Robert S. Boynton


Review of Henry Louis Gates’ “Colored People: A Memoir”

The Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1994

The influence of James Baldwin often can be felt in Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s vivid memoir, "Colored People." Written on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" begins with a letter to his nephew, offering this advice to a young black man confronting life in a white world: "This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it. We can make America what America must become." Like Ralph Ellison, Baldwin believed that African-Americans are the moral center of America's complex hybrid culture-a message that is given new life in Gates' moving book.

Gates prefaces his memoir with a letter to his two daughters, explaining that he is writing them because Piedmont, W.Va., the place that nurtured their father, has "mysteriously disappeared." Born four years before the Brown v. Board of Educcation decision that legally ended school segregation, Gates is a member of the first generation of African-Americans to explore the possibilities of life in the post-Civil Rights era. While the gains that resulted from integration were surely enormous, he reminds us that something precious was lost as well; every advance comes with a price.

With the end of oppressive Jim Crow segregation, so too ended many of the exclusionary traditions and customs that enabled tight-knit, black, rural communities like Piedmont to nurture precocious children like little Skippy Gates. And, as Gates is well aware, the confidence and wisdom he gained by growing up in this world were later decisive in helping him seize the opportunities made possible by the Civil Rights movement.

Seize them he has. W.E.B. Du Bois professor of humanities and chairman of Harvard's Afro-American studies department, Gates has become something of a media sensation. A distinguished scholar, as well as a graceful journalist whose work appears in the New Yorker, the New Republic and other forums, he is on his way to becoming one of America's pre-eminent public intellectuals. A bittersweet story that traces Gates' journey from Piedmont to Harvard, "Colored People" is also a subtle study of the lost world that made his journey possible.

Like its author, the book operates on many levels. First, it is a lovely portrait of the rural South. Snuggled between the Allegheny Mountains and the Potomac River Valley, tiny Piedmont in 1960 had a population of 2,565. Its economy centered on the local paper mill, where Gates' father worked, and it was the mill that sponsored the annual all-black picnic-a grand event that drew back the far-flung children and extended families of Piedmont in much the same way that Mecca draws Moslem pilgrims.

Even in the 1940s, the citizens of Piedmont were virulent nationalists-and Piedmont nationalists who had their own credo: "All New York's got that Piedmont's got is more of what we got. Same, but bigger." Local pride aside, racial solidarity was strong in Piedmont, even though the Civil Rights movement came to the village somewhat late. "Everybody liked the Dodgers because of Jackie Robinson," Gates explained, "the same way that everybody still voted Republican because of Abraham Lincoln."

On another level, "Colored People" amounts to a practical working out of some of the ideas Gates has explored in his more academic writings. " `Blackness' is not a material object, an absolute, or an event," he wrote in his essay "Literary Theory and the Black Tradition." "It does not have an `essence' as such but is defined by a network of relations that form a particular aesthetic unity."

In "Colored People," Gates doesn't posit an abstract theory of blackness as much as he renders it as art by describing this "network of relations." The memoir is an attempt to portray the intricate ways that black culture is embedded in the practices of everyday life. Eschewing the popular debate over comparative blackness-which, more often than not, degenerates into a dispute over comparative victimology-Gates skillfully evokes the context in which African-American practices have distinct meanings. "You want to know what being black is," Gates asks the reader, "here, let me show you."

One of the memoir's most beautifully crafted chapters is devoted to the kitchen, where the family gathered to watch his mother cook enormous, fragrant meals. The kitchen is also where Gates' mother would heat her hot comb and curlers to do her friends' hair. "Slowly, steadily, with deftness and grace, Mama's hands would transform a round mound of Odetta kink into a darkened swamp of everglades," he writes.

Attitudes toward hair in the African-American community were-and are-fraught with political implications. While Gates is careful not to ignore the politics of hair, neither does he reduce it merely to a question of ideology. Sure, the fetishization of straight (sometimes called "good") hair often implies that African-Americans measure themselves by white standards of beauty, but that is not all it represents. In Gates' hands, the various and often contradictory feelings toward hair come together to portray a way of life, complete with its own customs of "follicle prestidigitation." Hair is political, but it is also hair.

"From Murray's to Duke to Afro-Sheen," Gates writes, describing the various concoctions with which he experiments, "that was my progression in black consciousness."

Gates resists the temptation to identify his and Piedmont's story too closely with the heroic mythology of the Civil Rights movement, choosing instead to focus on the subtle, "sepia tones" of village life as its citizens adjust to new racial boundaries. By doing so, he successfully captures the tension of those who try to balance the place of race in their lives today.

"I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time," he writes, "but to do so in order to come out on the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color."

"Colored People" is a testament to that humanity.

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