An elegant, insightful novel that evokes the world of upper-middle-class blacks, following an unnamed narrator from a safe childhood in conservative Indianapolis, to a brief tenure as minister of information for a local radical organization, to the life of an expatriate in Paris. Through it all, his imagination is increasingly dominated by his elderly relations and the lessons of their experiences in the "Old Country" of the South.
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About the Author
Educated at Columbia, DARRYL PINCKNEY has been a Hodder Fellow at Princeton and a recipient of grants from the Ingram-Merrill, the Mrs. Giles Whiting, and the Guggenheim Foundations. His work has appeared in many publications, including Granta and The New York Review of Books. He now lives in Berlin, where he is completing a critical book on Afro-American literature.
Darryl Pinckney, a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, is the author of the novel, High Cotton (winner of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize), and the works of nonfiction, Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy and Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature. He is a recipient of the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award for Distinguished Prose from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York.
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By Darryl Pinckney
PicadorCopyright © 1992 Darryl Pinckney
All rights reserved.
THE NEW NEGRO
No one sat me down and told me I was a Negro. That was something I figured out on the sly, late in my childhood career as a snoop, like discovering that babies didn't come from an exchange of spinach during a kiss. The great thing about finding out I was a Negro was that I could look forward to going places in the by and by that I would not have been asked to as a white boy.
There was nothing to be afraid of as long as we were polite and made good grades. After all, the future, back then, assembled as we were on the glossy edge of the New Frontier, belonged to us, the Also Chosen. The future was something my parents were either earning or keeping for my two sisters and me, like the token checks that came on birthdays from grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts.
The future was put away for us, the way dark blue blazers were put away until we could grow into them, the way meatloaf was wrapped up for the next nervous quiz meal and answers to our stormy looks were stored up for that tremendous tomorrow. Every scrap of the future mattered, but I didn't have to worry my breezy head about it because someone was seeing to things and had been ever since my great-grandfather's grandmother stepped on the auction block.
All men were created equal, but even so, lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow. You were just as good as anyone else out there, but they — whoever "they" were — had rigged things so that you had to be close to perfect just to break even. You had nothing to fear, though every time you left the house for a Spelling Bee or a Music Memory Contest the future of the future hung in the balance. You were not an immigrant, there were no foreign accents, weird holidays, or funny foods to live down, but still you did not belong to the great beyond out there; yet though you did not belong it was your duty as the Also Chosen to get up and act as though you belonged, especially when no one wanted you to.
You had nothing to be ashamed of, though some of the Also Chosen talked in public at the top of their lungs, said "Can I get" instead of "May I have," and didn't say "please" ever. United we stood, which did not include everyone on the block. It wasn't right to think you were better than your neighbor, but it also wasn't smart to want to be like the kids who ran up and down the alley all day and were going to end up on a bad corner in front of a record shop dancing under the phonograph speaker strapped above the door.
Forgiveness was divine, but people who moved away from you at the movies, tried to short-change you at the new shopping mall, or didn't want you to have a table at the Indianapolis Airport restaurant would get what was coming to them, though they acted that way because they didn't know any better. All you had to do was ignore them, pretend you hadn't heard. Those who dwelled in the great beyond out there could not stop His truth from marching on, but until His truth made it as far as restricted Broadripple Park, you did not go swimming, because even the wading pool at Douglas Park had something floating in it that put your mother off. Douglas Park was not much fun. There were no train engines to climb over, no hand-carved carousels. The YMCA that met there let its beginning swimmers splash naked. Your father could step around whatever turned up in the water as often as he liked, but if you and your sisters got sick from swallowing something other than chlorine your mother was going to go back to her mother in Atlanta and never speak to your father again.
To know where you were going, you had to know where you'd come from, though the claims that the past had on you were like cold hands in the dark. Those elderly relatives, old-timers in charcoal-gray suits and spinsters in musty fox tails, who went out of their way to come to Indianapolis to have a look at you, those wizards licking gold fillings and widows coughing on their bifocals whom you didn't want to travel miles and miles or eat ice cream with — they were among the many pearly reasons you had to hold your Vaselined head high, though you were never to mention in company your father's Uncle Ralph Waldo, who had lived the blues so well that he wound up in a nuthouse without the sense he was born with because of a disease. Grandfather Eustace spelled its name so fast not even your sisters were able to catch the letters.
