John Edgar Wideman
John Edgar Wideman; drawing by David Levine


Black America has always felt itself divided into two classes, the mucky-mucks and the folk. That blacks considered themselves aristocrats because they were descended either from free blacks or from “quality” whites is bizarre to the post-Black Studies generation, because for blacks to have thought of themselves as “top lofty” would seem to have required ignorance of how most free blacks had really lived, as well as a certain amnesia about who the main sexual predators of slaves were. But even when occupation and education became central to determining class, the connection between high status and light skin was not broken completely. For the longest time class was spoken of as a matter of whispering Episcopalians, murmuring Presbyterians, shouting Methodists, and screaming Baptists.

W. E. B. Du Bois, proud of his Huguenot, Dutch, and free African ancestry, was the first to offer a systematic analysis of the social structure of the black community, most extensively in The Philadelphia Negro (1899).1 What counted as an upper-class occupation changed from generation to generation. The black caterers said to “rule” Philadelphia high society in the 1840s had disappeared by Du Bois’s day. He identified three classes, but, unfortunately, he liked that word “aristocrat.” Because of the lower status of blacks in relation to the larger society, what Du Bois called the black aristocracy of professionals, businessmen, and white-collar workers corresponded to what was middle class for whites. He was elevating the newly emerged urban black professional class to the exalted position in the black population that would cause so much resentment later on. Du Bois’s description of class also reflected the conceptual bias about human behavior then prevalent among social reformers: thus lowerclass blacks, oppressed by their environment, were debauched, while the majority of blacks, the regularly employed, honest, working poor, were sympathetic, teachable, and amenable to copying those above them.

There was no such thing as old or new money, just black folks’ money. The demise of Reconstruction had made it hard for blacks to acquire capital or to pass on property to their children. As blacks were driven from all but the most limited spheres of business and political life, the prestige of the professional rose in the black community. It was this class that constituted the Talented Tenth, that “aristocracy of talent” summoned from the mist of class differences to the altar of race leadership. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” Du Bois declared in an essay in The Negro Problem (1903).2 There was nothing new about his hope that an educated class would act as a vanguard. The relationship between knowledge and freedom had been established before the first black graduated from a US college in 1826. The failed connection between education and advancement was more difficult to explain, as if there were a fault in the social wiring.

Du Bois was criticized by those who believed that agitating for social and political equality had distracted blacks from building solid economic foundations, that this equality was of urgency only to an elite, and that “Negro leadership should have begun at the plow and not in the Senate.” Du Bois pointed out that even Booker T. Washington’s program of industrial training depended on a faculty educated in the humanities, that Washington’s staff included the sons of a congressman and a senator, and they weren’t “buying pianos for dirty cabins.” Du Bois meant that the cruel fantasy about what was possible for blacks was not in encouraging them to learn Latin, but in Washington’s wanting to make them artisans in an industrial economy of closed unions, immigrant labor, and racist assumptions about the abilities of blacks. However, under Jim Crow better-off blacks became removed from other blacks and developed their own institutions,3 which were then sneered at as sad imitations of the white originals. Often whites refused to tolerate black professionals as competitors; where they could establish themselves, they complained that other blacks would not support them and took their business to whites.4

Du Bois was to regret the youthful optimism of his “panacea.” He had imagined the Talented Tenth as a transitional leadership, and that its power would lie in its knowledge and ethical character, not in its quest for wealth. He saw the ideal of the Talented Tenth declining into an ideology in which the significance of achievements by blacks was not that they were contributions to their chosen fields, but that these contributions were made by blacks. Also, because the existence of educated blacks was felt to indict a system that granted freedoms to whites who were their social inferiors, not only could a black not be like everybody else, but a Talented Tenther, whose destiny was invested with the mysticism of Gospel and dignified by the authority of social science, was no longer like every other black.5


Blacks, like any other group, exert enormous social control upon one another. After World War I, when US society as a whole became a mass culture, blacks began to shed some of the deference that had made middle-class blacks acceptable to the black masses as emissaries to whites and as missionaries to poorer blacks, a deference that had led educated blacks to feel themselves stepchildren in the house of bourgeois culture. The Talented Tenth reached its apotheosis as a cultural force in black life during the Harlem Renaissance, after which its reputation went downhill. The distance of race leaders from poor blacks, the insisted-upon obviousness of the educated black’s identity crisis, and the impotence of the black middle class as a segment of the middle class in US society made the Talented Tenth conspicuous objects of criticism.

