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Professionals

A job as the only black secretary at the Charlotte Observer introduced her to the newspaper world.

I wrote about matters of the heart and I couldn’t yet see that journalists did this, too, with more skill and sense of communication than I could yet muster. Still, if there is such a thing as fate, it had acted on my behalf, to put me in a place where when I woke up I would have before me what I wanted all the time.

To be free for classes at Central Piedmont Community College, she moved to part-time work in the newsroom, where she fell in love with “the hum, the secrets and the creative clutter.” In 1978, Gaines heard about a free summer journalism program at Berkeley and “sat down and cried” when she received her acceptance letter. Afterward, a friend from the Observer who’d become managing editor of the Miami News agreed to hire her, where she would be one of two black reporters.

As night police reporter, she earned the trust of those whose misfortunes cut across the barriers of race, sex, and social status, but she had to swallow her disgust when she reported on the welcome of Cuban exiles and compared that to the plight of Haitian refugees. In December 1979, a black insurance executive, an ex-Marine, sustained injuries, according to the police report, after his motorcycle which they were chasing crashed. He slipped into a coma and died. The medical examiner was suspicious and an internal investigation led to five officers, one of whom was Cuban, being charged with the beating that split the man’s skull. In May of 1980 a jury of white males returned a not-guilty verdict in two hours, after which demonstrations in Miami turned into a three-day riot.

Gaines, who had befriended the victim’s widow, was forced to realize that she had become different from the people on the streets, who regarded her as a traitor as she took notes in the company of a white photographer. “For the first time in my life, I was afraid of people who looked like me.”

She had been looking for a reason to leave Miami. “I fled from more personal questions, like whether or not I, a black person, could work for a major newspaper and still respect myself.” Her application for full-time employment at the Post languished for six months until in 1985 she approached the assistant managing editor for the news section, who offered a three-month trial to see if she could meet daily deadlines. Gaines’s narrative concludes in prayerful calm. (The acknowledgments at the beginning of the book have been a tip-off. “I will thank God eternally for bringing J.C. into my life.”) Therapy is also given credit, as is caring for the friends from the Post who were stricken by AIDS. Gaines at one point was so depressed by loss that she couldn’t think of any new story ideas.

Asked to speak to members of a drug rehabilitation program, she informed the managing editor of her past in order to preempt the chance that this news might come from elsewhere. When she became a party to a union discrimination suit, she decided to admit before the matter came out in court that she had answered untruthfully about having a felony conviction. Her career was at stake, but she was tired of living like a fugitive. Donald Graham instructed Bradlee to make the decision. After five months, she was officially forgiven. Gaines rushed to the bathroom and sobbed. The victory, then, is in her escape from the stigma of the felon.

It is not law in the US that a prospective employee must disclose a criminal record to a private employer, but companies can by law set their own work rules and requirements. What private companies cannot do by law when setting employee requirements is to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or age. But companies may find lying on an application just cause for dismissing an employee. Since criminal records are deemed indicators of trustworthiness, personnel policies can help to maintain an underclass because the inability to rejoin society contributes to recidivism. Bradlee deserves credit for exercising his discretionary power in favor of reform, but the proprieties of black pride make expressions of gratitude to white bosses difficult, as does the point that Gaines, like McCall, had already proven herself by the time her past came back like the wagon in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Writing was the most therapeutic act of all. “I wanted to show my struggle to learn to love all of me.” When she first thought of writing an article about her secret an editor told her it would be “career suicide,” but then Nathan McCall came to work for the Post. “Could management’s experience with me have helped Nathan get hired?” she can’t resist asking herself. McCall wrote an article about his life of crime and Gaines observed that he was neither hated nor dismissed for it. Far from it. The Sunday her confessions finally appeared, she ran to buy a newspaper, but it isn’t clear from how Gaines describes what she was reading whether she couldn’t stop crying because the article had been changed or because she was finally unburdened of her past.

Throughout Gaines shows immense pride in her capacity to feel. Seven friends die of AIDS in a thirteen-month period, but Gaines doesn’t appear to have been inhibited from also crying for herself. The sincerity on the page about having been blessed with loose ducts is part of the popular culture of talk shows where tears are a sign that feelings have been got at, like the geyser when drilling for oil. It wouldn’t matter, except that authority on social questions these days is derived from “authenticity,” from the battlefield of personal experience, and the meaning of that experience is governed by orders from a headquarters of the self called one’s feelings, as if they were all that needed to be examined. In any event, Gaines says that offers of book contracts followed her revelations, as well as invitations to make inspirational speeches and a nomination for Best Commentary from the National Association of Black Journalists, all of which she accepted in the language of personal fulfillment as civic duty.

