In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, swept up by the tides of the Great Migration, flees Georgia and heads north. Full of hope, she settles in Philadelphia to build a better life. Instead she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment, and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins are lost to an illness that a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children, whom she raises with grit, mettle, and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them to meet a world that will not be kind. Their lives, captured here in twelve luminous threads, tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage—and a nation's tumultuous journey.
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Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
Lawrence had just given the last of his money to the numbers man when Hattie called him from a public telephone a few blocks from her house on Wayne Street. Her voice was just audible over the street traffic and the baby’s high wail. “It’s Hattie,” she said, as though he would not recognize her voice. And then, “Ruthie and I left home.” Lawrence thought for a moment that she meant she had a free hour unexpectedly, and he might come and meet them at the park where they usually saw each other.
“No,” she’d said. “I packed my things. We can’t . . . we’re not going back.”
They met an hour later at a diner on Germantown Avenue. The lunch rush was over, and Hattie was the lone customer. She sat with Ruthie propped in her lap, a menu closed on the table in front of her. Hattie did not look up as Lawrence approached. He had the impression that she’d seen him walk in and had turned her head so as not to appear to be looking for him. A cloth satchel sat on the floor next to her: embroidered, somber hued, faded. A bit of white fabric stuck up through the latch. He felt a rush of tenderness at the sight of the bag flopping on the linoleum.
Lawrence lifted the satchel onto the seat as he slid into the booth. He reached across and tickled Ruthie’s cheek with his finger. He and Hattie had never discussed a future seriously. Oh, there had been plenty of sighs and wishes in the afternoon hours after they made love: they had invented an entire life out of what-ifs and wouldn’t-it-be-nices. He looked at her now and realized their daydreams were more real to him than he’d allowed himself to believe.
Lawrence wasn’t a man who got hung up on ideals or lofty sentiment; he had lived pragmatically as far as his emotions were concerned. He had a car and nice suits, and he had only infrequently worked for white men. He left his family behind in Baltimore when he was sixteen, and he had built himself up from nothing without any help from anyone. And if he had not been able to save his mother from becoming a mule, at least he had never been one himself. For most of his life, this had seemed like the most important thing, not to be anybody’s mule. Then Hattie came along with all of those children, that multitude of children, and she didn’t have a mark of them on her. She spoke like she’d gone to one of those finishing schools for society Negro girls that they have down south. It was as though she’d been dropped into a life of squalor and indignities that should not have been hers. With such a woman, if he would only try a bit harder, he might become a family man. It is true that he had not met Hattie’s children, but their names— Billups and Six and Bell— were seductive as the names of foreign cities. In his imagination they were not so much children as they were small docile copies of Hattie.
“What happened?” he asked Hattie. Ruthie kicked at her swaddling. She looked very like him. The old wives’ tale says babies look like their fathers when they are new to the world. Ruthie was light-skinned like him and Hattie, lighter than August. Of course, Lawrence had not seen Hattie’s other children and could not know that most of them were this same milky tea color.
“Did August put his hands on you?” Lawrence asked.
“He’s not that kind of man,” she answered sharply.
“Anybody is, if his manhood is wounded enough.”
Hattie looked at him in alarm.
“A lot of men, I mean,” Lawrence said.
Hattie turned her face to the window. She would need money—that was certain—and they would be able to spend more time together now that August knew the truth. Lawrence could put her up somewhere. It occurred to him now that his choices were two: run from the diner and never see her again or become, all at once, a man of substance and commitment.
“I’m so ashamed,” Hattie said. “I’m so ashamed.”
“Hattie, listen to me. Our little baby isn’t anything to be ashamed of.”
She shook her head. Later that evening, and for years to come, he would wonder if he had misunderstood her, if her shame wasn’t at having a child with him but something larger that he didn’t understand, and if it wasn’t his failure to grasp this that had doomed them. But in that moment, he thought she only needed convincing, so he talked about renting her a house in Baltimore, where he’d grown up, and how they’d bring her children from Philadelphia and what it would all be like.
Hattie’s eyes were red-rimmed, and she kept glancing over Lawrence’s shoulder. He had never seen her so skittish, so in need of him. For the first time, Lawrence felt Hattie was his. This was not proprietary but something all together more profound— he was accountable to her, wonderfully and honorably obliged to take care of her. Lawrence was forty years old. He realized that whatever he’d experienced with other women— lust? infatuation?— had not been love.
Hattie was incredulous. She refused him.
