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Ayana Mathis And ‘The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie’

Breakout novelist Ayana Mathis and her raw telling of African-America’s great northern migration in “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

Ayana Mathis (Photo by Michael Lionstar)

Ayana Mathis (Photo by Michael Lionstar)

Over six decades starting about a century ago, six million African-Americans made their way north out of the Jim Crow south in what came to be called the Great Migration. The move changed people and families and the country.

What was it like to live that move? To span that physical and cultural and psychological migration?

Novelist Ayana Mathis picks up the trail, the legacy, in a debut work that’s getting a lot of attention. One black family, a dozen kids, and a journey that’s still on.

This hour, On Point: Ayana Mathis and “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

-Tom Ashbrook


Ayana Mathis, author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Ebony “Ayana Mathis didn’t know that her first novel would catapult her to immediate success. After receiving a call from Oprah Winfrey that her book, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, had been tapped for the media moguls’ re-launched book club, Mathis’ success seemed to be one that came to life overnight. However, few would know that Mathis’s road to success was long and arduous one as she struggled with keeping faith in her writing abilities.”

The New York Times “Hattie Shepherd, the title character of Ayana Mathis’s piercing debut novel, is at once a tragic heroine with mythic dimensions and an entirely recognizable mother and wife trying to make ends meet. Her story, set in 20th-century Philadelphia, is one of terrible loss and grief and survival, a story of endurance in the face of disappointment, heartbreak and harrowing adversity.”

Salon “It’s interesting. I should say that I don’t tend to write to theme. I write to character. In my own process and sometimes in others you can end up in a kind of manifesto-y situation, which is never the kind of fiction that I love best and not what I wanted to write at all. And so as it emerged, I began to understand, ‘This is about the Great Migration.’”

Excerpt From “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

Show Playlist

Work Song — Duke Ellington (from his 1943 jazz symphony “Black, Brown, and Beige.”)

Trouble Man — Marvin Gaye

Feeling Good — Nina Simone

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  • Gregg Smith

    What is meant by the term “African-America’s”? Is it a typo? If not, it’s disturbing.

    • 1Brett1

      Look, all you need to remember is “people who are not like you” and move on…didju catch any fish today? It was a good day for fishing.

      • Gregg Smith

        Where is “African-America”? Or who is African-America? Or what is African-America? I don’t like it. And no, they may be a little darker but that’s just skin color. I am just like them.

        Just one but it was a bigun’. Two dinner’s worth.

        • 1Brett1

          You see, once upon a time, Gregg, at a time that even preceded our segregated period of the early and mid-20th century, there was a “White America.”  The US didn’t really call it that in pre-mid-19th-century America, but it WAS a “White America.” I’m sure it was just called “America.” The term “White America” seems to have cropped up in the late-19th and early to mid-20th century and ostensibly was a phrase perhaps initially designed to protect something imagined, or feared lost or in a moribund state (by certain White people). I’ve also heard the term, “White America,” used later in our history by Whites and Blacks alike, some uses owing to a recognition that we’ve had a segregated society of varying degrees in the last hundred and fifty years or so. 

          During the Great Migration, segregation began a process of integration, however rudimentary, but even in “White America” there still wasn’t any appreciable, respectful recognition of African-America or African-Americans. Places all over the US had to start attending to having freed slaves walking amongst us, if you will, e.g., separate restaurants, drinking fountains, bathrooms, etc. There was also a whole contribution, and–by extension–history itself, that was denied…

          “African- America” and “African-Americans” are terms designed to put a whole history and place back into the “offical” story of America, a history/place that was once denied. That’s not too hard to understand, especially within the context of this show, considering the guest is a writer who just wrote a novel involving that very migration. Now, she could have written a novel with a lot of blank pages on it, which probably wouldn’t have been all that satisfying to her or prospective readers. AND, we, as a country, could just forget all about our history and say we are going to bury and burn all of that, erasing any trace of various struggles we’ve had as a nation…I don’t know; I don’t think you’re suggesting that, are you? But, please look at the way in which the term is used above within the context of this segment; its use might make more sense to you in context. 

