• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Aristocrats

The first research by blacks into black identity, by Kenneth B. and Mamie Clark in the 1950s, was modeled after Alfred Adler’s inquiries into Jewish self-hatred. But in the years after their studies were published, other black psychologists moved away from the notion that because of the pathology of black life blacks automatically assigned to whiteness the value of “good” and to blackness the value of “bad.” What one clinical psychologist9 has called the “emergence of nigrescence” or the “psychic conversion from a Negro to black identity” is like the psychological metamorphosis Fanon urges in Black Skin, White Masks. There has been nothing as persuasive as Fanon’s interpretation of black identity as a process of ego development, the decolonization of the mind. This model of internal liberation, of the inner voyage from denial to acceptance of the self, is projected back into black history, even into how blacks refer to themselves. In class terms this means the triumph of the folk because authentic black culture is thought to reside with them.

In the late 1970s, when mass movement politics appeared to be exhausted, the revival of interest in the folk roots of black culture was part of the rejection of the view of black life as traumatic—“pathologies perpetuated through cumulative ugliness,” “the affliction of inferior status,” “the alienation from normal society,” to use some of Kenneth B. Clark’s Sixties’ phrases. The most important feature of the changing view was the resurrection of the black family, as exemplified by Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976), which disputed the Moynihan Report’s suggestion that the historical cause for the weaknesses of the black family was the absence of black fathers, and argued that black families in the past were stable and “doubleheaded.” The looseness with fact in Roots (1976) fit the psychological need perfectly. It presented the slave experience not only as a family saga but as the emotional equivalent of the landing at Plymouth Rock or the trek westward in covered wagons. The elevation of the fortified, striving family to a place of importance in black history rehabilitated the image of the South, the Old Country, as James Baldwin called it, and the shift in emphasis from political agitation to the cultural heritage of survival and family strength meant the release of middleclass blacks from the penance of racial guilt. One’s children have a way of sanitizing one’s materialism.

3.

Gerald Early, an essayist and editor of Countee Cullen’s collected writings, is director of African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. In Daughters, his account of what it means to him to be a black man rearing with his wife two daughters in middle-class America, Early muses that his house is “filled to the rafters with books by and about black people,” that his children are “awash in exposure to African American culture,” and yet their knowing who Countee Cullen and Thelonious Monk were has “little emotional impact on them—perhaps because there is little emotional impact of any of this knowledge on me.” Though Early consciously tries to instill in his daughters an appreciation of the Blues, he is not, he says, “Afrocentric.” African-American culture is not “demonstrated” at home through the celebration of “African” ceremonies. When one of his daughters tells him that she doesn’t need a Malcolm X T-shirt to let everybody know she’s not ashamed of being black, Early is relieved.

However, Early confesses that he worries that his children, who attend a predominantly white school and live in an almost all-white neighborhood, have no black friends. He and his wife are ambivalent about the possibility of interracial dating in their daughters’ futures. “There is something oddly daunting about this black, middleclass life,” Early confides. “At cocktail parties, one is never sure if one’s white neighbors are smiling at you with the self-satisfaction of knowing, with you before them as living and incontrovertible proof, that the American Dream works for everyone, or with the faint contempt that their accomplishments cannot be much,” if all it took for blacks to get there was ten or twenty years of affirmative action—as if it were solely affirmative action that got blacks there. Early seems to have awakened in a suburb where middle-class whites are like the mariners fearful for the ship. The crew is drawing lots and giving the Jonahs weird looks.

Early made a habit of taking his daughters with him when he went shopping, because a black man out with children was a family man, not a threat. On one occasion in 1991, when he was waiting for his family at a mall in Frontenac, a St. Louis suburb, he was questioned by a police officer, because a jewelry shop had reported a suspicious-looking man lurking about. The Frontenac authorities refused to make an apology, and the incident escalated into a public scandal. Early and his wife received hate mail and crank calls, but he was surprised by the degree of sympathy from whites. The support from blacks made him uneasy, because he could not feel the racial solidarity the scandal seemed to demand of him, and being seen as a symbol of racial justice made him think of himself as a hypocrite. And some blacks reminded him that he could take such a public stand because he was not risking his job. But he was most troubled by the reluctance of his daughters to discuss what had happened to him.

