In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
When I read the extract from the writer and activist J. J. Phillips’s novel Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale in Margaret Busby’s groundbreaking Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present (1992), I immediately knew that I had to track down a copy. Phillips’s writing is raw, but it’s astonishingly lyrical, too, mesmerizingly so. Later, trying to find out more about the book, I came across the novelist and academic John O. Killens’s verdict in Ebony magazine, congratulating Phillips for having “captured the beauty of Negro language and put it down without fear.” This is all the more impressive a feat considering she was only twenty-two years old when this, her debut novel, was first published in 1966.
Reading Mojo Hand in its entirety only confirmed my initial impression; it was unlike anything else I’ve read. It was also a book I’d never heard any mention of outside Busby’s anthology, which seemed particularly bewildering given its strange, unique power. I quickly came to agree with the American historian, novelist, music critic, and longtime Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who, in 2015, described it novel as “the most neglected book I know.” Perhaps this disregard has an explanation. Reading it today, it’s clear that Phillips was a writer ahead of her era, and Mojo Hand, as summed up by the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Carolyn Kizer, was simply “too rich a mix for the time in which it appeared.”
Drawing on the majesty and might of a Greek myth, it tells the story of a light-skinned black woman from San Francisco named Eunice Prideaux, who has abandoned the comforts of her middle-class life and traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, in search of Blacksnake Brown, a blues singer whose music has cast a powerful spell over her: an “Orpheus with a diamond in his teeth,” who “heralded the sun” with his guitar, “the instrument that became a part of him.” Blacksnake is loosely based on the real-life blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose music Phillips became obsessed with when she was eighteen. The Blacksnake in her novel is old and mean and treats Eunice badly, but she’s a woman possessed. It’s a love story, for sure, but not one that deals in anything close to romantic stereotypes. As one reviewer described it, Eunice and Blacksnake’s entanglement is “a nasty love.” As such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that when the book first appeared, its strange mixture of mystical, musical, and sexual enchantment elicited both impassioned praise and fervent condemnation. Some, like Killens, applauded the arrival of a talented new voice, while others found fault with a work they simply couldn’t get a handle on. Writing in the Negro Digest, Hoyt W. Fuller declared the book formally defective, while the literary and jazz critic Albert Murray completely tore it to shreds in The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture (1970), accusing Phillips of both terrible writing and perpetuating unflattering racial stereotypes:
That its young author would rather be a novelist than a social science expert is somehow clear enough; but as yet her conception of the art of fiction is as aboriginal as that of certain widely patronized Negro literary figures who have yet to realize that banal sayings, slang anecdotes, dirty remarks, and bad song lyrics do not become literature simply because they are published in book form.
Following a 1986 reprint, and UK publication the following year, Mojo Hand garnered a smattering of further critical acclaim. Most of these write-ups acknowledged that the novel hadn’t received the attention it deserved the first time around; audiences in the eighties didn’t regard the book as anywhere near as problematic as some in the sixties had. No one, for example, reiterated Murray’s complaints. Although there were—and are—still obstacles to overcome, much had changed in the twenty years that had passed between editions. Today, we’ve come closer to understanding that representations of characters of color should be afforded the same privileges as those of their white counterparts, including the privilege of weakness and imperfection. A character ought to be able to be flawed—whether complicated and cruel or misogynistic and violent—without the charge that this reflects badly on the rest of their race. “In a decade during which American readers are rediscovering and celebrating the misprized (and even suppressed) voices of black women writers,” wrote James A. Snead in the Los Angeles Times in 1986, praising the relevance of the novel’s reissue, “Mojo Hand represents a most timely and impressive spiritual chronicle.” I firmly believe that audiences today would be even keener to embrace what’s clearly a trailblazing work of fiction. In fact, despite its uniqueness, if I had to compare the novel to anything, it would be to Fran Ross’s brilliant Oreo (1974)—the story of a young biracial fourteen-year-old who runs away from her black grandparents, with whom she lives, and goes in search of her white, Jewish father—which was reissued to much praise by New Directions in 2015. They’re completely different books—not least because Oreo is a rollicking picaresque comedy, which Mojo Hand certainly isn’t—but they both broke the mold and completely defied expectations when it came to the subjects readers expected from young black women writers. They’re both loosely based on a Greek myth—Oreo on the myth of Theseus, and Mojo Hand on that of Orpheus—and each is an unexpected take on a certain political moment. Ross’s novel was published at the height of the Black Power movement but it’s a story about a black woman on a mission to find her whiteness, while Phillips’s novel was a far cry from the serious “social issues” work many surely expected a young civil rights activist to pen in the early days of the civil rights movement.
