The Fall of Rome

A Novel

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About The Book

Latin instructor Jerome Washington is a man out of place. The lone African-American teacher at the Chelsea School, an elite all-boys boarding school in Connecticut, he has spent nearly two decades trying not to appear too "racial." So he is unnerved when Rashid Bryson, a promising black inner-city student who is new to the school, seeks Washington as a potential ally against Chelsea's citadel of white privilege. Preferring not to align himself with Bryson, Washington rejects the boy's friendship. Surprised and dismayed by Washington's response, Bryson turns instead to Jana Hansen, a middle-aged white divorcée who is also new to the school -- and who has her own reasons for becoming involved in the lives of both Bryson and Washington.
Southgate makes her debut as a writer to watch in this compelling, provocative tale of how race and class ensnare Hansen, Washington, and Bryson as they journey toward an inevitable and ultimately tragic confrontation.

Excerpt

Chapter One: The Roman Way

The Chelsea School is in the middle of a field so lush and vivid as to make the eyes water and shine with its light. There's grass everywhere, acres and acres of it, green and falling away, rolling. Up on the hill, a grand red barn sits, incongruous, bright, the biggest in three counties. Black cows dot the hillside. Sometimes you can see boys in orange down jackets walking among them, slapping the rumps of the cows to get them to shift and calling to each other in raucous, sarcastic voices. But the barn serves no real purpose here. It was built by the school's founder in the belief that manual labor in the open air would make stalwart men out of callow boys. The boys can take a class called Animal Husbandry, playing at being the farmers they will never be. The small amount of milk that the cows produce is donated to a nearby bottler and sold in greenish glass bottles for more than three times its value.

I have served this school since 1974. For most of that time, I have been the only Negro on the faculty. (A note: I am fully aware that Negro is no longer the fashionable term. It is, however, the term I prefer to use.) I have always been, and remain, the only Negro in the Classics Department. Given the waning interest in the classics manifested by today's young men, the fathers of the school have seen fit to render me the only classics teacher. It could be worse, I suppose. When I first arrived here, there was some serious talk of eliminating the entire department in the name of "relevance." Only an impassioned plea by the then-department head and some grumbling from our more conservative alumni preserved the few classes that are left. Fortunately, I have enough students to fill them, but there is not much demand for my knowledge of Greco-Roman culture outside of those classes. The vigorous and lengthy discussions that I imagine used to take place regarding matters of the classical mind are all in the past now.

When I was hired, John Hays, who was headmaster at the time, said that I was exactly the person they were looking for. I remember his words from my hiring interview quite distinctly. "It's time that the Chelsea School took note of the advances your people have made," he said, rearing back on the legs of his wooden chair. "Our boys will benefit from your fine example." He paused. "I know you'll take this in the spirit in which it's intended -- you're truly a credit to your race." I smiled briefly. I did take Hays's comment as the compliment he meant it to be -- though I suppose many would not have.

So it is that in more than twenty years of faculty pictures here, you see me -- or rather, you don't see me, a quiet, dark space among all the bright, pale faces, my heavy-rimmed glasses catching the light. There was a time when I was not alone. I was hired to teach here along with two other Negro men. Dexter Johnson was one. The other was Hugh Davenport. They had stellar credentials -- Amherst and Yale -- as did I, with my degree from Harvard. We spent time in one another's cramped apartments, discussing this or that student or, more often, the issues of the day. However, a few months into our acquaintance, I began to feel a rift growing between us. More and more, I had become convinced that the way to effect the greatest good was to toil within the system that Chelsea had long had in place. I believed our very presence could begin to create change as long as we behaved honorably. My colleagues did not. While they started out full of hope, as soon as one or two of their proposals were dismissed out of hand -- such as the one about having every Chelsea student take one course of Negro history -- they began to complain about "the Man" and about how "a black man would never get a break" at this school. One day, after yet another litany of unhappiness, I said to them, "Some would say that we got a break by being invited to teach here. It is up to us to make of the opportunity what we will."

