This second volume of Mary Mebane's memoirs begins with its author's arrival, in the summer of 1955, at the eastern North Carolina hamlet of Robersonville. She was a young black woman who, against odds and obstacles that would have defeated almost anyone else, was gradually leaving a life of poverty and intellectual deprivation. But teaching ninth-grade English in a Jim Crow school was not what she had in mind for herself: "I had wanted to go to graduate school and get a master's degree . . . I had beat one set of odds, only to look up and see another one ranged against me. Would the battle ever be over?"
In her first book, "Mary," published two years ago, Mebane described her youth in a household which, like the rural black community of which it was a part, discouraged her efforts to escape the "world without options" to which southern blacks were then consigned, an upbringing that left her "numb and brutalized by the coldness and the relentless harsh words that I endured every day of my life." Now, in "Mary, Wayfarer," she carries her story into its second phase; having gotten herself part of the way out of the abyss by obtaining a bachelor's degree from North Carolina College, she now begins her education in "the ways of the world" and her slow discovery that "failure to respond to a gross wrong was a sure way to insure that it will continue."
It is a journey that takes her first to Robersonville and a school system that believed "reading and writing were things that rural black boys and girls didn't really need"; to New York City, where "no one would try to force me to conform, and perhaps in that way I would be able to find out who I really was and what my mission in life was"; back home to Durham, as a teacher in its segregated public schools; to teaching jobs at North Carolina College and then at South Carolina State College, in Orangeburg; to an assistantship position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where in 1972 she was awarded a PhD; to still another short-lived position, this one at the University of South Carolina, before settling down at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is now living her "new life."
Throughout all of this moving and searching, the most important constant was Chapel Hill. When she enrolled there as a summer-school student in 1958, "it was my first time in an integrated setting," and since she had been raised in a culture that "preached so much that the whites were devils and sent down to earth to punish all mankind," she was frightened. Yet what she found took her by surprise: "For the first time in my life my work was recognized, and I was given some support--this in an environment that I had been taught to suspect as totally and unrelentingly hostile and threatening." That place became the most important influence on her life, because it taught her to use and respect her intelligence; it nurtured her, and the tribute she pays it is deeply touching.
But no university could have done a thing for her had she not come to it with such determination, tenacity and--notwithstanding everything she had been encouraged to believe--faith in herself. "People wondered at me," she writes, "why I seemed so intent in my striving for culture, for some understanding of the contemporary scene. I didn't understand it myself. All I knew was that long ago, it had come to me that my world was very small and suffocating." That she escaped this world is tribute, above all else, to her courage and her unshakeable belief in the power of education to redeem, liberate and exalt.
Mebane is by her own account "a truth-teller," a "total outsider, unfettered by anyone's rules but my own," and she lives up to her billing. She has harsh words for "society" blacks, the "mulatto class" that in her experience collaborates in the repression of the black lower classes; she is no kinder to those black women who, as she sees it, flee into marriage and motherhood as escapes from the challenging freedoms that Mebane herself has always strived to enjoy. She has opinions on just about everything, and not all of them will sit well with all readers.
But "Mary, Wayfarer" is a persistently stimulating, surprising book. It is also, as was "Mary" before it, absorbing and moving. Although in its particulars it is the story of a black woman's successful effort to find herself against all the discouragement offered by white and black America alike, in larger terms it is a tale with universal implications: You can't keep a good person down. Mary Mebane is a good person.