“This is our chance,” Lawrence said. “I’m telling you, we won’t ever get over it, we won’t ever forgive ourselves if we don’t do this. Baby.”
“But do you still . . .?” she asked.
Lawrence had discussed his gambling in passing. He had told Hattie he made his living for the most part as a porter on the trains, which had been true for a few months many years ago. Hattie’s uncertainty made Lawrence understand that she did not take his gambling as lightly as he had supposed.
“I’ll stop,” he said. “I already have, really. It’s just a game or two when it’s slow with the trains.”
Hattie wept in heavy wracking sobs that shook her shoulders and upset Ruthie.
“I’ll stop,” he said again.
Lawrence slid next to Hattie on the banquette. He leaned down and kissed his daughter’s forehead. He kissed Hattie’s temple and her tears and the corner of her mouth. When she calmed, Hattie rested her head on his shoulder.
“I couldn’t stand to be a fool a second time,” Hattie said. “I couldn’t stand it.”
Hattie had hardly spoken during the four- hour drive to Baltimore. Lawrence’s was the only car on the highway— his high beams tunneled along the black road. Such a dark and quiet night, the moon was slim as a fingernail clipping and offered no light. Lawrence accelerated to fifty miles per hour, just to hear the engine rev and feel the car shoot forward. Hattie tensed in the passenger seat.
“We’re not too far now.” He reached over and squeezed Ruthie’s fat little leg. “I love you,” Lawrence said. “I love you both.”
“She’s a good baby,” Hattie replied.
August had named the baby Margaret, but Hattie and Lawrence had decided before her birth that they’d call her Ruth after Lawrence’s mother. When Ruth was nine days old, Hattie brought her to meet Lawrence in a park in his neighborhood.
“This is your father,” Hattie said, handing her to Lawrence. The baby fussed—Lawrence was a stranger to her—but he held her until she quieted. “Hush, hush, little Ruthie girl, hush, hush,” he said. Tears rose in his throat when the visit ended and Hattie took the baby back to Wayne Street. In the hours and days until he next saw her, Lawrence thought of Ruthie every instant: now she is hungry, now she is asleep. Now she is cooing in the arms of the man who is not her father. It was possible, of course, that Hattie was mistaken and Ruthie was August’s baby, but Lawrence knew, he knew in a way that was not logical and could not be explained, that she was his child.
Lawrence tightened his grip on the steering wheel until his fingers ached. “They never made a car better than the ’44 Buick. I told you it was a smooth ride,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you? I drove this car all the way to Chicago once to see my cousin.”
“You told me,” Hattie said.
A car passed in the opposite direction. Hattie put her hand over Ruthie’s eyes to shield her from the headlight glare.
“You’ll like Baltimore,” Lawrence said. “You’ll see.”
He did not know if she would. They were to live in a couple of rooms in a boardinghouse until he could get the money together to rent a house. A place large enough for all Hattie’s children would cost twenty-five dollars a week. Lawrence could make that money easily; he could pull six months’ rent in a single night with a couple of good hands. It wasn’t the money that made him nervous, though he was skinned at the moment.
“ ‘As the sparks fly upward . . . ,’ ” Hattie said. “It’s from the Bible,” she added.
“Well, that’s dismal. Don’t you remember anything else?” Hattie shrugged.
“Guess not,” Lawrence said.
He reached over and tapped her playfully on the knee with the back of his hand. She stiffened. “Come on, baby. Come on, let’s try and be a little bit happy. This is a happy occasion, isn’t it?”
“I like that verse. It makes me feel like I’m not alone,” Hattie said. She shifted away from him in her seat. “You’re going to pick up more shifts on the railroads, right?” she asked.
“We talked about this. You know I will.”
Lawrence felt Hattie’s gaze on him, uncertain and frightened. Her shine was going, Lawrence thought. There was something used and gray about her these days. Lawrence did not want Hattie to be a normal woman, just any old downtrodden colored woman. Hadn’t he left Maryland to be free of them? And hadn’t he married his ex-wife because she was glamorous as a rhinestone? It did not occur to him that he contributed to the fear and apprehension that had worn Hattie down.