In 1940 the novelist and essayist J. Saunders Redding, a contemporary of Richard Wright’s, traveled by car from the coal fields of West Virginia to the sand hills of Mississippi. Redding appreciated the stories old people told him as the sun fell in their laps, but he was not looking for tall tales. Though he did not share Wright’s impatience with folklore, he regarded “legends” as poor compensation for the living conditions he observed along the clay roads. Redding went past the familiar images of blacks in shanties, brutal white sharecroppers, and the old darky guarding the gates of the plantation mansion where black tourists were not allowed, to write one of the truly haunting books about black communities in the South, No Day of Triumph (1942). Part autobiography, part oral history, part travelogue, No Day of Triumph is such an unusual portrait of the South because it is about black professionals and the descendants of black landowners as Redding found them in Roosevelt’s second term, what is nowadays called the old black middle class. In every hamlet, railroad junction, and river town Redding managed to meet the lone black doctor, the black factory owner, the lawyer, the schoolteachers, the ministers, the college president.

Redding’s “planless seeking” in the South uncovered family histories of black businessmen cheating black farmers, daughters stealing from mothers, in-laws paying the white sheriff to do away with the beneficiary of a will. One prosperous all-black community was divided by the color line that was introduced with the arrival of the town’s first “high-yellow bride.” Redding found black people who did not want to be leaders, though their education made the black community look to them as such, and black people who were giving up and moving across the Ohio River to pass for white. An AB degree in this culture of “spiritual poison” meant to the rest and sometimes even to themselves “also black” or “arse backwards.” The exceptions to this neurosis about class and race were unpretentious folk who had successfully resisted attempts by white people to displace them from large landholdings and professionals with no concern for their own physical safety or material comfort.

Born in 1907 in Wilmington, Delaware, a graduate of Brown University, Redding was himself a product of the old black middle class. His father was in the postal service and worked at extra jobs as a member of the local waiters’ association, which, back then, placed Redding’s family on the rising slopes. “We lived in a sort of neutral ground between the last orderly outposts of the well-to-do and the teeming camp of the hard-faced poor.” His mother went into a rage when, during World War I, black migrants began to pour in from the South and whites fled the neighborhood. He recalls with shame the respect given his lightskinned, well-spoken maternal grandmother and the embarrassment they felt for his dark-skinned, countrified paternal grandmother, who hated white people.

Though Redding doesn’t treat the black middle class of cities like Atlanta in his book, he makes it clear that he is relieved to have fled that insular world.6 He despised his colleagues in the English department at Morehouse College for what he saw as their self-importance about having Ph.D.s from, say, Columbia. A white hitchhiker whom Redding picked up turned out to be a Communist, union organizer, and weary veteran of the Spanish Civil War, who told him, “I’d give anything to be an American, like you. A damn middle-class American nigger. Can you imagine it?” Richard Wright declared in his introduction to No Day of Triumph that Redding’s book would “rock the Negro middle class back on its heels,” and he applauded Redding as “the first middle-class Negro to break with the ideology of the ‘Talented Tenth.”‘

Redding was not the first. In 1924 Langston Hughes, then a Columbia dropout just back from bumming around Europe, went to live in Washington, DC, with cousins who were descended from Congressman John Mercer Langston. Hughes remembers in his first autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), trying to get a “dignified” job as a page boy in the Library of Congress, which seemed “to require a tremendous list of qualifications and influential connections.” He washed dishes instead. Theaters would not sell a ticket to Hughes; he couldn’t buy a cup of coffee anywhere within sight of the Capitol, and new films did not play in black movie houses. Washington, DC, was a Southern city.


I asked some of the leading Washington Negroes about this, and they loftily said that they had their own society and their own culture—so I looked around to see what that was like.

