Fresh out of college in the early 1970s, a naive and bright-eyed Jessica B. Harris began teaching French at Queens College in New York. A new wave of Black intelligentsia was forming, and though Harris was considered a little too young and bourgois for colleagues to fully embrace her, she did manage to develop a friendship with the undeniably cool Samuel Clemens Floyd III, an older, magnetic professor at the college.
That friendship turned into a years-long romance filled with food and travel and creativity, all made possible by Sam’s close friendship with “Jimmy” — James Baldwin. Harris was younger than Sam’s crowd of artists and literati, but as Sam’s girl, she was allowed entry into a world few ever got to see. In My Soul Looks Back, she recounts her years on this periphery of Black genius. Toni Morrison had written The Bluest Eye but was still an editor at Random House, Roots was about to be published, Nina Simone occasionally dropped in on Jimmy’s parties, and Dr. Angelou was still “Maya” (who also happened to be Sam’s former lover). Everyone was poised for greatness, and Harris was there on the outer edges. Just like at Queens College, she was the outsider, the young one, but there to witness everything nonetheless.
That’s the thing about this memoir: Harris was clearly on the outside. Yes, she sometimes made her way to the center — Baldwin read one of his then-unpublished books directly to her at one of his parties, and later, she was a frequent guest at Angelou’s Christmas parties — but she was mostly an observer, and at least at first, she was clearly only invited into that orbit because of Sam.
It still makes for a fascinating life story, and it’s written beautifully. For instance, of times spent with Maya and her husband, Paul, Harris writes:
[P]rofound conversations about all aspects of life, heart-felt rage tempered by equally intense laughter with heads thrown back and their entire bodies poured into the moment. It was a time of life lived fully, deeply. Random encounters would smoothly morph into dinners or gatherings that would then be transformed into events that could go well into the wee hours of the morning, but always underneath it all, there was the heartbeat of work and writing and speaking and teaching and all of the daily madness of life.
Bookending each chapter is a recipe reminiscent of that time in Harris’s life; since those years, she has gone on to become a celebrated cookbook writer and African food historian (among many other things). It’s fitting, too, as food plays a prominent role throughout the book.
Some might find the book either too name-droppy or even too vague — she mentions those “profound conversations” taking place without ever getting into specifics as to what those conversations were actually about — but I think it’s appropriate, giving readers an idea of what happened without completely infringing on her friends’ privacy. It works; everything about the book feels dreamy. And I think the book cover perfectly captures that as well: the first of many 70s snapshots to come for the reader. I really enjoyed it.
My Soul Looks Back was published in May 2017 by Scribner.