The Year of Black Memoir

Imani Perry

My first week as a college freshman, in 1990, I sat in W. L. Harkness Hall and listened to Professor Robert Stepto lecture on African American literature. He began with the slave narratives, in particular the one by the man referred to as the father of African American literature, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Professor Stepto described how, at its inception, freedom was sought in movement and literacy. Running away “down the freedom road” and learning to read both violated slave law. They were also means of self-creation and self-emancipation, and became treasured motifs across generations of Black American art and culture.

But in 2011, Professor Kenneth Warren declared there was no longer any such thing as African American literature. The first Black president was in the White House. Coming around the corner was a combustion of outrage in American cities at the persistence of racial inequality. Warren famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) stated further that the slave narratives weren’t even African American literature. To the extent that African American literature had been something, it was essentially a literature of appeal and protest in response to Jim Crow that began in the 1890s and ended some time in the 1960s or 70s. That era was no more.

Despite Warren’s pronouncements, Black writing is still a big deal, and not simply because there are so many extraordinary Black American writers working today. Black life continues to be an important subject in this vexing, separate, and unequal nation. This is evidenced by the way Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World And Me has captivated readers. It stands in the Black literary tradition, as do others in the most recent crop of Black memoirs, including Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness, and Rosemary Freeney Harding and Rachel Harding’s Remants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering.

Memoir, the offspring of the slave narrative, is not simply a form within the Black literary tradition; it has thoroughly shaped that tradition. From personal essays to bildungsromans, stories of becoming and remembering are essential to it. Following the path laid by those running to freedom and living to tell about it, Black memoirists continue to use the motifs of movement and literacy as markers of emancipation. However, in the current landscape, when Black life is so varied and complex, no memoir can stand as a singular representation of Black life, regardless of how compelling it might be. They stand in a tradition but the world is not the same.

<i>Negro Life at the South, 1859.</i> Painting by Eastman Johnson/Wikimedia.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work has been likened to James Baldwin, but he is the son of Richard Wright. His title is borrowed from Richard Wright’s harrowing lynching poem. The chapters are structured as a nod to Wright’s Native Son three sections, “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate.” And though his fate is distinct from Bigger Thomas’s, like Wright’s, this book nearly jumps with the palpable feelings of danger, isolation, and displacement. Coates is a young man under constant threat, from other young Black men, from police, from a neglectful school system. His parents are present: a father who was a university librarian and a mother who pushed him constantly to be a critical thinker. He reminds us towards the end that he was loved, but poor and urban Baltimore seems to be his closest companion in youth, and it is a cruel one.

His flight, or first running towards emancipation, takes place when he ventures an hour away from Baltimore to Howard University, known colloquially as “The Mecca.” Coates’s world opens up at the historically Black research university. It is an intoxicating microcosmic diaspora. Three women from three places, the last of whom becomes his wife, are vehicles for his development, leading him away from a self-described flat-footed Black nationalism and towards more liberal and expansive ideas about race, gender, and sexuality. One of the most moving parts of the text is when he describes his Chicago-born wife’s travel to Paris, and how she returned with photographs of doors of all sizes and colors—“deep blue, ebony, orange, turquoise, and burning red doors. I examined the pictures of these giant doors in our small Harlem apartment. I had never seen anything like them. It had never even occurred to me that such giant doors could exist, could be so common in one part of the world and totally absent in another.” His wonder enchants the reader who hopes that he will follow in her footsteps there, and he does. Through those doors, in Paris, he finds something closer to freedom.

That the book is a letter to his son makes readers think of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, but the comparison is not particularly apt, for several reasons. Coates is concerned primarily with making sure his son has a life outside of the confines he was born into as a young person. He is teaching his son about class mobility, gifting him with middle class comforts, including a relative freeness of spirit when he navigates the world. Baldwin’s lesson to his nephew, in contrast, was a mode of interpreting the injustice of the society without belittling himself, as well as a demand that the son maintain sensitivity towards his father, a man who was beaten down by America’s racism. Be gentle with one who may have failed you, Baldwin cautions. Be attentive beyond your suffering. Coates, though critical of American racism, is not particularly invested in such sensitivities. The interior lives of those in his neighborhood in Baltimore are not his literary concern. Nor is the entrenched racism confronting Algerians and other descendants of empire in the Paris where he finds some freedom. This is his story.

And that is the rub. The possessiveness of memoir can be problematic when it comes to the subject of race. American philosopher William James, in his lecture on The Varieties of Religious Experience, wrote: “I do not see how it is possible that creatures in such different positions and with such different powers as human individuals are, should have exactly the same functions and the same duties. No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner.”