Early is aware that his two daughters, born in 1979 and 1981, are growing up in circumstances very different from those of his own childhood. They are middle class whereas he feels that he will always be poor no matter how much money he makes, that he will die in the class into which he was born. He also will be always from another time, another place. He and his two siblings grew up in an Italian working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia in the 1950s. His mother was left a widow when his father died young. Early had jobs ever since, beginning with a newspaper route at age nine. He took his daughters to Philadelphia only once. Ages five and seven at the time, they were “shocked” that he was related to poor and boisterous people. His “black” life frightened them, but he admits that perhaps their awkwardness during the visit reflected his own.

Early notes that when he was a child his mother never told him any stories about her childhood. She had, Early recalls, “a great air of seriousness” and the immediate concerns of keeping the family together perhaps made her regard “memory recitation” as sentimental. Early came to understand that when his mother told him that he had to be a man and to learn to take care of himself, when she urged him to rely on his own resources, it was the voice of the black parent who couldn’t pass on to her child a good life. He conceives of sharing his childhood with his own children as a way of comforting them. “Indeed, stories of my childhood became, for them and for me, the very thread of continuity and love, of identification and convergence.” Comparing his own recollections to what his daughters tell him they’re feeling becomes a sort of emotional glue and a method of instruction.

Though his prose trembles, one could say, with love and anxiety, his subjects are at the mercy of his purpose. Early includes poems he has written for his children and “verbatim” entries from their diaries, which bring his tone close to one of those helpful guides about the gift of parenthood. He states clearly that he has the express permission of his daughters to write openly about them, but the child who does not object to Daddy writing about her learning disabilities or her first menstruation may discover a different feeling about privacy as an adult. Early accepts the responsibility and, with his wife lending a patient ear, he moves from one self-reproach to another, asking himself whether it is approval he wants from his children or power over them.

Early’s program of sharing experience is also a form of giving his daughters something he didn’t have as a child. Toward the end he describes what it is like for him, he who grew up in a house of women and who is uncomfortable around men, to be called “Daddy,” to be the father he never had when a child himself. As for the wish to pass on stories, this is at the heart of the US experience, the America where people have come from someplace else, where they move house, see their economic status change, where technology erases a childhood landscape. Continuity is achieved through narrative rather than place.

Telling stories means more to the teller at the time than it does to the told, but stories wait to be discovered after the teller is dead. John Edgar Wideman has a curatorial relationship to his stories of black life and family feeling. Born in 1941, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Wideman has published nine novels, two volumes of short stories, and a memoir, all eclectic in style and highly praised. Since the early 1980s when the novels in the Homewood trilogy appeared, his fiction has concentrated on his native Pittsburgh and his family history. One book refers to another as the family story is rearranged, retold, reinvented. “Consider all these stories as letters from home.” His memoir Brothers and Keepers (1984) reads like a concordance to his fiction about the scenery and personalities of Homewood, the neighborhood where he grew up. He honors his debt to this resource material, as if the stories hadn’t come from him so much as they had passed to or through him. His work is thus an act of preservation, which is itself a cultural affirmation, given Wideman’s belief, as elaborated in his autobiographical essay Fatheralong, that there is a conspiracy to prevent the stories of black men from being transmitted from generation to generation.

Fatheralong is about Wideman’s search for his father’s stories, about his attempt to connect with him because time may be running out for him to do so. “The past, present, future flatten into one chance, one chance and then everything’s gone.” “Fatheralong” was what Wideman heard as a child when his church sang “Farther along we’ll know more about You.” For Wideman the hymn referred to God, and also to his father’s “doubleness, his two-personedness,” his presence in the house as the man who ruled and yet lived somewhere else. Wideman says that he isn’t recollecting his father so much as he is reexperiencing the domestic power and privilege he associated with him. He begins in Homewood, but as if to support the argument that history isn’t “a fixed, chronological, linear outline,” is instead “the activity over time of all the minds comprising it,” he approaches the figure of his father and the subject of manhood as occasions for far-flung ruminations. The complex structure of Fatheralong and its rhetorical flights, the attitude toward down-home riff as lyricism, resemble the use of the Blues voice to convey folk irony in Albert Murray’s intellectual history and memoir, South to a Very Old Place (1971).

  1. 9

    William E. Cross, Jr., Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American Identity (Temple University Press, 1991).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print