After reading the first sentence of None But the Righteous by Chantal James, I felt a particular enthusiasm coursing through me that this book was going to take me to special places as a reader. Within the first chapter, I knew I would be writing a thorough analysis of it. (And somehow, I have managed to do this without spoilers.)
Immediately before beginning None But the Righteous, I had read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (my review here). In his essay, Baldwin mentions Ham, a Bible character I had never before heard of—-though, to be fair, my knowledge of Bible stories is moderate to limited. However, the name was fresh in my mind, and so when I glanced at the inner flap of None But the Righteous‘s dust jacket and saw that the protagonist’s name was Ham, I felt there must be some allegorical intent.
Thus, I did some light researching about Ham, son of Noah, and the infamous “curse of Ham.” While reading this book over the next few days, I was mindful of possible allusions while at the same time wondering how deeply the author meant for her work to be held up against this biblical figure. Perhaps Chantal James had merely drawn inspiration from their names, or perhaps she had masterfully woven Ham’s parable into the fabric of the narrative. Doubtless, James employs much biblical language, speaking of “righteousness,” “exoduses,” and “parting seas.” This novel has deeply intrigued me, and whether or not James intended such a close reading, I have nonetheless enjoyed analyzing her work.
The following two paragraphs are taken from None But the Righteous‘s summary on Bookshop:
“In seventeenth-century Peru, St. Martin de Porres was torn from his body after death. His bones were pillaged as relics, and his spirit was said to inhabit those bones. Four centuries later, amid the havoc of Hurricane Katrina, nineteen-year-old Ham escapes New Orleans with his only valued possession: a pendant handed down from his foster mother, Miss Pearl. There’s something about the pendant that has always gripped him, and the curiosity of it has grown into a kind of comfort.
When Ham finally embarks on a fraught journey back home, he seeks the answer to a question he cannot face: Is Miss Pearl still alive? Ham travels from Atlanta to rural Alabama, and from one young woman to another, as he evades the devastation that awaits him in New Orleans. Catching sight of a freedom he’s never known, he must reclaim his body and mind from the spirit who watches over him, guides him, and seizes possession of him.”
Analysis and Major Allusions
None But the Righteous is narrated by a spirit whose fragmented remains occupy a locket worn by Ham. Named only once in the text, we discover the spirit is Saint Martin de Porres—-who was an actual patron saint of “mixed-race people, barbers, innkeepers, public health workers, and all those seeking racial harmony” (Wikipedia). Having lived during the 1500 and 1600’s, Martin was a descendent of a Spanish nobleman and an African and Native mother. In his life, Martin faced prejudice within his religious organizations, yet he is known for his dedication to his beliefs and his steadfast compassion for those in need. Drawing upon these known true events of his life, Chantal James weaves Martin’s fictionalized memories into the story as he takes on the role of an omniscient narrator, not alive but certainly not dead.
Although told through Martin, the story fixates on Ham, a young Black man who fled his hometown during Hurricane Katrina. Although short for Hamilton, Ham’s name likely draws from his biblical predecessor. Briefly, now I will discuss this weighted name.
In the Bible, Ham is the son of Noah. Noah is a “righteous” man whom God designated to build an ark so that when he flooded the earth for forty days and forty nights to destroy the unrighteous, Noah and his chosen ones (his family and various animals) would survive. This flood is considered to have been a rebirth for Earth’s creations, a cleansing apocalypse. However, Ham is most infamous for “the curse of Ham,” a story which is shrouded in ambiguity as experts continue to debate how this incident should best be interpreted. As legend tells, Noah was drunk and passed out in his tent, and during his unconsciousness Ham saw “the nakedness of Noah” and looked upon Noah, then shared this information with his brothers, who then covered Noah with a blanket without gazing upon him. After waking, Noah knew what Ham had done and placed a curse upon Ham, which was actually more of a curse upon Ham’s fourth son, Canaan, who was cursed to servitude. Many experts debate as to the actual nature of Ham’s transgression—-whether he committed sexual acts upon Noah, Ham’s mother, or if seeing his father naked was truly such a crime, but the original wording now distorts most contemporary understanding of the situation.
In the past, “the curse of Ham” has been co-opted to justify racism and enslavement of Black people, which was popular among pro-slavery followers of Abrahamic religions during the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. These individuals wrongly believed that Black people were descendants of Ham and thus pre-destined to enslavement (New World Encyclopedia). Although there is no factual indication that Ham was Black or of a darker complexion than his peers, misinterpreters of the Bible often conflated Ham’s name to originate from Hebrew words which meant “burnt” or “black” or “hot,” which is simply not the case (Wikipedia). Presently, his name is from unknown etymology.
Veering now back to None But the Righteous, the protagonist Ham receives the locket containing Saint Martin’s spirit from his foster mother, Miss Pearl, who bestowed the memento to Ham as a spell to keep him returning home. Although Miss Pearl is a pious Christian woman, occasionally she draws upon her mother and grandmother’s spiritual knowledge, such as in the instance of this gris-gris she gives Ham; Ham had run away from her house a week after moving in with her and her son Walt, and Miss Pearl wants him to feel a compulsion to always return home. This gris-gris (a Voodoo amulet) may be a parallel to the biblical curse of Ham, as in both tales some spiritual force restricts freedom, even though in the Bible, the curse falls upon Ham’s son. James writes of Miss Pearl’s act of giving Ham the amulet, “…the goal was to bind… She would raise Ham to consider himself the beneficiary of her generosity, whether he liked it or not” (p. 22).