Memoir, the offspring of the slave narrative, is not simply a form within the Black literary tradition; it has thoroughly shaped that tradition

James’s essay is useful for thinking about these memoirs generally. Today we acknowledge the widely ranging experiences of Black people across lines of class, gender, identity, region, education, sexuality, and ethnicity. Add to that range the reality that each person out of the trouble and fact of their particular lives makes interpretive choices about the world in which they reside, ones that elude any fiction of objective truth. Telling one’s story is one’s story. The varieties of our racial experience are one thing, and the sense we make of them is yet another narrowing distinction. Yet the sense one individual Black writer makes of his or her life, from the perch of our wounds, our aspirations, our bourgeois frames of reference, are often read as saying much more than they actually can about the broader experiences and thoughts of Black people. That is dangerous.

Clifford Thompson paints a very different portrait than Coates of growing up in the lower-middle class of the upper South, the region of Frederick Douglass’s enslavement. Thompson’s account of coming of age in Washington DC is filled with intimacy, multigenerational attachments, laughter, chatter, family, friendship, rituals, and so much music. There are a few unpleasant racist episodes and dangers, but they don’t define his youth.

Perhaps this difference has something to do their ages: Coates came of age squarely in the midst of the Reagan era, deindustrialization, and the rise of crack cocaine and mass imprisonment. And although he doesn’t dwell on it, students of American urban history are well aware of the consequences of the 1980s for Black communities. But it is not as though Thompson, born in 1963, completely escaped these impacts. The difference between the two depictions seems to be largely one of the meaning drawn from the stuff of each one’s life, the particulars of each one’s situatedness.  

They are each outsiders to Black life in their own way. Coates is an atheist, Thompson a Catholic. Hence, neither finds comfort in what we call “The Black Church.” They see the world they come from, and depart from, differently. Thompson finds jazz and Oberlin, Coates hip-hop and Howard. They are voracious in their pursuits. And while Coates and Thompson write a great deal about what Black communities lack, they both have their imaginations set afire by the creative abundance of Black communities.

Thompson and Coates would probably each balk at being so likened. They are politically at odds. Whereas Thompson decries Black Power, Coates feels a sense of loss about its departure. Thompson sings Kumbaya about racial reconciliation, Coates is Derrick Bell-like in his insistence that race isn’t going anywhere.  What they share most is a sense of being “different” from the others around them. While this may be a literary conceit generally demanded of personal narratives (the writer must be set apart in some way), it threatens to leave the racial stereotypes of the places from which they hail intact. They emerge unique out of neighborhoods that remain a large and undifferentiated scene rather than testifying to the truth that complex human beings are everywhere, even and especially in “the hood.”

<i>Douglass argued against John Brown's plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry</i>. Photography by Jacob Lawrence/Wikimedia

I cannot refute Thompson’s claim that he was called “white boy” by his peers. That was and is his trouble and fact. I can, however, read and cite the dozens of studies that say Black children in general value academic achievement and do not think of doing well in school as “acting white.” But the power of narrative hits the heart and mind harder than that of social science. Stories teach us how to think more than data does, for better or worse.

Thompson’s memoir is as much assertion as reflection. He finds his emancipation journeys leading him to Oberlin College, Spain, and New York. Emancipation from what, exactly, is a little inchoate. It has something to do with Blackness and his transition as an adult from an intimate and loving Black family life to a life in which his intimate associations are largely with White people. He preaches a gospel of interracial unity, acknowledging racism but telling Black people who hate White people that they have failed morally. Thompson surprisingly deploys Baldwin to authorize his perspective. He cites early Baldwin, the Baldwin before he became despondent about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., before he saw the post-Movement backlash against Black people. But Thompson also seems to neglect the distinction Baldwin always drew between individual White people with whom he had close, loving relationships, and Whiteness itself. Thompson instead reads Baldwin as distinguishing racist White people from his White friends. That is a very different sort of distinction. Baldwin’s capacity to love White people, as individuals, never countervailed his rage at Whiteness writ large as an ideological project, as work that causes suffering across the globe, among both those suffering from the wrath of White supremacy and those who believed in it.

Methinks Thompson protests too much and Coates perhaps not enough. Whereas Thompson tries to convince us that he is indeed Black enough to count as Black, or that it doesn’t really matter whether he is Black, Coates doesn’t try to convince us of enough regarding how we ought to respond to the condition of Blackness under the thumb of American racism. Coates echoes H. Rap Brown: Racism is American as Cherry Pie. And it is trenchant, and terrible. And what? Yes, Howard is the Mecca, but what of the dire financial straits it finds itself in now, despite its extraordinary history of service to the nation? What ought we do about it? What of the political mobilization we are witnessing among young people in Baltimore in response to Freddie Gray’s murder? What is our responsibility to his hometown, to the many other places like his hometown?

