On America: Maura Cheeks on Acts of Forgiveness and the Future of Reparations with Jennifer Baker
Thursday, 7:00 pm EST February 15, 2024
The Center for Fiction
The Center for Fiction welcomes Maura Cheeks to discuss her engrossing debut novel, Acts of Forgiveness—a moving story of ambition and inheritance and an insightful addition to the conversation about reparations. Inspired by Cheeks’s reporting for the Atlantic on the racial wealth gap and by Cheeks’s family background, Acts of Forgiveness imagines the nation’s first federal reparations program—which ambitious single mother Willie Revel sees as the solution to impending bankruptcy. In order to qualify, Willie must prove that her ancestors were enslaved, but the rest of the family isn’t as eager to dig up the past: her mother is adopted, her father doesn’t trust the government, and her daughter is just trying to make it through the fifth grade at her elite private school. As Willie delves into their history, she begins to learn just how complicated family and forgiveness can be. Writer, editor, podcaster, and advocate Jennifer Baker joins Cheeks in conversation about her writing and research, the implications of reparations movements, and what leaving behind a legacy truly means. After the conversation, Cheeks will sign books.
Maura Cheeks has published writing in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Paris Review, and Tin House, among others. In 2019 she was awarded a masthead reporting residency with the Atlantic where she produced the feature-length article which would later inspire the idea for her book. Acts of Forgiveness is her first novel.
Photo Credit: Nicole Mondestin
Jennifer Baker was named the 2019 Publishers Weekly Star Watch “SuperStar” because her “varied work championing diversity in publishing has made her an indispensable fixture in the book business.” She is the recipient of a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship and a 2017 Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant (as well as the QCA Jr. Board Artistic Excellence Award) in Nonfiction. Her essay “What We Aren’t” was also listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2018. Her short story “The Pursuit of Happiness” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for 2017 by Newtown Literary Journal and is featured in the anthology What God Is Honored Here?. Jennifer is the editor of Everyday People: The Color of Life—A Short Story Anthology with Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Her Y.A. novel Forgive Me Not was published in August 2023 with Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House).
Jennifer is a publishing professional with over 20 years experience in a range of roles (editorial, production, media) and is an instructor for Bay Path University’s Creative Nonfiction MFA, as well as the creator/host of the podcast Minorities in Publishing (a 2018, 2019, 2020 finalist for the Digital Book World Best Use of Podcasting in Book Marketing). She previously served as a contributing editor to Electric Literature. She freelances as a proofreader, copyeditor, and/or development editor across genres and has written for various publications in print and online.
From 2014-2017, Jennifer was panel organizer and social media manager for We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit organization that sprang to life from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks media campaign to increase minority representation in literature. She was the social media director and a writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Previously she volunteered with I, Too Arts Collective.
Photo Credit: Gaby Deimeke
Acts of Forgiveness
By Maura Cheeks
Published by Random House Publishing Group
Every American waits with bated breath to see whether or not the country’s first female president will pass the Forgiveness Act. The bill would allow Black families to claim up to $175,000 if they can prove they are the descendants of slaves, and for ambitious single mother Willie Revel the bill could be a long-awaited form of redemption. A decade ago, Willie gave up her burgeoning journalism career to help run her father’s struggling construction company in Philadelphia and she has reluctantly put family first, without being able to forget who she might have become. Now she’s back living with her parents and her young daughter while trying to keep her family from going into bankruptcy. Could the Forgiveness Act uncover her forgotten roots while also helping save their beloved home and her father’s life’s work?
In order to qualify, she must first prove that the Revels are descended from slaves, but the rest of the family isn’t as eager to dig up the past. Her mother is adopted, her father doesn’t trust the government and believes working with a morally corrupt employer is the better way to save their business, and her daughter is just trying to make it through the fifth grade at her elite private school without attracting unwanted attention. It’s up to Willie to verify their ancestry and save her family—but as she delves into their history, Willie begins to learn just how complicated family and forgiveness can be.
With powerful insight and moving prose, Acts of Forgiveness asks how history shapes who we become and considers the weight of success when it is achieved despite incredible odds—and ultimately what leaving behind a legacy truly means.
About this series
Our On America series brings writers, journalists, activists, and change-makers together to reflect on the critical issues of our times. Who are we and who are we becoming? How do the stories we tell shape who we are as a nation? Will we rise to the challenges we face?
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