My colleagues stared at me, then looked quickly at each other. "So it's like that, huh?" said one. "I thought you were slipping over to their side."

We completed our meal but never spoke again about anything but class schedules. Within a year, they had both left the faculty. I have no idea what became of them.

The conviction that I began to form in those earliest days has only strengthened and taken root with the passage of years -- it is up to us to make of opportunities what we will. I believe that I can affect the hearts and minds of boys who might never have seen an educated Negro before -- boys who knew only the women who cleaned their floors and the men who trimmed their lawns and, maybe later, Bill Cosby from the flickering television screen -- simply by my presence and skill as a teacher. More important, my presence stands as a testament to the notion that we are not all cut from the same cloth, that individual effort and rigor will ultimately win out over all.

I have seen some of my charges go on to run large companies. One is a United States senator, one a popular and well-respected writer. All of my most successful students have been white. But that doesn't trouble me a great deal. I know that I have opened their minds somewhat; that they see that there are some Negroes who value the things a Chelsea man values: order, decorum, rectitude. I have given my life over to passing on these ideals at Chelsea. I would gladly do it again.

The other thing I love about teaching here is the constant promise of renewal. Every fall, one gets the chance to begin again. Perhaps that is why the school is at its best in the fall. The grass has not yet lost its startling greenness, but the leaves are aflame with color, brilliant orange and deep red. The young men who are our students greet each other with loud shouts of pleasure. The faculty is full of resolve. It is a lovely time. It is unfortunate that it is so brief.

The moments before the first class of the year hum with a particular tension, one I have never entirely gotten used to. I start by standing quietly in front of the class, my back to them, writing out my name and some simple cases and conjugations. Behind me, the freshmen enter, some boisterously, as if to show that they are not intimidated, some so shyly that I hear only the clatter of their shoes and the shifting of desks and chairs as they find seats. I do not turn around until they begin to quiet and look at me, expectant and nervous. Even then, I let the silence linger a fraction of a minute longer. I wait until every eye is upon me.

"My name is Mr. Washington, and this is Latin One," I say, my voice pitched slightly louder to carry to the back of the room. "Latin is considered by many to be a dead language. In this room, it is not. While here, we can revel in the clarity of thought that produced it and the glory of the civilization that once used it. Much of the world we know rests on the foundation created by the Romans. It is a language to be treasured and respected. I assume that your presence here means that you feel as I do."

Those students who were pretending not to be intimidated before are generally stunned into silence by this speech. I know perfectly well that most of them are there because their fathers insisted or because fewer years of Latin are necessary to fulfill the language requirement than of French or Spanish. But I want them to understand the seriousness with which I regard what they are about to undertake. I know they have never seen anyone like me before.

They, on the other hand, tend to have a very similar look. I have grown used to it over my years of teaching. The well-cut blond or brown hair, the smooth boyish skin, the perfect teeth (or teeth on their way to being made perfect by means of expensively glittering orthodontia). They look lush, if I may use such a term, as though great effort has rarely been required of them, as though they are used to getting what they want. I suppose they have been.

This year, as I looked over the rows of students, I saw a young Negro boy who was new to the school. Looking down the class enrollment list, I saw that he had one of those rather absurd African-inspired names. Rashid. That was it. Rashid Bryson.

He wore his hair in dreadlocks, the unattractive mass of ropy knots favored by many young Negro men these days. It is a style that looks angry to me -- I see why the word dread is used. He was neatly dressed, but there was a slightly insolent air in the way his legs were spread, feet planted, on the floor. I was quite surprised to see him in my classroom.

