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Promissory Notes


Any adaptation of a genre develops historically around precedents of style and theme. It is easy to forget the works clustered in the shadows of the old holies, Douglass, Washington, Wright, and X. Because autobiographies by blacks are US history in a way that autobiographies by whites only sometimes are, the similarities within each period are as inevitable as the differences in literary ability. These clusters have depended on occupation as much as on geographic fate. The Schomburg Series of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers includes adventure stories by free black women in service occupations as well as the spiritual narratives of evangelists. This is a corrective to later nineteenth-century writings by black men who were for the most part ministers.5 The autobiographies written in the long shadow of Up from Slavery were the stories of educators, heads of institutions.6

We are now deep into another cluster of related black autobiographies—all written by journalists who are, for the most part, middle-aged in the youthful manner of our cultural moment and for whom the common conscience of the Civil Rights era functions as shared ancestry. Their authors’ personal histories may vary, but these books converge in meaning when they begin to talk about moving on up to corporate times as just another combat landing for blacks. Their grievances sometimes make these books read like depositions in a class-action suit.

Brent Staples is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, but that fiefdom lies outside the scope of Parallel Time, as do reflections he has offered elsewhere on the topical subject of the reaction of black women to his going out with white women.7 Adult quarrels and insider thoughts wouldn’t fit the mood of blamelessness of his coming-of-age story. Though his gaze is directed mainly toward the past, it addresses the price of self-interpretation that is asked for walking into the asylum of integration.

Born in 1951 into a family of nine children, Staples grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania. The shipyards had closed and the city was crumbling by the time his family was dodging bill collectors in a neighborhood called The Hill. “We’d had seven different addresses by the time I reached eighth grade.” While the lights in other houses blazed, his family was reduced to eating by “the sepia glow of hurricane lamps.” His father was a truck driver who drank up most of what he earned. Staples remembers his father trying to force a washcloth down his mother’s throat one night and knifing her on another occasion. These rages did not make Staples his mother’s ally: she once broke a platter of eggs on his head. For a childhood lived out in a haze of petty and felonious cruelties, Staples’s presentation of his formative years is calmly elliptical, completely deadpan. Perhaps this refusal to rise up swinging is a strategy of detachment and survival learned early. When Staples was sixteen, his father sucker-punched him and knocked him out. “I parted company with my family. Physically I remained with them, but mentally I was gone.” Not surprisingly, Staples characterizes himself throughout his autobiography as a daydreamer.

Shoveling coal and hauling ash were the routine of domestic imprisonment, but humiliating errands of mediation, such as going to shop on credit, got him out of the house. It fell to him at the age of eleven to make the regular visits to the children’s ward after his four-year-old sister was burned over two thirds of her body. Though his family remains shadowy, the little he discloses goes a long way. Staples concentrates on what he found on the streets and it is the better-lit, so to speak, part of his narrative. As he grew older, he arranged to be out prowling the city as much as possible. Beyond affection, trying to insinuate himself into any circle of approval, Staples found stealing a solitary pleasure, as were reading comic books and spying on adults. A local bar was “the center of the universe,” a kind of neighborhood entertainment of stabbings during pool games. Cousins were murdered, cousins or brothers became addicts. Sometimes, Staples admits without embellishment, he was gratified by the misfortunes of others.

Parallel Time takes up the story of getting an education where Manchild in the Promised Land leaves off, but if Staples’s escape is explained, it is not necessarily examined. He was not part of the college-prep elite at his high school, but then he also wasn’t in the “bottom caste” of those who studied welding and metalwork. In commercial studies for those who would become clerks, tellers, he could look forward to wearing suits and leaving work with clean hands. “I was going nowhere,” until he entered Penn Morton College, where, thanks to the insistence of its lone black instructor, Staples enrolled in a boot camp-like study program, Project Prepare. At Penn Morton, Staples discovered a lust for high marks, which took him eventually to the University of Chicago graduate school and a doctorate in psychology.

White people had not been altogether alien in Chester. There were Ukrainian and Polish Catholics resentful of being stuck so close to blacks, raw faces waiting to ambush a black kid at a bus stop. In 1967 Chester High was “70 percent black and growing blacker every year.” Not every encounter with whites was hostile: Staples recalls an English teacher who had a talent for reaching students. The Quakers who ran a coffee hangout asked him to think twice about joining the military after high school graduation. And there were white roommates at college, suburban minds to perplex with Huey Newtonesque poses. But once Parallel Time shifts to the University of Chicago there is a strong sense that Staples has been locked inside a lonely White World, as opposed to just having social interactions with whites.

Staples’s black politics were theatrical, a test of limits, in imitation of the militant black students at Swarthmore whom he admired when he was still in high school nearby. The reason there were none in Chicago is not only that “doing something”—boycotts, sit-ins—had been a youthful episode, a feature of student life that had swept across even small campuses in the late 1960s when anger was “the uniform of the time,” or that those times had begun to recede by 1973 when Staples entered graduate school. The University of Chicago itself represented the power of the unamused White World. Staples recalls a dinner with the board of trustees of Penn Morton College, “people who ran cities, companies,” who ignored him: “You may think that you are hot shit, railing on in the local papers, drinking beer on the steps of Old Main, shooting off your mouth with the faculty, but you are nobody to us. I got the point.”

