(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

“If you’re chopping in high cotton you’ve got it easier.” The narrator and protagonist of this novel has certainly had it easier than many of the black men of his generation. He is a member of the Also Chosen, a product of that educated black middle class that, according to W. E. B. Du Bois, would yield the “Talented Tenth,” the gifted minority who would lead the black race along the path of progress.

The narrator makes no claim to racial leadership. In fact, he rarely makes much of a claim to racial identity. Never an Africanist, he is for much of his life an Anglophile. When he finally flies to England for the first time, following his graduation from a predominantly white high school in a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana, he has already affected an accent that makes him sound like a cross between Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

He is, to be sure, not quite untouched by the momentous historical events of his time. In the early 1960’s, he participates in a civil rights march in Indianapolis. Of course, he is a child, his parents have brought him, and the whole thing reminds him of milling around on the lawn after church on Sunday. He is briefly, and ludicrously, involved with the Heirs of Malcolm, a minor, more-righteous-than-thou variation on the Black Panther Party, while a student in a suburban junior high school. Branching out politically while in England, he wanders into a gathering of radicals but discovers that political commitment involves getting up too early in the morning, especially if one happens to be hung over.

Returning to the United States, he studies at Columbia University. This brings him into contact with Harlem, but the contact remains very much on his terms. He hangs out one summer at a Harlem bar not on the customary Columbia students’ circuit. When Jeanette, a woman he has come to know, confides her fear as she awaits the result of medical tests, he is not prepared to provide the emotional support she obviously needs. No one, he reflects, has to know that he sets himself apart.

He passes through a series of meaningless jobs, the lax standards of performance of which he consistently fails to meet. He sets out to sink into the lower...

(The entire section is 907 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Narrated in the first person by an unnamed protagonist whose story spans three decades, High Cotton seems obviously autobiographical, at least in broad outline. Like the novel’s protagonist, Darryl Pinckney is the product of an elite black family. His grandfather was graduated from Brown and Harvard Universities and was a minister. Pinckney too grew up in Indianapolis, was graduated from Columbia University, and worked for a New York publishing house, and he too has puzzled over the nature of black identity in America.

Yet how far the novel’s anecdotal details agree with the author’s life is another matter. The author was selective, both to be discreet and to make his points—around which he perhaps felt free to embroider and invent, since he presented his work as fiction.

The novel’s main story line traces the development of the young protagonist. It begins with his boyhood in Indianapolis during the era of the Civil Rights movement. As a child, the narrator gets mixed messages about his blackness: He is told that he is “just as good as anyone else out there,” but he still notices that some people “moved away from you at the movies.” For him, one of “the Also Chosen,” the future beckons, but still the past oppresses via the “collective power” of numerous older relatives who, heavy with their knowledge, “enlisted the departed” to their cause.

Most prominent among the “old-timers” is Grandfather Eustace, proud that he belongs to the black aristocracy, “a sort of dusky peerage with their degrees, professions, and good marriages among their own kind.” Grandfather Eustace is anxious to pass on his proud heritage to the narrator. Looking back, however, the narrator confesses that “I spent much of my life running from him,...

(The entire section is 736 words.)