Having, at the very beginning of the novel, arrived in Raleigh with nothing but her guitar, Eunice soon finds herself living with Blacksnake, working at a hotel-cum-whorehouse, and spending her meager wages on beer and gin. Murray’s criticism that the book perpetuates racist stereotype aren’t entirely baseless. The men Eunice encounters, Blacksnake included, are, by and large, drunk, abusive, and only after one thing. They treat women terribly, using them for sex, or as unpaid laborers. And the women, although unfairly put-upon, aren’t much better; they drink and talk dirty. Fuller’s complaint that the novel is “almost plotless” is also a fair observation. There’s a virtuosic early interlude during which, having been mistaken for a prostitute, Eunice is locked up in the county jail for two weeks. Then, toward the end of the book, after her relationship with Blacksnake has soured, she travels as far as Lake Charles in a half-hearted attempt to escape his clutches, only to find herself drawn back into his orbit. Otherwise, not that much happens. The pleasures of Mojo Hand lie elsewhere: in Phillips’s powerful portrait of her protagonist’s search for her black roots, her depiction of the magnetism of Blacksnake and his music, and the hypnotic rhythms and power of her unvarnished yet luxuriant prose. Mojo Hand is infused throughout with the smoky, boozy atmosphere of a late-night blues joint. It’s a novel of intense feeling—something that contemporary readers are now finally more familiar with—in which Phillips creates a potent sense of place and mood. Her portrait of downtown Raleigh, where most of the book is set, is a sort of underworld—“unpaved streets crowded with ramshackle houses as close together as a mouth full of rotten teeth,” with its pool halls and beer parlors—fueled by cheap liquor and love, where violence, jealousy, and pain lurk in dark corners.
The novel begins with Eunice stepping off the train into the “black heat” of the South. It isn’t until she winds up in jail that we’re afforded a glimpse of where she’s come from: a world of cotillions and “society women of eternal agelessness” gathering for “tea and talk.” Bored and restless at one such soiree, Eunice thumbs through a stack of records, switching out the classical tune playing on the phonograph for Blacksnake Brown’s “Bakershop Blues.” The effect is instantaneous. She hears “shouts and shrieks” from the other room: “Everyone had relaxed. Some women were unbuckling their stockings, others were loosening the belts around their waists. Someone had gotten out brandy and was pouring it into the teacups.” It’s a moment of Damascene clarity: Eunice realizes that “she had to go find the source of herself, this music that moved her and the others, however much they tried to deny it.”
In the novel, the blues aren’t just something people play, they’re bound up in the very essence of blackness, something one’s “born with,” even if—as is the case with Eunice—they weren’t strictly born into it:
Until this night she had been outside of the cage, but now she had joined them forever. The wizened jiving man had been the instrument by which she acknowledged her kinship to him and all those others who daily were squeezed into nonexistence, and nightly, in the ripe heat, violently asserted their being. His music was the music of such nights, the music of the evening resurrection of an entire people.
