Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In his introduction to Once upon a Time When We Were Colored, Clifton L. Taulbert writes about returning to his hometown of Glen Allan, Mississippi, in the 1970’s and visiting Mozella Alexander, his elderly aunt, who shows him land deeds proving the truth of stories he had heard in childhood. The deeds establish that Taulbert’s family owned a plantation, which was auctioned off during the Great Depression to pay back taxes his great-grandparents had not known were due.

Having grown up in the last years of legally enforced segregation in Mississippi and having associated land with personal worth, the author is initially bitter over the loss of this land. Nevertheless, he comes to replace this bitterness with a sense that the supposed owners of land merely hold it in trust until they return to it at their death. Taulbert decides that the important aspect of his past is not land gained or lost but the love that surrounded him as he grew up materially poor in a small, rural town. He experienced this love among the members of his extended family and his friends during a time when the people now called “African Americans” or “blacks” were, in polite speech, “colored.”

Although the author organizes this memoir of good and bad times topically rather than chronologically, he does relate a racial incident of early childhood in his first chapter and mentions in that chapter that his mother, Mary Taulbert, was unwed and had only recently left high school when he was born in the house of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother, Joe and Pearl Young, his “Poppa”...

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Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bower, Anne L., ed. Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film. New York: Routledge, 2004. Includes an essay on the representation of racial and ethnic culture through food in the film adaptation of Once upon a Time When We Were Colored.

Bray, Rosemary L. “Good Times in the Bad Times.” Review of Once upon a Time When We Were Colored, by Clifton L. Taulbert. The New York Times Book Review, February 18, 1989, 18. Acknowledges that racially segregated Mississippi appears more pleasant in Taulbert’s account than in the memory of the African American reviewer but praises the book for its charm.

Edmonds, Anthony O. Review of Once upon a Time When We Were Colored, by Clifton L. Taulbert. Library Journal 114, no. 12 (July, 1989): 88. Faults the author for a sentimental portrayal of African Americans and for incoherence in the general structure of the book but calls it emotionally powerful.

Jim Kobak’s Kirkus Reviews. Review of Once upon a Time When We Were Colored, by Clifton L. Taulbert. 57 (May 1, 1989): 682. Briefly summarizes the memoir in words of consistent praise, especially for Taulbert’s sincere portrayal of an oppressed but dignified and humane people.

Weathers, Barbara. Review of Once upon a Time When We Were Colored, by Clifton L. Taulbert. School Library Journal, December, 1989, 130. Praises Taulbert for his depiction of loving, family-oriented, hard-working persons.