Going from Laughing in the Dark which ends with Gaines out dancing after an awards ceremony, “a streak of pink chiffon joy,” to Jill Nelson’s Volunteer Slavery is like dropping a Chatty Cathy doll and getting clobbered by the toughest girl on the block. Nothing could be further from Gaines’s after-school Zen that life is a journey back to the perfection one is born with but has “forgotten” than Nelson’s unapologetically bitter account of her four years at The Washington Post, first with the Sunday magazine and later the Metro desk, “the newspaper equivalent of Coon Town.” Anyone who has worked in an office has been faced with the need to make peace with it, especially when there is no place else to go, which is why one is only briefly taken aback when someone who has been kvetching about the office announces one day that Moloch, Inc. isn’t the worst place to work after all. That Nelson is no longer at the Post, that she will never have lunch in that town again, so to speak, accounts for an angry wit the autobiographies of her former colleagues haven’t a hint of.

Nelson has scores to settle and it is as well there is no index. Her book is a visit from the ghost of Grudges Past. So many Post personalities are evoked and spiked that when Nelson declines to identify the author of a particularly sleazy remark it means perhaps that there has been no hope of corroboration. Her version of the internal workings of the Post singles out a type of conversation that remains prudently unheard in Gaines’s newsroom hum and enlivens an office that McCall treats as depopulated, but to do so Nelson stretches the conventions of autobiography. Volunteer Slavery has the structure and feel of a novel. The office where Nelson glowered from 1986 to 1990 is written about in the present tense and those scenes alternate with memories of her youth in the active past. Nelson also makes extensive use of dialogue. Autobiography can be as free as any other form, but the tone of this one is contentious and the characters include private people with public reputations.

The standard Negro balancing act when it comes to dealing with white folks, which involves sufficiently blurring the edges of my being so that they don’t feel intimidated, while simultaneously holding on to my integrity.” the “thin line between Uncle Tomming and Mau Mauing,” the feeling of being “a handicapped person they’ve decided to mainstream”—the lessons, for Nelson, are the same on every page whether she approaches work in the spirit of trying to change things from within or wanting to get along as a team player. Nelson depicts some white women colleagues as being as underhanded and condescending as some white men. Though she concedes that free-lancing may have spoiled her for the restrictions of a corporate workplace, she hardly ever finds herself at fault. Some writers never seem to find it odd that the narrator holds all the aces of perception.

If Nelson’s method is artful, she nevertheless exposes a great deal. Names that drift unobtrusively through the autobiographies of her peers Nelson fixes in a comic hierarchy. She talks to big shots and also to the black women at the switchboard. Unlike Staples, McCall, or Gaines, Nelson, a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism, presents a much fuller picture of the black journalist’s professional milieu, the caucuses and cocktail parties tense with rivalry and envy. What are bylines to general readers turn out to be vibrating links in a busy network.

Where Gaines claimed that her preoccupation with daily survival kept her innocent of the Post‘s grand reputation, and where McCall’s success confirmed his belief in a spiritual force that would reward him, Nelson was made defensive. “Belonging isn’t what I crave; I’m after money and a larger audience.” Her teenage daughter, Nelson explains, was tired of her divorced mother’s “class-suicide trip,” of her vegetarian diet, funny clothes, and cramped New York apartments. She wanted to be like Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Maternal love makes of every woman a slave, Balzac said.

Nelson’s refusal to be impressed by her new job was also a reflection of class, of her background as a child of West End Avenue professionals with family connections to Madame C.J. Walker, the famous hair-cream tycoon of the World War I era. Born in 1952, Nelson came of age during the height of the black-consciousness movement and shed her private-school image by not having a coming-out party, and by sporting an Afro as well as a boyfriend who lived in the projects. “He’s bad, therefore I am.” Even City College comes across as a militant’s choice. “In my middle-class guilt trip, it’s taken me nearly a lifetime to understand that the people dissing me for my bourgeois roots are usually the ones trying hardest to get to it themselves.”

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