To me it did not seem good, for the “better class” Washington colored people, as they called themselves, drew rigid class and color lines within the race against Negroes who worked with their hands, or who were dark in complexion and had no degrees from colleges. These upper class colored people consisted largely of government workers, professors and teachers, doctors, lawyers, and resident politicians. They were on the whole as unbearable and snobbish a group of people as I have ever come in contact with anywhere…. They had all the manners and airs of reactionary, ill-bred nouveaux riches—except that they were not really rich. Just middle class. And many of them had less fortunate brothers or cousins working as red-caps and porters—so near was their standing to that of the poorest Negro.7

There was a remnant of 1930s radicalism in Redding’s exposé of the venality of the black middle class and in Wright’s dismissiveness of Talented Tenth leadership. The Depression was devastating for middle-class blacks, not just for poor blacks. In his autobiography, Black Bolshevik (1978), Harry Haywood recalls paying a visit to an Atlanta lawyer, educated at Amherst and Harvard, the son of a self-made businessman with a five-car garage, who, after his father had lost his newspaper and office buildings, rebelled against the narrow practice to which segregation confined him by taking on the defense of the activist Angelo Herndon. The Communist Party and the NAACP clashed bitterly during the Scottsboro trials of the 1930s, and Talented Tenth leadership never fully recovered from the Party’s charge that it was unable to respond to, let alone know, the will of the black majority.

Zora Neale Hurston, who seldom missed a chance to poke fun at “Negrotarians,” relates in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), an incident that made her realize “how theories go by the board.” When she was a student at Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1918, she worked as a manicurist in a black-owned barbershop that catered to white congressmen and cabinet members. One day “a Negro” demanded a haircut and shave, citing his constitutional rights. The black barbers and the white customers rushed to throw him out, which Hurston approved of, because, although in doing so she was supporting Jim Crow, the Negro was threatening her livelihood. She does not say who represented the black middle class in her mind that day, the well-spoken Negro testing perhaps on impulse his constitutional rights or the barber, the owner of a small business. She goes on to say that people made careers of being race men or race women, but these race leaders were crying over a race solidarity that did not exist because it did not extend across class lines.

When Hurston came up North to attend Barnard College she noticed that well-mannered, well-dressed blacks were embarrassed by other blacks “talking loud” in public. Conscious of “white standards of living,” the educated Negroes feared that the loud blacks were tearing down the image of blacks. The “humble Negro,” antagonistic to the “Big Nigger,” “does not resent a white man looking down on him. But he resents any lines between himself and the wealthy and educated of his own race.” The mucky-mucks in Hurston’s analysis complained that the common element didn’t know how to behave and that whites thought all blacks were the same. The folk countered that the better element were just trying to act white and that all blacks were indeed the same when it came to racism.

As it turns out, the group that most irritated Hurston were the people in “neither the top nor the bottom of Negrodom” who nevertheless considered themselves “the better-thinking Negro.” Lacking, as Hurston saw it, the “happy carelessness of the group beneath them and the understanding of the top-flight Negro above them,” they wanted “nothing to do with anything frankly Negroid” and fled from “Negrodom.” They paced in a cage that wasn’t there and took comfort in a “fur coat peerage.” One can infer from her friendships with James Weldon Johnson and Walter White whom she had in mind as “top flight,” men pale enough to pass for white who chose not to, a category, perhaps, that would not offend her old friends in the black intelligentsia. But Hurston’s sympathies were with the folk, who, she said, were willing to die for one another. If Redding and Wright criticized middle-class blacks on political grounds, then Hurston attacked the same people for turning their backs on what she considered their cultural heritage.

Hurston could overlook the meaning of the class distinctions she herself drew. In an article written in 1943, “The ‘Pet Negro’ System,” reprinted in the excellent Library of America edition of her work, she argues that the North had no interest in the particular Negro but talked of justice for the whole, whereas the South had no interest in the black masses but was very concerned about the individual black. A white person down South would permit his or her Pet Negro privileges forbidden to the black masses. The Pet Negro went to “Mr. Big” to negotiate for the community, and Hurston concedes that such an informal system of social redress strained the integrity of the Pet Negro and aroused jealousy in the black community, but it could free the black professional from competition with whites and also gratified his personal vanity. “The South makes a sharp distinction between the upper-class and the lower-class Negro.” The existence of well-off blacks in the South was a secret up North because race crusaders wanted to keep the “worst aspects” of black life always before the public. “Why drag in the many Negroes of opulence and education?”

