My Father’s Name: A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War is the touching story of a university professor trying to reconstruct his family’s tree, a task made extremely difficult not only by his not-rare last name but, most important, that very little is known or recorded about slaves and former slaves. In that way, the book is a great history lesson that brings race and racism into a startling contrast with the well-ordered society we may think we live in.
I did not feel that the story ever grabbed me as much as it could have, and perhaps the rather messy presentation of the various trips taken to uncover the past has something to do with it.
How to Be Black is a very funny mix of a memoir and reflections on race in America — or I should say a mix of hilarious and soberly true stories and essays that expose the stereotypes that linger under our polite diversity efforts. I found the how-to chapters particularly funny (sample titles: “How to be the Black employee”, “How to be the Angry Negro”). They make the point so much better than those silly diversity seminars.
I found Is Marriage for White People? to be a very interesting yet somehow disappointing book. The idea is that marriage rates within the African American community are low, especially for black women who are much less likely to marry than white women, even more so if they are well educated, as the education gap between black men and black women is significant, and black women prefer to marry someone of the same race. Over half of college-educated, married black women have a less educated husband, a situation that the author believes may become more common as women of all races gain academic credentials.
The (black, male) author’s logical, but hard-hearted solution is for black women to be more open to marrying men of other races. Logical, yes, but surely another good solution would be for black men to become more educated — and for those black women who marry “down” to establish a more equitable balance of economic power. Some of the stories he tells about women wanting to keep complete control of the money they made left me wondering about their concept of equality within marriage…
What if your dad had been shot by a police officer and you never knew about it? That’s what happened to Michele Norris, of NPR fame (who is African-American, as I discovered while reading the book, since radio is discrete on matters of race) and the main event in the story of her family, The Grace of Silence. She also found that one of her grandmothers worked as an Aunt Jemima food demonstrator and tells the story of how white neighbors quickly packed up when her parents bought a house in a white area of Minneapolis. A more personal view of the great migration than The Warmth of Other Suns, and a wonderful encouragement for all families to talk about the past, especially when historically relevant.
Another novel with a great premise that does not quite succeed. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky obligingly does so, spectacularly, in the first chapter, and the boy who sees her falling never forgets her. She is falling from the sky because her white Danish mother is overwhelmed by raising biracial children in an unfriendly America, and after her fall she goes to live with her African-American grandmother where she constantly reflects on race and her “in-between” position, always keeping her musings perfectly PC and surroundered with often caricatural characters, starting with the church-going grandmother who holds on to her Southern ways despite decades in Portland, OR.
The first chapter is perfect, and many of the observations from the children’s perspectives are spot on, but otherwise the story feels too carefully arranged.
Passing Strange tells the strange, true story of Clarence King, a scientist who helped mapped California (establishing the altitude of Lake Tahoe, for instance) and who also led a double life, pretending to be a black husband and father to his family and all who knew them.
His deception is difficult to fathom. For one thing, there are the practical problems of trying to keep the two halves of his life completely separated. He managed there by pretending to be a porter, which afforded many opportunities for travelling, but it’s not clear how his wife could believe that he would be gone for months on end when he was on a scientific expedition. And there’s a much more important problem of lying. Although he told his wife his real identity as he was dying, how could he have thought that he could have a good marriage based on such an obvious lie? The story may be interesting as a curiosity, but I found it impossible to feel much kindness towards the main character.
The Black Girl Next Door is the story of an apparently successful black family who moves into tony Palos Verdes Estates (not just plain old Palos Verdes) in Southern California to be greeted by ugly graffiti on their house, and various inept rather than mean comments at the local elementary school where the girls are the only black students.
The most interesting part of the story for me was not so much the awkward integration process with the neighbors but rather the often schizophrenic choices of the parents: yes to moving to the whitest suburb but no to dating a white boy; no to spending any time with the Louisiana family but yes to the African-American club. It must have been pretty confusing to the children going up. The author seems to have taken every slight (from people from either race) very much to heart so it’s hard to tell what was truly difficult. Surely an uncle’s implying that she’s not as pretty as her sister can’t be as painful as her father’s beating her up?
An interesting counterpoint to Not a Genuine Black Man
The Professor’s Daughter reminded me, in the form of a novel, of One Drop, the memoir of the daughter of a black man and a white woman. The daughter here, Emma, is clearly informed of her black father’s race, but the dads’ careers are similar: first in the family to go to college, followed by recognition as a college dean here, journalist in One Drop. Emma’s story is interleaved with others, including her dad’s, his dad’s, and an odd but tantalizing strand about an Ethiopian woman who married a colleague of her father’s. Unfortunately that last one peters out into strangeness although the character would have deserved a little more. The book is very skillful about weaving different characters, different times, and different stories, but Emma is fairly boring. Her brother, a troubled but potentially brilliant teenager, has a tragic accident in chapter 1 and all the flashbacks don’t suffice to bring back his quirky ways of thinking about life.
The best part of the book may be Emma’s father education in a Catholic boarding school, which seems to a recurrign theme in the books I read this year (see here and here .) But it’s too brief.
Bombay Anna, as its subtitle says, is the biography of the woman who was the model for The King and Igoverness. Not being familiar with the musical, I read the book as simply the adventures of a most interesting woman of the late 19th and early 20thcentury, born poor in an Indian/English family and who reinvented herself after her husband’s death(with two young children in tow) as a genteel Englishwoman suitable to provide education to a houseful of children, their mothers, the wifes and concubines of what was then the king of Siam (now Thailand.) Just the amount of travel that Anna Leonowens (her made-up last name) accomplished is breathtaking. At a time when travelling by ship from India to England took several months, she managed to travel all the way to Australia and even to have a son in Perth, which even today is the end of the earth.
She was a remarkable character who understood that her modest origins would doom her to a short and insignificant life like her sisters. She seemed to reinvent her past constantly, even when she was well known and living comfortably in Canada with a large brood of grandchildren, none of whom knew her real story.
The book is too long and refers endlessly to The King and I when the straight life story would be astonishing enough, but the first half, through her adventures in Thailand, is breathtaking.
One Drop is the memoir of the daughter of a man who chose to pass as white for his entire adult life and who raised her in complete ignorance of her racial background (although his wife, her mother, knew about it.) As a young adult, she learns of her father’s race as he is dying and she then sets off on an extensive search for her family history, her black (thinking of themselves as black, that is) relatives, her white (thinking of themselves as) relatives, and whether she “feels” white or black.
What’s most interesting about the book is her father’s decision to completely blank out not only his few black ancestors (and with a name like his, he was indeed from New Orleans and had many, ancient French ancestors) but also his sisters and parents, who apparently looked too black for his taste. I find it a shocking reminder, in an America that may not be completely comfortable with our new black president candidate, that not so long ago working as a black journalist would have been much more difficult than as a white journalist. And the denial by many of the author’s relatives that they could not possibly have any black ancestors after she presents them with a well-documented family tree is additional proof that race can be an obsession.
But in itself, Bliss Broyard’s obsession about her race is a bit of a bore.
If you’re looking for another look at race in America, read the excellent Not a Genuine Black Man, reviewed earlier.