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Home Boys Between Hard Covers

ISSUE:  Autumn 1994
Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White. By Brent Staples. Pantheon Books. $23.00. Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Black Man in America. By Nathan McCall. Random House, $23.00. Colored People: A Memoir. By Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Knopf. $22.00.

          In the same way that Shelley saw all poems as           fragments of one vast ur-poem, we see the black           memoirist’s tale as part of a larger, subsuming           saga—an entry in the vast, multivolume project of           Narrating the Negro.                      Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Memoirs can be as slippery as they are wide ranging, not only because the voices that tug our sleeve for attention often straddle the thin line separating fiction from autobiography, but also because memoirs cover such a large territory—everything from backward glances by the rich and culturally famous to accounts of “how it was” by out-of-work politicians. The books under discussion suggest yet another grouping: chronicles of suffering and despair penned by those who miraculously escaped their probable fates. Black memoirists thus give a palpable shape to those who, despite our national fixation on race, tend to remain largely invisible and who remain a “problem” rather than a people with problems. In short, their chroncles not only add to what Gates rightly calls the “vast, multivolume project entitled Narrating the Negro”—a tradition that includes such defining works as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and Richard Wright’s Black Boy— but they also provide, for their predominantly white audience, a double-edged testimony that speaks to an individual writer’s liberation from powerlessness and silence, as well as for the unprivileged who remain entrapped.

Those who equate memoir with writers of a certain age will gaze at the jacket photos of Nathan McCall, Brent Staples, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with bemused wonderment for what strikes one immediately is how young each of them is. Have they lived enough, experienced enough, indeed, accomplished enough to warrant publication, much less the lavish public attention that followed each of their books? The conventional answer, of course, is “No!” but I would submit that the recent crop of young black memoirists constitutes a special—albeit, complicated—case, partly because they are simultaneously survivors of, and witnesses to, all that is dehumanizing about contemporary black life in America, and partly because their words can be an entry point into experiences most white Americans absorb, if at all, through the distorting filters of the news media and popular entertainment.

In short, black memoirists hold forth the promise of a deeper truth, one with a point of view about the past and an understanding of how its particulars shaped the individual writer’s consciousness. Not surprisingly, some writers succeed in this complicated venture more than others, for the art required of a real memoir, as opposed to the merely dashed-off or as-told-to varieties, is in the details—those selected as well as those withheld; and how the former are first nuanced and then shaped into a coherent whole.Any would-be memoirist faces these considerable obstacles; but if the writer happens to be black, there are additional challenges. How, for example, does one cobble the aesthetic distancing memoir demands with what McCall’s title suggests is an equally legitimate need to “holler”; and how can one construct a balance between what W.E.B. DuBois long ago recognized as the essential twoness that struggles inside every black American soul?

Fortunately, these very conditions, vexing though they are, have been a source of richness and often the impetus for black writing as engaged as it is eloquent. Indeed, one could make similar claims about the grinding conditions of American life, arguing that black history is filled with examples of dignity rather than despair, of ordinary people turned into heroes by the long, uninterrupted struggle for freedom. My worry—our worry—is that Americans, both black and white, have forgotten how desperately bad social conditions were a mere forty years ago, and that the integration promised, and largely delivered, by the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision has given way to versions of black-promoted segregation, some militantly separatist, some merely voluntary, and the shrill cadences of a fashionable, often wildly inappropriate, rage. If black memoirs are to be measured by how much hatred they can pack into their paragraphs and how much white liberal guilt such screeds can generate, the result will not just spell trouble for talented black writers, but more important, continuing grief for us all.

I begin with these caveats because one cannot read Parallel Time, Brent Staples’s account of his long-delayed grieving at his brother’s death (like far, far too many young black men, he was murdered in a drug deal gone sour) without feeling that the parallels insisted upon are often extended efforts to replace responsibility with rage and free will with what James Baldwin once called the “doom” of color. The result is a book that proceeds by a series of story lines which, however close, do not quite touch: his brother’s tragic destiny and the author’s unrepresentative fate; the narrowing character of small-town Chester, Pa., and the wider cultural orbits to be found at the University of Chicago; and perhaps most of all, what it means to grow up black as opposed to white.