This is a variation on the Good Negro/Bad Negro theme, which has never depended on class. In the literature from which D. W. Griffith took his film images—Thomas Dixon’s novels The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), for instance—the educated Negro is the villain, the black who forgets his place. One can’t tell from Hurston’s tone how serious she is. Richard Wright was critical of what he called Hurston’s minstrel images of cooperation and hat holding, while Hurston saw it as her mission to dissent from the black-life-aspathology message of intellectuals like Wright. Eventually, her belief in the healing powers of the all-black environment became sentimental. She opposed school desegregation in 1954, and this and other idiosyncratic pronouncements helped to bury her reputation before her death in 1960, but she has been resurrected as the queen of folk attitude, which includes eye-rolling behind the backs of mucky-mucks who appear to be giving themselves airs.


The modern Civil Rights era that we think of as having begun in the 1950s with the Montgomery bus boycott was in many important respects already underway during World War II, with James Farmer’s first sit-ins and A. Philip Randolph’s threat to lead a civil rights march on Washington. Lena Horne, with her high cheekbones and upper-class family in Brooklyn and Atlanta, endeared herself to black troops by making visits to segregated training camps that were more like prisons. But from the Southern campaigns of the 1950s came the most damaging image of obstructionist conservatism in the black middle class: that of the minister either afraid or unwilling to support Martin Luther King, Jr. The outcome of King’s mass movement was far from certain, and resentment of the black middle class for being cut off from the masses and therefore from reality boiled over in E. Franklin Frazier’s ferocious polemic, Black Bourgeoisie (1957).

Frazier had included chapters on the social traditions of the “old families” and the urban middle class, and how they related to stability in The Negro Family in the United States, originally published in 1939 and revised in 1948 to take advantage of new statistics. Frazier’s purpose in this influential study was to demonstrate that the social disorganization of blacks was caused by the migration to northern cities, which was as traumatic to family relations as slavery and Emancipation had been. The privileged status of the old families, their moral earnestness about educational advantages, social graces, and reluctance to marry outside their class, became irrelevant with the new mobility of the black. Urbanization also meant regional differences. In the South, clergymen made up the majority of the black professional class but were a minority in the same class in Boston or New York.

The middle-class blacks interested Frazier as successful competitors in the new environment of the city. In The Negro Family Frazier was reserving judgment on them, saying that the changes in the structure of black life brought about by urbanization had been rapid, and had not had time to solidify. But in Black Bourgeoisie, Frazier delivers his verdict. Gone is the detached, almost clinical distance of the earlier work. He is furious with disappointment, disgusted by what he sees as the frivolity and shallowness of the black middle class, the preoccupation with display and exclusivity, the snobbery, pretentiousness, and philistinism.8

Black Bourgeoisie was the kind of book whose message was clearest in its damning chapter headings and the recurrence of phrases like “inferiority complex,” or “frustrated and insecure.” A closer examination shows how much Frazier’s animus was fed by his new research, which concentrated on readings of Ebony and Jet, glossy magazines notorious for their fatuity. It could be argued that the black professionals and their wives who wanted to be written about in Ebony were representative of only one segment of the black middle class in the 1950s, but the black press, in Frazier’s view, by exaggerating that segment’s economic and cultural achievements, bore the responsibility for creating the “make-believe” into which the black middle class escaped. In his review of Black Bourgeoisie, Du Bois said that he shared Frazier’s distaste for Ebony, but he had to admit that his granddaughter’s coming-out party was lovely.

No other work-had such an impact on how the black middle class was perceived. The class that in Du Bois’s youth had been capable of amazing the black masses as the eloquent voice of the struggle for equality became symbolic of self-loathing and race treachery, of political timidity and cultural sham. Because the black middle class for the most part favored integration, in the 1960s black nationalists regarded it as an enemy. Malcolm X once boasted that he made middle-class blacks uncomfortable because he confronted them with their own negative feelings about whites.

