Colored People (Magill Book Reviews)
In the preface to this memoir, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., states his objective explicitly: “I have tried to evoke a colored world of the fifties, a Negro world of the early sixties and the advent of a black world of the later sixties, from the point of view of the boy I was.” Gates brings his world to life through image and narrative, as opposed to using it to make a point about race relations. The point of view, however, is not consistently that of a boy; the adult author looks over his shoulder, offering perspectives of which his younger self was incapable and information of which he was unaware.
One such paradoxical perspective lies near the heart of the book. In the 1950’s and earlier, Gates writes, life for black people in Piedmont held “ a sort of segregated peace.” Segregation is a basic affront to human dignity; ending it deals a crippling and in some ways fatal blow to a life-giving black community. The deepest paradox is embedded in the two words of the title: the blacks of Piedmont are colored, and race means everything; they are people, and it means nothing.
The book rambles along smoothly. Under the easy-going manner, however, lies a sharp intellect, surfacing from time to time in barbed irony, and a deep emotional awareness of loss and waste in the lives of his people.
A striking feature of this memoir is that it is so very brief. Given the twenty-year time-span, and the number and richness of the lives which crossed that of the author, it could easily have been spun out to two or three times the length. Moreover, Gates’s approach has its costs: The emotional potential of many events, lightly touched on, remains largely untapped. Nevertheless COLORED PEOPLE remains a major accomplishment. Gracefully told, it is an amiable tale with a darker subtext: a pleasure to read, a boon to the understanding.
Sources for Further Study
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 8, 1994, p. 3.
The Nation. CCLVIII, June 6, 1994, p. 794.
National Review. XLVI, August 29, 1994, p. 57.
The New Republic. CCXI, July 4, 1994, p. 33.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, June 19, 1994, p. 10.
Newsweek. CXXIII, May 23, 1994, p. 60.
Time. CXLIII, May 23, 1994, p. 73.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, May 15, 1994, p. 3.
Colored People (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In the preface to this memoir, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., states his objective explicitly: “As artlessly and honestly as I can, I have tried to evoke a colored world of the fifties, a Negro world of the early sixties, and the advent of a black world of the later sixties, from the point of view of the boy I was.” The artlessness of the book lies in its easy colloquial language (nothing within the text itself reveals the author as an English professor at Harvard University) and its relaxed, digressive movement. Its honesty appears in the portraits not only of individuals (even the author’s heroes, notably his mother, are presented as human and thus flawed) but also of a black culture in which the chief recreations are gossip and extramarital sex. Gates evokes the world of his childhood and adolescence—brings it to life in the imagination through image and narrative—as opposed to using it to make a point about race relations. It is a particular world he writes of: “This is not a story of a race but a story of a village, a family, and its friends.” The point of view, however, is not consistently that of a boy; the adult author looks over his shoulder, offering perspectives of which his younger self was incapable and information of which he was unaware.
One such paradoxical perspective lies near the heart of the book. In the 1950’s and earlier, Gates writes, life for black people in the Potomac Valley town of Piedmont, West Virginia had “a sort of segregated peace.” He goes on to say that “what hurt me most about the glorious black awakening of the late sixties and early seventies is that we lost our sense of humor”: a telling conjunction of positive and negative terms. Segregation is a basic affront to human dignity; yet ending it deals a crippling and in some ways fatal blow to a life-giving black community. Integration should, in theory, allow Gates and his family and neighbors the freedom to view and live racial issues individually, on their own terms. Yet nothing, as this memoir poignantly makes clear, is ever that simple. Race remains a tortuous issue. The deepest paradox, implicit in practically every sentence of Colored People: A Memoir, is embedded in the two words of the title. The blacks of Piedmont are colored, and race means everything; they are people, and it means nothing.
The division of Colored People into six sections, each containing three or four short chapters, seems to signal a tight structure. In fact, the book rambles along easily and amiably; the impression is that of a spontaneous monologue, with topics and anecdotes bubbling up one after the other by free association. Under the easygoing manner, however, lies a sharp intellect, surfacing from time to time in barbed irony, and a deep emotional awareness of loss and waste in the lives of the author’s people.
In the fifty pages of the first section, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Gates begins with an overview of the geography, natural and human, of his hometown of Piedmont: population 2,565, only three hundred or so of those colored, in 1950 when the author was born. Since then it has shrunk to less than half that; “completely bound up with the Westvaco paper mill,” it appears now to be “a typical dying mill town.” He goes on to describe the colored and white worlds of the town and how they impinged on one another; segregation as a formal institution; the importance of television, and how it brought the Civil Rights movement to Piedmont as a kind of spectator sport; his mother, with her great dignity and her implacable hatred of white people; and the extraordinary—and humorous, viewed from a distance—efforts of colored people to straighten their naturally kinky hair.
By means of brief, casual revelations, Gates snaps the reader to attention: “We called white people by their trade, like allegorical characters in a mystery play.” Until the 1970’s, “colored weren’t allowed to own property.” “Everybody loved Amos and Andy,” because “their world was all colored, just like ours.” Through anecdote, he brings his world to life. The first black valedictorian at the high school, during her freshman year at the University of West Virginia, gets on a motorcycle with a stranger and is never seen again. A racist businessman, a man weighing four or five hundred pounds, has “a heart attack one day while sitting in the tiny toilet at his place of business” and must be sawed out: By the time they “dragged out his lifeless body . . . it made little difference” to him that one of his rescuers is black. Whites are not the only victims of irony. A black man with diabetes drinks alcohol and eats fatty foods against his doctor’s orders: “That high blood pressure stuff, he’d say, that only applies to white people. . . . They removed his second leg just after he went blind.”
In the stories in the second section, “Family Pictures,” members of the author’s extended and nuclear...
(The entire section is 2043 words.)