Stories About Family by Black Writers

Edited by Mary Helen Washington

Doubleday. 417 pp. $24.95; paperback, $12.95

IN CONCERT WITH a number of important black literary scholar/critics, Mary Helen Washington has spent much of the last decade redefining the asethetics, meaning and place of the literature of African-American writers. A prodigious editor of seminal anthologies, reviewer, lecturer, professor and critic, Washington has focused much of her most important work on unearthing the often ignored, erased or forgotten literary legacy of significant black women writers past and present.

In the anthologies Black Eyed Susans and Midnight Birds: Stories By and About Black Women, and most recently in Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960, Washington presents and evaluates the rich chorus that black women writers have constructed for the telling of tales that too often no one wanted to hear.

To this task, Washington brings a restless, keen intellect, a sense of history, an unapologetically feminist perspective that allows for the asking of questions others could not even imagine, and a mastery of the overall American literary inheritance.

Memory of Kin: Stories About Family by Black Writers initially appears to be a departure for Washington from the geography of the black female soul. The authors in Memory of Kin are male and female, emerging and established, poets and fiction writers. And yet Washington acknowledges in her introduction that "while I struggled to create an egalitarian model for the text, the collection resisted the gender symmetry I was imposing. In many ways this is a woman-centered book and that is because the family has been the central concern of women. Women have been the caretakers in families and that caretaking has extended even to the stories of family history."

The writers in Memory of Kin range from Ernest J. Gaines to William Melvin Kelley, from Langston Hughes to John Edgar Wideman; Lucille Clifton to Jamaica Kincaid, Paule Marshall and Alexis De Veaux. Washington begins her excellent introduction by saying, "I once told a friend that families were like minefields, that we walk and dance through them, never knowing where or when something or someone is going to explode."

And while that is a sentiment both bothersome and haunting because of its accuracy, the thrust of much of the work in Memory of Kin is on how families affirm who they are, how individuals survive and reshape the hold of families on them, how communities redefine what family is.

Apart from its literary value, much of the importance of this book springs from the enduring fascination of sociologists, educators, journalists and "experts" with the black family. Perhaps no other people in America have had more written by more people who knew so little about their families than have African-Americans. In Memory of Kin the foibles, failures and strengths of the black family are rendered by the real experts -- people who happen to be writers whose voice and vision sprang from those families.

Included are the now-classic, often-anthologized-but-always-fresh stories of family by Baldwin ("Sonny's Blues"), Toni Cade Bambara ("Gorilla My Love") and Alice Walker's devastating portrait of marriage, "Roselily."

The fine, too little known writer Ernest J. Gaines is represented by three long short stories, one each in the sections "Extended Family," "Fathers and Sons" and "Mothers and Sons." Gaines, perhaps best known for his novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is a master of the short story, who Washington says, "writes stories that are more often about communal bonds, about the ways in which a community creates and sustains the courage of its individual members." And so it is fitting that Gaines' stories resonate throughout the book, for they meditate upon the essential tactic by which black families have traditionally survived the pressures of American racism.

The Gaines story, "Just Like A Tree" is a marvelous tour de force, told by 10 different characters young and old, black and white, male and female, all ruminating on the life and significance of Aunt Fe, an elderly clan member, who has been mother, and father, savior and friend to them all.

In "The Sky is Gray," a visit to the dentist by a poor black mother and son allows Gaines to create a tapestry that is a commentary on love, pride, dignity and the charity of the human heart.

Writer Alexis De Veaux, in "Adventures of the Dread Sisters," reimagines the traditional family bonds in a story of the friendship of two dread-lock wearing, politically conscious African-named heroines who are also gay. The primary catalyst for the 15-year-old narrator's growing sense of political and emotional empowerment is the woman Nigeria, who has informally adopted the narrator and her sister.

The combination of Gaines and De Veaux in one volume provides Memory of Kin with a splendid sense of urgency and yes, relevance. For its family pictures are sepia-tinted and Polaroid -- some appreciative like Gaines's, others bristling with De Veaux's skepticism and her impatience to push the notion of "family" to new dimensions.

Poetry opens each section of the book and each story is followed by a critical evaluation by Washington in which she discusses the story's themes, arguing with and even dissenting from the thrust of some stories. John McCluskey's "Forty in the Shade" focuses on the character Roscoe Jr. and his sense of disappointment in his inability to live up to the legacy of bravery and courage that reaches back to a runaway slave descendent. The story combines history and missed moments of personal sorrow, powerfully fusing both. Yet Washington asserts in her comments that "tracing his family line back only through his male ancestors, . . . Roscoe Jr., renders invisible the experience of women in his family." Washington's unchanging, persistent call for acknowledgement of female heroism, courage and significance informs this text with a matchless integrity.

The poetry in Memory of Kin is exceptional. Audre Lorde angrily recalls her mother in "Black Mother Woman", concluding, "I learned from you/ to define myself/ through your denials." And Lucille Clifton in "forgiving my father" says:

my mother's hand opens in her early grave

and I hold it out like a good daughter . . .

what am I doing here collecting?

you lie side by side in debtors' boxes

and no accounting will open them up.

Memory of Kin opens up, stirs up, reveals, questions the nature of love, loyalty and family. This is a book not only for the classroom but for the dining room and the bedroom as well -- where families most often explode, make peace and survive.

Marita Golden is the author of several books, including the novel "Long Distance Life."