The epigraph of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand sets a historical, poignant, and fiercely resilient tone: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” – Martin Luther King Jr.’s reported last words, April 4, 1968
The song’s steadfast gospel lyrics equally describe the book’s protagonist, Civil Townsend, a Black nurse and eventually doctor coming of age in Montgomery in the 1960s and 70s. A self-described member of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Talented Tenth, daughter of a doctor and an artist, Civil tries to reconcile her upbringing with the poverty she sees while dispensing birth control for a family planning clinic.
Her story of growing up, framed by a much older Civil finally sharing her past with her adult daughter, is only a backdrop to this historical novel’s tragic focus. Take My Hand spotlights the forced sterilization of Black teenagers and women, based on a legal case argued by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the 1970s. Reif v. Weinberger happened just after the decades-long syphilis experiments on Black men at the Tuskegee Institute came to light in 1972, a detail that features prominently in the novel.
Reading Take My Hand felt like standing witness to history. However, it is written with such self-awareness and beauty, especially with Civil’s near-mothering of two girls she meets at the clinic, that it becomes more than a historical novel. It is a book to galvanize compassionate action on behalf of women and girls today.
At one point, Civil assures her daughter: “I know what you’re thinking: This is just another white savior story…. I grew up reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I know the story. And I can’t say I blame your skepticism… What I can say to you is this: We are at the center of our own destiny. Always have been. Yes, there have been times this country has tried to destroy us. But we have not been doormats.”
Civil’s determination to accept her own history is so powerful that it felt like I was reading a primary source.
After tearing through the book in a weekend, I listened again to “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Its narrator prays:
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light
If you’re feeling worn, read this book.