Phillips’s “insider’s knowledge” of the blues, as Kizer described it, was much praised by the critics who recognized the novel’s brilliance. “What comes through is music: the music of language, the music of the blues, the anguished music of black America,” declared the Baltimore Sun. Phillips conveys the eroticism of the music, how the blues tell stories of sex and love, and pain and damage, music-making bound up in lovemaking. As she describes Eunice and Blacksnake playing together:
He had told her not to sing so much, yet he sang violently as he plucked the accompaniment from her pliable essence. Desisting and yielding like a properly drawn string, being was given and taken and given again. Raucously and inaudibly the blues spilled forth, whirled down and sprang up again, with only a creaking bed to hold the demands of their tension.
But Mojo Hand is also a portrait of a woman ensnared and ill-treated. Fuller’s description of Eunice as moving through the book “like a somnambulist” is perfect. But whereas he sees this as a flaw—indicative of Phillips’s inability to account for or explain her character’s motivations—on the contrary, I would argue that this is absolutely integral to the novel’s peculiar, hypnotic power. It’s less a love story about individuals and more a tale of mystical, mythic proportions. “Mojo Hand is as sophisticated as primitive sculpture, and has the same element of magic,” critic Harriet Doar concluded in the Charlotte Observer. “The characters move along invisible threads, as if under a spell.” This enchantment reaches out beyond the margins to intoxicate the reader. After the first flush of attraction with Blacksnake has faded, Eunice sinks lower and lower into “the drudgery of the days,” caught in “those treasonous blues and the man weaving sabotage in her with the craft of his hands.” At her wit’s end, she seeks out a “spiritual mother” called Madame Karplus, who ties up a “mojo hand”—a magical charm that induces luck, in this case bad luck—against Blacksnake. Theirs is an affair that, “given the Orphic parallels,” according to Snead, “ends with tragic predictability.”
So what of Phillips’s relationship with Lightnin’ Hopkins, the real-life Blacksnake Brown? Phillips grew up in Los Angeles, in a progressive African American family—“for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from Caucasians in visage and speech.” “From early on,” she told Alan Govenar, author of Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues (2010)—the only analysis of the novel and the author’s life that I’ve been able to find—“I was exposed to varieties of cultural expression, including dress, food, music, language, dialects, idiolects, ways of looking at the world and inhabiting it.” All the same, her first year at Immaculate Heart College broadened her horizons even further. In guest lectures by the musicologist Peter Yates, she was “grabbed” by the folk and blues music he introduced. Then, that summer, spurred on by “the galvanizing force” of the previous years’ Freedom Rides, she went to Raleigh to join the civil rights movement. There she participated in the voter registration program organized by the National Student Association, going door to door to sign up unregistered black voters. Afterward, she remained in town “to engage in independent direct action strikes just to shake up the status quo.” While participating in a CORE-sponsored sit-in at the local Howard Johnson’s restaurant, Phillips was arrested, convicted of trespassing, and sentenced to thirty days in the Wake County jail. It was an episode that, looking back on it in an essay she wrote in 2016, she described as “an immersive intensive in which I got the kind of real-life education I could never have obtained otherwise.” It also provided her with firsthand experience on which to draw when writing about Eunice’s time in lockup.
Back in Los Angeles for her sophomore year, Phillips delved ever deeper into black roots music. She found herself captivated by Samuel Charters’s description of the enigmatic Lightnin’ in The Country Blues (1959). Charters had traveled to Houston to track the elusive musician down, and Phillips wanted to see if she could do the same. Thanksgiving break, 1962, she and her roommate Krista Balatony each told their parents that they were going to spend the holiday at a friend’s house in nearby Montecito. Instead, they took the Sunset Limited—“hoboing in coach by keeping one step away from the conductor”—all the way to Houston. Once there, they asked around until someone was able to help them find the man they were looking for. They spent every night of their stay in the Snowboat Lounge listening to Lightnin’ play. Phillips—who’d bought along her guitar—jammed with him after hours.