<i>H. Rap Brown, SNCC, news conference.</i> Photography by Marion S. Trikosko/Wikimedia

I say this and yet I know it is not fair to ask for a different book than the one he chose to write. The frustration I share should not be set at Coates’s front door, but issued instead to those who have chosen to make the book a singular guidepost on race today. It doesn’t respond to those most pressing questions of race and shouldn’t be approached as if it did. Nor do, or should, the others.

So how does the Black writer refuse being caught up in the logic of racism in the midst of efforts to find and share his or her voice? There are cringe-worthy moments in these works that reveal the sticky web they navigate, such as when Coates describes a victim of American racism: “His manner was like all the powerless black people I’d ever known, exaggerating their bodies to conceal a fundamental plunder that they could not prevent,” or when he describes “a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.” It sounds faintly like a culture of poverty claim about Black people rather than railing against injustice. When Thompson generalizes from a single boy who asked him, disdainfully, “Why you read?” he implies that reading was generally frowned upon in Black Washington DC. But the works beg the question: How does it feel to be an exception? Writers stand apart. They are “different.” And yet Black writers are caught in a web in which “different and therefore superior, and superior and therefore different” is applied to most Black achievement. This has sharpened in the Obama era with the juxtaposition between an idealized vision of Black excellence in the Obama family and a reckless trafficking in images of Black decadence and deviance on everything from reality television to popular music and the evening news. Attainment is supposed to put you in the former camp, to make life a little easier. And yet that attainment also becomes a tool used against those who don’t make it, to say “look at these exceptional Black people. If they can do it you have no excuse.” 

But more than that, in the moments in which the reader is forced to recognize that being elite doesn’t protect one from racism, exclusion, or even violence in response to one’s Blackness, it isn’t clear what sense we are to make of that reality. Perhaps it allows the reader to have selective outrage for the type of elite Black people who seemingly ought to be able to escape such ravages. Or perhaps it is a way of demonstrating the sense of linked fate that persists amongst Black Americans despite our varying lives. As Coates writes elegantly: “We have made something down here. We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” I hope it is the latter, but can’t be sure.

To the extent that African American literature had been something, it was essentially a literature of appeal and protest in response to Jim Crow that began in the 1890s and ended some time in the 1960s or 70s.

Margo Jefferson’s story is distinguished from Coates and Thompson in that she was born to be an exception. The strict rules of her bourgeois upbringing reveal that membership in the middle class is hardly a panacea for restrictions on individual expression, notwithstanding the impression we might get from the other two. She describes “Negroland” as “my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Its residents “thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians. Like the Third Eye, the Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity” and lived by dictates of propriety and decorum, exclusive institutions and rituals of exclusion and affirmation. Jefferson, born in 1947, is a full generation older than Coates. Her coming of age is a desegregation generation story, a story of feminist awakening, and one of movement from her world of Black elites, through the 60s, to an adulthood in which she too is told by a friend “she thinks she’s a white woman.”

But Jefferson teases. Her pen is clever, ironic, and sarcastic, self deprecatingly suggesting that “maybe they’re right.” She reveals that she feels the death of Audrey Hepburn more acutely than that of Thurgood Marshall, and spends several pages debating James Baldwin’s criticism of the sentimentalism of 19th century White women writers. While she adores Baldwin, she loves Louisa May Alcott too. “Femininity” and its privileges, oft held away from working class Black women, are part of her inheritance. She speaks achingly of her cheerleader try-outs and her formal dresses. While she is raised to admire matronly Black heroines with darker skin, broader features, and kinkier hair, like Mary McLeod Bethune and Marian Anderson, it is clear she does not want to ever be like them.

Jefferson’s relationship to being a member of the Black elite is hard to untangle. She is unquestionably critical of their colorism, elitism, and conservatism, and yet at other turns she echoes those flaws, and not unwittingly. When she describes how young women of her group chose to be traitors to their class and mix with regular Black folks in the midst of the 60s, she says, “Naturally, errors were made. The doctor’s daughter studying architecture married a man with suspected ties to the drug trade: within the year, she was shot in the head from behind and left beside her murdered husband, a large pool of blood widening in what Jet magazine called their ‘affluent South Side home.’” And she sounds as though she finds regular Black folks as dangerous as her antecedents did. But then again, she is not trying to be an ideal character.

<i>African American woman, three-quarter length portrait, seated with left arm over back of chair, facing front.</i> Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

One flaw of the work, and this returns to the problems memoirs create for thinking about race, is that Jefferson attributes virtually everything of value done by Black people to the Black elite. The book begins as a collective biography of vignettes about great Black members of “Negroland.” If Coates missteps by saying that Howard had a “near-monopoly on Black talent” in the Jim Crow era (simply false, given both the number of other Black colleges and university communities, such as Tuskegee University, alma mater of Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison, for example, and those who weren’t formally educated, those who nevertheless made Rhythm and Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and whose number included Baldwin himself) Jefferson missteps by naming the Black elite as a world apart, and then claiming all accomplished Black people as part of it. This is simply wrong. College educated teachers, for example, who taught in rural Jim Crow communities and served as community leaders were not of the ilk she described, with wavy hair, exclusive club memberships, and doctor husbands. And though she attended the elite University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, there were also Laboratory schools that also drew from John Dewey’s educational philosophy that served Black students in the Deep South. They were not the exclusive province of the talented tenth.