          Glad you had a good time fishing and caught something. There’s nothing like the taste of freshly caught fish. Will you batter and fry, saute in butter, or broil? There’s always sushi or ceviche, but somehow I don’t sense you’ll be doing those latter two treatments. (Ceviche is easy and good, usually relying on the acids derived from either lemon or lime to “cook” the fish by breaking down the proteins in the fish during its marination.) 

          • Gregg Smith

            Although I don’t like divisive illogical term “African-American” I would not have had a problem if that was the term used. It wasn’t. Even black America would have made a modicum of sense. I did not see a blog post using the phrase “White America”. If I did I would have found it equally as hideous and said so. I’m not going to argue for a divided America.

            I won’t even bother to respond to your Evel Knieval leap about ignoring history. All I’m talking about is ignoring one little letter. 

            Thanks for the history lesson but this is 2013.

          • 1Brett1

            When you made an equivalency and association between Tom Ashbrook’s use of “African-America” and what the KKK are about, you lost any chance you might have had toward any modicum of reasonable discussion. 

            I thought your opening remark about your not liking the term “African-American” and that it is divisive and illogical, but then your saying you don’t have a problem with the term indicates some serious inanity on your part…and just when I was anxious to hear how you intend to cook your fish, too…tsk, tsk.

          • Gregg Smith

            That would be true if I had done that. I do not think Tom Ashbrook is a racist or that On Point has racist intentions. They just use the same divisive language, that’s all.


        • notsofastKY

          African-America is a mythical place just like Italian America, Irish America, Polish America, etc. People never seem to have trouble accepting other hyphenated designations. Why the difficulty understanding African-American. We are people descended from folks who came here from Africa. 

          • Gregg Smith

            Maybe it’s me but I think the letter “n” makes all the difference. It’s the difference between an individual and geography. So I consider your comment one thing but your question something else.

            BTW, this is just my opinion not my crusade. Having said that, I’ll answer your question even though it was not the subject of my comment. If it were up to me, it would be illegal to be required to state your race on any government form including the census. I see no purpose and we’re all mutts anyway. People can track their own heritage. When I was young the term was “Negro” then “colored” then “black” now “African-American”. I believe hyphenating the great melting pot in a sanctioned bureaucratic fashion to be counter-productive. 

            It’s also illogical in that it judges by the color of skin, it has nothing to do with heritage. A white guy from Johannesburg who comes to America would be more correctly labeled an African American than a black guy from the Caribbean who did the same. I think if you are born in America then you are an American.

          • notsofastKY

            Judging from your comments I am about the same age as you are. Its been my experience that people from the Caribbean would be quick to correct you if you referred to them as African American. They much prefer Afro-Caribbean.   I just feel that people are only upset when black people choose to identify with a country, continent or region. It seems that it is okay to be Cuban American, Mexican American, any ethnic European-American without question. And that holds true no matter how long its been since your family immigrated to America. My Co-workers always feel free to say I’m Italian so we…, or I’m Irish so we like to…

            I wasn’t thinking of the forms but now that you mention it, I think that people who care most about the check boxes on the forms are people who feel stigmatized (perhaps rightly)  by their designation. 

            I listened to the interview so I have not located the missing “n”

          • Gregg Smith

            I did not hear the show and was commenting on the show’s description on this page above Ms. Mathis’ picture. I also don’t like the other terms you mention (Cuban-American, etc.). However, I have no problem with people labeling themselves as they choose. It’s when we label others that I bristle a bit. And when we refer to a different America for different races, I chime in.

  • ToyYoda

    OT: could we do a show on the movies nominated for the upcoming Oscars, please?  Pretty Please?

    Also, it  be nice to have some sort of subject-suggestion box on your web page so that I don’t have to keep posting OT.


    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      That’s something we’re working on; I think it’s a good point. For now, there’s a space for general recommendations on our Facebook page (and I promise we do read that.)

      • ToyYoda

        Thanks for the response.  I hope you do add a suggestion box to the webpage somewhere soon.  I don’t use facebook much.  So, it would be nice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/donn.weinholtz Donn Weinholtz

    As I listen to your descriptions of the book, I am reminded much of the early plays in August Wilson’s Century Cycle, Gem of the Ocean and Joe Turners Come and Gone.  Does Ayana view August Wilson as an influence on her work?

Aug 22, 2014
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