(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A Measure of Time chronicles the “education” of the main character, Dorine Davis, against a historical backdrop of race relations in the North and South over four decades. It is a sprawling, episodic narrative blending fictional and real characters and events. The novel is divided into four books.

Book 1 begins with Dorine’s introduction to New York in the 1920’s, especially the glittering black community of Harlem. Although she hopes to begin a new life with Sonny, Dorine learns that he has spent on himself the money she gave him to find a place of their own in the city. This realization ushers in the novel’s first flashback to Dorine’s childhood in Alabama and her earliest experiences with money and men; thus, book 1 alternates between Dorine’s Harlem present and her past in Montgomery and Cleveland.

Sonny continues to try to exploit Dorine, who is torn between her sexual attraction toward him and her need to keep her money for her own survival. Sonny “punishes” her by disappearing for long periods of time, but Dorine always hunts him down. Finally, he concocts a scheme to free himself from what he sees as her possessiveness, and he arranges for her to entertain one of his clients, an undercover policeman.

Book 2 begins after Tom Rumley, a small-time criminal, has posted Dorine’s bail and convinced her that she needs to move on with her life. He teaches her the art of “boosting,” or shoplifting, and introduces her to his six-member gang. Using Harlem as her base of operations, the nineteen-year-old Dorine travels the country with this group of professional shoplifters.

This life is interrupted by the death of her sister and Dorine’s return to Montgomery. Feeling momentarily guilty for having sent her family money but given them nothing of her time, Dorine eventually asserts her independence by hiring a surrogate mother to take care of her sister’s children and her own son; she also promises to finance her brother’s higher education....

(The entire section is 826 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Argues for the placement of Guy’s work within the context of traditional realism and particularly of what Bell calls “Afro-American neorealism,” which asserts that no discussion of character can occur outside a social and historical framework.

Brown, Beth. Review of A Measure of Time. Black Scholar 16 (January, 1985): 54-55. Acknowledges that Guy has not achieved the recognition that she deserves. Guy’s emphasis on the education derived from life on the streets draws comparison to the works of James Baldwin and Chester Hines. By her focus on Dorine’s overbearing pride and her refusal to forgive, according to the reviewer, Rosa Guy gives form to the instinctive force of the ordinary black female.

McHenry, Susan. Review of A Measure of Time. Ms. 12 (July, 1983): 21. Applauds Guy’s novel as an immense, engrossing book that offers the reader a sympathetic view of black American life. Dorine Davis’ personality is an engaging blend of healthy assurance and restive pride, of common sense and an unfortunate fondness for attractive men.

Schraufnagel, Noel. From Apology to Protest: The Black American Novel. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1973. Emphasizes Guy’s skill in depicting the psychological damage that can be caused by racial discrimination.

Wilson, Judith. “Rosa Guy: Writing with a Bold Vision.” Essence 10 (October, 1979): 14-20. Provides a profile of the artist with special attention to biographical detail that has a bearing on her later composition of A Measure of Time. Guy’s Alabama stepmother, her West Indian father, her parents’ involvement in the Marcus Garvey movement, her growing up in Harlem, and her reluctance to showcase only the positive, middle-class black experience are discussed.