For black youth in the 1960s, disowning one’s middle-class upbringing became a test. The need to overcome middle-class status was reflected in the titles of autobiographies such as Leslie Alexander Lacy’s The Rise and Fall of a Proper Negro (1970). Lacy grew up in an unnamed small Southern community, in what he calls Town Two, the black middle-class preserve between Town One, the white neighborhood, and Town Three, where most blacks lived. Lacy began to doubt his social reality when his father, a doctor, was forced to move his family to another city because whites thought him too prosperous. After attending Brown University, Lacy went to Ghana where he witnessed the 1966 coup that overthrew Nkrumah. In the sequel, Native Daughter (1974), Lacy is working as a teacher of unwed mothers in Bedford-Stuyvesant. One could say that instead of repudiating his class Lacy was following its tradition of service, but at that time a middle-class background was seen as an inheritance of false consciousness that had to be renounced before true black feeling could be embraced. In the days of militant books such as Donald Reeves’s Notes of a Processed Brother (1971), Gail Lumet Buckley’s fascinating family history, The Hornes (1986), would have been particularly suspect, because the story of the wellborn was not thought to serve the interests of black history.

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.


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).

Wideman’s prose has always asked to be read carefully, but the digressive narrative strategy here perhaps disguises whatever unease there could be about what he chooses to disclose. Writers are not alone when they are tempted by the autobiographical voice. Unless they make the tough choices that come easily only to the ingrate, unless they are governed by such a compulsion to write that they don’t feel compromised, their foreheads will be brushed by the web of accountability. This constraint is, of course, not peculiar to black writers: Isherwood was careful when his mother was alive; J. R. Ackerley and T. R. Worsley wrote, like Gosse, as survivors of the father. Though no writer is obliged to be confessional, perhaps black writers are more inhibited because of the strain of their historic mission, the unspoken stricture against airing dirty laundry, the admonition that they must not go off into the white world and embarrass where they came from, the reluctance to demean even inadvertently the experience of those on whose shoulders they stand, and the anxiety that too much honesty will only gratify the enemy.

Therefore a deep truth is sometimes compensation for what cannot be expressed more directly. If a writer’s first audience is composed of people who understand his or her idiom, then that audience might include the family, people who could be waiting at the airport with not only greetings but also a few questions. This is one of the effects of black culture having become increasingly literary. Richard Wright didn’t worry about hurt feelings back home, but not until James Baldwin wrote The Devil Finds Work (1976), when the secret had lost some of its jagged edges, did he reveal in print through an elegant aside that he was illegitimate, that his father was really his stepfather. Sometimes the teller is more afraid than the told of the tale’s surprises.

And so Wideman, who clearly cherishes his mother, must insert as unobtrusively as possible among a list of facts about his father, such as that he shadowboxed, rooted for the Yankees, once defended himself with a knife, or worked as a waiter and a welder, the information that his father had another set of children, even though this may help to account for the tension Wideman remembers about growing up and why his father is the stranger at his mother’s door when he comes to drive Wideman to the airport. He is the estranged man “growing old, alone and poor,” who has to be fitted into a schedule whenever Wideman goes back to Pittsburgh. Similarly, Wideman surrounds with the gauze of an intricate understanding the memory of the humiliation he felt as a provocative adolescent when his father smacked him. Wideman contends that when Wright repudiated his father in Black Boy, he came “perilously close to repudiating all people of color.”

Wideman describes a trip he took with his father to “do a roots thing.” They went looking for graves, relatives, documents. Because he never wanted to visit the Old Country when he was a boy, when the Emmett Till story was still current, Wideman is more than ready to make up for it in his grandfather’s birthplace in South Carolina by learning to “relax into the thickness that holds all the stories.” Wideman convinces himself that his skin recalls sensations he can’t name. He believes a message is spoken by the land, by the pine forests and meadows. He hopes that either his mind or Mind can unlock the correspondences. Memory isn’t archival, “it is a seeking of vital harmony, an evocation of a truer, more complete, saturated present tense.” He sounds like someone willing himself into a hypnotic state of mental abdication and retreats into the romanticism of the storyteller’s valor.

The stories must be told. Ideas of manhood, true and transforming, grow out of private, personal exchanges between fathers and sons. Yet for generations of black men in America this privacy, this privilege has been systematically breached in a most shameful and public way. Not only breached, but brutally usurped, mediated by murder, mayhem, misinformation. Generation after generation of black men, deprived of the voices of their fathers, are for all intents and purposes born semiorphans.

