There are good books, great books, and then there are the books that transcend both of those categories and should have 300 level college courses dedicated to words written within. Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark is in that last category. I am a fan of the fantasy genre, I’ve read…a lot, so I am always excited when I run into something new. Ring Shout is a lot of things, but old and predictable is not one of them. I mean for starters, how often is Gullah-Geechee Ring Shouting a magic system? Yeah, I know…NEVER.
There was a video game I used to love, Mafia 3. In it you played Lincoln Clay, a Black Vietnam veteran who was helping out his family and ended up trying to take over a southern mafia syndicate. The gameplay was good, the characters were fun, the action was great. But that wasn’t why I fell in love with the game.
I fell in love with the game because it was historically accurate. It was set in the South in the 60’s. And the absolute Schadenfreudic joy I got at setting a gas station on fire that had a “Whites Only” sign hanging in the front window was off the charts. But the absolute best part, there was a group in the game called the Dixie Mafia and you got to hunt them down and kill them. And it was cathartic, to be able to hunt down and kill Klan members in a video game, it made the game more real, more…personal. There are shades of that same catharsis in Ring Shout, but with next level writing and a cast of characters that I hope and pray find their way to someone’s production studio soon.
When you think Sci-fi/Fantasy, one doesn’t think the Jim Crow South, it’s not the first setting that comes to mind, but P. Djeli Clark aims to change that. Ring Shout is historically accurate in all the horrible ways a book about Black folks in the South during Jim Crow can be. There is racism, Klan, lynchings, and a bunch of other stuff that reminds us of how state sanctioned violence against Black bodies is nothing new. But something amazing happens when a piece of Black artwork isn’t created with the white gaze in mind. When the white gaze is not only absent, but unaccounted for, you can see how brightly Blackness can shine on its own. And in this book, we SHINE SO BRIGHTLY.
Often Black Folks are victimized in these historical time pieces. But there’s always a patronizing, inevitable feel to it. Like of course, bad things happened to Black folks in the South, that story has been told over and over. But in Ring Shout, things get a bit different, in Ring Shout, we get to fight back, we get to seek and destroy, we get to unleash justifiable, Black wrath on our oppressors. And it FEELS GOOD. It feels amazing in a similar way it felt amazing to hunt down the Dixie Mafia in that video game. It felt personal and long overdue, but there is more going on here. This book screams WE ARE MAGIC in the ways Virginia Hamilton and Zora Neal Hurston used to declare it, and in Ring Shout, that magic is unleashed.
But this wasn’t just a revenge fantasy fest in the vein of Inglorious Bastards. While I was reading this book, getting righteously angry with Mayse (our protagonist), riding that wave of redemptive vengeance, it seems like me and her were both learning the same lessons about rage and anger and justice. And this is one of the themes I appreciated about the book. Often these types of stories or tales, will find a white savior, or it becomes a voyeur to our brutality, or even worst tries to tell us our anger isn’t justified. Ring Shout doesn’t do that, it talks about our anger without dismissing it. It tells us it’s alright to be enraged about injustice. It’s ok to strike back, its ok to protect ourselves…NO, it is our duty to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Ring Shout just warns us of the potential cost of living in that anger and making it our home. But it doesn’t dip its toe in respectability politics, it doesn’t demand that we “rise above,” or expect us to “go high.” P. Djeli Clark seems to be demanding that we Protect Our Neck, at all costs, just don’t let THEM dictate the terms.
The Brits have Arthur and the Irish have the Fae, Ring Shout, seems like the start of something like that., something of ours. Black folks are known for taking things that aren’t great, recrafting and repurposing, making them our own and then making them the envy of the world. It’s how greens became a Southern staple and The Blues got born. It’s how hip-hop break beats were birthed off the B-sides of records and it seems fitting that we take our collective Jim Crow horror and recraft it into something else as well.
Ring Shout felt like reading an updated version of Black Folktales. It felt like listening to a grandparent you never had talk about a time that could have been. It felt like you were eavesdropping on a conversation between High John De Conqueror and Stagolee about of group of aunties they had that EVERYONE was afraid to cross. This is a book that’s going to go on my shelf, somewhere between Virginia Hamilton and Alex Haley. I loved this book, you should get this book, read this book, and join me in a circle of shouting and stomping that quickly demands a sequel.
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Cover Image: Book Cover art and design by Henry Sene Yee.