In examining his life, Brent Staples’ PARALLEL TIME depicts a youth mired in the turmoil of family dysfunction and inner-city violence. Staples’ early adulthood was spent pursuing college and graduate school educations in milieus which foregrounded his racial and class differences from the great majority of his associates. While earning a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Chicago, he also became a free-lance journalist and earned a reputation that led to an editorship at THE NEW YORK TIMES. At the same time, however, his younger brother Blake was murdered by a competitor in the drug underworld of Roanoke, Virginia. As a means of exploring the conflicted emotions about his family and his past thrown into sharp relief by Blake’s death, Staples wrote this book.
To prevent the contrast between his and Blake’s life from serving the purposes of a dominant culture eager for evidence of the continuing viability of the American Dream, Staples probes his family’s loss for what it reveals about the worsening menace of racism facing African American youth and the arbitrary interplay of character, historical moment, and random chance shaping and misshaping individual destinies. The eldest son of nine children trapped by their father’s alcoholism and mother’s depression, Brent Staples was determined at a young age to escape his family’s pathology. The ensnarements of friends and siblings by the criminality, early parenthood, and drug usage rampant in Chester, Pennsylvania, a community steadily losing its working-class industrial base, prompted him to flee the community with great enthusiasm upon receiving an unexpected invitation to join a pilot remedial admission program for minorities at Widener College.
Staples’ forays into Black Power activism are rendered poignantly cartoonish, but his encounters with the elite white world he aspires to join offer aching glimpses into the humiliations endured by those trying to move from the margins to the center of the culture. At the University of Chicago he discovered how white fantasies about African Americans could distort his own sense of self. He eventually came to see his writing as a means of illuminating his inner turmoil. When he is initially unable to respond to Blake’s death, he turns to the writing of a memoir as a means of repairing his rupture from the past.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. February 13, 1994, XIV, p. 3.
Ebony. XLIX, May, 1994, p. 21.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 3, 1994, p. 6.
The Nation. CCLVIII, April 25, 1994, p. 562.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 20, 1994, p. 1.
Newsweek. CXXIII, March 14, 1994, p. 76.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, December 6, 1993, p. 61.
Time. CXLIII, March 7, 1994, p. 68.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 10, 1994, p. 14.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, March 20, 1994, p. 8.
Brent Staples’ memoir depicts the emergence of a writer’s imagination against the formidable odds of poverty and familial dysfunction. In his text as in his life, however, he puzzles over the impact of his African American identity on the course of his life. The 1984 murder of his younger brother, a drug hustler, reveals the hopelessness that has replaced the atmosphere of possibility that propelled Staples out of the ghetto in the late 1960’s.
The story dramatizes a gifted son’s intellectual and professional ascent against the background of his family’s steady disintegration. It belongs to a distinctly African American body of autobiographical meditations on the virulent racism belying the national mythology of the American Dream. As with his predecessors, Staples’ effort to write himself into the formal record of American self-making presents the cult of individualism ironically. Grateful for having escaped the death-in-life engulfing many others back home, he nevertheless grieves for those who have been lost, condemns the social and economic assumptions that constrict real opportunity, questions the compromising...
(The entire section is 2,449 words.)