We are told every day that men suffer from trying to live up to notions of closed-mouthed masculinity, that black men have to take responsibility for their families, that racism is to blame for their absences, their silences, and that black sons live mostly in matriarchal households. Instead of recapitulating the charges that black people have been denied their history and are complicit in remaining cut off from it, he might have been more courageous intellectually to address what the sanctified practice, the cultural balm, of handing down stories has so far done, or not done, for black men. Exhorting fathers to tell sons stories is like advocating love, and never mind that Wideman’s central point may not be true, that black men have been telling stories for ages, that some black women have been good fathers. And when have the young ever listened?

The stories themselves that Wideman gives as evidence are anticlimactic because of the expectation he establishes about the redemptive force they must contain. One of the few extended passages in an equivalent of his father’s voice concerns his father’s memory of being stationed in the South and the menial work that the black soldiers raised to an art through their creative intelligence as laborers. Though Wideman makes a display of being “real” with, and about, his father, he does not put himself on record as having asked tough questions. He remains trapped in his own head, reading his father for clues, explanations, deep truths, one of which is that fathers impart the “brutal message” of one’s own mortality. Looking at his father as a middle-aged father himself, Wideman announces that “age brings you to your father.” It is in those moments, when Wideman describes where parents end up, as people who have never been old before, whose lives one can’t save, and with whom it is too late to break the pattern of avoiding them, that Fatheralong is most lucid.

Apart from speaking as a writer, Wideman doesn’t say much about his life after he left Pittsburgh for college. Perhaps Homewood conveys a more heroic image of the black man’s struggle than middle-class Amherst where he lives. The majority of blacks and whites in the US live as separately as ever, but being black and middle class is in itself no more a contradiction than being-black and a king. For Wideman, this aspect of identity would seem to be more a question of consciousness, even conscience, than a cultural conflict. Where “middle class” in the US was once a code for complacent or escapist, the term has come to signify the angry white voter, and not everyone, black or white, wants to be associated with the punitive mood. No doubt working-class Homewood is the formative experience for Wideman and accounts for his strong identification with the people left behind in a passed-over neighborhood. But something else happened to him. It could happen to anyone: personal misfortune that delivers one over to get lost in the US justice system also puts one in touch with the rage and despair of the poor and the powerless. This possibility calls middle-class blacks to a no-man-is-an-island mood. Wideman imagines black fathers looking through the nursery window at their newborn and envisions the “cloud of race” that momentarily covers their joy as they think of their children having to go through the same battles with racism that they did.

And we ain’t talking here about middle-class angst cause no taxis stop for your black ass in Rockefeller Center. Nor existential maundering when you ride the commuter train in from Scarsdale and the only seat white people ain’t occupying is the one next to your brown ass. All that’s part of the problem, but the bedrock issue raised by the paradigm of race … is whether you can be someone other than a white person in this society and stay healthy, stay alive.

All Stories Are True, Wideman called a collection of short stories, and all his stories serve a solemn purpose. Fatheralong seems to have been conceived with some cathartic intent in mind, but one has the feeling that Wideman is turning away from something he can’t bear to look at and insisting on something more profound in the big picture out there. Wideman clutches at the memory of eating fried fish with his father, both of them older and mellower, and then seeks cover in abstract speculation, as if his interpretation of what black men in the US are up against could make bearable the blight on consciousness that he cannot bring himself fully to explain. Wideman remembers falling to his knees a few days after hearing that his younger son was missing and that the boy who shared his son’s room at summer camp was dead. He feared his son had been kidnapped. “I was a man who most likely had lost his son, and hugging trees and burying his face in dirt and crying for help till breath slunk out of his body wouldn’t change a thing.” Perhaps this is what Herzen meant when he said that a man reaches a point where he realizes that his life is over, except for its continuation.


Richard Wright was a writer in exile long before he went to France. Any writer looking back on the lost country of youth can be spoken of as a kind of exile, but the fugitive slave or transplanted black meditating on the dangerous woodlands of the South, feeling banished, wronged, not entirely at home in new surroundings, intensely concentrated on and restless about what was left behind, had a perspective that gave to autobiographies by African Americans a marked kinship with the literature of the exile. It was not a literature of the immigrant, not when one remembers that Langston Hughes tried to write for film and was barely able to dream of a journey like the one Anzia Yezierska makes from Hester Street to Hollywood in her autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950). Similarly, when Baldwin talks about his father’s distrust of library books or when Gerald Early mentions the resentment other black children felt toward him because of his good diction, one recalls that Alfred Kazin’s neighbors in Brownsville did not consider themselves betrayed when boys of academic promise began to lose their accents and to speak differently from them. Even when they were envied, assimilation was not just expected of the lucky, it was possible.

