Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s third novel, On the Rooftop, is a welcome disruption, both to literary trends and in her own publishing career. In a time of immense social upheaval, when many African American writers are foregrounding issues of race, economics and oppression in their books, Sexton chose to write a novel that centers on Black ambition and resiliency.
“With [my previous two novels], it felt like most of my interviews were sociological conversations,” Sexton says from her California home, “but I wanted to be talking about the work.” So for On the Rooftop, she didn’t have a rigid agenda. Instead, her novel emphasizes “the endurance and the joy of a community . . . while also drawing attention to the history of the issues and the fact that they still continue to exist.”
Set in 1950s San Francisco, On the Rooftop focuses on the multifaceted yet endearing Vivian, who has complicated relationships with her three daughters, Ruth, Esther and Chloe. The widowed Vivian dreams of stardom for her musically gifted daughters, who sing together as the Salvations. The young women are popular performers at a local spot called the Champagne Supper Club, and Vivian has hooked the attention of an enigmatic talent manager.
However, just as the Salvations are on the cusp of fame, Vivian’s aspirations are challenged by personal trauma and their neighborhood’s changing landscape. Her daughters are also beginning to prioritize their own desires over their mother’s prescribed plan. Loosely inspired by Fiddler on the Roof and told from multiple perspectives, On the Rooftop is a masterful examination of family and community that celebrates the legacy of Black dreams and determination.
Readers of Sexton’s previous historical novels will recognize On the Rooftop‘s exploration of the often-complex relationships between mothers and daughters. “I can’t escape it,” Sexton says. “There is just so much to be mined. They are such primal relationships, and even the best ones are fraught.”
In the novel, Sexton describes Vivian’s feelings about motherhood with care and nuance, successfully avoiding tropes and instead creating a character who embodies very specific personal and cultural dynamics. Vivian is a Louisiana transplant who lost her husband, Ellis, long ago, and whose own musical dreams were stunted by her difficult life. This is not, however, your typical parent-living-through-their-child story. “I feel like Vivian has some challenges around when to let go, but I think she ultimately does learn to do so,” Sexton says. “At her best level, she has learned when it’s time to step aside, and I think that’s what parenting is—surrendering to the child’s metamorphosis into an adult.”
The distinct relationships between Vivian and each of her daughters reflect their divergent personalities, histories and ambitions. Vivian puts much of her faith in Ruth—the eldest, the quintessential rock, the de facto leader of the sisters. Ruth has a strained relationship with middle sister Esther, who dreams of making an impact but has conflicting ideas about how to do so. Chloe, the youngest daughter, yearns for her mother, sisters and community to recognize her gifts.
Sexton notes that despite their differences, all four women are ultimately searching for the same thing: security. “I love that through each of the girls, you get a different window into what security means,” she says. “The goal is for all of them to feel safe in their own separate worlds.”
The past is ever-present for each of them, and nodes of memory function as creative forces, influencing the women as they navigate generational trauma, interpersonal violence and grief. Vivian, for example, grapples with recollections from her Louisiana homeland and the aftermath of Ellis’ death. As Sexton notes, these memories catalyze Vivian’s goals for her daughters, her self-esteem and her ability to love again.
“I feel like honoring the memories that you hold is a symbol for the entire book,” she says. “For Vivian . . . she has these painful memories of segregation in the South, of humiliation in the South and of her father’s tragic death in the South. She can’t forget those memories. She can’t erase them, and she can’t bury them. She has to somehow continue to hold those memories and almost transform them into something educational for herself in order to allow this new world to enter into her space.”
Vivian’s memories were also an important factor in Sexton’s writing process. After setting her previous two novels in her hometown of New Orleans, the author wanted to explore the Bay Area, her home of 15 years. The former lawyer, who has a degree in creative writing from Dartmouth College, was cautious, however, feeling that she had yet to possess the cultural authority to imagine her adopted home. “It made sense to me to make Vivian someone who had been born in Louisiana, so we were both coming from the same place,” Sexton says. “She was basically a visitor. Her lens and my lens are not any different.”
During the 1950s, San Francisco’s Fillmore District was considered the “Harlem of the West,” a nod to its similarity to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. The Fillmore’s Black community began to emerge during what is known as the Great Migration, a national trend of northern and western movement as many African Americans left the South in search of new residential and occupational opportunities and to escape the horrors of Jim Crow. The predominantly Black neighborhood became the center of San Francisco’s vibrant jazz scene, where transcendent legends collaborated with local musicians in the many clubs that lined the streets.
Sexton has a personal connection to the Great Migration. Similar to her characters, members of her own family moved from Louisiana to California in the 1940s and ’50s. When Sexton arrived in the area decades later, these family members welcomed her with open arms, allowing her to immediately feel a sense of community in her new home. She inscribes this sentiment into On the Rooftop.
“I love that they brought Louisiana to the Bay Area,” Sexton says, “and that they created this mini-community that was an echo of their own that they had left back home, [where] they could access all of the sources of comfort. . . . They founded the same churches that they would have gone to back home.”
In the novel, Vivian and her daughters dream of musical stardom as a way to secure liberty in the face of racial and economic oppression, and as the Salvations channel their existential angst into jazz and blues numbers performed at Black-owned Fillmore clubs, they share stages with iconic musicians such as Dinah Washington and Lena Horne. While brief, these cameos ground the story in very real historical dynamics. From blues to jazz to gospel and hip hop, music has been the lifeblood of Black people in America, conveying emotion, building community and offering pathways to freedom. Music feels like its own character in On the Rooftop, a vibrant entity that seems to breathe, occupy space and impact social activity.
“Setting [On the Rooftop] in the jazz era really enlivens the book,” Sexton says. “The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism and so much hope, you know, to work in the shipyards. They had more money than they ever had before. They re-created this community so it felt like home. And this musical scene was part of this.”
In the book, the community’s camaraderie and stability are undermined by white businessmen who begin buying up property in the area. For these businessmen and their partners in government, the Fillmore was a blight, despite being a strong Black residential and business base. Some property owners sold out for a quick windfall, while others resisted until the seemingly benevolent offers turned into harassment. Some continued to fight, as Esther does in the novel.
This process, known as “urban renewal,” affected African American communities across the country in the 1950s and ’60s and is an antecedent to present-day gentrification. While some Black neighborhoods were wiped out through this process, others were able to persist and still exist in some form. With On the Rooftop, Sexton hoped to present a portrait of community resiliency for contemporary neighborhoods resisting gentrification.
“I want people to be aware of the fact that it’s been around for a long time and that it continues,” Sexton says. “We need to start having conversations, and we need to start creating policies that preempt it, right, that abolish it. And I want people to experience the joy and the endurance of a community that has undergone it and still continued to flourish.”
Sexton’s work entertains and inspires at the same time, and with On the Rooftop, she urges us to find comfort in the triumphs of our past. “I hope that it will relay the security of knowing that we’re not all alone in this,” she says. “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this. We kind of have a blueprint for how to fix it and how to heal ourselves in the process.”
Photos of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton by Smeeta Mahanti