Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color is a book of family history and personal therapy. Carole Ione’s effort to document almost two hundred years of a family, emphasizing the lives of those women who had special meaning for her, is highly successful. Ione writes with clarity and eloquence, moving the reader through space and time, through lives and minds, with unusual skill. Yet her efforts to exorcise herself of the women’s pain and confusion—the pain of mother-daughter struggles, and of ephemeral men, the confusion of belonging to a despised group, and of racial self- hate—these efforts are far less successful.
Ione begins with her own childhood. She was reared by three extraordinary but very different women—her great-aunt, Sistonie, her grandmother, Bebe, and her mother, Leighla—and was shuttled between their respective homes in Washington, D.C., Saratoga, and New York City throughout her childhood and adolescence. All the women were on her mother’s side of the family; Ione’s father and his relatives remain shadowy figures throughout the book, apparently peripheral to Ione’s life and consciousness after her parents divorced when she was five.
Ione’s great-aunt Sistonie, her maternal grandfather’s sister, was a straitlaced, socially responsible medical doctor. She never married; she founded a school for unwed black mothers and, perhaps out of her sense of family and responsibility, reared Ione’s mother, Leighla, from the age of four. George Bass has observed that the black middle class is divided into two types, one dedicated to racial uplift, political activism, and social welfare, the other focused on materialism, self-indulgence, and hedonism. Sistonie was certainly an example of the first type; her brother Leigh, an actor, and the “high-kicking dancer” BeBe are examples of the second.
BeBE gave birth to Leigh’s daughter, Leighla, while they were touring with the Whitney and Tutt Show. BeBe had left her working-class family in West Virginia and gone into show business, one of the few options open to uneducated black women in the 1910’s. There she had become involved with Leigh Whipper, a headliner with the show, but their brief relationship ended before their daughter Leighla was born.
It was because Leigh’s sister, Sistonie, disapproved of the show-business life-style that she asked BeBe if she could adopt Leighla to give her the stability, material security, and education BeBe could never give. She did not tell BeBe, however, that BeBe would not be allowed to see her daughter through her childhood. The pain of that separation—for which Leighla appears never to have forgiven BeBe—is one of the hurts Ione has taken on, perhaps since the very day she was born.
For Ione’s birth in 1937, the three women came together and stayed at Sistonie’s house, attempting a temporary truce. Sistonie’s disapproval of BeBe’s background, BeBe’s profound resentment of Sistonie’s separating her from her daughter, and Leighla’s anger at her mother for giving her away were all still virulent. These were the feelings in the house into which Carole Ione was born. As time went on, as men passed through Leighla and BeBe’s lives, as Ione became old enough to take on her family’s attitudes toward race and color and to understand prevailing racial attitudes, Ione’s insecurity in the world, her sense of separation and homelessness, her discomfort with her black self, and her pain grew. Ironically, she was being told that hers was a family to be especially proud of: Her ancestors were “free people of color” in Charleston, South Carolina, descendants of French nobility; an ancestor was a politician and judge in South Carolina during Reconstruction; and a great-grandmother, who had kept a diary, was “a terrific woman, a writer,” according to Ione’s mother.
The sketches of the glorious past were a weak counterpoint to the reality of a painful present, however, and by the time Ione was an adolescent, her discomfort had become great enough that she wanted to be anything but what she was, a black teenager in Harlem. She wanted to be “Creole” (as her mother had been described); she wanted to be Puerto Rican (she and her girlfriend would speak Spanish on buses “thrilling to the idea that the other passengers were thinking of us as Spanish girls”); and, expressing the ultimate colonized mind-set, she wanted to be white. In one of the most poignant and telling scenes of the book, Carole Ione’s mother points to the straight-haired blonde girl on the Morton Salt box and says to her eight-year- old, brown-skinned, kinky-haired daughter, “That is...
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