The novel follows Ham as he moves around the south after his displacement from New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina, whose flooding of his hometown seemingly parallels the flooding from the Bible. James never names the hurricane and instead alludes to its destruction, using language to describe their escape from its path as a “frenzied exodus” (p. 91). Of Ham’s childhood house with Miss Pearl in New Orleans, James writes:
To the blue shotgun house a baptism of sorts: may you be washed clean, washed through and through, may the many rushing waters crown you and fill you, may you be purified in spirit, may you live.p. 65
In addition to Ham and Saint Martin, the other characters’ names appear quite intentional, as well. Miss Pearl’s name is transparent, in that a pearl is located within water. Mayfly’s namesake is an “aquatic insect,” which is appropriate for her untethered lifestyle. Margaret is a name which actually comes from a Greek word meaning “pearl,” pulling from Miss Pearl’s influence. Deborah is also a biblical figure, known as a prophet and a judge who helped Israel reclaim the land of Canaan.
Throughout the novel, Ham feels a compulsion to return home which he attempts to ignore as he clashes with the spirit of Saint Martin over control of his body.
It was not only to obey a human need to survey the damage of their lives, to muck around in the wreckage, hoping to reassemble its brightly colored and metallic ends as if they were magpies. It was to satisfy another tug, too, even more basic: the call homeward, the need to call somewhere home. Why, when home drags you in its dust, when it uproots and disclaims you, and when home spews you out like Jonah ejected from the whale’s belly, will you still crawl back? The devil you know, it has long been said, among these exiles and those before them, is better than the devil you don’t.p. 75
Later, Ham feels that “he wants to gather all the righteous ones in the world to him and nestle in their hands” (p. 210).
There are many renditions of the song “None but the righteous shall see God,” including those sung by Al Green and Ricky Dillard. In the novel, Deborah’s brother Ellis sings “None but the righteous shall be baptized,” (p. 174) which is part of a hymn entitled “Take Me to the Water” that singers such as Nina Simone and Deborah Joy Winans have covered. A online PDF writes of the song, “It is, on one level, about baptism: a symbolic contact with water that for Christians symbolizes new life, forgiveness, and the cleansing of sins. Like many African American songs, the words have a double meaning: ‘I’m going back home’ can refer to the African homeland or any place of freedom from slavery, and also to heaven––a place of comfort, freedom, and spiritual community” (Oxford University Press). Thus, the novel’s title phrase is clearly perfectly suited for this story.
The more I analyze this novel, the deeper I admire it.
Review of the Novel
Upon cracking open this book, the very first line of None But the Righteous immediately excited me:
When I get so lonesome for the life of the body that the thinnest slice of it will do, I start answering to names that might not otherwise turn my head.p. 3
I was thus captivated. Chantal James spins such rhythmic and visionary sentences that tend to meander and curl like smoke trailing off the page, wrapping itself around the reader’s thoughts and enchanting a lengthy gaze. In addition to the sculpted language, James also offers poignant moments of honesty, such as when she writes of the free-spirited Mayfly:
Here was one reason Mayfly tended to keep in touch so poorly with folks who were no longer part of her daily routine: there was always the dilemma of how to sum herself up, how to explain everywhere she’d been—-and how to explain everyone she’d been—-since the last point of contact.p. 11
While reading, I flagged several lines and sections, such as the following:
The body is the first homeland.p. 47
His thoughts join the howling of the dog outside, who has tilted his head to let moonlight pour down his parched throat and to beg of heaven.p. 103
Another section I particularly enjoyed was from Ham’s childhood. In admiration of the older and more esteemed Mayfly, young Ham attempts to assume the essence of maturity. Mayfly offers Ham coffee, and although he has never drank the beverage before, he accepts:
…Perched on a wobbly chair with his feet too high to touch the ground. It was all he could do to grip the hot cup in his hands, claim it, and allow it to confer some of its privilige on him. No sugar to dilute its strength, no cream to cloud its depths; in it he saw the very color and liquid quality of his own eyes.
“I just love me some good coffee,” he said with authority.p. 42
The image of young Ham most seriously saying, “I just love me some good coffee” in what I imagine to be a higher vocal register because of his youth, is helplessly charming to me. These were moments I loved throughout the novel.
Perhaps the main criticism I have for this book is that the pacing three-fourths of the way through the book seems to lull a bit. It became unclear to me where the story was headed and how Ham was going to resolve his conflict, but it did come together in the end, rather quickly. However, this issue is easily overshadowed by my larger enjoyment of the novel.
Based off my analysis, it is also clear I admired this book for its twist on biblical fables and historical figures. When a book can both entertain me and stimulate my English degree, I am doubly delighted. The themes throughout this book are intricately woven into the language, imagery, and plot, culminating in a story decadently told.
In an interview with Nikky Finney hosted by Sankofa Books, Chantal James cites writers such as Toni Morrison, Gabriel Gacria Marquez, and Toni Cade Bambara as influences and inspirations. James speaks of this novel as a nonlinear adventure featuring an imperfect yet likable hero exiled from New Orleans yet attempting to make his way back home, and she comments how long it took her to get this novel published. Watching the exchange, I found myself effortlessly drawn to James, who presents herself in such an organic and unapologetic manner.
James also added that the novel’s chapter titles are intended to anchor and reorient the reader among the shifting times and perspectives. Indeed, not only do the chapters give cue to the contents, but they read almost like a poem themselves. If we remove the words “In which,” which precedes each chapter title phrase, somewhat of a poem emerges: “the lotus is eaten / dread appears / all three waters are applied.” James’ writing has indeed entranced me.
None But the Righteous is a breathtaking, multilayered, and richly thematic book about a return home and a return to one’s self. An extraordinary read.
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