In 1978 the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the migration of blacks from the South to the industrial North had halted. Blacks, as well as whites, were moving south in greater numbers than they were leaving. Why? Because the south, enhanced by the addition of industry and the adjective "new" was for the first time offering jobs and opportunity to her native sons.
Alma and Arthur Dean Stanford and their small son, Tavis, are a black family who tried to become part of that return. "Goin' Home," by Timeri Murari, is the story of their return to Eufaula, Ala., Arthur Stanford's home town. Murari tells of their journey with sensitivity and candor, with sympathy restrained by objectivity. His own point of view is that of an outsider -- an urbane writer (novelist and playwright) who shuttles between New York and London. But in pigmentation Murari, from India, is nearly as black as the Stanfords. He is aware of the dangers of color prejudice.
When he meets the Stanfords in 1978, they live in what is fast becoming a black ghetto in Mattapan, Boston, surrounded by fast traffic, trash and decaying houses. They decide to return to the South in search of a better quality of life. Arthur is seeking roots, something he can't replace with a $7 an hour job spray-painting cars in Boston. His father owns land just outside Eufaula -- land that has been in the family a century. He's promised to give Arthur and Alma 10 acres on which to build a house. "We have a design for it," Arthur tells Murari. "It's kind of a ranch house." Arthur is certain he'll get a good job in one of the industries that have located in Eufaula and Alma has great plans "to go to a business college. There's where you make money. Business."
And so in the autumn the family makes the 2,000-mile journey back to the bosom of the Stanford clan, with Murari tagging along as a writer eager to make a book out of their experience -- whatever it may be.
Once back in Eufaula, the best job Arthur can find pays him $2.65 an hour. The banker who had previously promised him a building loan has now changed his tune, saying that Alma, as well as Arthur, must work to secure the principal. So much for Alma's hopes of business school and bettering herself. Her dreams of a ranch house exaporate like raindrops on magnolia leaves.
By January, the defeated trio -- Arthur, Alma and Tavis -- are on their way back to Boston, where they find jobs, begin night school and move into a neighborhood in Dorchester very much like the one they left in Mattapan.
Murari conveys a complex reaction to Alma, Arthur and the South he visits. While he recognizes pretense and hypocrisy in southern society, he is at pains to portray the civic leaders he encounters not as ogres but as basically decent -- albeit extremely provincial -- types inquestioningly preserving a social milieu they've inherited from their ancestors.
He is enormously sympathetic to the southern black. Arthur's parents, Oddie and Bud, have the dignity of people who have prevailed in an often unfriendly environment. Their farming life, bolstered by a vast network of family and an evangelical church, seems to hold some of the same attractions for Murari that it does for Arthur. Alma's family, whom they visit in Memphis, is equally beguiling in all its sprawling variety.
Clearly Murari wishes the Stanfords could make it "back home." After many setbacks, Arthur asks him, "What do you think I should do?" "Give it time," counsels Murari, realizing he is offering only a "bland cliche." When Alma finally issues her ultimatum, "I got no more time. I told you, you can stay if you want. I've had enough of this place," one senses a tinge of impatience in Murari -- impatience with Alma's values, with her frank materialism, even though the reasons for it are obvious. Having grown up in grinding poverty, Alma is fiercely determined not to "be a poor nigger" ever again. Anything short of her standard of material achievement is a threat to her self-image. When, in order to circumvent the bank loan problem, Oddie and Bud offer to give the younger Stanfords their old house and build a smaller one for themselves, Alma can't contain her rage. "I want a proper house, not this . . . collection of planks," she tells Murari.
What is most disquieting, even depressing, about the Stanfords' story is the likelihood that the "success" that they crave may always elude them. In the South, their aspirations are thwarted by color and convention and are likely to be for some years to come. In the North they are hemmed in by the confines of the Mattapans and the Dorchesters, confines that can limit the vision at least as much as the dusty fields of the South.