The university’s fortress presence had been a matter of contention since Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake’s discussion of restrictive covenants against black residents and “the white island” in their landmark study of Chicago, Black Metropolis (1945). The administration successfully resisted student demands during the electrified days in the late 1960s. “Faculty members walked among the demonstrators and identified them for disciplinary purposes.” Even the spirit of pickup basketball games at the university gym differed from those on the nearby playgrounds on the South Side. Staples was not comfortable in either setting. At first, he whistled cheerfully to reassure white couples on the streets at night, but frustration led him to turn these predictable, galling scenarios of apprehension into jeering moments where he got some of his own back.

Perhaps the isolation and gloom are familiar to any graduate career. Had Staples said that stories of Milton Friedman standing over Thomas Sowell with a ruler in hand were current in his day the mood would not have been violated. Given the legacy of Hyde Park’s troubled relations with the black community, it is curious that Staples makes so little of the black presence within the university. The psychologist Allison Davis, the first black to get tenure, was among the first to question the accuracy of IQ tests in determining the abilities of children from low-income homes. Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier were also distinguished alumni of the graduate school, whose studies over the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s on racial tension, black migration, and the black family helped to define the themes and methods of the sociology that had an enormous impact on public policy. What was a laboratory for Allan Bloom was also home to William Julius Wilson, whose book on some of the economic causes of inequality, The Declining Significance of Race (1978), was unfairly denounced as neoconservative simply because of its title.

That Staples felt himself under suspicion as an ambassador from the world of academic “risks” estranged him from the university’s milieu more than did its reputation for turning out formalists. Failure to adjust, for blacks, can appear to be self-inflicted in a setting that radiates Opportunity; doubt becomes a time bomb only certain families have deposited among the baggage of an offspring’s personality. After an upsetting initial meeting with a psychology professor, he checked his previous academic record to remind himself that he was not “a foundling who’d gotten into college by accident.” One notes, however, that rather than exploit the pride clause of demanding that classes be relevant, he chose to keep up and soon mastered the reading for Paul Ricoeur’s class on Freud, mastered the reading in philosophy, in decision theory. The invigoration of the grind must have cured him of being intimidated, because he doesn’t mention another crisis of confidence through all the episodes of shit jobs and high-powered interviews for better jobs that followed graduate school.

The determination perhaps came from what he thought he would fall back into should he fail. It is impossible to overcome one world without having glimpsed another. Staples was most in awe of Saul Bellow. “I envied his luck, his talent, and his fame.” He confesses to having stalked Bellow. “I wanted to steal the essence of him, to absorb it right into my bones.” Humboldt’s Gift was one of the first novels Staples read outside the classroom. Inspired, Staples kept a journal and was amazed to find that Dangling Man is told as a series of journal entries, that its narrator captures all that he himself felt about Chicago’s weather. Though these novels spoke to his situation, in his twenties and wondering what to do, and to his ambition, Charlie Citrine ascendant as his mentor declines, Staples remarks on the spoiling moments when, say, a black man comes out of nowhere to slit a white woman’s throat. “These passages made me angry.”

He is particularly troubled by the representation of decay in Mr. Sammler’s Planet by the figure of a black pickpocket who silently corners the Polish-born “Britannicized” journalist and exposes an elaborately described “large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing.” Bellow returns to it often, Staples claims, as a symbol of what Sammler regarded as the “sexual niggerhood,” the “galloping impulses,” that were sweeping over everyone, including his unhappy daughter, in the Sixties. Though Sammler’s face is “civilized” while the pickpocket’s shows “the effrontery of an animal,” Bellow doesn’t return to it “often” so much as Sammler is questioned extensively about the incident by intrusive, voyeuristic friends and relatives. Toward the end of the book the pickpocket tries to choke a friend of Sammler’s to make him give up the camera he’d used to catch him in the act of stealing. A mixed crowd stands around and watches. When Sammler orders his son-in-law to intervene, he smashes the still silent pickpocket’s skull. Sammler is horrified, having come to see a princeliness in the pickpocket’s barbarism. Staples is not appeased. “I expected more of a man who could see to the soul,” he laments, as only the devoted who feel betrayed can.

  1. 5

    See the Johnson Reprint Corporation Series and the Arno Reprint Series.

  2. 6

    Kelly Miller, Out of the House of Bondage (1914), Robert Russa Moton, Finding A Way Out (1915), James D. Corrothers, In Spite of Handicaps (1916), Henry Hugh Proctor, Between Black and White (1920), William Pickens, Bursting Bonds (1923), Benjamin Brawley, The Lower Rung of the Ladder (1925), and even Benjamin Mays, Born to Rebel (1971).

  3. 7

    Brent Staples, “The White Girl Problem,” New York Woman, March 1989.

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