As the only Negro member of the faculty, I have historically been called on to provide support to the Negro students here, of whom there are admittedly very few. My feelings about this are mixed. I want, always, to do what is best for the school. I am well aware of the pressures attendant on our current headmaster, Ted Fox, to create a diverse student body -- one with more Negro students in particular. I am well aware that I am a beneficiary of the kinds of programs -- or at least the kinds of outreach -- that lead students like young Mr. Bryson to the doors of the Chelsea School. But I do not feel that it is incumbent upon me to help every young man with skin the color of mine who comes through the doors of this school. Let all be accepted on their merits, let them rise or fall as they may. That is something else I have learned from my long study of Rome. There are those who believe otherwise, but I share the view of those scholars who have argued that ancient Rome was a place of racial egalitarianism. I believe that they accepted each man on his individual merits, with little regard for the color of his skin. I am not so naive as to believe that this country's long history of racial prejudice has been eradicated. But I do believe that those of us whom Du Bois called "the darker brothers" could profit from accepting the values that Chelsea at its best espouses. And while I see this school's standards softening under the relentless onslaught of preferential treatment, I want to continue to uphold the values that the school's founders held dear.

I have come to my unwillingness to be lumped together with others of my race over many years of watching young Negro men come into Chelsea. All too often they have been given some sort of dispensation or aid to come to the school, and all too often they spend their brief time here huddled together, looking out at the other students and the faculty with a cynical gaze that condemns us all and offers little appreciation for the gift they have been given. These students are being presented with a chance to study the greatest works of the greatest minds of Western civilization, and they would rather spend their time listening to so-called music with no perceptible melody performed by young thugs and reading, if they read at all, works by vastly inferior contemporary writers who happen to be the same race as they. I feared young Mr. Bryson might be such a one. His quiet, measuring gaze on me as I spoke did nothing to dispel that impression.

The first class of the year, I do most of the talking. I offer a brief history of Greek civilization as it affected the Roman and talk a bit about the Latin roots of our own language as well as that of the Romance languages. I make little attempt to be jocular or engaging. I want them to be engaged by the journey we are embarked on, by our efforts to learn this elegant, controlled, and graceful language. I don't require that we have fun. I require only that they give it their best effort and their full attention. They generally look slightly shell-shocked after the first class. Inevitably, a few have dropped out by the end of the second week.

"Well then, gentlemen," I concluded, "the period is nearing an end and you have your assignment for the first week. It should keep you fairly occupied after you settle into your dorms this evening. Are there any questions?"

To my surprise, Mr. Bryson raised his hand. "Is there any extra credit work?" His voice was unusually low pitched for someone only thirteen or fourteen years old and his gaze an odd combination of frank and fearful. His eyes were the same unfathomable dark brown that my brother's had been, the challenge in his look similar.

"Oh-ho, an eager beaver here," I replied. I must admit that I was impressed by such a show of initiative so early in the year, especially from such an unexpected source. "Why don't you see how you do with tonight's assignment and allow me to prepare something for those who are interested for next week? Fair enough?" The boy nodded, his eyes never leaving mine. To the class as a whole, I said, "All right, you gentlemen are dismissed. Don't make too much noise as you depart."

Their faces were blank and relieved as they left. Despite my warning, their noise level began slowly but rose to a tidal wave as soon as they hit the hallway. Young Mr. Bryson was one of the last to leave. He glanced toward me as he left the room, and a fleeting expression -- anger? kinship? appraisal? -- crossed his face. He looked as though he wanted to ask me another question but then decided not to linger. I finished organizing my papers with a peculiar feeling of unease. His eyes seemed to be on me long after he had left the room.