Their trip was brief; they soon returned to school. But, only a few months later, Phillips was expelled. The official reason given was violation of her dorm curfew, but as she wrote in the 2016 essay, “it is my firm conviction that I was railroaded out of this almost exclusively white, Catholic women’s college because I had become an ‘inconvenient Negro’ and the administration considered my race and my civil rights activities liabilities.” There was, as she pointed out to Govenar, no small irony in her situation: “I’d gone to Raleigh to help eradicate racism, I’d gone to jail and I’d been a passenger in a car that was chased by the Klan—I literally put my life on the line for my convictions, only to return to Los Angeles to be done in by the very beast I had gone South to slay—at the very institution I had naively put my trust in.”
No longer tethered to the West Coast, Phillips returned to Houston in 1964, embarking on a sexual relationship with Lightnin’ that lasted for the next five years. As Govenar clarifies, Mojo Hand is in no way straight autobiography; many of the details are entirely invented—Blacksnake’s physical violence toward Eunice, for example. But much of the background color of the story was gleaned from Phillips’s firsthand experience, not least the existence of a rival for Lightnin’s affections: the woman he referred to as his wife, Antoinette. In the novel Blacksnake has a spouse in Lake Charles, to whom he returns toward the end of the story, leaving Eunice “like some lonesome ghost.” In reality, however, Phillips was the one who realized that her relationship with Lightnin’ was no longer tenable. Her parents were threatening to come and drag her back to California by force, and Antoinette was promising to do her some damage—“put some Louisiana hoodoo on me or shoot me”—so she cut her losses, bowing out gracefully. Back in Los Angeles, she got a job as a fry cook and began work on Mojo Hand.
Interestingly, Phillips didn’t sit down to write the novel with publication in mind. She wrote it entirely for her own satisfaction—in an attempt to compose something that “incorporated some of my experiences and impressions of that most memorable summer” in Raleigh, her self-confessed “fascination” with Lightnin’, and what she described as her “abiding interest in herpetology, especially the blacksnake”—but when she showed it to one of her old teachers (also a writer) at Immaculate Heart, “because I hoped he would tell the nuns that I could actually accomplish something even though they’d expelled me,” he sent it straight to his agent, who sold it almost immediately. It took Phillips—who is still alive today—thirty years to publish her follow-up, The Passion of Joan Paul II: A Pasquinade (1996), a slim work of satire on the papacy. And only one further work has appeared since, a poem, Nigga in the Woodpile: A Rant and Commentary (2008). Both were released by small independent presses and received scant critical attention. Had Mojo Hand marked the beginning of the celebrated writing career it seemed to promise, surely it would be better known today.
Although it’s definitely not a depiction of the civil rights activism of the sixties—indeed, Phillips slyly includes a scene in which an NSA representative comes knocking on Blacksnake and Eunice’s door to try to register them to vote, but neither of them sees any point in doing so—Mojo Hand was forged in that climate of radical resistance and revolution. Speaking with Govenar, Phillips explained that in its own way, the novel reflected her personal political awakening, something its detractors universally failed to recognize. She describes it as “a story of one person’s journey from a non-radicalized state to the radicalized real world, as was happening to me.” I can understand that it might have confused some readers; given the active role Phillips had taken in the civil rights movement, Mojo Hand is probably not the novel many would have predicted she would write as a consequence of her experiences. But in my mind, this only makes it more interesting. “It was against the grain when it was written, inasmuch as it is a political novel at all it is deeply skeptical,” John Williams astutely observed in his review of the book in the British magazine The Face in 1988, “rather it’s a kind of female beat novel.” I couldn’t agree more; Mojo Hand is the story of a young woman’s quest for her own identity and empowerment. And, inasmuch as the personal is the political, it’s no coincidence, for example, that as the story draws to a close, it’s Eunice’s music—music that in the course of the novel has become increasingly powerful and evocative—that’s replaced Blacksnake’s: “They say that when a man gets the blues, he catch a train and rides, and when a woman gets the blues, she hang her head and cries,” she sings, “but when this woman gets the blues, she puts on her black wings and flies.”
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.