No doubt white liberals will find Staples’s account of how he made his way to a position on the New York Times affecting (read: guilt-producing), for how else could they possibly read the attention-grabbing paragraph that sets Parallel Time into motion:

My brother’s body lies dead and naked on a stainless steel slab. At his head stands a tall arched spigot that, with tap handles mimicking wings, easily suggests a swan in mourning. His head is squarish and overlarge. (Thus, when he was a toddler, made him seem top-heavy and unsteady on his feet.) His widow’s peak is common among the men in my family, though this one is more dramatic than most. An inverted pyramid, it begins high above the temples and falls steeply to an apex in the boxy forehead, over the heart-shaped face. A triangle into a box over a heart. His eyes (closed here) were big and dark and glittery; they drew you into his sadness when he cried. The lips were ajar as always, but the picture is taken from such an angle that it misses a crucial detail: the left front tooth tucked partly beyond the right one. I need this detail to see my brother full. I paint it in from memory.

Staples’s account may mean to be arresting, even melodramatic, but it is not ghoulish; for the bullet-riddled body on the slab—his little brother, Blake—is a trope for black manhood cut down in its prime, the emblematic victim of a world he did not make and could not overcome. The coroner’s photograph is dated 13 February, 1984, a time when Brent Staples was half a country away, pursuing a doctorate in psychology at the University of Chicago. He did not attend the funeral, and even more significantly, was not able to turn what he had learned about clinical psychology to his own case. Only later, when a dismal job market forced him to try his hand at free-lance writing and then to a career in journalism, did he circle back, not only telling the story of their parallel lives, but also finally coming to terms with his grief. To his credit, Staples is an eagle-eyed writer with an elephant’s thick skin; but such assets have come at a considerable human cost. As the oldest of nine children, he watched his family’s downward spiral—everything from evictions that forced them to move from one dwelling to the next (once a landlord unceremoniously hauled their furnishings out to the street) to outbursts of domestic violence. His father, a truck driver, was usually drunk; a wild sister ran away; a cousin was shot; and his mother suffering through it all, including a horrifying moment Staples describes this way:

One night my mother screamed. . . . My father had drawn a knife and cut her. The wound took several stitches to close. Later, after it had healed, I helped her remove the stitches. The cut was awkwardly placed, toward the back side of her upper left arm. I held a mirror to the wound so that she could see to cut the suture knots. The stitches were black. A collar of dried pus clung to their necks as she pulled them out.

Staples describes how the wound looked and the configuration that pus along the sutures made with a matter-of-fact, clinical precision, but curiously enough, not how it felt when his mother was so assaulted. Moreover, such distanced, dry reportage becomes the book’s pattern. The result is that everything, pleasant and unpleasant, is given the same unemotional treatment. One possibility, of course, is that the rigorous understatement is purposeful, a latter-day version of Hemingway’s tight-lipped style, but I suspect that it generates from quite other sources—namely, Staples’s inability to confront his childhood with emotional honesty.

For the truth about Staples’s youthful world is that it was a dangerous place, and this is an age before gangs, drive-by shootings, or AIDS. The streets, the local bars, the largely segregated neighborhoods (blacks on one side of town, Ukrainians and Poles on the other), even the schools made parallel lives de facto, if not always explicit. And if Staples makes sure that we write him down as a politicized hellraiser during his days at Widener College, it is also clear that he was always a reader, a serious student, and most of all, somebody who wanted out.

When he finally left, Staples took a good deal of emotional baggage—what, in Chester, would be called an “attitude”— with him. How could that not be, given the smoldering resentments he felt about his abusive father and excusemaking mother, his siblings, his white [racist] classmates, and himself? But that said, it is the “himself that Staples studiously avoids confronting, opting instead to pad his memoir with new installments and fresh villains: college trustees who neither “get it” nor trust him; newspaper editors who anger him at interviews or on the job; and finally, even Saul Bellow himself, a man Staples hunts down because he wants to pluck the heart out of his creative mystery, but also because he finds his black characters so disturbing.

