I GOT SOMEBODY IN STAUNTON

By William Henry Lewis

Amistad. 202 pp. $22.95

From the South to the North. From the country to the city. From fields of kudzu drenched in Southern racism to Northern cityscapes freighted with urban violence. Similar to Jean Toomer's classic novel Cane, the stories and vignettes in William Henry Lewis's I Got Somebody in Staunton trace the route of the great migration. But as Lewis's characters change landscapes, the same issues bedevil their working-class black identities -- whatever the milieu and whether one is headed from the South to the North, or the reverse, or even to the Bahamas and beyond.

The most seminal tale here may be the title story, "I Got Somebody in Staunton," wherein a 28-year-old black college professor, Clive, is journeying south to his home town to attend to a dying uncle who once taught him that "when the time comes, running takes you over before you know it's an answer." Uncle Izelle helped guide Clive through his early years navigating the politics of race in Staunton, Va. With a storyteller's dramatic touch, Uncle Ize filled young Clive's mind with stories of the Scottsboro Boys and Emmett Till -- violent but cautionary tales. On his way home the narrator meets potential "jailbait": a flirtatious white hitchhiker named Keri. "When she found out where I was headed, she said, I got somebody in Staunton. And I said, Who's that? She smiled and ran her hair behind her ear. You, she said."

White nymphet. Educated black male. Keri attracts the wrong kind of attention. Now that she has a ride, she flirts at every stopover with small-town redneck teenagers. Clive, worried that her overtures could put them both in real danger, recollects his Uncle Ize's lessons -- all those warnings of what could happen to black men who touch white women and all those nightmares Clive would prefer to believe have been relegated to the past. The ride becomes a nervous war among his own overheated imagination, Keri's pretended or convenient innocence and the real risks they run by challenging the mores of unfamiliar locales. In the end, Keri pairs with a gang of rowdy white boys -- the kind she seems magnetically to attract -- and the drunken party detours to a field to shoot rifles. The narrator, realizing that "one of those boys is sure to get her where she wants to go," drives off without saying goodbye. Interestingly, this title story is dedicated to James Farmer, a civil rights hero who faced real danger. Clive may never have been at risk at all -- or no more than the risk of embarrassment. The line between the real and the imaginary is thin, the story seems to say, and racial hysteria is real and potent even when its cause is imaginary.

In other stories, Lewis's characters must survive actual oppression. Injustice beats them down in innumerable ways, making his characters admirable insofar as they struggle to fight back. In "Urban Renewal," a mother still grieving for the loss of her son -- a victim of police brutality -- schedules an appointment with an official at the college her son might have someday attended. In her mind, the school still has a long way to go to earn the trust of boys and girls like her deceased Donnell. She has helpful advice to give, but half an hour into her interview, "he's already shut me down. You work long enough for White people -- serving them, cleaning up after them -- you get to knowing when they stop seeing you and when they not hearing you."

William Henry Lewis is both an artistic and a political writer. He isn't afraid of stories with overt protest themes. In that sense, Lewis is "old school." He is essentially a dramatic writer dealing with classic themes -- race, sex , class. And in Lewis's world, race still matters. He displays, in such shorter pieces as "Shades" and "Kudzu," a notable gift for prose poetry.

Several of these stories have technical problems, usually related to awkward transitions. In cases where Lewis can't overcome these problems, he leaves so many loose ends that the point of the tale seeps out like water from a leaky pail. Instead of building energy and progressing, his stories skip from incident to incident without sufficient tension. A successful story should flow like a string pulled from a ball of yarn. Lewis has left several stories badly constructed.

However, the best pieces in this uneven collection have values that are strong and timeless. I Got Somebody in Staunton is significant because it dramatizes the oppression still faced by millions of people today, especially in the conservative small towns of America. Lewis is not a trendy hip-hop stylist or a viciously satirical postmodernist with a knack for making fun of America's racial obsession. He is a quieter sort of writer who reminds us that beneath the hype are ordinary people struggling with racist employers, lost fathers, lack of education and fears of stepping out of line and threatening the status quo. Some of those people live in Washington power circles and upscale Manhattan; some of them live in Staunton, Va. *

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, S.C. He can be reached at DarrylWellington@hotmail.com.