One thing has become clear since the publication of my autobiography, A Man's Life, a few months ago: If you write a very personal book, you can expect some extraordinarily personal responses. Some people are deeply embarrassed by the personal revelations in the book and don't know what to say. Others feel driven to sit me down and have long conversations about feelings the book has elicited -- usually based on the reader's experiences, not mine. Reactions have been much like those of a Rorschach test, with people either loving or hating it, depending on their own experiences.
Prominent black people were anything but indifferent to the book. Since we are not used to being written about in books, especially by one of our own, the bound galleys themselves created gossip. After attending a party last spring where many of the District's black notables were in attendance, one journalist told me, "Everybody there was mad at you. Half of them were mad because they were in the book, and the other half were mad because they weren't."
Before publication, friends began telling me how frightened some of my acquaintances were that I had resvealed their darkest secrets. A prominent black politician called a mutual friend to inquire about how he had been treated. "Don't worry," our friend replied, "you were treated with taste and respect. Do you think Roger would have done otherwise?"
After receiving calls from relatives concerned about their reputations, my mother replied in exasperation to one of them, "Look, Roger only spilled the beans on himself, nobody else."
The question I am asked most frequently about the book is "Why." "Why did a man who is only 50 write an autobiography?" and "Why did you make it so personal?"
I had no desire to write about myself, but rather to write about white racism in America -- where I have seen it and how it feels. But because I wanted to tell white people what they have no overwhelming interest in learning -- that racism is still pervasive in America; that it exists even in institutions with the shiniest liberal patinas and that it affects all blacks, not just the poor and downtrodden -- I knew that nobody would have believed my messages if I had presented myself as a pristine and innocent victim of all those bad white folks and the institutions they run. So, I had to tell a lot of bad stuff about myself that I would have rather left hidden in some forgotten closet. I reasoned that the things I know about myself aren't half as bad as the things my enemies say about me.
The detail that seemed to cause the most consternation among readers was the disclosure of my brief marriage to a white woman in the mid-1970s. A black woman who clearly hadn't read the book was interviewing me on television and asked, "Why did you marry that white woman, anyway?"
I gave her a smile and a non sequitur: "You have to realize," I said, "that in my life I've been married a total of more than 20 years, and I was only married to the white woman for eight months."
"Oh. And now you're married happily to a black woman, right?" she said brightly.
"Right," I said, and she beamed. All my sins had apparently been forgiven.
There were two basic objections to my handling this subject in the book. The first was that it was not seemly to air the subject in front of white people, and the second was that in having had relationships with white as well as with black women, I had been traitorous to black women.
I viewed the first objection as ridiculous, particularly since the literature describing black life in America is still so thin. The last measure by which we blacks define our literature should be what whites ought and ought not see. And since interracial romantic relationships have absorbed a good deal of America's psychic energies, the subject belonged in a book exploring white racism and the black reaction to it.
The second reaction was more difficult to handle. The demographics in black America and the high destruction rate of young black men in this society severely limit the searches of black women for suitable mates. For black men to remove themselves from the pool available to black women not only makes the women's search harder, but also appears to signal a judgment that white women are more highly prized.
Those arguments can make a black man's conscience writhe under the lash of black women who are angry about it. So there was pain in that part of the reaction. As it turned out, the attacks on that score were more subdued that I had expected.
When the book first appeared I had to face a fundamental question: Did I do it well enough for most readers to get the message? Because the book made me so vulnerable, good friends and loved ones were bound to rally around and they did, but they were too close for me to trust their judgments completely. The final response would come from more disinterested readers.
The first review came unannounced to my door early one June in the Sunday Washington Post. It was an endorsement of my work by James Baldwin that even my wildest fantasy could not have constructed. My wife and my friends were relieved because they knew that Baldwin had armed me for another opposite reaction that was sure to come.
And it did come, first in a review on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday book section by a fine black writer, David Bradley. He went beyond reviewing the book. He reviewed a person created and nurtured by the American Establishment, a person who exists neither in the real world nor in the pages of the book. Certain executives at The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Ford Foundation and Lyndon Johnson's Justice Department would be shocked to find out that the person who had punched them in the gut in hand-to-hand fighting inside their institutions and then had poked sticks in their eyes in his book, was solely their creature. However far off the mark that review was, it hurt like hell.
And so did the commentary that reviewed me rather than the book. A publishing coincidence produced more of that than might otherwise have occurred. My Uncle Roy's autobiography, Standing Fast, was published a month after my book. Joint reviews were inevitable, and I thought they presented a wonderful opportunity for reviewers to examine an 80-year, two-generational social history of racial activism in this country. But most reviewers instead contrasted and compared Uncle Roy and me. I didn't mind that they liked Uncle Roy; I liked him quite a bit myself. But, glory! Did they need to dislike me quite so much?
After awhile, I became philosophical about the blows I was taking from some white writers because I understood they were killing the messenger. And some people seemed to think that I couldn't be middle class and care for the plight of black poor at the same time. One even suggested that I must be schizophrenic to ride in a Mercedes Benz and write about poor blacks.
One reviewer, after describing my uncle's undeniable statesman-like qualities made the transition to my book with the following words: "Roger Wilkins's 'A Man's Life,' is like the barroom confidences of somebody you're not sure you want to know all that well." Others, in order to deny my assertion that racism is still pervasive, chose to dwell on my revelations of my frailties.
I found one criticism from blacks particularly irksome. It was that my story was not an authentic black experience: Somehow if I hadn't grown up entirely in segregation and hadn't known unemployment, I shouldn't have written about my life. But that was one of the reasons to write the book, and the notion that some black experiences are more authentic than others has always struck me as absurd.
Other negative reviews about me have attributed the problems in my life to "personal Hangups" rather then racism. That's partly true, partly false and in the end, probably irrelevant because the two are intertwined.
But, there were also wonderful responses. By and large, the book has been treated very well by both black and white reviewers across the country. And there has been some extraordinarily heartening response from black people. Some people who have had similar experiences have called, choked with emotion on finishing the book, to thank me for writing it. I have had letters and phone calls from strangers thanking me for clarifying personal issues with which they have been wrestling. A young journalist called from Florida to tell me that reading the book was like getting good advice from a father.
And finally, there was the reaction from Poppa, my 84-year-old stepfather, who is a man of action. He and my mother (who liked the book, incidentally and won't lend her copy to her friends so they will be forced to go out and buy their own) read the bound galleys in order to be "forewarned." Poppa's only comment on finishing it was: "Well, intelligent people will get the point."
I hope he's right.