Jefferson’s departure then, is less apparent than the others. She doesn’t transform much in terms of how she sees herself. Rather, she pulls back the curtain on her polished facade, shows the seams, as it were, and, in the process, reveals her own struggles with depression.

This form of departure exists throughout African American women’s literature. As she notes in the book, we see it in Harriet Jacobs’s despair in the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This despair breaks Jacobs and Jefferson both out of the sentimentalist conventions. We see it further in the writings of Marita Bonner, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. The departure from the performance of composed strength in Black women’s literary traditions usually operates as an argument about the importance of communities of women who heal each other from the ravages of the world.

The relative solitude in Jefferson’s memoir, however, has its purposes. She captures the feelings of isolation that are characteristic of this moment in history, in which people are more connected digitally but less so in the flesh. It depicts a reality worthy of note even as it is not an argument for anything in particular.

And maybe this is because argument is not seen as necessary in the way it once was for African American memoir. Instead, “revelations” take on a larger role. The memoirists are telling you about something you don’t know about, whether it is a set of experiences or feelings or a group of people. In so doing, they speak primarily to White audiences, but people of color, too, on another, quieter register and with somewhat different messages: “know your history,” “venture beyond your neighborhoods,” and “please don’t judge me for being different.” Somewhat pedagogical, sometimes condescending, mostly they are appeals for the writers to be understood as individuals.

<i>Chicago ghetto on the South Side, May, 1974.</i> Photograph by John H. White/Wikimedia.

Rosemarie Freeney and Rachel Elizabeth Harding’s Remnants does something quite different, however. Co-authored by Rachel and her late mother, it is in its very composition both intimate and collaborative. Rosemarie Freeney Harding was the child of migrants from Southwest Georgia to Chicago. Whereas Jefferson’s Chicago community looked askance at Deep South migrants, seeing them as low-status and unsophisticated, Harding’s story honors their resilience and cultural practices while acknowledging the wounds that pushed them north.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work has been likened to James Baldwin, but he is the son of Richard Wright

Harding returns to the South with her husband Vincent: two rare Black members of the Mennonite church during the Civil Rights Movement. They become activists in the various branches of the Southwest Georgia movement, and then lifelong social justice workers and educators. Although the story is written with a keen sense of circumstance—we hear stories of ancestors who worked the land, cleaned houses, struggled mightily for literacy, and then of subsequent generations with advanced degrees and philosophical training—the lines of class are not sharply drawn. In this work, the life of the mind and spirit are understood as inheritances that carried those who were enslaved and Jim Crowed through the most adverse of conditions, and must continue to be embraced in the present. Mother and daughter, as their mothers before them, are ecumenical in their approaches to life, drawing on Eastern spirituality, global indigenous traditions, and the traditions of both West Africa and the Black Protestant Church in the United States.

It is a book of returning to the source as a resource for the future and present. There are lessons about human connection and resilience, and our capacities to be better to one another. Out of the particulars of these two lives, a window opens into Black life more broadly, in all of its complexity and interconnectedness with the vast networks of humanity.

In this sense it brings us back to the ring shout, a spiritual practice that we see depicted in many early works of African American literature, from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the writings William Wells Brown. It is elliptical rather than escapist. In the ring shout, worshippers shuffling in a circle keep time with one another. The individual spirit leaps out with a blue note, a cry, wail, or holler. The others respond to the call, or simply keep time while it reverberates. At one point in her memoir, Harding recalls how Bob Moses told


a story of a woman he knew in the Movement. Somebody in Mississippi who had been through so much pain, so much loss, she just fell to her knees in despair, one day. She fell on the floor of her kitchen, cradling bad news or pushing away a fresh memory, and from nowhere anybody could see, a sound rose up. It was within her someplace between her waist and her lungs, a vast place more guttural than the throat, a sacred place. And it was a deep haunting sound. Not shrill. But it rose and was full. The tone rose up out of this woman’s body on the floor, on her knees, and when she was done, everything was alright. She was alright. She had made a road.

If indeed Black memoir, and Black literature, are to be methods for us to understand race in America today in all of its messiness, then each should be understood as one cry in the ring, a small piece of a mosaic, vast and ever changing. They should be set amidst other forms of knowledge, and considered carefully rather than treated with simplistic adulation. And at best we hope they open a road.