“My life had its significance and its only deep significance because it was part of a Problem,” W. E. B. Du Bois once wrote. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood these words all too well. Bearing the names of two formidable Black Americans—the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother, the descendant of slaves and tenant farmers—Ailey carries the weight of this Problem on her shoulders.
The daughter of an accomplished doctor and a strict schoolteacher, Ailey is raised in the City but spends summers in the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her mother’s family has lived since their ancestors arrived from Africa in bondage. Growing up, she struggles with this duality, a battle for belonging that shapes her identity. On one side are her exacting parents and her imperious, light-skinned grandmother Nana Claire, to whom skin color is paramount. On the other, Ailey feels the pull of the “deep country” of her mother’s land-tending family, whose forebears endured the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow.
But how can Ailey live up to everyone’s expectations when half of her family rejects the truth of a fraught racial history, while the rest can’t ever seem to break away from it?
To come to terms with who she is and what she wants, Ailey embarks on a journey through her family’s past, uncovering shocking and unexpected tales of generations of ancestors—Black, Indigenous, and white—in the deep South. In doing so Ailey must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story of the Black experience in America itself.