Witherspoon: A Novel by Lance Jeffers (1983)*

[By Jerry Ward]

Such Agonies Suffer Our Men of War
Witherspoon, one is moved by its
aesthetic and its morality.  Lance
Jeffers does not depend on mutilation of language, allusion to the arcane, or
puzzles in logic to achieve effects.  He
is too good and too honest an artist to engage in easy tricks.  He knows, as wordsmiths have known since the
pre-history of Africa,  that a good story
told in language the community can understand is not to be surpassed.  The grace and strength of fiction are located
in its ability to show us our lives with more order, insight, and clarity than
we can normally obtain.  Good fiction
pushes us toward recognition, toward a profound, relentless honesty about
ourselves and others.  It forces us to
make moral decisions while satisfying our penchant for narratives about man’s
endless contest with the fate of being human. 
Because it fulfills these criteria superbly, Witherspoon is a fine, important novel.

the poem “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand,” Jeffers wrote:
see my children stunted,
young men slaughtered,
do not know the mighty power of my hand.
see the power over my life and death in
man’s hands, and sometimes
shake my woolly head and wonder:
Lord have mercy! What would it be
like…to be free?
Witherspoon, James Corwul, and Willie Armstrong are characters who, in varying
degrees, come to know the power of their black hands, their interrelated
life-stories being metonymic:  the essence
of Black life and the complexity of Black male psychology in the South are
compressed in their ability or inability to assert power. Through these
characters, Jeffers examines what it means to be unempowered and how Black men
and women do possess the inner strength (and latent social power) to be great
and human without ambivalence.  Witherspoon does not seek to tell what
it would be like to be Black, free, and Southern.  It shows what the unsung heroes among
ordinary Black folk must do to achieve individual and collective freedom.  And what they must do involves tragedy and
love, the willingness to push one’s humanity to irreversible extremes, and
determination to stare death straight in the eye. Black people, especially
Black men, will know the power of their hands when they know themselves
Witherspoon does not
validate how we are now, nor does it evade the Black man’s critical problem of
confronting, in the words of Robert Staples, “the contradiction between the
normative expectations attached to being male in this society and the
proscriptions on [his] behavior and achievement of goals.”  With the skill of a surgeon, Jeffers performs
an operation in the underexplored depths of Black male psychology.  Therefore, he enables us to discover the
agonies suffered by our men of war and the long journey they and we must take
to find psychological freedom.  The great
achievement of Witherspoon is the
destruction of the historical and social myths behind which men try to mask.
the wisdom of the spirituals (a fact apparent in the novel’s original title The Lord is a
Man of War), Lance Jeffers has given
us fiction that is convertive and blacktrocuting.  In its affirmation that descent into the
inferno of racism leads to rising like a phoenix, Witherspoon offers to us the grandeur that is ours.  Witherspoon
is the sorrow song of our new day, the martial song for Black men who would
know the power of their hands.  It is an
ode to the invisible men and women whose authentic humanity must become the
model of our own.