LET ME DESCRIBE the different stages I went through in trying to evaluate this "self-portrait of Black America" by anthropologist John Gwaltney, because my varied and contradictory reactions were never resolved, and, in some ways, reflect the complexities of the book. Gwaltney, a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University, has collected for this portrait 42 personal narratives from black people in a dozen Northeastern urban black American communities. Most of the informants are relatives and friends of Gwaltney's and friends and relatives of those relatives and friends -- an interlocking network of the "drylongso" or ordinary folk. They are ordinary, not "street corner exotica" or marginal folks, or people on drugs, welfare or in some kind of social backwater that would mark them as problem folks. In a way these ordinary folks are quite extraordinary when considered in the context of American society; for they are people who derive satisfaction from their personal and communal lives, who are well thought of in their communities, who have sustained themselves "in spite of the weight of empire that rests upon their backs."
For men and women of an oppressed class to retain the kind of enthusiasm, common sense and whole-heated determination to make their lives work as these people have is nothing short of heroic. You can get the essence of that spirit from Ruth Shays, a senior citizen, daughter of slaves, a woman who recently defended herself (successfully) against a street attack. Although she allows no self-pity and betrays no feelings of defeat, she knows the obstacles she is up against, especially the racist attitudes of "whitefolks."
"Never mind all this feeling sorry for me. I can do as much with a dollar as any white woman I ever knew, and if they don't make it no harder for me than it would be just naturally out here, I will do all right for myself. I lived in spite of their numbers and I could live much better if I didn't have their stumbling stones to worry about."
My initial discomfort with Gwaltney's collection of narratives stemmed from just this kind of testimony because I could see the book turning into a long vitriolic diatribe against that great behemoth, The White Man, and focusing its attention on whites instead of honestly portraying blacks. And, indeed, the hard-core reality of what many blacks thank about whites is recorded here with considered finality. The general opinion, from the youngest to the oldest respondent, is that race relations are stymied by the hypocrisy and callousness of whites, that blacks are foreigners in their own country, that the behavior of whites makes it hard for blacks to exist and get ahead in the world. John Oliver, described here as a man with a direct, exacting critical faculty, summed up the position of blacks in unpretentious, unsentimental terms. We live, he says, in their country as a violated and despised people and all that "one-nation-under-God boogie-joogie" is part of an elaborate scheme:
"If anybody can be President, why all them dudes look like they do" If you could see the money, you would see that there are just none of us on it! It's their money, just like it's their country and their damned army and their damned post office and their damned everything else. Ain't nothing ours but us and they tried to say we didn't even own ourself . . . We all know how it is, so why do we have to pretend all this home-of-the-brave and land-of-the-free bullshit? Paddies can't stand us and we don't think a hell of a lot of them." b
But it is not bravado that makes these 42 narratives so powerful and haunting. These people are not given to "woofing" (boosting, as the glossary explains) or to a lot of "who-shot-John" (i.e. circumlocution). Besides their ordinary decency and integrity, these people reveal some simple truths about the lives of black folks that are hard to discern in history books and sociology texts. For one thing, they make clear that the distinguishing characteristic of the lives of black Americans is work. As Mabel Lincoln says, "if you want to know one thing black people are known by, it is working."
Every single one of these drylongso folks described their lives as bordered, outlined, filled in and color by work. They remember the people they worked for who called them out of their name or tried to overwork and underpay them. They recount childhoods spent shelling peas, hauling wood, emptying piss pots, waiting on white folks. Some, like Sims Patrick, are inordinately proud of their multifarious talents for work:
"I done farming and gardening and chauffeuring and sailing and cooking and bartending! You name it and if a colored man can do it, I have done it!"
Others, like Hannah Nelson, are more aware of the treadmill quality of their lives and work, and she expresses a melancholy and subdued anger about it:
"I am a woman sixty-one years old and I was born into this world with some talent. But I have done the work that my grandmother's mother did. It is not through any failing of mine that this is so."
Another man, Seth Bingham, says "I worked hard . . . but I don't seem to get nowhere." He knows he will never be given a chance to do the work he is capable of because even "kids with papers ain' workin'." Bingham provides a simple but accurate analysis of how a society based on credentials and class makes people obsolete.
I might almost be tempted to say that these accounts were drepressing (my third reaction), but Gwaltney has arranged these narratives with the instincts of a novelist and just as I began to feel down under, one of the merrier tales would surface me. I found the gutsy, non-nonsense feminism of some of the women exuberant and sane. On the question of equality in marriage, Mabel Johns says succinctly: "He was a man and I was a woman, so we didn't neither of us have to raise the other." And nearly every woman felt that racism not sexism was the cause of her problems: "I can handle black men; what I can't handle is this prejudice."
I had a fourth reaction to the Drylongso narrative, a resistance to the author's claim that the book represents a "self-portrait of Black America," that within its pages are 42 people who form the sum and substance of a mythical entity Gwaltney calls "core black culture." There is something problematical about summing up black people that way. It defies the tremendous variety and diversity and complexity of the millions of black Americans who are sometimes so separate that they cannot even be referred to as a group. There are blacks who have a strong sense of nationalism and pride; there are others who would like to be declared honoray whites. There are blacks with "mother-wit" and some with "cool" and some who posses a sense of "turn"; and there are others who will have to consult Gwaltney's glossary to see what those terms mean.
One of the main weaknesses of the book is Gwaltney's failure to provide us with sufficient analysis of the material he has collected. He is the interview, the main actor and director in this absorbing drama, inviting disclosure, arranging scenes, initiating conversations, controlling the questions. But we do not know enough of him and his purposes to understand the entire aim of the collection. What were his biases, his hypotheses, his motivations? How did he edit his material? How did his blindness affect these inquires? Regardless of his intention to remain in the background, he is still a meaningful participant, and he should have described more of his obsessions and preoccupations instead of pretending to be a silent and detached observer.
The weight and power of these narratives proceed from the slow and steady accumulation of detail about ordinary like lives under extraordinary pressures. One witness after another testifying to a personal victories and defeats, to hard-learned lessons and simple pains and pleasures. We listen to these people's stories because the struggle to tell the truth is so evident and because there is a collective wisdom that emerges from their individual lives. They have withstood the destructiveness of racism, formed traditions to survive it. They have faith in the meaning of their lives: "I know what I'm talking about because I'm talking about myself. I'm talking about what I have lived."