Cowards and Angels review
In this slender novel, Cowards and Angels, Aileen Muhammad tries to do an almost impossible task in African American literature, to recreate a modern neo-spiritual version of Jean Toomer’s 1923 innovative Cane. Like the black fictional classic of years ago, she shifts the topic from an over-emphasis on the issues of color and caste to encompass the larger subjects of the soul and spirituality. This is not to say that Muhammad lacks the courage to toss caution to the wind and occasionally risk it all in her search for something modernistic and highly unique. She is fearless, determined, and bold in her choices.
The central story begins with Ace Smart, the son of a physician and a writer of the fabled Harlem Renaissance. He is not immune to tragedy, for his father is discovered hung in his office and his mother dies shortly after her man’s needless death. However, the family tree of the Smart blood line is black and his ancestors were very proud of it. It seems that Ace’s father, Dr. Jabbar and his parents came from the Fjelland Plantation, with his grandfather guiding fugitive blacks to their freedom. Serving the race was a part of his clan’s DNA.
When Ace’s wife, Ava, dies, he is bitter, feeling that a dark cloud of death and sorrow is following him. He is left to raise their two daughters, Mia and Estelle, but the emotional turmoil leaves one crushed beneath depression and despair. Although his wife has been dead for a year, he is stunned to learn Mia is being treated in a psychiatric center, not realizing that the demise of her mother has hit her so hard.
Some of Muhammad’s best writing comes when she deals with the turbulence of Mia’s psyche and the comparison with her now-tearful sister, Estelle, “the perfect sister”: “What pain made her not want to look up, not want to breathe? How in the world did she get here and why were her sister’s eyes loaded?” (pg. 20 – 2nd graph)
With this compact book of sketches of effective praise-songs and introspective dramatic dialogue, Muhammad experiments with the traditional story-telling methods, bending and twisting the arc of the tale in tone, texture and form. She manipulates time, going from life on the island of Sokotra in 1825 to existence in Steelton, Pennsylvania in the 1900s on to the black cultural hey-day in Philly in 1969. Sometimes the author loses our focus with her busy attention to detail, but she holds us firm and steady when the story concentrates the spiritual evolution of Mia.
While Ace fixes on Vanev, one of his wife’s former girl-friends, Mia’s mental resolve is taxed by the aftermath of a rape. This is one strong black woman despite her flaws and eventually she sets on her spiritual search to give her life meaning. Struggling to find stability for her broken life, she tries to quiet her mind while soothing her soul. Like many young people of her generation, she explores the Scriptures and traditional religion before turning to the teachings of Islam. This is not before she attempts to subdue some of her most troubling demons within herself.
Aileen Muhammad’s modernist novel, Cowards and Angels, is a celebration of the endless human quest to find a deeper meaning for life. Endlessly entertaining, probing, and smart, it’s fiction that is hard to put down despite some miscues and bad choices. Her execution of the plot is admirable, but it should be longer and more controlled. Students of black literature classics will find this tasty morsel quite satisfying.
by Robert Fleming