In her writing for both children and adults, the novelist Connie Porter shows southern blacks who, transplanted to the North, attempt to preserve their traditions and maintain their self-respect even though they must deal with prejudice and poverty. Porter was the second youngest of eight children in a working-class African American family. The Porters lived in a company town outside of Buffalo, New York, near the steel mill where Porter’s father was employed. As a child, Porter saw how hard her father worked for his meager wages, always in fear of losing his job or of being disabled or killed. Like the heroic Samuel Taylor of All-Bright Court, Porter’s father decided to make sure that his children were educated, so that they could escape from such an existence. It was largely due to his influence that Connie and most of her siblings were able to go to college.
Porter’s childhood was by no means unhappy. As she later pointed out, children then did not have to worry about drugs and violence. Moreover, she had a strong, stable family structure. Among her siblings there was much to observe about human relationships, as there was in the multicultural community in which they grew up, which included Arabs, Italians, and Poles, as well as other African Americans.
From the time she was a child Porter liked to read. When she was young she was especially fond of stories about other girls, such as those written by Lois Lenski and Beverly Cleary, but she searched in vain for books by and about African Americans, such as those she would later write for the American Girls series. Porter did not discover black literature until, as a teenager, she began to read works by Nella Larsen and Richard Wright. Later she became interested in African American women writers, including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Terry McMillan.
After graduating from high school, Porter went to the State University of New York at Albany, after which she earned an M.F.A. at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. During her final year there, Porter wrote a short story to fulfill a course assignment. Set in her hometown, the story described the exploitation of the steel mill workers and introduced Samuel Taylor and his bright young son Mikey. She later expanded this story into the novel All-Bright Court.
In this work she describes the experiences of African Americans who left the South after World War II and moved to northern steel mill towns, only to see their dreams of prosperity die, doomed by their own educational deficiencies, northern prejudice and calculated exploitation, and the decline of the industry. Porter shows some characters broken by despair, but others, like Samuel Taylor, persist and prevail over adversity. Ironically, as she has often pointed out, Mikey, who attains success in the white world, is a failure as a human being, for he becomes ashamed of his father and rejects his heritage.
All-Bright Court was generally praised by the critics. Although some argued that the book lacked unity, the critics were united in admiration for the authenticity of the novel and for the author’s skillful management of tone, noting that she combines sympathy for her characters with a clear view of their shortcomings. It was also pointed out that, unlike Mikey, Porter recognizes the value of the past. The novel is all the richer for its echoes of an earlier life in the rural South, with its easy customs, its compelling superstitions, and its colloquial speech.
By the time her first novel appeared in 1991, Porter was teaching at Emerson College, a small private school in Boston, while she contemplated her next novel. She had never even considered writing for children and was therefore taken by surprise when Pleasant T. Rowland of the Pleasant Company contacted her, proposing that she write six books for the new but extremely successful American Girls series. Porter decided to accept the offer.
The first of these books, Meet Addy: An American Girl, appeared in 1993. Set in the nineteenth century, it is the story of Addy Walker, a nine-year-old black girl, born a slave, who escapes to the North with her family and settles down in Philadelphia, where she finds that many doors are closed to her because of her race. Addy makes friends, however, obtains an education, and becomes successful. This book, and the volumes that followed it, were so successful with young readers of all races that the central character became the model for an Addy doll and an Addy cookbook.
In Porter’s next adult novel, Imani All Mine, she addresses the same issues and themes of a well-drawn character who faces grave adversity but overcomes much through determination and dignity. The central character in this book is a poor, inner-city African American teenager, Tasha. Although an excellent student with college aspirations to take her away from the ghetto, she becomes pregnant as the result of a rape and decides to keep the child. She names her baby Imani, which means “faith.” Tasha struggles to be a good mother in a gang-ridden neighborhood, faces typical teenage issues of sexuality and self-esteem, and clashes with her own mother. Like her first novel, Imani All Mine was well received by critics.
Whether directed toward children or toward adults, Porter’s novels are important not only because of their literary merit but also because of their positive theme. Although she admits the force of evil, Porter insists that no one has to be a victim. Strengthened by the bonds of family and community, and sustained by pride in their heritage, her best characters survive and prevail.
Higbie, Andrea. Review of Imani All Mine, by Connie Porter. The New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1999, p. 17. Higbie calls Porter’s novel “beautifully realized” among other praises.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Black Dreams of 1950’s Turn to Rage.” The New York Times, September 10, 1991, p. C14. A positive review of All-Bright Court.
Porter, Connie. “Writer Brings Painful Part of Past to Life.” Interview by Elizabeth Mehren. Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1994. Porter speaks at length about the Addy books.
Ulen, Eisa Nefertari. “Love Thy Child, Love Thy Glorious Self.” Review of Imani All Mine, by Connie Porter. The Washington Post, April 22, 1999, p. C2. A positive review.
Whitehouse, Anne. “Dreamless in Buffalo.” Review of All-Bright Court, by Connie Porter. The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1991, p. 12. Favorable review.
Yardley, Jonathan. “Still Dreaming the American Dream.” Review of All-Bright Court, by Connie Porter. The Washington Post Book World, August 11, 1991, p. 3. Yardley is impressed by Porter’s positive attitude and attributes technical defects in the novel to inexperience.