“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart;
and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him,
and he shall direct thy paths.”
-Proverbs 3:5 (KJV)
One Hundred Pieces of Sun: Diary of a Potted Plant is really three books in one: (1) a social history of the American Deep South and northern Rust Belt in the 1950s and 1960s, (2) an autobiography of C.L. Kennedy’s childhood and youth, and (3) a travelogue through Africa during the 1970-71 academic year. Remarkably, the author weaves these disparate subjects into a unified whole.
Simply put, this is the freshest, most unique memoir I have ever read, charting a trajectory from the author’s childhood in Jim Crow Alabama and a not-exactly-equal-rights northern industrial city, to Sarah Lawrence College, and ending with her junior year abroad at the University of Ghana, followed by travels through most of the continent using only local transportation. (Yes, her mother threw a fit when Kennedy first told her about her plans.)
The marvelous writing is infused Kennedy’s personality – strong, highly opinionated, but always honest and with an eye for the humor in life. Here, for the benefit of prospective readers, are three excerpts to give an idea of the book’s historical and emotional range:
- Traveling by train from Alabama to Ohio in 1956:
“Before the trip North, Brenda [the author’s sister] and I were repeatedly coached, drilled, and cautioned not to say anything to any white person, no matter what they said, did, or called us…We were rehearsed in acceptable docile and self-effacing ways to respond if it became absolutely necessary to engage in eye-contact or communication with a stranger” (p. 19-20).
- Using the public library in Ohio:
“Laws prohibited Blacks from checking out public library books and from entering the front door of the public library. Our parents took us to the library just as they took us to church…They showed us the way to carry and conduct ourselves with integrity, dignity, and pride, and they always reminded us that we were responsible for leaving a legacy, adding something to posterity, and never shaming the race” (p. 81).
- Discovering a possible origin of her ancestors (or at least her own spiritual homeland) through music:
“In Mali, I was introduced to the cora, a bowl-shaped musical instrument that is made either from dried gourds with leather chords extending along an attached long handle or a flat wooden box enhanced with wood or metal picks held in place along the bottom and spaced along the top…Music from Mali featuring the cora soothes my very soul. Much to my surprise, many times I have felt that Mali was my home place, the country of my ancestors” (p. 211).*
The author’s understanding of the violence and injustice blacks (in both Old and New Worlds) have suffered at the hands of whites is never far removed in the text, but Kennedy’s gratitude and enthusiasm for life ensure that her lessons are always delivered with a light touch. Another constant in the book, especially at critical moments, but never sermonized about, is her deep Christian faith instilled by her parents.
Although not a work of fiction, it does not seem inappropriate to call One Hundred Pieces of Sun a Bildungsroman, as it completely convincingly tells the story of the coming-of-age of a highly sensitive and intelligent young woman. Kennedy has written a book that engages with and invites the reader to see the world through her eyes. And that, I think, is one of the best things any book can do for us.
*For a sample of this remarkable music, click here.