The effect of immediacy that Brown achieves in Coming Up Down Home makes the work seem more like a novel than a memoir. Typically a memoir includes comments on the significance of events, reflecting the author’s mature understanding of them. In contrast, in this work Brown forgoes the opportunity to make comments from an adult point of view, instead concentrating on what he recalls thinking and feeling as a child.
Appropriately, Brown’s style is simple and precise, almost reportorial. The descriptive details, the snatches of dialogue, and even the fully developed dramatic scenes are all presented without interpretation, except as Aunt Amanda or, more often, Uncle Lofton use them as object lessons or as Morris, maturing, gains new insights. Thus it is not until Morris returns from his first trip to the North that he sees clearly what southern segregation does to the human spirit, and it is not until the coda, set many years later, that he comes to understand his father’s tragedy.
As the title suggests, Coming Up Down Home is a story of the process of growing up. Surprisingly, given the circumstances, Brown’s account is much more positive than one might expect. Although as an African American in the rural South of the 1940’s and 1950’s he experienced his share of humiliation, Brown does not present himself as a stereotypical victim of social oppression. Furthermore, although he was deserted by his mother and abused by his father, thus certainly qualifying as a member of what popular psychologists call a dysfunctional family, he does not use that situation as an excuse for later failure. Instead, he tells an inspiring story of a boy determined to overcome obstacles, a boy who was always, in Brown’s concluding words, “dancing as fast as I can,” with shoes or without them.
If Coming Up Down Home is basically an optimistic story, it is neither simplistic nor sentimental. Brown carefully distinguishes between the loss of innocence that is simply a part of growing up and the loss of innocence that is the product of evil in human beings and in society. Morris’s developing awareness of sexuality, for example, is a universal experience. Everyone remembers times of titillation, confusion, and shame in early childhood not unlike Morris’s fascination with his teacher’s scent, his unwillingness to touch his aunt’s “nasty” panties, and his bewilderment when he is punished for saying words he does not realize are not suitable in general conversation. On the other hand, no child should have to experience either parental tyranny or racism, both of which result from human immorality rather than being part of the human condition.
Initially, Morris is afraid...
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