HIGH COTTON is a sometimes humorous and many times painful examination of America’s black middle class. These are the descendents of W. E. B. DuBois’s “Talented Tenth,” fourth-generation college graduates. But navigation of America’s social and cultural waters proves precarious for Pinckney’s narrator. The novel traces the narrator’s progress from his urban childhood in the 1960’s through his suburban adolescence to college and young adulthood. What Pinckney reveals is that for African Americans, the status and success inherent in the American Dream come at the sacrifice of family, racial identity, and self-knowledge.
In HIGH COTTON, Pinckney re-creates the America experienced by those who benefited from the Civil Rights Movement without having to enter the fray directly. As the narrator observes, “someone was seeing to things and had been ever since my great-grandfather’s grandmother stepped on the auction block.” The future had been secured for this generation by those who had gone before, paving the way for homes in the white suburbs of Indianapolis, for college educations at prestigious universities such as Columbia (allowing the narrator to visit Harlem without having to live there), for trips to Europe, and for marginal employment supplemented by parents’ checks from home. But the narrator comes to realize that integration into the larger white society comes at a price: a sense of belonging nowhere. Only when he goes South to his grandfather’s Georgia birthplace and reconnects with his personal and racial past can he fill that emotional vacuum.
HIGH COTTON is a wonderful addition to the tradition being established by other African American writers such as Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, and Terry McMillan, a tradition that moves from the urban and rural poverty depicted by an earlier generation of writers to the complexity of the contemporary middle class. Darryl Pinckney has given us a memorable narrator sensitively and humorously portrayed and has provided us with a glimpse of a part of America we are delighted to see.
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...
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