Copyright © 2002 by Martha Southgate

Reading Group Guide

The Fall of Rome
Discussion Points
1. Why does the author choose to switch points of view? How does seeing the story play out through three distinctly different vantages help in your understanding of the underlying themes and tensions therein?
2. What is the significance of the quotes at the beginning of the novel? How do they help inform your reading?
3.Nothing affects the choices, thoughts, and actions of these characters more than the lens through which they perceive the world. At times it seems as if Jerome, Rashid, and Jana often view those surrounding them not as unique, individual beings, but as hybrids of people and places that they have encountered before. Do you agree or disagree that this is true?
4. Similarly, how much of one's connection with another person has to do with a shared past? Mr. Washington quotes Cicero early in the novel, saying, "Our character is not so much the product of race and heredity as of those circumstances by which nature forms our habits, by which we are nourished and live." Do you agree with this? Is this viewpoint inherently limiting in terms of human relationships, or just harshly realistic? What do you think the novel suggests?
5. At one point Jerome Washington ruminates on what he calls "great kindness and openness," stating, "well, those are not the only virtues. And they are, after all, the ones that cost us the most." What do you think he means by this? Are these virtues more dangerous to someone like Rashid than to the other boys at Chelsea? How so? Does the author agree with Washington's opinion?
6. The idea of control is a central theme in this story, and we watch as different characters teeter on the edge of chaos in terms of their bodies, minds, and their surroundings. In the end, what kind of statement do you think the author may be making about the Roman concept of a "controlled life," keeping in mind the disastrous consequences of Washington's rigidity.
7. How is running a metaphor for Rashid's life? For Mr. Washington's? What did you make of the scene in which Rashid beats Mr. Washington?
8. Discuss setting in this novel, paying particular attention to how the pristine Chelsea campus elicits seemingly disparate feelings for many of the main characters. How does the setting tie into larger themes of order and control and experience vs. heredity?
9. The Fall of Rome is a story about growing up, survival, and the coping mechanisms that young black men need to succeed. What are the different strategies that Rashid and Jerome Washington use to make themselves seen in a world that would prefer that they were invisible? Does the author make any judgments regarding whose way is more successful? What was your reaction when Mr. Washington said, referring to Rashid, "He didn't know that the only way to win them over was to concede"?
10. As one of the few black boys in the white, upper-class environment of Chelsea, Rashid bears the burden of being a kind of representative for his race. Look at the different ways that he reacts to this pressure and think about why his reactions might be different than those of a character like Gerald.
11. Discuss the parallels between the characters of Rashid and Mr. Washington, focusing on the traits that their families share -- especially their mothers. Think about how they both come to the Chelsea school to escape their history, but find it staring them in the face when they look upon each other. To what extent do you think the anger between them stems from a desire to reject their upbringings? Which character seems better able to handle this combination of past and future?
12. After his trip back to his family's home in Brooklyn, Rashid has an epiphany of sorts when he realizes "He was hated, but it wasn't his problem." What do you think he means by this, exactly? In what ways does this realization ultimately lead to the confrontation on the cross-country field?
13. Where do you envision Rashid in ten years? Do you think he will be a success story? Do you think his opinion of Mr. Washington may change over time?
A Note from the Author, Martha Southgate
The rolling hills and fields described in the opening pages of this novel are an accurate description of the campus of the northeastern Ohio prep school that I attended for four years (though it was not a boarding school). Everything else in The Fall of Rome, however, is fiction, my favorite way to write. I love making things up. The characters are not modeled on anyone I knew either then or now. My attendance at that school was a formative experience of my life and this book is an attempt to examine, through imagined characters and lives, some aspects of what that experience meant to me and what it might mean for others.
I'm in my forties. I think that people of my age and younger, the post-Civil Rights generation, face a world that is full of choices about what race means that someone of Jerome's age could not possibly imagine. I wanted, in this novel, to examine some of the ways such characters might clash as well as the ways they might come together around race and around values. These issues continue to interest me, and I imagine I'll always keep exploring them in my work.
Copyright © 2002 by Martha Southgate

About The Author

Photo Credit: Amy Peck

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 2003)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743227216

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Raves and Reviews

Jonathan Yardley The Washington Post Southgate has given us a genuinely tragic figure...a man brought down by his own tragic flaw, and thus a man who has much to teach us that far transcends race.

Liza Featherstone Newsday Beautifully executed....[The Fall of Rome] deserves to be widely read.

The New Yorker [Southgate] remains true to the enigma of her hero, and her rendering of his voice -- pensive, rueful, and entirely devoid of self-pity -- is convincing.

Michael Pakenham Baltimore Sun A tour de force of what might be called post-Movement race realities in the United States.

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