THE ONLY PROBLEM with black oral histories for children is that you need to be grown up to appreciate them. I tried to read Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir by Eloise Greenfield and Lessie Jones Little and Movin' Up by Berry Gordy Sr., imagining that I was a 10-year-old black girl back in Cleveland, Ohio, lusting after the psychic adventure of exploring other people's lives and thoughts. What would I have found to engage me in these two oral histories of black families who, like my own, were southern migrants to the North?
I would have been lured into Childtimes by the rich accumulation of detail from a black and southern past, so unlike my own city one. Greenfield's grandmother, Pattie Ridley Jones, born in 1884, narrator of the first section of this family's story, spent her girlhood in typical southern rural fashion complete with one-room schoolhouse, pot-bellied stove, feather beds, creek baptisms, and lots of molasses puddings and candy-pullings. Her daughter, Lessie Jones Little, born in 1906, records the era just prior to the great migration of southern blacks to the North. Threaded through this part are many of the themes and images found in 20th-century black fiction and poetry: working on the railroad, dreams of a train ride North, the quest for education, the pervasive hunger of sharecropping families, the insult of having to use black entrances set aside for blacks.
I recognize the significance of Childtimes as a document of black life life because it has so many reverberations for me. It made me recall Richard Wright's bitter childhood in Black Boy and Toni Morrison's recreation of Black Bottom in her novel Sula. It also unlocked personal recollections of my own past, which I do not want to lose. In the '40s, when I grew up, there was still such a thing as an ice box and the iceman home-delivered blocks of ice; there was a rag man who rode down the street in a horsedrawn cart; curtains were dried stiff on curtain stretchers; and margarine, which was white when purchased, had to be colored by hand.
But these are adult ruminations, and I don't think Childtimes would have the same appeal to today's 10-year olds who would be hard pressed to imagine a coal chute or a hobble skirt. (There should have been more of the wonderful ink sketches that precede each section.)
Sometimes the three narrators get on the track of a good story -- the subversive, iconoclastic kind inviting to children because of their own hidden impulses -- but not enough is ever revealed to be truly compelling. For example, Lessie's mother left her husband because they weren't getting along. The children's fear, their father's shocked disbelief, plus his efforts to take care of four children for two years, make for an episode that has much to say to this present generation, who experience that sort of separation with the same bewildered sense of abandonment. But only the barest facts of this crucial incident are told.
The memoirs of "Pop" Gordy succeed in the very ways that Childtimes does not. Gordy is able to get a reader immediately involved with the person of a scrappy little red-skinned black man who does not back down from any battles that are forced upon him. From the time he is a teen-ager in Georgia, until he marries and moves his wife and eight children to Detroit, Gordy is trying to make it in a world where just circumventing the roadblocks set up for the poor and the black could consume all his energy. Convinced that he inherited his father's shrewdness, Gordy is able to get a variety of jobs by simply pretending to be an experienced workman.
Gordy is not reluctant to expose the subversive side of black life. Once he is tricked by a real estate agent into buying a condemned house, with pretty new wallpaper and fresh paint covering walls about to collapse. Gordy figures how they can stay in the house for several months without paying the mortgage before they are evicted. With the money he saves, he is able to make a down payment on another house. Gordy eventually opens up a grocery store on Detroit's east side and puts the whole family to work at lessons of thrift, industriousness and sound money management.
There is more than a little of the old bootstrap mentality here. The Gordys are able to do for themselves "the same as white folks do" without depending on anybody to do special favors for them. Success is to the strongest and/or the smartest. One cannot argue against the logic of that message or the personal proof of the Gordys' successful business enterprises, but this is not the stuff that 10-year-olds ought to dream on. The best story in this memoir is not about "movin' up" at all; it is the story of Gordy's relationship with his stiff, authoritarian father and his deep sense of loss over his father's sudden death.
Every bit of black past that is remembered, collected and transmitted is important -- potentially life-saving to our children -- and these two books are to be respected for being part of that life raft. But the song of the black past ought to be sung so that we can re-experience in our deepest core the terror and triumph of that special history of black people upon these shores.