In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
LaTanya McQueen’s novel When the Reckoning Comes is a haunting and moving debut.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“McQueen writes with rich understanding of the spine-chilling violence Black people have experienced from slavery down throughout generations, often leading many on a journey of self discovery of their own. She writes layered characters who deal with elitism, trust, social class, and a strong desire to be seen and understood”
When the Reckoning Comes is centered around Mira, a woman who, at the start of the novel is returning to her hometown of Kipsen to attend the wedding of her childhood best friend Celine. Celine, who is white, is having her wedding at the recently renovated Woodsman Plantation, a plantation that’s also been rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of slaves seeking vengeance on the descendants of those who once owned them. While Mira tells herself she is going back for Celine, she is really wanting to see her childhood crush Jesse in the hope of reconnecting with him again.
While that’s loosely the premise, When the Reckoning Comes is also a story specifically about how Black people see themselves, as well as how they see each other, and how that’s affected by the white gaze. It’s also a story about the connections between the historical past and the present and how, despite America’s desire to ignore or erase history, those connections are always there lurking underneath the surface.
While the list I’ve included is not the entirety of songs I listened to while writing When the Reckoning Comes, they are the songs I listened to the most. When I write, I tend to play one song on repeat and then when I want to move to something thematically different or different in tone or mood, I chose another song. Because of this, each of the songs has a special significance, both because of their meaning but also because of their connection to each of the specific scenes or chapters I was writing while I listened to them.
Go Tell ‘Em by Vic Mensa
Interspersed in the novel are these interstitial sections that tell the collective story of the slaves who lived on the Woodsman Plantation and what led them to revolt. I always came back to Vic Mensa’s “Go Tell ‘Em” in writing this story. Mensa said in an interview how he believes hip-hop is “resistance in its purest manifestation.” “Go Tell ‘Em” was the perfect resistance song that captured the spirit of Black militant action, and I wanted to channel the frustration and anger present in it toward those interstitial sections.
Strange Fruit by Nina Simone
I’m not sure if people know the origins of “Strange Fruit,” but the song was written by Abel Meeropol, a Russian Jewish immigrant from the Bronx who wrote a poem called “Bitter Fruit” that he later turned into the famous song. He was compelled to write it after seeing the photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
I have also seen the photograph that haunted Meeropol—it’s considered to be an iconic photograph of lynching in the U.S.—and it haunts me too. Postcards of lynchings were once popular souvenirs, and I’m reminded of America’s desire to consume images of Black death every time another recording of a police-sanctioned murder gets circulated in the news and on social media.
I thought of the photograph, and this song, when I wrote the opening chapter of When the Reckoning Comes. As the main character, Mira, drives back to her hometown, she comes across a chain gang of black people working alongside the road. She’s struck by what she sees, haunted by it, because in America, prison labor is just another form of slavery.
Body Smile and Think about Me by dvsn
At the heart of When the Reckoning Comes is the love story between Mira and her childhood friend, Jesse, and both of these dvsn songs encapsulates their relationship. “Body Smile” centers on the lack of communication between a couple, and with Mira and Jesse—not only do they not know how to talk to one another, but as adults they have lost touch with who each of them even is. They have to let go of whatever past memory they have for the other and begin to know, and love, who each of them are in the now.
“Think of Me” is a song about not being able to get over someone from your past, and in the novel, Mira has not been able to get over Jesse despite it being over a decade since she’s seen him last. She hopes he still thinks about her, but she doesn’t know if it’s just wishful thinking. Still, the idea of seeing him again, the allure of a possible reconnection, is what pulls her back to her hometown of Kipsen, despite her reticence to return.
The Story of Sonny (Still Golliwog) by A.D. Carson, Sonny Blue
Carson recently released his album i used to love to dream which is the first peer-reviewed rap album to be released for an academic publisher, but I first heard about him when he went viral for rapping his dissertation, a 34-song album called Owning My Masters: the Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions. While Carson uses a different medium than I do (music instead of writing), we’re both interested in the way history haunts our present. All of his work helped me in shaping my novel, but I picked this song because it samples Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”, a song that deals with anti-Black stereotypes. At the beginning of my novel, Mira harbors a lot of engrained anti-blackness and part of the reckoning of the book is her own recognition of how history has come to shape these feelings she has about herself (and how these feelings have affected how she treats others).
This Is America by Childish Gambino
When Mira returns to Kipsen and sees the Woodsman plantation again, she sees the horror of what it’s become—a renovated vacation resort that provides guests with an Antebellum-era experience, complete with reenactments. “This is America,” I thought as I wrote that chapter, remembering the Childish Gambino song. I wanted readers to feel uncomfortable in reading these scenes, both because of what was being depicted but also because of the reminder that our country has never really reckoned with its ugly history. Black people are dying, both then and now, but that’s not the story white audiences want to hear. They want to ignore the horror and see the song and dance.
While I love the Amy Winehouse version, I associate this one so much with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The overall vibe this song evokes is what I was going for in writing the plantation wedding scenes with Celine, in particular the rehearsal dinner Mira attends the night before the wedding. Celine is the type of woman who’d want a Gatsby-themed wedding for what she thinks it represents (wealth and class), even if she’s never read the novel.
While I listened to a lot of Negro spirituals, I listened to “Wade in the Water” the most and this is my favorite rendition of the song. It’s thought that “Wade in the Water” is associated with the Underground Railroad and that the lyrics were a warning for slaves to get in the water to prevent the slave-catchers’ dogs from trailing their scent. In my novel, part of the history of the Woodsman Plantation centers around what happened to the slaves who rebelled. There’s the belief they escaped by traveling through the nearby river and then found refuge in the maroon communities they created in the Great Dismal Swamp.
“Formation” by Beyonce
“Formation” is such an empowering affirmation of Black womanhood that it helped contrasted with my struggles in writing this novel—both because of my own insecurities and fears of not finishing or being good enough, but also in writing a main character who struggles a lot with antiblackness. In the world of the novel, after everything that has happened to her, I like to imagine that Mira has finally come to terms with her Black identity, accepted it, and is ready to do the work of furthering liberation for others.
LaTanya McQueen has an MFA from Emerson College, a PhD from the University of Missouri, and was the Robert P. Dana Emerging Writer Fellow at Cornell College. She is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Coe College in Iowa.