He missed the Hattie he’d found so irresistible when they met— a little steely, a little inaccessible, angry enough to put a spring in her step and a light in her eye. Just angry enough to keep her going, like Lawrence. And there was another side of her, the one that yearned and longed for something she wouldn’t ever have— the two of them had that in common too. Lawrence took Hattie to New York a few months before she got pregnant. The trip had required elaborate lies— Hattie told August and her sister Marion that she’d been hired to cook for a party at a white woman’s place way out on the Main Line and that she had to stay overnight. Marion kept the children. Lawrence had not anticipated Hattie’s guilt, but it had cast a pall over their trip, and over New York City itself— or so Lawrence thought until the next day when they were driving back to Philadelphia. As they drove out of the Holland Tunnel, Hattie turned for one last glimpse of the city’s ramparts glowing in the setting sun. Then she slumped in her seat. “Well, that’s gone,” she said. Something in the New York streets was familiar to her. More than familiar, she said, she felt she belonged there. Lawrence understood. It seemed to him that every time he made one choice in his life, he said no to another. All of those things he could not do or be were huddled inside of him; they might spring up at any moment, and he would be hobbled with regret. He pulled to the shoulder of the road and held her. She was a beating heart in his hand.
Lawrence hardly recognized the distant, distraught woman next to him now. “You act like your whole life was one long January afternoon,” Lawrence said. “The trees are always barren and there’s not a flower on the vine.”
“It wouldn’t do any good to go around with my head in the clouds.”
“It would sometimes, Hattie. It sure would.”
He was responsible for her now. She might, he thought, at least try to be a little more . . . Well, after all they were starting a life together that very day, that very moment. Lawrence needed her steeliness. He needed her resolve to bolster his own. More was required than his charms and his sex and a bit of laughter and forgetting. He had to be better than August.
That bum. August was always out at nightclubs or at the jukes. Lawrence saw him once at a supper club where all the dicty Negroes went. August was on a date; he was all dressed up like the mayor of Philadelphia while Hattie was at home on Wayne Street elbow deep in dishwater. August could have gotten a decent job, but he chose to work catch as catch can at the Navy Yard out of pure laziness. A man had to be responsible. Lawrence was responsible. Whatever else he might be, he took care of his own. He had this Buick, didn’t he? Free and clear. And a house in a decent neighborhood. He’d kept his ex- wife in nice dresses while they were married and was still keeping her in them now that they were divorced. He saw his daughter once a week— didn’t miss a visit unless there was something really important, no, something damn near unavoidable. She was the picture of good health, didn’t want for anything. There were all kinds of ways to be responsible. Maybe he hadn’t made his money in the way most people would approve of, but none of his had ever gone without.
“You have to take some joy from the little things, baby. Look at this— fireworks!”
A gold flare rose above the treetops and peacocked into a fan of light over the highway. “Isn’t that something?” he said. “We must be closer to Baltimore than I thought.”
Hattie barely glanced at the lights bursting overhead.
“Hey,” Lawrence said, after a few moments, “do you plait your hair at night?”
“Your hair. Do you plait it at night and tie it down with a scarf?”
“What kind of a thing is that to ask?”
“I just . . . I guess I just realized I didn’t know.”
“Oh, Lawrence,” Hattie said. Her voice quivered. After a long pause, she said, “I tie it down.”
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.
1. Hattie is, by any measure, a complicated, difficult woman. Did you love her, hate her, find it difficult to have sympathy for her? Is she a good mother? Why or why not?
2. Why do you suppose the author chose to have Philadelphia and Jubilee die in the novel’s first chapter? The novel moves backward and forward in time. What function is served by showing us this loss at the outset? How does this serve the novel and inform our understanding of Hattie?
3. “In Georgia the preacher had called the North a New Jerusalem. The congregation said he was a traitor to the cause of the southern Negro. He was gone the next day on a train for Chicago. Others, too, were going, disappearing from their shops and their fields. All of those souls, escaped from the South, were at this very moment glowing with promise in the wretched winters of the cities of the North. Hattie knew her babies would survive. Though they were small and struggling, Philadelphia and Jubilee were already among those luminous souls, already the beginning of a new nation.” Discuss this passage in relation to the novel’s themes. In fact, Hattie is mistaken here; her babies do not survive. What does this say about the provenance of the new nation of which she speaks?
4. Six perceives his spiritual gifts as an affliction, entangled with his physical suffering, and likens his moments of communion to seizures and fits. “What was grace if it came on him like a seizure that left him as frail and hurting as he had been before its visit? His experience of God was a violent surge he couldn’t control...if he’d known how to pray, Six would have asked God to take his gift away.” Elsewhere, he describes himself as a “ruined instrument” of God. What is your understanding of Six’s spirituality? Does he have the power to heal? How do you think the author views him, and what do you think happens to him in the future? Does the author provide another glimpse of him in the novel, and if so, what does she suggest about his fate?
