In this magnificent debut novel, Morgan Jerkins tells a nuanced story of Black motherhood, women’s agency, class divisions in the Black community, all haunted by a past of bodily use and abuse.
The Melancon women are a household of what are known as caulbearers, women who were born with a caul said to have healing powers. When the child is born, they undergo a process where instead of shedding their caul, they are able to keep it. Generations of Melancon women have been able to have financial independence by selling pieces of their caul to those desperate for healing.
However, with no new caulbearing children born to the daughters of the Melancon matriarch, they become desperate, adopting a caulbearing child, Hallow. The mother of this child is Amara, a young woman, who when desperate to hide her unplanned pregnancy, turns to her godfather, who unbeknownst to her is not only lover of one of the Melancon daughters, but also their broker, helping to find wealthy white families who pay premium dollar for their caul.
The Melancon women are despised within their Harlem community because they refuse to sell their caul to members of their own community, selling only to wealthy white outsiders. One of the neighborhood women who they’d refused was Amara’s aunt, Laila, whose mental and physical health radically deteriorates when her last pregnancy results in a stillborn, after the Melancon women refuse to help her.
It is in this environment and amidst these family tensions, that Hallow grows up, unaware of her origins, while her biological mother Amara, dedicates her every waking hour to gain enough political power as a district attorney to avenge her aunt, and finally bring the Melancon women down.
Jerkins does a beautiful job portraying the pain experienced by the different mothers in the text, and the way black motherhood is affected by race and class. She also doesn’t make the supposed villains of the story, the Melancon women, easy to pass judgement on. Instead through these women who sell pieces of their bodies for profit, she problematizes women’s agency and internalized racism. On the one hand these women, who for generations under slavery had no control over their bodies, had now found a way to regain agency and financial independence through their caulbearing business. On the other hand, by continuing the sale of black bodies to wealthy whites, they perpetuate the idea of black bodies as only valuable when in service to white people.
If you are looking for both an engrossing and thought-provoking reading experience, pick up Caul Babyby Morgan Jerkins. You won’t be disappointed.