High Cotton

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his first novel, Darryl Pinckney provides the reader with a careful examination of a world not often explored by African American writers, the world of the black middle class. The family at the center of High Cotton represents four generations of college graduates who have gone from rural Georgia to the major cities of America and Europe. These are the “Also Chosen,” as Pinckney calls them, W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Talented Tenth” and their descendants, the “upper shadies,” the privileged yellow-skinned doctors and teachers of the Old South, the members of the prestigious black social clubs of the 1950’s and 1960’s, inhabitants of the “Golden Ghettos” of America’s suburbs in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the contemporary affluent urban professionals. Pinckney demonstrates in this novel that achievement of middle-class status may come at too high a personal and cultural price.

The unnamed narrator provides the single perspective from which this story is told. The novel traces a period from the narrator’s adolescence in the mid-1960’s to his young adulthood following college graduation in the 1980’s, from his boyhood in the urban neighborhoods of Indianapolis to the white suburbs where his is the first black family. It takes us from his home to relatives’ homes in Louisville, Kentucky, and Opelika, Alabama, to his exploration of London, New York City, Harlem, Amsterdam, and Paris, leading him finally to his roots in his grandfather’s birthplace in Augusta, Georgia. In following this young man’s journey to adulthood, readers see the difficulties not only of growing up but also of growing up black and middle class in America. It is a context of mixed signals and contradictions, of opportunities glimpsed but often denied, of material gains at the cost of cultural loss. Pinckney’s often funny, sometimes naïve, sometimes cynical, sometimes emotionally numbed narrator ultimately discovers that the journey he and his family embarked upon, toward the status and success inherent in the American Dream, obscures what is really important—family, ethnic identity, and self-awareness.

Family abounds in this novel. The narrator’s early life is overwhelmed by the countless “old-timers” who “seemed to be all there was. They far outnumbered their younger relatives.” In their looming shadows, the young man struggled to discover his own identity. The strongest member in this family pantheon is the narrator’s paternal grandfather, Eustace, Brown and Harvard educated, a man whose presence “sucked up the air,” a man completely at ease in the heady world of Cambridge academia but lost in the black southern world to which he returns. Contemptuous of his own siblings and children for failing to match his own scholarly accomplishments, disdainful of his parishioners for their unwillingness to show him what he considers proper respect, Grandfather Eustace spends his life disappointed, bitter, and distant from everyone, including his own wife (the “beige” stepgrandmother) and family. At once his antagonist and his defining fire, Eustace informs the narrator’s young life, always edging him toward that “paradise of integration” the old man believed in but could not live.

The narrator tells his reader, “No one sat me down and told me I was a Negro. That was something I figured out on the sly.” His maternal Aunt Clara and paternal Uncle Castor contribute to but complicate the boy’s personal and racial awareness.

His train trip south to Aunt Clara’s home in Opelika, Alabama, shows him a contradictory world in which skin color, even among African Americans, determines power and privilege. The narrator puzzles over the old woman’s pride in describing her father as “seven-eighths white” and repeating family legend of an uncle whose mother had been rumored to be a white girl from one of the South’s best families. Clara’s “transparent” skin, through which the boy could detect her green veins, aided her high social position. Educated and married to the “Negro doctor,” Clara had been served first by the darker-skinned woman renting Clara’s shotgun shack and later by her daughters. Although the boy witnesses at first hand the poverty of her tenants (his newfound ruffian playmate Ezell and his little brother eating greasy fish from a newspaper makes a lasting impression upon him), Aunt Clara knows nothing of that world. In fact, that Opelika summer of the mid-1960’s was undisturbed by news of Selma (he only hears the name later and thinks it is a woman), civil rights, and racial equality. Later, “Television added tear gas, gasoline bombs, University of Mississippi at Oxford,” but the “Old Country” Aunt Clara inhabits is “a sort of generalized stuffy room” where time does not pass and nothing changes.

Whereas most “old-timers fell silent whenever [the boy] entered the room,” Uncle Castor is not one of them. Uncle Castor reveals what Eustace finds too indelicate to discuss—the family’s slave heritage, their father and grandfather “dark as tar,” Ku Klux Klan “necktie parties,” and the racism of Eustace’s beloved Boston in the 1920’s. Castor recalls for the boy the New England Conservatory of Music’s regret that “a black boy could not hope for a concert career.” Joining a “black and white” jazz band in the 1920’s, Castor abandons his hopes for a classical career, sets off on a luxury liner for Europe, and writes about his life and music in a four-hundred-page manuscript the narrator later discovers hidden in the dust bag of his grandfather’s vacuum after the old man’s death. That manuscript, juxtaposed to the narrator’s memories of Castor sitting late at night at his family’s piano, silently depressing the keys as he worked on his “apotheosis,” “an oratorio based on Shango cult themes,” steels the narrator against his grandfather’s condemnation of Castor. Having abdicated the white world Eustace insisted they could master, and eking out a living in piano bars and at race tracks, Castor becomes an object of Eustace’s scorn and a further source of the narrator’s confusion regarding his blackness.

Although the old-timers permeate his world, the narrator believes his only hope to define himself is to reject his family and heritage. He begins by identifying with all things British. When the family moves to the white suburbs, he feels as if “real life was beginning.” He claims, “I couldn’t allow myself to look back, having presented myself to myself as one who had never been anywhere but where I was.” Purposely separating himself from his past and from the other black children at school, the narrator re-creates himself in the image of white suburbia—journalism club,...

(The entire section is 2760 words.)

High Cotton Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Als, Hilton. “Word!” The Nation 254 (May 18, 1992): 667-670. Describes Pinckney as a writer who is interested in words rather than in promoting an agenda. In his criticism, Als writes, Pinckney explores black authors as writers “whose blackness, politics and flesh and blood made history through their language.” In High Cotton, Als claims, language is the key to the narrator’s search for identity, since it gives him “the voice needed to write his name in the field of existence.”

Bell, Pearl K. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 59 (Spring, 1992): 288-291. Pinckney struggles to convey the confusion and uncertainty about race and status that someone born into the black elite in the 1950’s had to try to sort out. At the end, the narrator is fiercely honest about the understanding he has reached regarding his blackness and about himself as an individual in relation to his race.

Chicago Tribune. March 3, 1992, V, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. February 28, 1992, p. 13.

Fein, Esther B. “A Writer, but Not a Black Everyman.” The New York Times, April 9, 1992, pp. C17, C26. This article, based on an interview with Pinckney, notes parallels between him and the narrator of High Cotton. Mostly, however, the article records his desire not to be tagged as representative of any one class, race, or group. Rather, “he wants his book to be testimony not only of his race but of his devotion to...

(The entire section is 663 words.)