Walking Gentry Home

A Memoir of My Foremothers in Verse



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August 2, 2022 | ISBN 9780593559062

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About the Book

An “extraordinary” (Laurie Halse Anderson) young poet traces the lives of her foremothers in West Tennessee, from those enslaved centuries ago to her grandmother, her mother, and finally herself, in this stunning debut celebrating Black girlhood and womanhood throughout American history.

“A masterpiece that beautifully captures the heartbreak that accompanies coming of age for Black girls becoming Black women.”—Evette Dionne, author of Lifting as We Climb, longlisted for the National Book Award

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Ms. Magazine, Kirkus Reviews

Walking Gentry Home tells the story of Alora Young’s ancestors, from the unnamed women forgotten by the historical record but brought to life through Young’s imagination; to Amy, the first of Young’s foremothers to arrive in Tennessee, buried in an unmarked grave, unlike the white man who enslaved her and fathered her child; through Young’s great-grandmother Gentry, unhappily married at fourteen; to her own mother, the teenage beauty queen rejected by her white neighbors; down to Young in the present day as she leaves childhood behind and becomes a young woman. 

The lives of these girls and women come together to form a unique American epic in verse, one that speaks of generational curses, coming of age, homes and small towns, fleeting loves and lasting consequences, and the brutal and ever-present legacy of slavery in our nation’s psyche. Each poem is a story in verse, and together they form a heart-wrenching and inspiring family saga of girls and women connected through blood and history.

Informed by archival research, the last will and testament of an enslaver, formal interviews, family lore, and even a DNA test, Walking Gentry Home gives voice to those too often muted in America: Black girls and women.
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Praise for Walking Gentry Home

“Through verse, Young . . . reclaim[s] ownership of her own legacy, and future. If, as the spiritualist Ram Dass said, ‘we’re all just walking each other home,’ then Young has taken her ancestors’ hands, the ones who lived and died without the right to their full humanity, and walks them as far as she can down their own paths.”—Ashley C. Ford, The New York Times Book Review

“A lyrical debut.”Time

“Young honors Black womanhood while connecting it with the countless ways American culture has challenged, abused, and dismissed what it means to be both Black and a woman . . . With a true love for the South and the women who raised her, Young delivers a unique and powerful debut.”—Shondaland

“[Young’s] words reflect the wisdom of generations of women.”—Margaret Renkl, Nashville Scene (Best Literary Debut of 2022)

“Young refracts Black history through her family’s experiences of racism and ‘deferred dreams’. . . A moving debut from a young writer with great promise.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Chronicles [Young’s] family’s history through nine generations of mothers.”—NPR (Book of the Day)

“A triumph . . . [Walking Gentry Home] is a tribute to Halls, Tennessee, the town where Young grew up and where her family is deeply rooted. It's also a history of this family—five generations of Black women who toiled and triumphed.”Chattanooga Times Free Press

“270 years of [Young’s] family history told in verse . . . to recreate the stories of her living and long-departed ancestors.”The Tennessean

“Extraordinary—family truth written with fire. . . Poems that call out the lies that cage us. Songs that lift up the strength of girls and women . . . [this book] demands a reckoning, and gives me hope.”—Laurie Halse Anderson

Walking Gentry Home is a masterpiece of a book that so beautifully captures the heartbreak that accompanies coming of age for Black girls becoming Black women. . . Young . . . operat[es] almost as a genealogist, a storyteller of her family’s history—and all our histories . . . [she] will be heralded as a literary force for many, many generations to come.”—Evette Dionne

“This book will move and stir things in you that you did not even know were there . . . Young’s words lay beauty on the page with the invitation to learn our histories . . .You have no choice but to love this book and let our generational curses be broken.”—Bettina L. Love

“A brilliant book, written by an equally ingenious author . . . Walking Gentry Home is a must-read for any of us who dare to know more about our history in order to inform how we live.”—H. Richard Milner IV

“These are necessary poems—pulsing with syntactic urgency . . . and deep generational wisdom.”—Karyna McGlynn

“Young’s intimate family history also takes us through the history of the United States . . . You may see yourself reflected. . . you may step back to imagine your foremothers and how they shape your becoming.”Nashville Scene
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Walking Gentry Home

Walking Foreword

This home of mine lies in the steam that rolls off the hot water cornbread. It is singed fingertips from tinfoil-wrapped fried bologna sandwiches. It is tiptoeing barefoot to the ice cream truck over old sienna pavement. It is the best Dollar General on either side of the Mississippi. My home is the one-to-one pickup-truck-to-people ratio; everyone in this town has their all-wheel-drive alter ego. My home is in the honey mustard that sticks to the lid of the to-go packets that come with Exxon fried chicken. In my home even the gnats move slow, just taking their time. You can see the heat if you look hard enough. It leaves you sweating like a sinner in the Lord’s house. My home has a patina like a skillet of cast iron, a thousand times seasoned, a million times fired. My home is a tiny town in West Tennessee that for centuries you could barely find on a map. I carry it with me always.

Halls is the town where my mothers have lived since their beginning in this country. The kind of place where everyone is family. It’s where I found God, the second time. It’s the place that taught me love is unconditional and unrelenting. The people I love that thrived there die with the changing seasons. I watch the thrift shops and candy stores get boarded up and fade into phantoms of their former selves. I have been shaped by the way towns die because it taught me legacies can be forever. I wonder if it’s healthy to love a thing that’s as good as dead.

In Halls, I am the bearer of a prophecy. From the moment Momma’s body opened, they said I was the one they waited for. They say I’m the culmination of a thousand generations of brilliant women, prayers, internal warfare, deferred dreams. They have told me I am every voice and poem that never graced a page, or another’s ears and eyes. And because I bear this prophecy, I think it’s my fault every time one of their dreams dies.

This multigenerational memoir in verse chronicles the lineage of a group of Black women and girls in West Tennessee, from unrecorded history to the 1700s up to my life in the present day. These are not just any girls, however; they are my foremothers. In the beginning, we have a series of poems about my ancestors whose names we no longer know, before arriving at my several-greats-grandmother Collie, the child of an enslaved woman and her enslaver in the days when Tennessee was still primarily wilderness. We follow a teenage Gentry, my greatgrandmother, as she moves out of her mother’s home to marry at fourteen; my grandmother when she had my mother at seventeen; my mother, the beauty queen; and finally, we come to the present day, with me, attempting to recover the legacy of the then-teenage girls whose lives of hard work and limited opportunity led to the now-teenage me writing their longforgotten history.

The only way to tell this story is through poetry, because Black girlhood is eternally laced with rhythm, from the Negro hymns Amy Coleman whispered as she bore her enslaver’s child to the rhythm of the gospel my mother sang at fifteen when she was hailed a child prodigy.

Walking Gentry Home is a story about girlhood and how the world scoffs at the way Black women come of age. It is an American story that persists, and we persist in ignoring it. The innocence and adolescence of Black girls are stories that are desperately needed because Black girls begin being called women far before they know what women really are.

This is for them—and for me.

About the Author

Alora Young
Alora Young is a college student, an actor, and the Youth Poet Laureate of the Southern United States. Her poetry has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and she has performed her poetry on CNN, CBS, and the TEDx stage. Originally from Tennessee, Young currently attends Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. More by Alora Young
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