The section on Bellow has occassioned a good deal of commentary, and rightly so—for there is something unseemly, even dangerous, in Parallel Time’s glib equation of character and author, to say nothing of the compulsive rage that resulted. Staples clearly admires Bellow’s fiction, and like many another University of Chicago graduate student, he took a peculiar delight in the insider gossip about how, say, sociologist Edward Shils had been first artistically kidnapped and then smuggled into the pages of Humboldt’s Gift as Professor Richard Durnwald. However, these delights soon paled when the novel turns abruptly from mild farce to incipient racism—”when a black man steps out of the shadows and, with no motive, slits a white woman’s throat,” and when Bellow betrays a side Staples had not realized heretofore:

Black people in the book were sinister characters. Rinaldo refers to them as “crazy buffaloes” and “pork chops.” Crazy buffaloes populate the slums that surround Hyde Park. A pork chop chases Charlie down the middle of his street, presumably at night. These passages made me angry. It was the same anger I felt when white people cowered past me on the street.

Add the controversial scene from Mr. Sammler’s Planet in which a princely black pickpocket exposes himself and Staples’s suspicions are more than confirmed: “Bellow wanted the dick remembered. He returned to it again and again as a symbol of spiritual decay, of the ‘sexual niggerhood’ that “millions of civilized people” had deluded themselves in wanting.” His disappointment (“I expected more of a man who could see to the soul.”) soon turns to outrage, and then to a loopy plan to confront Bellow near his apartment building—in effect, degrading the degrader, kidnapping the kidnapper:

Now and then I bounded up the tower stairs [of his apartment] to make sure Bellow’s name was still on the bell: A security gate cuts you off from the base of the tower itself, which was too bad, because there were shadows to linger in. His neighbors suffered mightily from my visits, especially when they encountered me descending the stairs in the dark.

What would I do when I caught him? Perhaps I’d lift him bodily and pin him against a wall. Perhaps I’d corner him on the stairs and take up questions about pork chops” and “crazy buffaloes” and barbarous black pickpockets. I wanted to trophy his fear.

Fortunately, Staples’s “stalking” (his term, by the way) comes to no avail, but for a man who now seeks attention as a writer, the episode remains unsettling—not because Bellow was in physical danger or Staples’s anger was justified (it wasn’t), but, rather, because he recounts the incident with neither recognition nor shame. One could, of course, suggest that he might have plumbed Bellow’s depths more deeply had he simply checked out other Bellow novels from the library and read them more carefully than he obviously had Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Humboldt’s Gift; but that would be to take Staples’s talent seriously, and in ways that most of the reviewers of Parallel Lives did not.

Something of the same giddy excitement about the underbelly of black life coupled with a craven refusal to apply the usual standards of human decency when judging a black memoirist’s “I” also surrounds Nathan McCall’s It Makes Me Wanna Holler. Indeed, given the way black rage is currently sub-divided, McCall’s book beats Parallel Time hands down, for it not only sports a “hero” who did hard time, rather than graduate study, before becoming a professional journalist, but also provides an insider’s account of black street life that makes Staples’s Chester look like Eden. It is the difference between that which makes you want to cry (although Staples could not do that, if at all, until the last pages) and that which makes you “wanna holler,” the irritants that cause Staples to fantasize about pushing Bellow up against the wall and the rage that gives an ugly animus to McCall’s opening paragraphs:

The fellas and I were hanging out on our corner one afternoon when the strangest thing happened. A white boy, who appeared to be about eighteen or nineteen years old, came pedaling a bicycle casually through the neighborhood. I don’t know if he was lost or just confused, but he was definitely in the wrong place to be doing the tourist bit. Somebody spotted him and pointed him out to the rest of us. “Look! What’s that motherfucka doin’ ridin’ through here?! Is he crraaaazy?!”

It was automatic. We all took off after him. We caught him on Cavalier Boulevard and knocked him off the bike. He fell to the ground and it was all over. We were on him like white on rice. Ignoring the passing cars, we stomped him and kicked him. My stick partners kicked him in the head and face and watched the blood gush from his mouth. I kicked him in the stomach and nuts, where I knew it would hurt. Every time I drove my foot into his balls, I felt better; with each blow delivered, I gritted my teeth as I remembered some recent racial sight:

THIS is for all the times you followed me round in stores. . . . And THIS is for the times you treated me like a nigger. . . . And THIS is for G. P. —General Principle—just ‘cause you white.