5. In one of the novel’s most dramatic and revealing chapters, Hattie leaves August with the older children and escapes with baby Ruthie (then called Margaret) and her lover, Lawrence. How did this make you feel? Were you hoping she would stay with Lawrence or go back to August and the children?
6. “Lawrence understood her. It seemed to him that every time he made one choice in his life, he said no to another. All of those things he could not do or be were huddled inside of him; they might spring up at any moment, and he would be hobbled with regret. He pulled to the shoulder of the rode and held her. She was a beating heart in his hand.” What is at stake in this moment, for each of them?
7. What do you learn in the chapter called “Ruthie” about August as a husband? As a father? As a man?
8. Does August change throughout the course of the novel? Do you feel differently about him at the novel’s end than at the beginning?
9. Discuss the disagreement between Hattie and August in the chapter “Ruthie” about Cassie learning to play piano. Cassie’s teacher agrees to teach her for free. Hattie rejects the offer, saying that “it wasn’t practical for a Negro girl to fill her head with music.” August feels it’s a mistake to take away her dreams. Who is right? Look in particular at their disagreement and at the passage on page 88 in which August ponders their predicament and the question of what it means to have “a better life.” What do you think it means, in this context, to have a better life?
10. What kind of marriage do Hattie and August have? Look at the scene in which Hattie returns from Baltimore. Were you surprised that August took her back, with, as he says, “another man’s baby in her arms? Anyone would agree that he ought to do something terrible to her, but she had been gone fifteen hours, and in that fifteen hours his life had crumpled like a lump of dry earth.” What has August learned in Hattie’s absence? Look also at the chapter’s ending, in which Mathis writes: “It was not an invite to embrace but a resignation, as if to say, here we are; this is all we have…There were too many disappointments to name and too much heartbreak. They were beyond punishment or forgiveness, beyond what they had inflicted each other, beyond love.” What does it mean to be beyond love? Consider as well Hattie’s confession in the chapter “Ella,” in which she describes “her body’s insistence on a man who was the greatest mistake of her life.”
11. Discuss the scene in which Pearl and Benny are interrupted during their picnic by a group of white men. How did you feel about Benny’s choices? Does Pearl have a right to be angry? What do you think you would have done in these circumstances?
12. Reread the anguished scene in which Hattie and August give Ella to Marion and Benny. August tells Hattie, “We had that pain…and we’ll have this too.” Did they do the right thing? Was this chapter tragic? Hopeful?
13. Discuss the use of point of view in the chapter “Alice and Billups.” Whose point of view did you initially trust in this chapter? How does this change by the chapter’s end?
14. Why does Franklin throw his letter to Sissy into the bay? Is this an act of cowardice, or could it be read as heroism?
15. In one of the novel’s climactic moments, Hattie and Lawrence bump into each other in a department store, and she discovers that Lawrence is romantically entangled with her daughter Bell. Why does Bell seduce Lawrence? What does she hope to achieve? What, if anything, does she learn about herself after her mother discovers her affair?
16. How is Bell different from her sisters and brothers? How is her relationship with Hattie different? How has her relationship with her mother defined her? Look in particular at the passage on page 212, in which Mathis writes: “Adulthood brought Bell a kind of freedom but no relief. She felt defective in some vital way, incapable of doing the right thing. She was constantly afraid that some force would strike her down for her failings.” Look also at the extraordinary passage on page 217: “Ruthie had said once that Bell and Hattie were just alike. It wasn’t true. Hattie was stronger than Bell could ever be. She didn’t know how to tend to her children’s souls, but she fought to keep them alive and to keep herself alive. That was more than Bell could say. All of them—Hattie and Willie and Evelyln and even crazed, ruined Walter—were like little lights; sparks flying upward in dark places, trying to stay alight though they were compelled toward ash.”
17. Race, poverty, history, class—Ayana Mathis speaks to all of these in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and subtly complicates our understanding of the forces and conditions that drove political and social reform in the first part of the twentieth century. An argument could be made that the new North was built on the backs of Hattie’s children. Discuss this idea.
18. Why does Hattie refuse to let Sala take the mercy seat?
19. Reread the novel’s final paragraph. Is this a happy ending or a heartbreaking one? Resigned, or hopeful? Did you feel differently about Hattie in the novel’s last lines? Has she changed?
20. How do you imagine Sala’s life might differ from the lives of her aunts and uncles? What do you think the author is suggesting thematically through the character of Sala, who, although a generation removed, is Hattie’s essential twelfth tribe?