We Are Taking Only What We Need by Stephanie Powell Watts is a collection of ten stories about growing up, even while already an adult, as a Black Person in the United States South. Some of the characters will make forays North, but experiences and roots will influence their entire life experiences. One theme that illustrates this which appears in several stories is how a poignant event from the past will be triggered by a seemingly insignificant later life event resulting in tears to the surprise of the character and anyone surrounding her. I use the gender-specific pronoun because these are women’s stories. Which leads me to one problem with perspective.
I am not a woman, I am not Black, and the only time I have lived in the American South was as a soldier comfortably housed and isolated on military bases. It is not the same as living in the American South. Never-the-less, these stories powerfully affected me because of another recurring theme, poverty. Several characters will struggle to pay the rent or buy food. Characters will work at low paid jobs and less desirable hours than their White counterparts. Anne will scream at Sheila, a worker in a call center dog registry as if Sheila were an animal. The economic conditions of Black characters were almost equivalent to those of Whites called Trailer Trash. The examination of poverty provides a context for stories; it is not a focused theme. Racial inequities are examined from different perspectives: Black, White, Young, Old, Parent, and Child. This examination displays the power of the stories.
After reading the first story, Family Museum of the Ancient Postcards, I stopped to consider how I would continue reading. The writing was so powerful; I knew I would read slower to appreciate the beauty of language and expression. It was time to reschedule my day. The collection is a page-turner, but the stories can be read in isolation. I am sure readers will make connections as characters in later stories appear to be related to those in earlier tales, but readers will not lose a continuing thread by reading each story as a stand-alone presentation.
I highly recommend this collection and give it five (plus) stars any scale. On different scales, pick the highest rating and add (plus). I do not usually add information about an author. Stephanie Powell Watts impressed me so much I quote this author information.
“Stephanie Powell Watts is an associate professor of English at Lehigh University and is the author of No One Is Coming to Save Us. She has won numerous awards, including a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and the Southern Women’s Wrier Award for Emerging Writer of the Year, and has been a PEN/Hemingway finalist. In 2017, No One Is Coming to Save Us was chosen by Sarah Jessica Parker as an inaugural pick for the American Library Association’s Book Club Central.” (p. 216 from eBook offered by Scribd).
It is also my practice to say something about each story. Following are a few immediate reaction thoughts because I also like the titles of the stories. They evoke thought too, but more so after reading the stories.
Family Museum of the Ancient Postcards ***** This is a great first story. It has several vignettes of family life on Sundays and at family gatherings as it illustrates coming-of-age problems for children and adults.
If You Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far ***** Older brother Greg came home from jail. So why is he being treated like someone so important? A story of jealousies.
We Are Taking Only What We Need ***** Primarily a story of dogs and babysitters, watch out on page 72 for an admission by Tammi (the babysitter) as she makes one of the most disturbing observations I have ever read. I am a fan of upsetting stuff, but this almost caused me to include a trigger warning.
Unassigned Territory ***** If you are one of those disturbed by unannounced visits by Jehovah’s Witness missionaries, the information provided in this story will give new insights.
All the Sad Etc. ***** A visit to a relative who is a patient in a mental health facility presents a new perspective on Christmas.
Welcome to the City of Dreams ***** Moving from country life to live in the big city is not for everyone. Young people would find it most appealing, right?
Do You Remember the Summer of Love? ***** A lot of people missed the revolution of the ‘60s, one that took place most notably in California. For those who missed it, maybe a move to California could bring the images seen on television to life.
Black Power ***** Referenced above, note how Sheila reflects on her image as non-Black, at least while she is on the phone.
Highway 18 **** More perspectives on visits by a Jehovah’s witness, the death of a small town’s hooker, and inappropriate actions at the drive-through while waiting for chicken.
There Can Never Be Another Me ***** Don had known Mae all his life. Mae and Jonnie had opened a restaurant called The Sisters, but they weren’t sisters; Jonnie was Mae’s daughter. Don was a frequent and loyal customer at the restaurant.
We Are Taking Only What We Need is brilliant. Take time to read it slowly to savor some profound observations on the lives of characters outside the novels (also known as readers).