Above all, you had to remember that no one not family was ever going to love you really. The Also Chosen were one big happy family, though the elderly relatives who hung over holidays like giant helium balloons couldn't stand the sight of one another, which gave fuel to the blue flame of confidences and bitter fine points that burned until the stars folded up. Sometimes the old-timers seemed to be all there was. They far outnumbered their younger relatives. The family tapered off, depopulated itself from shelf to shelf, but the ranks of the old-timers promised never to thin. They enlisted the departed in their number, on their side, which added to their collective power to dominate those of you who would never know what they knew.
The old-timers boasted of their ability to bug you from the grave, saying one day you'd want to talk to them and they wouldn't be there anymore. They'd hint that they'd be watching you closely from wherever they went when they passed on. Your dearest reminded you every morning of the problem that you would never, never get away from. However, escape I did, the burden of consciousness was lifted from my round little shoulders, and for a while there I was gorgeously out of it.
* * *
Grandfather Eustace was the emperor of out-of-it, yet he was also a distinguished man who tried, in his way, to answer all the questions. Even before I was old enough to listen he was crouched in the prompter's box, anxious to pass on that record of alienated majesty. I spent much of my life running from him, centripetal fashion, because he was, to me, just a poor old darky. I did not return his phone calls, I cashed in his train tickets, I went to the movies when he came to visit, but he was forever rising through the waves of my denial, sustained by the knowledge that he, his father and mother before him, his brothers and sisters, his sons and daughters, were a sort of dusky peerage with their degrees, professions, and good marriages among their own kind.
"Your grandfather," my father once said, "suffered from being black at a time when everyone was white." Grandfather Eustace never let us forget that he had been educated in the Holy Land: at Brown and Harvard. He was a terrible snob, his pride somehow outrageous and shaky at the same time. He had a finely developed idea of his own worth and enjoyed, like ill health, the suspicion that no one else shared it. He took the high road, but because he made the journey in a black body he lived with the chronic dread that maybe he wasn't good enough.
Grandfather acted out his contradictions in high-handed style. One of his brothers with whom he carried on a lifelong feud pointed out that before Grandfather became a minister he failed to hold on to the simplest clerk's job because he could never get along with his superiors or co-workers. Even after he became a man of the cloth more than one quiet church went to extraordinary lengths to rid itself of the "dicty spade" who wore his learning on his sleeve and pitched his sermons over the heads of the supplicants.
Yet it was for their sakes that he was called to God. He loved to be among what he called the honest folk and preferred to be the only emissary from the Talented Tenth — Du Bois's elect, whose education was to be like a beacon to the unwashed. Believing that they looked up to him, Grandfather was consumed by a passion for the poor, the forgotten. His vocation revealed itself one twilight during the Depression when he found himself wandering through Yamacraw, the red-light district that clung by its fingernails to the rib cage of railroad in Savannah, Georgia. Yamacraw was so violent that the police never crossed the tracks.
Surrounded by fired-up types, Grandfather began to bother their heads with visions of his own. The sons of Belial calmed down, and in a delirium of relief Grandfather talked on and sang and lamented. Hardly anyone followed what he said, but it sounded like the gospel truth because the theatrical, sorrowful young crackpot who stood before them with his arms stretched toward the rain clouds was touched with such a command of the language of the other side. He wasn't drunk and he didn't pass the hat, which proved that he was a cut above the usual jackleg Bible thumpers who cried out every Saturday night. Yamacraw carried him, the man they themselves might have been, into tin-roof shacks and fed him turnip greens. When they grew restless with his hootch-free eloquence, the messenger accepted an escort back to the fringes of decent Savannah. They left him serene in the flivver dust, in the middle of a digression on Pascal's wager.
Grandfather never got over the admiration in those faces, the rapt attention, the melancholy shadows thrown by the dented kerosene lamps. He also never again preached like that, but the Word meanwhile had become flesh.
* * *
Grandfather couldn't help himself. Whenever he opened the door he was on a mission to prove that the world didn't know whom it was dealing with. He came from the Old Country. Not Lithuania, not Silesia. The Old Country, to us, meant Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, spectral mileposts of cane swamp and pine, remote tidewater counties swollen with menacing lore. He was born in 1898, in "the quarters" on a farm near Dublin, Georgia. Sherman's march to the sea had left former slaves and masters together, ruined and forlorn. Decades later, devastation lingered over the region like a corrosive fume.
