Oakland author Sexton’s new book depicts S.F.’s 1950s Black community
By Lou Fancher
Speaking on the phone from her home in the Oakland hills about her third novel, “On the Rooftop,” writer Margaret Wilkerson Sexton says the central idea came from her mother.
“My mother would play the musical, the film ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ in our home east of New Orleans. A few years after Hurricane Katrina, she said I should write a book based on the play but from the perspective of a Black woman with daughters who each marry in ways that are disappointing. Parallel, contemporary displacement would mean a scene where some of the women stand on their roofs, just like Katrina images we saw in 2005.”
Sexton says her first novel, “A Kind of Freedom,” was “driven by a message that White women need to connect with Black women and recognize their similarities are greater than their differences.” Her second novel, “The Revisioners,” explored the story of marginalized women who are powerful healers yet suffer — and through strength survive while shouldering racist schisms and fragmented family relationships.
“On the Rooftop” (margaretwilkersonsexton.com/on-the-rooftop) spins a story centered on Vivian, a mother of three musically talented daughters. Her dream that they will become a top-tier act is placed in peril amid the landscape and culture of San Francisco’s 1950s Fillmore district. The mighty force of gentrification weaves its way through the story. Although Sexton says “gentrification is real and never stops,” the primary engine driving the writing was her desire to delve into a race-centered story about a joyful Black family.
“I wrote this book at the start and during the pandemic. I’m always going to have an illuminating social message; it’s ingrained in me. But I intentionally wanted to set a different feeling tone,” she says. “I didn’t want to overwhelm readers with a too-heavy intellectual thesis or even sadness or pain.”
That doesn’t mean “Rooftop” is frivolous or without substantive weight. Vivian is an amplification of one facet true of Sexton’s mother.
“Without saying anything that will get me disowned, I have a mother who was rigorous in raising me and my younger brother,” Sexton said. “She just went after what she thought her children should do. I told her I wanted to be a writer when I was 13, and she agreed. She wanted me to write a novel in high school.
“She was so disappointed when I decided to go to law school. I had to come to writing in my own time. For Vivian, I borrowed from her the most admirable part of a parent who’s willing to sacrifice for a dream. My brother is a professional tennis player and yes, he’s out on the court … but she got him to be rated number 300 in the world.”
Developing believable Black women characters, or characters of any race or gender, she says is an organic process backed by principles.
“I’m not presenting stereotypes. I’ve grown up surrounded almost exclusively on an intimate level — other than my husband, who is White — by Black people. I understand their humanity. I can write their universal truths. I am it. I know it. I can show the full spectrum of Blackness.
“They’ll be angry because we’re all human and get angry. They’ll be kind because we are all human and will be kind. I’ll always be writing about socially relevant themes, like gentrification in this case, but I don’t write to educate White people about Black people.”
Cinematic scenes in her novels unfold along plot lines deeply impacted by the settings. She began “Rooftop” knowing only there was a mother who was a Black woman. Learning about 1950s and ’60s jazz in San Francisco was the entry point that introduced the book’s texture: jazz music and a complex Black community from the Deep South who came to the Bay Area during World War II to build ships.
Because the entertainment industry was a core element, Vivian’s story could be not only disappointment in her daughters’ choices in men but about music as a crutch in difficult times, the risk of her ambitions and more.
“Once I had the setting, I saw her, to use a modern trope, as a stage mom. People want that; a nuanced archetype with a twist.”
Interracial relationships and gay characters work their way into the novel and add depth at either ends of a tragic-joyful spectrum. One daughter becomes romantically involved with a White man — a fraught relationship — and Tony, a gay character, adds humor and vivacity. Sexton says the interracial love story if made happily-ever-after would have undermined the reality and gravity of what was actually happening in 1950s America.
“Chloe was being respected, seen, and not fetishized, but I didn’t want to misrepresent the racism of the time. The way she forced him to be on her level was very 2022, but if I’d made the relationship function, it would have been monumental and overshadowed the rest of the book.”
About Tony, she says he adds levity but also sadness.
“He’s not able to pursue the lifestyle he wanted. Reading about James Baldwin writing about coming to the Fillmore maybe planted the seed of having a gay male character who is closeted, Black and having that extra weight on his shoulders.”
After completing each novel, Sexton has a short story project on deck to prevent her from falling into emotional lulls. The current collection spans colonial to future time periods and grapples with intraracial colorism (distinctions within a race based on skin color) and the consequences of mother-inflicted wounds.
Although the stories run counter to “Rooftop’s” upbeat tone, Sexton says her default zone is optimistic when it comes to systemic racism that’s often the touchstone in her work.
“I’m hopeful, but there’s clearly work to be done. I don’t want to undermine how much polishing old issues with new veneers there is — and acting like it’s not the same systematic oppression looking different. But my dad was born in 1945 and listening to him talk about growing up in Jim Crow South, my life couldn’t look more different.
“It would be a slap in the face to people who’ve fought for progress we’ve made to not acknowledge how far we’ve come, but hope isn’t popular now. There’s so much justifiable anger. It’s not that I’m not angry, but I also want to be mindful of the kinds of emotions that will lead to change.
“That doesn’t mean I’m just going to sit here happily accepting what comes. I’m active, working toward justice. That’s the approach that’s going to foster the change we need.”