City Lights

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s On the Rooftop is a story of the Fillmore.

on the rooftop, margaret wilkerson sexton
Smeeta Mahanti

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s sprightly, emotionally savvy third novel, On the Rooftop, is set in 1953 in San Francisco’s Fillmore district. The chronology and place are fraught. At the time, the predominantly Black neighborhood was targeted for redevelopment, thanks to debatable claims of blight; within the next three decades, the neighborhood would be transformed and its residents dispersed. Sexton’s novel isn’t about those results—it doesn’t tunnel into the future. Rather, it goes deep into the early moments of the change and deftly captures the anxiety it created.

The load-bearing beam for much of that anxiety is Vivian, a widow who moved to San Francisco from Louisiana to escape the Klan and Jim Crow. Her relief at being out of the South is so intense that she is quick to shut down disruptive talk of civil rights. “Don’t get me started on the lynchings,” she remembers, “so many at one time, my mama wept every time my daddy left the house. You see any of that in San Francisco?” Instead, she’s pinned her hopes on her three daughters, Chloe, Ruth, and Esther, who form a vocal trio, the Salvations, that draws crowds at a Fillmore supper club. A manager has persuaded Vivian that girl groups are on the rise, that they have a shot at stardom. Deep thoughts about equality and racial justice won’t be necessary; just make sure the young women stay focused on music.

They don’t, of course. Ruth, the natural lead of the group, gets pregnant. Esther becomes increasingly involved in efforts to resist eminent domain. Chloe, the most progressive and precocious of the three—her closest friend is a gay man—flirts with a kind-eyed white jazz aficionado and considers a potential path replacing Ruth.

So much for salvation, or the Salvations. (The echoes of Fiddler on the Roof are palpable.) Vivian is mortified by it all. With every crisis, Sexton returns to the history that terrifies the character. “She might as well have been in Louisiana,” Vivian thinks when Ruth tells her she’s pregnant, “wandering the rows, twisting the cotton from the bolls, beginning the terrible trek back home.”

One of the chief themes of On the Rooftop is the way anxiety constricts ambition. Vivian is the starkest visualization of this idea. But narrow ambition, and the fear that drives it, occupy much of the atmosphere of the Fillmore as Sexton has imagined it. Residents and business owners are increasingly content to take buyouts, skeptical that they have the power to resist. Esther needs persuading to take part in unifying residents. Chloe, for all her brashness, recognizes the unspoken racist rules, even in San Francisco: “Still, she knew to look down when the whites passed. She knew to let them sit on the streetcar first. She knew to stay on this side of Geary.”

Still, as much as this is a story about the lives of Vivian and her daughters, it’s also a story about community—how groups serve as sources of support and liberation, too. The novel’s liveliest moments often take place in the family’s church, commingling message, music, and collective spirit. This is where Vivian is able to center herself, and it’s easy to see why a girl group would be so foundational to her ambition: not just music but strength in numbers. The tension arises from the push and pull of Vivian and her daughters, wrestling with what they can do alone and what they can do as a group. “The world can’t change without me,” Esther muses in one of her first attempts at songwriting. This neatly encapsulates the novel’s assertion that to be part of a meaningful community, you must first figure out who you are.

On the Rooftop, as a novel, has a balancing act to manage. Sexton wants to deliver the warmth of a family saga with an overall mood of uplift, but she also seeks to write a novel about a neighborhood in crisis and what it means to try to chase your dreams when a wrecking ball is swinging right toward them. Because Sexton is so good at particularizing the romantic and professional aspirations of her four central characters, the neighborhood itself sometimes feels relatively sketched in: crowds at protests grumbling; white redevelopers standing stone-faced in doorways, eyeing the residents. The neighborhood drunk, who offers the sole evidence of any sort of rot, delivers comic relief and community intelligence.

This emphasis on emotional rather than sociological detail is sensible—novels are always about people—even if it softens the story. But Sexton is also writing about people whose first instinct is to soften, avoid, play nice, because they’ve been conditioned to do so. Late in the novel, Esther thinks, “There was a simplicity to life when you didn’t want for more than you could hope to achieve.” In the opening pages, that line would’ve had a lilt to it, a motto for knowing one’s place. Later, too much has been stirred in her. Thought becomes a prod to act, to change.•

Ecco Press
ON THE ROOFTOP, BY MARGARET WILKERSON SEXTON
Ecco Press Bookshop.org
$26.96
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