Sarah's Psalm

A Novel

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This searing first novel is the story of Sarah Stewart, a young black Harvard graduate in the 1960s whose growing interest in Africa—and down a path of self-discovery, love, and the choice between loyalty and truth.
This is at once the story of the emerging civil rights movement and the beginning of Afro-centrism. Lyrical. Lyrical, moving, and ultimately uncompromising, Sarah's Psalm is also a powerful story of love and coming of age.

Reading Group Discussion Points
1) Describe the ways in which Sarah's Psalm is part diary, part travel journal, part discourse, and part meditation.
2) On her first airplane trip to Senegal, Sarah begins to understand the emotional meaning of Negritude. "Until that moment, my reading of Senghor's essays on Negritude had been merely an intellectual exercise. "I looked about me and felt the connection between the spirit of my fellow African travelers and the soul that animates African-American culture." In this context, what does Negritude mean? How does the concept of Negritude permeate Sarah's Psalm? How is it important to Sarah -- to Africans, as well as to African-Americans?
3) How does Ladd concurrently follow the civil rights movement in the United States and the emergence of Afrocentrism? How does Sarah and Lincoln's relationship represent the conflict of interests between the civil rights movement and Afrocentrism?
4) Sarah's passion for Senegal and for the writer Ibrahim Mangane and his writing is so strong that Lincoln calls it an obsession. Her mother says, "Sarah, dear, have you thought of seeing someone -- a psychiatrist perhaps -- about your plans and your -- your Senegal problem?" Yet Sarah feels she is being drawn to her destiny. How do you view Sarah's passion? Does Ladd attempt to explain it, or does she leave it in the realm of the inexplicable? Do some people have destinies while others don't, or does everyone have a destiny?
5) Kathleen Neal Cleaver, a visiting scholar from Harvard University writes, "In a lyrical, moving story of passionate devotion to a larger-than-life husband, Sarah's Psalm engages the violent clash between modernity and tradition that marks our era." Discuss the ways in which Ladd explores this conflict between modernity and tradition. How is it embodied in Sarah's life? In what ways does this violent clash mark our era?
6) In becoming Ibrahim Mangane's wife, Sarah gives up, or postpones, her own creative life. Yet, with her support, Mangane's career blossoms. In what way does Sarah contribute to Mangane's eventual rise to world famous writer and filmmaker? For example, how does she shape his views on feminism, and what impact does this have on Mangane's work and fame?
7) When Sarah visits Antonia for the last time on Martha's Vineyard, Antonia says to her, "Just as I predicted, you've become his girl Friday. You've sacrificed the promise of a brilliant career in order to walk in the shadow of that man. Your name is going to be just one more name on the roster of sacrificial gifted women who have suppressed their ambitions in the interest of the success of their husbands." Is this a true and/or fair assessment of Sarah's life? How do Sarah and Antonia embody the conflict between tradition and modernity?
8) Ousmane writes to his father: "Before it is too late, recant, Papa. Issue a statement about your being misguided. Renew your Islamic vows. Make a film about the wholesomeness and honesty of the fundamentalist way of life. Apologize and free yourself of alien influence." What do you think Ibrahim Mangane was trying to accomplish through his writing and film? Was he interested in reforming the fundamentalist way?
9) Sarah's psalm is not static, but rather it changes and evolves as Sarah grows. It begins as the 121st Psalm: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. As a young woman, Sarah reinterprets it as: I will cast mine eyes upon the ocean from whence come my help. My help cometh from Senegal, which is heaven on earth. How does Sarah reinterpret this psalm at the end of the novel? How do the various versions of Sarah's psalm serve to mirror her evolving interior world?
10) Sarah is deeply inspired by Aunt Khady who leads the women to keep their village alive by learning to do the men's work. Who does Aunt Khady come to represent in Sarah's Psalm? What does her village and the work of the village women symbolize to Sarah?
11) Sarah's path of self-discovery leads her to the island of Goree. What does the island of Goree symbolize in Sarah's Psalm? What is Mangane's relationship to it? What is Sarah's?
Recommended Readings
July's People, Nadine Gordimer
My Son's Story, Nadine Gordimer
Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston
The African Child, Camera Laye
Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison
The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor
Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
The Black Docker, Ousmane Sembene
The Money Order, Ousmane Sembene
Liberte L Nefritude et Humanisme, Leopold Sedar Senghor
Nocturnes, Leopold Sedar Senghor
Ake, Wole Soyinka
The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, Wole Soyinka

Karen Grigsby Bates Los Angeles Times Ladd's finely crafted story...is a valuable addition to the ever-widening world of African-American letters.

Rebecca Nemser Boston Magazine Ladd is a true storyteller, and Sarah's story has the making of a modern myth.

Rosellen Brown A painful and...joyous book.

Jayne Anne Phillips A moving testament to one woman's complex journey through the heartland of the self.