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”Leaving Atlanta” by Tayari Jones

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1477
  • Category: Novel

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What is seen on the surface is not the real ocean. Only when one dives deep into the waters, one experiences the turbulence and strength of the ocean currents. Atlanta was often quoted as the flagship city as for black and white race relations. The metropolis was mentioned as the city of harmony. Platitudes apart, if one makes an impartial study of the race relations and the democratic institutional development, from the end f the Civil War to the mayor ship of Andrew Young in the1980s, one comes across several grave inequalities. One wonders whether the legacy of segregation is intact. The thinkers and writers of the younger generation like Tayari Jones therefore, are interested to examine how significant is the theme of race relations in Atlanta. When one focuses through the lens of race, every institutional set up needs a close scrutiny. The pivotal sectors are employment, housing pattern, park use, police and fire services, highway placement and development, and hospital care etc. Staggering facts have surfaced in the race relations and they are profoundly shaped in Atlanta, observes Tayari Jones.

Story telling by Tayari Jones whose backgrounder are the tension-ridden race relations:

She weaves the story through the lives of three fifth graders. The plot of the story relates to some real life tragic race-related incidents in Atlanta. In the year 1979, about two dozen black children were abducted and murdered in the most heinous way, their corpses thrown away in the countryside. The novel intensely conveys the fear and paranoia that gripped the Black community of America (particularly Atlanta). Whatever are the poignant contents of the story, but the art work of race relations is flowing through the ‘pen-strokes’ of Jones. It is but natural for a black writer, whose real-life story was full of trials and tribulations.  Her descriptions about the race tensions and facts become highly realistic, because she had the first hand experience of those sufferings, against the privileged whites.

Viewed from the angle of race relations, the child murders, which forms the core theme of her novel, one expects the writings to be that of a fire-brand revolutionary. But Jones’s fire is of a different kind. It is the fire of reason and it is the passion to find conciliation for the race relations between the whites and blacks. To achieve her objective, she writes with the missionary zeal. She has deliberately chosen the children as the heroes of her novel. She definitely knows that the future belongs to the children, the younger generation. So, their dialogue, thought processes and response to the series of murders of black children, I repeat black children, is one of concealed anguish. But she knows well that retaliation is not the solution. Her main concern is, ‘why this is happening?’ and she asks this question through the mouths and hearts of children.

Jones is not only a powerful storyteller; she is an intelligent story-teller. What she tackles in the novel is the burning political/social issue of America that has been affecting the country in one way or the other for a century, even when slavery and race discrimination stands officially abolished. She achieves her objectives through the medium of playground fights of children, their breakfast interactions in the school cafeteria (comparable to the squabbles among the politicians-ruling and the opposition)—they discuss the murders issues like politicians and sociologists, and their arguments and counter-arguments, reveal the goings-on in their minds. They are concerned about the issues, about their society and the country and above all their own safety. When their classmates disappear, and when they hear the news of the murders, they are internally shaken. Jones does not miss the literary beauty arguing in her own style one of the most difficult issues– the race relations!  Her novel therefore, is of historical significance from the point of view of race relations because she has explained the reality of the issue, as seen by her with honesty and compassion.

Taking the cover of life of children Jones addresses important contemporary issues, social and familial in her novel Leaving Atlanta. Both juvenile concerns and adult concerns are important and interrelated, she argues. But how she expounds the novel, the concern and how she handles them, with different perspectives, as for the children and as for the adults, speaks about her skill. Look at how she handles one of her child characters, Tasha, as for her physical growth concerns: “This was fifth grade, the last year of grade school; next year she would go to Southwest Middle School, which was closer to her house. He parents had chosen Oglethorpe Elementary School because it was near her mother’s work, which was good when Tasha was little. Mama could get to the school in less than five minutes if need be. But now that Tasha was getting to be a young lady, Mama and Daddy thought that it would be better for her to be her own side of town, rather than across the street from the projects.”(Jones, 2002, p.4)

To narrate an experience is one thing but to actually live through it and write about it, adds to the weight and authenticity of the novel. It was a time when a serial killer was engaged in the regular act of killing at the rate of one child per month.  What would have been the mounting tension between the periods of killing the first child to the last one in the series? What would have been the psychological build-up of the affected people, and those not directly affected?

The elders are scared and confused and do not know how to protect the children. The murdered children are all black, but the prevailing social atmosphere was not of racial tension between the whites and the blacks. The victims being children, the latent animosity between the whites and blacks does not take an ugly turn. Rather, the overall atmosphere remained sympathetic to the cause. Why were the children being killed and what objective was gained by the serial killer? Whether it was killing for the sake of killing, for sadistic pleasure, or for a cause? In the later case, how heinous could be the cause?

When asked why she chose this subject matter for her first novel, she says, “This novel is my way of documenting a particular moment in history. It is a love letter to my generation and also an effort to remember my own childhood. To remind myself and my readers what it was like to been eleven and at the mercy of the world. And despite the obvious darkness of the time period, I also wanted to remember all that is sweet about girlhood, to recall all the moments that make a person smile and feel optimistic.” She was a fifth grade student, when the series of killing events engulfed Atlanta.

As an imaginative writer, Jones is aware of the important role the burgeoning minority groups will play in the not too distant future. They will be in a position to influence the economic, social and political agendas, by sheer strength of their numbers, ipso facto, the voting power. They are a majority in nearly one third of the nation’s largest cities. Whites are in minority in important cities like Detroit, Washington and Chicago. With the swelling black population in the cities, the conclusion is obvious—the race relations in America’s urban centers are not going to be the same.

Even without reading the book ‘Leaving Atlanta’ by Tayari Jones, read the U. S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote in the Court’s decision that the separation of Negro Children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” In 1955, the Court ordained that desegregation of public schools should proceed “with all deliberate speed. 


Jones transcends the mere reporting aspect and tries to get at the truth of issue by speaking in the language of children. She intelligently surveys the past of the race issue right from the days of slavery, and the present time of constitutional equality. How legal guarantees have failed to change the hearts of the people and the loopholes in the law are taken advantage off, by the interested individuals, to score over each other.  Tayari Jones has genuine concerns and ably succeeded in her novel to examine how significant is the theme of race relations in Atlanta.

References Cited:

Jones, Tayari: Book: Leaving Atlanta: Publisher: Warner Books (August 21, 2002)

ISBN-10: 0446528307: ISBN-13: 978-0446528306

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