The gut-wrenching power the scene packs is repeated again and again as McCall describes what it was like, really like, to be a young black man in America: on one hand, the rigorous, internal codes governing everything from shooting hoops to “setting up a train” (read: gang bang), the complicated network of language and gestures that signified “respect,” and, of course, the dabbling in drugs and crime that turned many of his comrades into grim statistics; and on the other, the insidious ways that racist America spawned a rage and loathing only matched by its capacity to generate oceans of self-hatred.

Because what I’ve just described makes McCall’s book sound like a guided tour through the darker alleys of black pathology, let me hasten to add that its author also intends his story to be a chronicle of transformation and triumph, for the street punk who misspent his youth ultimately becomes, like Brent Staples, a journalist for a major newspaper—in McCall’s case, the Washington Post. Given the sheer arc of such a life, there is no end of ways that its unfolding might have become compromised, either by an insistence that he recognized more than the brutal facts of his youth suggest, or by appeals to the court of public opinion on the grounds of victimization. Generally speaking, It Makes Me Holler avoids most of the first traps; McCall, in short, has little interest in efforts to make his unreconstructed self more sensitive, more humane, if you will, than he really was—and the young McCall was, by any measure, baad. At 14, gang fights and gang bangs, muggings and petty theft were the marching orders of his tribe; and while McCall did not end up on a mortician’s slab, he allows us to see, and moreover, to feel how such meaningless deaths commonly happen:

Moving close enough for me to smell his breath, Plaz poked a finger in my chest. . . .”I’ll kick your ass. . .!”

In one swift motion, I drew the gun, aimed it point-blank at his chest, and fired. Barn!. . . In that moment, I felt like God. I felt so good and powerful that I wanted to do it again. I felt like I could pull that trigger, and keep on pulling it until I emptied the gun. Years later, I read an article in a psychology magazine that likened the feeling of shooting a gun to ejaculation. That’s what it was like for me. Shooting off.

Small wonder that this McCall, the creature of impulse and confusion, has been trotted out as a latter-day Bigger Thomas, or that his remarkable transmogrification into an articulate, purposeful person has been likened to that of Malcolm X. For no black memoirist apparently operates on his own, outside—much less beyond—the defining tradition of slave narratives and such formative texts as Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son, Baldwin’s essays, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Indeed, McCall himself recognizes this interlocking kinship in a scene—arguably the most defining one in the book—that forces him to recognize his fate as reflected through the prism of Bigger Thomas’s desperate eyes:

I identified strongly with Bigger and the book’s narrative. He was twenty, the same age as me. He felt the things I felt, and, like me, he wound up in prison. The book’s portrait of Bigger captured all those conflicting feelings— restless anger, hopelessness, a tough facade among blacks and a deep-seated fear of whites—that I’d sensed in myself but was unable to express. Often, during my teenaged years, I’d felt like Bigger—headed down a road toward a destruction I couldn’t ward off, beaten by forces so large and amorphous that I had no idea how to fight back. I was surprised that somebody had written a book that so closely reflected my experiences and feelings.

For white readers—and talk about black literary traditions aside, it’s clear that McCall’s book has been packaged for them—this extraordinary passage has a salutary effect, for if a former brute can speak so knowingly, so eloquently, perhaps there is hope, after all. But while I freely admit that I would much prefer chatting with this McCall, the one of books and words, rather than the scary hooligan who took enormous pleasure in “fucking up white boys”—that is, beating them senseless—I also suspect that, given the evidence of the book’s final chapters, we would probably not chat very long before both of us would become exasperated—in McCall’s case, because my praise would sound patronizing and my criticism, racist; and in mine, because I could not look at him without recalling Baldwin’s memories (in The Fire Next Time) of himself as a wildly successful boy preacher: “That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons—for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me.”

In a review written for the pages of the New Yorker magazine, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., arguably the country’s most distinguished black literary critic, interrupts his bright talk about McCall’s book and the way it turns a Bigger Thomas into a Richard Wright, to include a paragraph that says as much, indeed, perhaps more, about Gates than his ostensible subject:

I read “Makes Me Wanna Holler” with a sense of both recognition and consternation. McCall and I are only a few years apart in age, so I share his cultural references; my old man, like his, was an unskilled worker who held two jobs. The warm-bath intimacy of the all-black world that McCall grew up in is familiar to me. But as for how a Bigger Thomas emerged from all this, McCall ultimately doesn’t have a clue, and neither do I.