However, climbing over into the American Dream was supposedly alienating for blacks, because to do so meant trying to fit a melting-pot norm. Now that blacks are in the middle class in sufficient numbers and writing books about it, now that they are identifying themselves and reassuring themselves by consulting the straw poll of their peers that this literature represents, being like everyone else no longer means being like whites. Yet because the gaze backward is often from the suburbs or from the office overlooking the campus, some members of the new black middle class are nostalgic for the unambiguous all-black neighborhood, for the certitudes of the street corner. The civil rights days recede, become the old times, and the children of the civil rights era embark on homecomings to visit the old places before they vanish.

Writers in the US have been escaping Main Street ever since Sherwood Anderson’s autobiography, and will probably continue to run away from Main Street, now called the shopping mall. In his memoir, Coming Up Down Home (1993), Cecil Brown is one of the last black writers to describe getting out of the South in order to breathe the air of New York’s bohemia. Brown goes back to Bolton, North Carolina, to forgive and to see what remains, Gloria Wade-Gayles returns after higher education in Boston to Memphis and its scenes of struggle in her autobiography, Pushed Back to Strength (1993). In Colored People, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., goes back to Piedmont, West Virginia, where he was born in 1950, and because West Virginia isn’t the South, Gates’s Piedmont can be as nourishing as Hurston’s all-black hometown, Eatonville, Florida. His memories of growing up during segregation are of a neighborripe, laughter-laden “sepia world.”

Chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, author of three books on black literature, and editor of several scholarly works, Gates, very much at ease with the language of recent critical theory, has concerned himself with what he calls the invention of tradition, the formation of the canon. The availability of many previously forgotten works of black literature is largely owing to his scholarly efforts. As a theorist of black literature, Gates builds on Hurston’s and Ralph Ellison’s view that unrelieved suffering is not the only black experience, that what blacks think of themselves is more important than what whites think of them, and that black culture is complex in its humanity. Colored People is written in accordance with Gates’s theoretical positions, especially those having to do with the centrality of humor, the black vernacular tradition, and what Gates calls the “speakerly text,” the voice of blacks in prose.

Gates’s voice is unerringly benign. Colored People is a gentle tribute to the folks back home and to their perpetual Sunday, “everybody’s favorite day, because you could eat yourself silly.” It is as though he were strolling after church down to the “people’s court” of the bar, the barbershop, the kitchen, the bank steps, greeting everybody by name, flattering them into being characters for him, remembering their oddities, their gossip about infidelities and dust-ups. The speakerly text is filled with names, street names, place names, dance names, hair-cream names, album names, TV show names, pizza shop names. Even the cars have nicknames. Though Gates assures us that the colored people of Piedmont “could wag some hellacious tongues” about drunken cuckolds, who was diddling whom, who had the biggest thing, the worst teeth, the skinniest legs, or cooked the best corn, we have to take his word for it that these stories were funny.

Piedmont’s character was bound up with its paper mill. The craft unions did not integrate until 1968. Before then the Italians and Irish worked the good jobs; the blacks worked on the loading dock. “Loading is what Daddy did every working day of his working life. That’s what almost every colored grown-up I knew did.” His father had a second job as janitor at the telephone company. Blacks lived in two streets, as renters, not owners. “The colored world was not so much a neighborhood as a condition of existence.” White people showed up either as bill collectors or voyeurs. They were Mr. Mail Man, Mr. Insurance Man, Mr. Po-lice Man. Blacks couldn’t eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels, use certain bathrooms, or try on clothes in stores. “Rage turned inward” took the form of eating and drinking oneself to death in front of the TV. Everybody watched Amos ‘n’ Andy and sports. “What interracial sex was to the seventies, interracial sports was to the fifties.” Television, the modern hearth, would become “the ritual arena for the drama of race” when it brought news from “Elsewhere.” The civil rights era was a spectator sport for Piedmont. “It was almost like a war being fought overseas.” Though Gates’s father was scornful of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his mother was firm in her conviction that white people were unclean, “white and colored Piedmont got along pretty well” in those Leave It to Beaver years.

