Book Review: My Soul Looks Back

My Soul Looks Back Jessica B. Harris Pretty Page Turner postI grew up in a home with educators.  My mother is a retired English teacher and my father is in administration.  Years ago, I accompanied my father to an Education Administration conference in San Francisco.  Of course, I explored this great American city, but I also had access to any of the conference sessions. The highlight of this trip was the keynote speech with Dr. Maya Angelou.  I have to be honest I don’t remember everything she said.  What I will never forget is the largeness of her presence in that cavernously large room.  She had a power:  she was imposing, yet tender, the timbre of her voice was like thunder, but there was tenderness and sincerity to her words.  As large as that room was, her aura seemed to permeate every corner.  The audience was starstruck, the room although filled with thousands of loquacious educators, was completely silent.  It was as if she were the sun and we were trapped and dazzled by her glory.  It’s a feeling that I’ve experienced when I’ve seen legends in the midst of their craft.  Performances by Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson and Burt Bacharach I’ve attended produced that same attentive trance.  As we sat mesmerized for I don’t know how long, she said goodnight, she was wisked from the stage and escorted to a waiting limousine out a back stage door.  Her exit snapped us from our trance and we were left basking in the afterglow.  It was if we had witnessed a shooting star, but weren’t sure if what we saw was real or a hallucination.

Imagine living a life when you are constantly encircling a presence that radiates like the sun, sucks the air out of the room, yet leaves you simultaneously inspired and exhausted?  That’s the life that culinary historian Jessica B. Harris recounts in her mesmerizing memoir “My Soul Looks Back”.  As a young educator, Ms. Harris has a relationship with a much older and experienced professor.  His world gives her access to the capital letter names of the Black Intelligentsia.   As an escort to a close friend to literary luminary James Baldwin she spends weekends and holidays with the likes of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou* as they are building their now illustrious careers.  She is taunted and teased by Nina Simone.  She literally has the bird’s eye seat to a cultural renaissance that encompasses locales as disparate as Harlem, Paris and every imaginable exotic Island.  She writes for the burgeoning Essence Magazine, often considered the Black women’s Vogue, she welcomes into her home the godfather of nouvelle French cuisine.  What is it like to sit among legends-to see their work ethic, to walk in the environments that inspire their creativity, to relax with them in the golden sun of Provence, to hear the first draft of a Baldwin work directly from his mouth, in his voice?  To have Maya Angelou invite you into her Sonoma home and feed you from her garden? Every page gives us access into her halycon existence.

There was so much food, so much fun, so many words, so much wine, you almost feel intoxicated reading her prose.  To me, it is one of the most sensually provoking books I’ve read in a long time.  Harris is a culinary historian, so she has a keen sense (see what I did there?) for the smells and flavors of her life.  She talks incessantly about the foods she ate and offers a recipe at the end of each chapter.  I happen to love cookbooks, not that I actually use them functionally, but I enjoy the idea and history of food.  I read each recipe and actually found one I might (big might) attempt.    She relates to everyone by the meals they shared and the places and foods they had in common.  Some books have a feel, even a smell to them in my mind.  This book is amber-hued,  curry-spiced, with a hint of clove cigarettes in the background.  It feels homey and comforting; like the parties my parents had in the basement with the glass beads separating the rooms (anyone remember those?)  It’s like you can hear the ice cubes in the rocks glasses (I think I smell gin), you hear the records (yes,  albums).  You feel like a child getting a glimpse of adult business, as everything they do seems sophisticated and intelligent and special.  A bonus is Harris ends the book with a playlist of the most eclectic range of artists, sounds and styles.  Ne me quitte pas is on constant replay for me right now.  This is the most sophisticated and intelligent ‘mix-tape’ (term from my generation) I’ve experienced.  I feel very smart and soigne hearing these songs.  If the publisher was smart, they would put it out on Itunes. I can’t imagine a more perfect soundtrack for a rooftop party on a hot day.

This is a heartwarming life journey.  At this time of her life Harris can best be characterized as quintessentially in her twenties.  Today we would say ‘she is so new’.  She is young, open and absorbs so much of the extraordinary life she is living, while being wonderfully naïve as only you can be in your twenties.  She bobs along the current freely, without a true care, she matures slowly, as we all do, as the carefree melds into death of parents, death of friends and the death of her youthful illusions.  Set in bohemian New York, the scourge of AIDS creeps in, silently and quickly whisking away many of her loved ones.  As the youngest of the set, she is left to learn to reanchor herself, as her mentors and lovers each exit her life.  For a large part of the book Baldwin is the center of their intellectual universe and Maya is a shadowy presence, flitting in and out as her rising star status allows.  After Baldwin’s death,  Maya becomes the main force, keeping the traditions alive and becoming a female mainstay for Harris.  The one intimate connection they share, I will leave for you to discover, but the idea that they build and maintain a relationship for years speaks to the notion that there are truly ties that bind.

The term ‘soul’ in the title is pertinent and spot on.  This is a soulful book and it is as warming and comforting as any soul food cooked in a cast iron pot on a Sunday afternoon.  Her journey is strange and extraordinary, but it also seems familiar.  I can see James Baldwin’s face when she talks about him-of course, his face is etched in my African-American literary history.  I can hear Nina Simone’s songs: her music is woven throughout my early childhood, even before I knew her name. I can hear Maya’s baritone, staccato timbre, as “Phenomenal Women”  shows up in every Black History Month program I’ve ever attended.  In my head they are legendary but also accessible strands of my personal DNA.  Harris skillfully walks the precarious tightrope of letting us into the lives of legends without exposing or removing any of their varnish.  It is a wonderful record of a life well-lived in the company of literary and cultural gods. What is astonishing is that unlike the protaganist of most Greek fables,  the gods did not kill her during her time on Olympus-they transferred onto her their genius.


*I ‘know’ her as Dr. Maya Angelou and refer to her as such.  Ms. Harris obviously had a very different relationship and referenced her on a more personal level.  I have used her verbiage from the book for this review.