Kevin Sacco’s Josephine (2017) is poignant and moving. Told only through sepia colored panels, without words, the semi-autobiographical Josephine centers on a seven year-old protagonist as he navigates Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1960s, guided in part by his Black caretaker, Josephine. Josephine is, as Sacco notes, a melding together “of my caretakers. . . Leonora, Cleo, Mildred, Louise, and Josephine.” Through Josephine, Sacco’s tale explores familial relationships and racial relations in America, specifically New York, during the 1950s and 1960s.
I find Josephine compelling and moving; however, I also find it problematic in ways. Reading it, I could not shake the feeling that the narrative, while set in a different region and period, reminded me of William Faulkner and his fictional representations of Caroline Barr or of Catherine Maria Sedgwick and her fictional representations of Elizabeth Freeman. While we do see Josephine’s humanity and psyche in the narrative, we do not see her life outside of her relationship with her young white charge. This is understandable, on one level, due to the fact that the narrative is Sacco’s memories about his formative years as a child. Yet, it is also problematic because Josephine becomes nothing more than an instrument for the protagonist’s growth.
Immediately following the statement from Sacco that I quote earlier, he writes of his caretakers, “I knew them by their first names only, but knew well their touch, their smell, and the sound of their voices when they would call my name.” The acknowledgement that he did not know Leonora’s, Cleo’s, Mildred’s, Louise’s, or Josephine’s last names is telling. Essentially, it implies that he did not know anything about their lives apart from what he experienced as being in their charge. This disconnect also occurs in Josephine as well.
We do see Josephine alone in some of the panels, yes. However, these panels where she is alone occur within the protagonist’s house. We see her vacuuming, scrubbing the bathtub, and picking up a grocery list. The implication here, of course, is that everything she does is for the protagonist and his family. Later, Josephine takes the protagonist to Harlem. There, she takes him to what appears to be her family’s house where she introduces the protagonist to what appears to be her father or grandfather and her brother. We do see her brother’s struggles here because he appears to be out of work and looking for a job. This, of course, relates to the ready availability of domestic work for Black women and the difficulty of finding sustainable work for Black women during the period.
After visiting the family home, Josephine walks the boy around the neighborhood. We see panels of young girls jumping rope, a man leaning on a car talking to a woman, young men playing stickball, and a group of Marcus Garvey supporters. These images provide a glimpse into Josephine’s day-to-day life and the community she lives within, yet they are fleeting images that do not delve into the interiority of those who occupy each panel.
Before taking him to Harlem, Josephine takes the young protagonist to a parade for Senator John F. Kennedy where he gets a small American flag. Kennedy, as well, reaches out from the car and grabs a hold of Josephine’s hand. This moment shows the bridging of the racial divide that Kennedy supported and represents, but again, it is fleeting. The pair eventually end up at Roy’s Chicken Shack where Josephine orders the young boy some fried chicken, and as he eats, a Black man without an arm strikes up a conversation because he notices the little souvenir American flag from the parade.
The man proceeds to tell the young protagonist about his time during World War II and how he lost his arm in battle. The symbolism here is reminiscent of things I have written about before with Dorie Miller, Reginald Hudlin’s Flags of Our Fathers, and other texts dealing with Black soldiers fighting during global wars and defending America while being denied their rights within America. At the end of his story, the man’s face looks dejected because he knows that even with his sacrifice he does not have the same rights afforded to the young boy.
After the man’s daughter arrives and the four of them head out on the town for a little while, Josephine and her young charge return to the protagonist’s house. There, as the young boy sleeps, his father stumbles in drunk and rapes Josephine. The final panel with Josephine shows her crying on the bed after the father leaves. The remainder of the novel focuses on the young protagonist looking for her and confronting the fact that she has gone.
Essentially, the narrative centers on the young boy, and I cannot fault this narrative focal point considering that Sacco aims for this book to be a representation of his memories as a child. The problem, for me, arises, from the lack of interiority that we see with Josephine, her family, or the veteran. They exist, as stated before, as instruments to help the young boy along on his journey. The protagonist sees them as he travels through Harlem, and he interacts with them, but does he ever get to know them. We do not see the young Black girl anymore after Josephine and the protagonist go home. We do see the one-armed veteran again, though, when he delivers a comic book to the young boy as he is moving out of the house. The novel ends back in the present with the man showing the comic to a passing white woman.
Ultimately, these aspects are problematic because while the protagonist does mourn Josephine, we do not see any impact from their relationship apart from the nurturing that occurred. This reminds me of Faulkner speaking of Barr at her funeral. Faulkner said, she was “a fount of authority over my conduct and of security for my physical welfare, and of active and constant affection and love. She was an active and constant precept for decent behavior.” This is what Josephine is. She nurtures the protagonist by buying him comics, which his mother tears up, and by comforting him when his parents fight.
What’s missing from this relationship, though, is reciprocity. The protagonist gets nurturing and a fount of material for his work, but what does he give in return? Does he give a recognition of complete humanity to Josephine? Or, does he simply see her as a caregiver? This is what we need to think about when looking at a text like Josephine. I do think that Josephine works to give hope and humanity to Josephine and the inhabitants of Harlem; however, I cannot see these moments as nothing more than facilitating the boy’s growth. I say this because the final page, in the present, shows the grown protagonist merely showing the comic to a white woman. What does this say? Does it show that what the protagonist learned about racial inequality had an impact? No. What did he learn about these issues? What did he do about them as he grew up? We cannot answer these questions, and because of that, I cannot say that the young boy did not view Josephine for her true self but merely as the identity she performed as his caretaker.