Indeed, what distinguishes Gate’s memoir from those of Staples and McCall is a sense of nostalgia for, rather than a yearning to escape from, the cultural conditions of his childhood. Or put another way, Gates is comfortable with his blackness in ways that most black memoirists are not. One indicator is his title, meant to evoke the sepia tones of an earlier, innocent age at the same time it coyly tweaks the noses of those who now insist that “colored people” is déclassé while persons of color is du rigeur; another is his admission, after a lifetime as a professional “race man,” that he no longer tries “to tell other Negroes how to be black.” Yet another difference, perhaps the most telling of them all, is the way he invites his readers into a consideration of what life among the “colored people” of Piedmont, West Virginia, was like during the years before the civil rights movement changed life there, and elsewhere, forever. Rather than images of a dead drug dealer or pummelled white boy, Gates launches his highly selective narrative with a letter to his young daughters, at once an effort to reanimate Piedmont before its paper mill closes down and the town itself dies, and an attempt to answer their questions about the civil rights movement itself. On a drive back to Piedmont, Gates had pointed to a motel on Route 2 and said

that at one time I could not have stayed there. Your mother [who is white] could have stayed there, but your mother couldn’t have stayed with me. And you kids looked at us like we were telling you the biggest lie you had ever heard. So I thought about writing to you.

Granted, the ploy is as patently artificial as Gates’s memories are highly selective (he does not, for example, tell us more about how his exogamous relationship played out with her family, much less with his; nor will this memoir include insider gossip about his life as a celebrated academic; these installments will, presumably, come later), but it does clearly establish the time and place Gates means to explore.

The Piedmont of Gates’s memory was a small town (22, 000 souls, 351 of them colored) nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, a place of natural beauty and measures of economic prosperity, where whites and blacks got along (largely because both knew their place, and neither challenged what had long been accepted), and perhaps most of all, where everybody knew, and harbored strong opinions about, everybody else:

You couldn’t get away with anything in Piedmont. Most people just did it as discretely as they could, knowing not only that everybody colored knew but also that their name would be in the streets every day, permanently and forever, whenever the conversation lagged, new business being over, and old business was called up to pass the time.

All this, of course, is by way of stating the obvious—namely, that Piedmont was a very small small town, enough to make anyone with bigger eyes feel suffocated, but in Gates’s case, also the stuff of which community, and character, were made.

For whatever else the 1950’s represented, its essential innocence retains an enormous power, one Gates evokes in cultural memories so honest and humanly palpable that only an ideologue of the first water would dismiss them as politically incorrect:

“Colored, colored, on Channel Two,” you’d hear someone shout. Somebody else would run to the phone, while yet another hit the front porch, telling all the neighbors where to see it. And everybody loved Amos and Andy— I don’t care what people say today. For the colored people, the day they took Amos and Andy off the air was one of the saddest days in Piedmont, about as sad as the day of the last mill pic-a-nic.

What was special to us about Amos and Andy was that their world was all colored, just like ours. Of course, they had their colored judges and lawyers and doctors and nurses, which we could only dream about having, or becoming—and we did dream about those things. . . . As far as we were concerned, the foibles of Kingfish or Calhoun the lawyer were the foibles of individuals who happened to be funny. Nobody was likely to confuse them with the colored people we knew, no more than we’d confuse ourselves with the entertainers and athletes we saw on TV or in Ebony or Jet, the magazines we devoured to keep up with what was happening with the race. And people took special relish in Kingfish’s malapropisms. “I deny the allegation, Your Honor, and I resents the alligator.”

As I said, a culturally innocent time, especially when compared with the coarser moments most black memoirists recount, but Saul Bellow—to invoke his name again—is not the only American writer to have a character (in this case, Moses Herzog) ask why only brutal reality gets a hearing, as if no other adjectives are authentic; Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is clearly another.

