Suitcase Full of Dreams is the evocative first-person account of a brown-skinned girl's childhood, and the oppressive poverty and racist crimes and indignities visited on African Americans in rural Mississippi and Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s. Hoy Kersh's nature-loving, politically astute father worked two jobs, and her mother made homemade lace curtains and quilts. There was even a piano, on which her mother's "smooth brown fingers found a voice," but they had neighbors who had to eat limestone to supplement their inadequate diets. She was sheltered enough that it took years for her to recognize her own poverty, and the book is an homage to the strength of her family, her self and her culture.
The author is a Southern Humboldt character: a legendary bandleader and public scold, an advocate for progressive values. We see the roots of her love of music, nature and poker, of her political radicalism, and her sentimental attachments to organdy dresses, Christmas, fancy floral hats and other conventionalities.
In memories drenched in focus on skin color and hair texture, she cites a few examples of racial pride, but many more of racial shame, black-on-black racism, black snobbery and passing for white. She comes to see that her ancestral African culture has been "broken down by Christianity and displacement."
She ably traces how she was indoctrinated in (and later expelled from) Catholic schools, discouraged from any critical appraisal of pervasive racist mythology and the social inequity it created around her. She was a straight-A student, but a rebel, often in trouble with the authoritarian clergy and the repressed, sadistic nuns. We see her evolution from tomboy to adolescent, hear about her sexual awakening, and marvel at her simultaneous interests in cheerleading and the segregation-breaking work of Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks and the tragic fates of Emmett Till and Martin Luther King. She describes herself as a "perplexed fool," a "ne'er do well," "the con artist that could" and a "blighter."
She describes brutal events, including lynchings, the burning of her house by the Ku Klux Klan, and her flight into the Mississippi night. Her grandfather was shot to death, possibly by Klansmen.
Hoy has a gift for language, and some of her metaphors are excellent: "Poverty littered the streets like confetti." "I could feel Mama's pain drift heavily through the house like some unwanted incense." "[D]eath presented her ugly face."
This is an angry but hopeful book, predicated on the author having "learned early, [to] catch the moments of rapture as they filter through your fingers, and bathe in the golden times."
Buy this book. Maybe we can induce Hoy to regale us with stories of how her name changed from "Cat" to "Hoy," life in Whale Gulch, agriculture in Jamaica and the Reggae Wars!