SONG FOR MY FATHER
Memoir of an All-American Family
By Stephanie Stokes Oliver
Atria. 331 pp. $25.95
Charles M. Stokes, the subject of his daughter's loving memoir, was a fascinating figure. Born in Kansas in 1903, he was a lawyer and a Republican activist who moved to Seattle in the early 1940s and over the years became that city's first black state legislator and Washington state's first black district court judge. While he never achieved a national office like Edward Brooke, the Republican senator from Massachusetts, or a high-level federal appointment like Arthur Fletcher, who served in the Nixon administration, Stokes's story nonetheless gives us a glimpse into the lives of those blacks who stayed loyal to the "Party of Lincoln" as others shifted their allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Oliver, a journalist and editor at Essence magazine, shrewdly capitalizes on the current interest in this lost world of black Republicans, which is to say those of her father's and grandfather's generation. For some black Republicans today, the ability to locate a GOP forebear in the family tree is merely exotic and chic; for others, such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, it is a political asset. Indeed, it was in the context of the GOP's spectacularly unsuccessful effort to court African American voters in 2000 (Bush received only 8 percent of the black vote) that Rice's story reached a national audience. In her prime-time endorsement of George W. Bush at the 2000 GOP convention, Rice strategically recalled her father's decision to register as a Republican in response to the racism of the Democratic Party in Alabama in the 1950s. Of course that was also the age in which the term "liberal Republican" was not an oxymoron.
In this regard, there is more than a passing similarity between Rice's father and Oliver's. The differences between the two daughters, however, is substantial. Whereas Rice continually blurs the lines between her father's GOP and her own, Oliver, who grew up Republican but has left the party, insists on keeping them distinct. Oliver could have made a significant contribution to our understanding of black Republicans, especially regarding their ideas and motives during the 1960s and '70s. What did her father think of the direction the party moved in during the post-Goldwater years? Was he disappointed with its adoption of the southern strategy? What were his views on issues such as affirmative action, including those measures his friend Arthur Fletcher helped to draft? These questions, and many others, go largely unanswered.
It is difficult, one assumes, to be both daughter and biographer. And Oliver has the extra burden of wanting her father to be simultaneously unique and representative. At times she portrays him as extraordinary for having the courage to remain Republican and therefore out of step with the majority of African Americans. At other points she suggests that her father's ties to the GOP were not at all unusual.
Trapped in this uneasy tension, she draws few sharp lines or fine distinctions, making it hard to get a clear sense of what her father's politics and ideology actually were. For instance, in her discussion of her father's admiration for black leaders such as Percy Sutton and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., she writes, "They may have been in opposing parties, but what they had in common was that they were African-American men who beat the odds to make their unique marks on the political landscape of our country." Although her father denounced the pro-Soviet singer and actor Paul Robeson on the floor of the Washington state legislature, Oliver remains certain that, had the two men met, "they would have enjoyed each other's company and the many things they had in common." If there were a prominent African American whom Charles M. Stokes would not have liked, Oliver does not mention him or her.
The book also suffers from uncertainty about whether it is primarily a biography of her father, a narrative of her "All-American" family and the national history through which they passed, or an autobiography chronicling her life as a child and as a teenager. And, here again, she seems to be divided over whether her situation was unique or representative. On the one hand, she writes about her family's unique qualities, especially when tracing their roots back to Kansas and when telling the story of how both parents ended up in Seattle's small but distinctive black community. There are far too few histories of African American communities outside of the South and the Northeast, and Oliver's account certainly taps into a growing scholarly interest in what she calls the "upper left corner of the country." On the other hand, she wants to link her family to the broader strains of 20th-century American history in general and the black freedom struggle in particular -- even those segments led by Democrats and radicals. I don't believe that Oliver can have it both ways, at least not without much more sustained attention to nuance and detail.
Even without the cumbersome prose and the promiscuous use of jaunty exclamation points -- as in "Holy Toledo!" -- this would be a flawed memoir. Oliver's desire to sing the song of her father's life is admirable. Judge Stokes died in 1996, and the epilogue describing the author's journey to Pratt, Kan., to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday is obviously heartfelt. There are a few other compelling nuggets strewn throughout the text, yet they are never strung together with melodies and rhythms that make you not only want to listen but to dance.