And yet, for all the fishing and hunting trips warmly recounted, all the mature acceptance of a world with its share of parochialism and warts, there are also jarring notes— foreshadowings, if you will—of the racial animosity that had always existed among Piedmont’s colored folk, and that finally seeped into their living rooms through the same television set that had brought them episodes of Amos and Andy. Perhaps the young Gates’s biggest shock came when he realized that not only did his mother refuse to fear white people, but also that she actively hated them:

There were rare occasions when I would look into her face and see a stranger. In 1959, when I was nine, Mike Wallace and CBS aired a documentary about Black Muslims. It was called “The Hate That Hate Produced,” and these were just about the scariest black people I’d ever seen. Black people who talked right into the faces of white people, telling them off without even blinking. While I sat cowering in our living room, I happened to glance over at my mother. A certain radiance was slowly transforming her soft brown face, as she listened to Malcolm X naming the white man the Devil. “Amen,” she said, quietly at first. “All right now,” she continued, much more heatedly. All this time, and I hadn’t known just how deeply my mother despised white people. It was like watching the Wicked Witch of the West emerge out of the transforming features of Dorothy. The revelation was both terrifying and thrilling.

To be sure, this Gates, the one simultaneously shocked out of and initiated into the black American’s complex fate, soon gives way to a sadder, wiser version who realizes that, although “all things considered, white and colored Piedmont got along pretty well in those years, the fifties and early sixties,” the gains from this relationship were clearly stacked on one side and the losses on the other. It was, in short, a racial formula that depended on a whole litany of as-longas’s—”as long as colored people didn’t try to sit down in the Cut-Rate. . .or buy property, or move into the white neighborhoods, or dance with, date, or dilate upon white people.” Integration would, of course, disrupt the equilibrium, and change the separate-but-never equal worlds of Piedmont’s white folks and colored people forever. Later, the riots in Watts offered up even greater shocks, ones which altered the social dynamic every bit as much as the town’s decaying paper mill would later. As usual, the catastrophic events on the other side of the country entered Piedmont’s collective consciousness via television, but this time they caught Gates while he was at Peterkin, an integrated Episcopal summer church camp filled with smart, questioning, generousspirited teenagers like himself. For two blissful weeks, they had made real progress toward seeing each other as individuals, without the impediments of the color line, which W.E. B. DuBois had insisted would be the 20th century’s deepest, most recalcitrant problem. Such harmony is both fragile and beautiful—and, alas, always threatened by the crush of events more incendiary than bonfires and sing-alongs:

What the news of the riots did for us was to remind everybody in one fell swoop that there was a racial context outside Peterkin that affected relations between white and black Americans; we had suddenly to remember that our roles were scripted by that larger context. We had for a blissful week been functioning as best we could, that is—when all of a sudden the context had come crashing down upon us once again. I hated that newspaper. But we overcame it: with difficulty, with perseverance, we pushed away the racial context and could interact not as allegories but as people. It felt like something of an achievement.

Colored People may restrict its scope to a time and place that springs to life only on the printed page, but that would be to sell Gates’s memoir short—for one also has the feeling that its vivid characters continue to speak in paragraphs that have their thumbprint on every word:

I want to be able to take special pride in a Jessye Norman aria, a Muhammad Ali shuffle, a Michael Jordan slam dunk, a Spike Lee movie, a Thurgood Marshall opinion, a Toni Morrison novel, James Brown’s Camel Walk. Above all, I enjoy the unselfconscious moments of a shared cultural intimacy, whatever form they take, when no one else is watching. Like Joe Louis’s fights, which my father still talks about as part of the fixed repertoire of stories that texture our lives. You’ve seen his eyes shining as he describes how Louis hit Max Schmeling so many times and so hard, and how some reporter asked him, after the fight: “Joe, what would you have done if that last punch hadn’t knocked Schmeling out?” And how ole Joe responded, without missing a beat: “I’d run around behind him to see what was holdin’ him up!”

Even so, I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time—but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless or reducible to color. Bach and James Brown, Sushi and fried catfish. Part of me admires those people who can say with a straight face that they have transcended any attachment to a particular community or group., . but I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up.

If the memoirs by Staples and McCall contribute their share to the continuing Narrative of the Negro, so, too, I would argue does Gates—but with this essential difference: Colored People is less a story of survival and escape than one in which memory can wear the robes of love and the achievement he once felt at a summer camp can be reduplicated over and over again. There should be room for such testimonies, if for no other reason than the simple, indisputable fact that all of us, black and white alike, need them.


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