of payback, there is no normal. There’s just getting by from day to day.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

The cameo appearance by Satchel Paige was a fun addition, giving a glimpse of how important these early barrier-busting athletes were to their communities. Jackson-Brown’s use of concrete details makes him (and, indeed, all of the characters) breathe on the page.

He liked sitting on the porch playing the spirituals, but he made it very clear that he thought God was something white folks made up to keep Colored folks in line.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

Although the book echoes issues and attitudes still with us to this day, it is firmly situated in the period. When Stars Rain Down presents the world of Black Southerners living in the Jim Crow era unflinchingly, showing both the joy and pain of that life, offering no easy answers, and illustrating the reach of history.