Gates’s affection for the place he would one day leave but could never leave behind was derived in part from family pride. The shared cultural references, leveling gossip, and common work experience give only the illusion of a classless community. His mother’s family was “a very big deal” when he was growing up because, though poor, they were self-sufficient and had been a presence in town a long time, the first colored family to own guns, to hunt on white land, to go to college, to own property. A large clan of bornagain Christians, they “classed off” and never went to colored VFW dances. Gates came to know his father’s more worldly family at funerals a day trip away in Cumberland, Maryland. He felt “cloaked in the mantle of family” at the cemetery of Gateses going back a hundred years. “Obviously comfortable in the world,” given to analyzing things, “metamouthing,” “expliciting the implicit,” they were “octoroons” way back there and had long ago sent out agents to succeed in the prestigious schools and professions of Elsewhere. Gates, who early on developed an avid interest in collecting information about the Negro, identified more with his father’s storytelling family than he did with his mother’s non-smoking relations.

A sense of belonging to something special prepared Gates for school, where he was “marked to excel” from the first grade. Piedmont schools integrated in 1955. His older brother had been the pioneer, the one who though cheated of prizes because he was black nevertheless overturned assumptions about how far a colored boy was supposed to go. School remained Piedmont’s only “integrated arena.” Gates, a popular “love junkie,” was never invited to eat in the homes of white friends and gave up on them socially until the late 1960s when, sporting the town’s first Afro, he created its first daylight interracial dating scandal. By then he and his classmates were “able to get to know each other across cultures and classes in a way that was unthinkable in our parents’ generation.”

He experienced the teen-ager’s disenchantment, and his beautiful mountain valley suddenly looked like a dying mill town where people cared more about food and basketball than anything else. Gates enrolled in Potomac State College in 1968, because that is where his family always had gone, but quickly transferred to Yale and no longer wanted to be a doctor. He returned to Piedmont often and came to realize that for many of its colored people “integration was experienced as a loss. The warmth and nurturance of the womblike colored world was slowly and inevitably disappearing.” His mother once defied a white doctor who told her that the illness that would put Gates in the hospital for six weeks was nothing more than a case of the colored overachiever’s nerves.

Colored people meant the spectrum of brown within a single family seated around a long table, from mahogany to cherry wood to almost orange, and it also referred to a feeling, soul—colored schools, colored churches, colored food, colored music, colored funerals, dating colored, marrying colored, divorcing colored, cheating on colored. Across the generational divide colored people “feared that world where so much humiliation had lain in wait” and they “hated that which made them fear,” meaning the young, like Gates, who had choices. Some older relations thought he had “too much mouth.” “I wanted to learn how to be a free Negro and to be a man,” “how to question values and tradition without being kicked out of the fold, how to value community and order, family and group, yet not have to suppress uncertainties, doubts, ambivalences in order to be accepted.” Gates must have left his skepticism in his Elsewhere, because Colored People is the homage of the love junkie.

Gates wants to make known to his two daughters the place he came from. They were too young to understand the funerals or to remember his mother, who knew “what people had meant to be in their hearts, not what the world had forced them to become.” The preface of Colored People is a letter addressed to his daughters. He wants them to feel his pride, to understand why he speaks to colored people whom he does not know on the street, and the satisfaction in a job well done measures the distance from The Fire Next Time, which begins with a letter to Baldwin’s nephew and namesake.

Baldwin had no illusions about what an education could do for him, he’d encountered too many “college-graduate handymen,” and the “social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account.” But while looking for the rainbow sign Baldwin remembers church suppers and church outings, rent and “waistline” parties, where pimps, whores, racketeers, and church people, unmolested, away from the race problem, “achieved a freedom with each other that was close to love.” In Gates’s colored museum the bound-together off-duty appear in soft focus, a picture no doubt gratifying to the folks back home, but in offending no one, perhaps he risks too little.

(This is the third article in a series.)

This Issue

May 11, 1995