Grandfather considered it good form not to talk to us about the hardships he had witnessed, just as his grandfather had thought it wise not to speak too truthfully about his years in bondage. Instead, Grandfather told of stealing melons as a boy. He remembered, for me, the sweetness of the dropping peaches, walking behind the plowmen and their mules, fishing in the silvery creeks, the scent of scrub oak, of turpentine stills, the thrill of hearing at night the consoling songs of toil and deliverance. No more auction block for me.
Grandfather's real story, the one he never told, began, as they say, earlier than he. Perhaps his ancestors lived on the savannahs of Benin; no one knows. They were lost to us in the aorta of history. Certainly his forebears endured the voyage known as the Middle Passage. They were dragged from Africa to Charleston, South Carolina, to the potentates of mercantilism, in coffles aboard ships with names gratifying to their captains — Swan, Hannibal, Temperance, Desire. Grandfather liked to say that his family had arrived before the Pilgrims, but after that he gave no more thought to them than he did to stuffed mammals in a children's museum. He, too, knew the famous paradox that a slave could be punished for a crime, but an ox could not commit one.
"Is it possible that any of my slaves could go to heaven and I must meet them there?"
Grandfather's grandfather Limus remembered Crescent Plantation and the legendary occult practices of the pagan, Old Bess, who was his grandmother — maybe. "Old Bess pretends to be mad and works not." Limus was something of a blacksmith, more of a farmer, and every inch of the way a true believer. Limus, born a slave and buried "free," belonged, in Grandfather's mind, to that strange, unsalvageable land of smallpox and murder, of hot hours over slow-burning kilns, palmetto brooms, bunched guinea corn, rice fields. Grandfather had Limus saying at the age of eighty in 1905, "The family was always kind and considerate of its slaves."
Grandfather's father, born in a new black town, Promised Land, South Carolina, the year the freedmen were enfranchised, was called Esau or "Free," the most common nickname of the period. Limus was against Esau's leaving the land. "You have no need that anyone should teach you." But a bush said his name and, spreading the Word like chicken feed, Esau set off for the Atlanta Baptist Seminary, an enthusiastic college for black men that began in a church basement. Esau took with him little but the name of the English planter family, those Carolinians — what were they to him? — who'd signed the Constitution, made speeches on the desertion of slaves, negotiated with Talleyrand, twice failed to win the Presidency, and boasted of not using nets as protection against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, because to these failed Presidents nets were effeminate.
It was said that Esau sold berries to raise money, and if not berries something for nickels and dimes. The Atlanta Baptist Seminary was embraced, he fretted over the character of his namesake in the Bible, and when he was ordained who was there? Hannah Lloyd, a student at the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary across the road, one of the little earnest pioneers cloistered and finished for the future of the race. With Esau their future of rectitude was not far from home.
They were married outdoors, on what had been a drill ground for Union troops, and then assigned to the missionary field in southern Georgia, a large territory that included part of the nasty tarheel of Florida. Grandfather's mother, "Pass Me Not Hannah," they called her, daughter of the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, was something of an heiress, so they said, so Grandfather liked to say — a thousand acres and silver spoons to ladle the gravy even after the price of cotton fell.
* * *
Hannah's Seminole blood made her quick-tempered, they said, and she was strict with her five boys and merciless with her three daughters. She called on the saints to strengthen her paddle, "the household persuader," against sass and shiftlessness. Grandfather and his brothers were good swimmers, but the local hole was declared off-limits because Hannah feared that the boys who went there, black and white, would expose her sons to disease and bad grammar. They learned to keep to themselves on their paved street, or to play in abandoned "big houses" overgrown with Maréchal Niel roses.
Esau settled down as pastor of the Thankful Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, in 1912. The poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar went on Hannah's Index, as did tunes like "Under the Bamboo Tree," and to dance was to taste the apple, though she was pleased to claim W. C. Handy as her husband's friend. Instead of these pleasures, there were the glories of George Lofton's Biblical Thoughts and Themes for Young Men and Women, many histories of Jesus, illustrated Scripture galleries, Tennyson, and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose every utterance was taken as an addition to the King James Version.
Nothing unpleasant ever broke through the narcotic of Grandfather's nostalgia, though the traditional horrors actually happened. What now seems tired was then fresh. Esau came home wet with whiskey after some provincials, the parlor word for crackers, ordered him to drink and shuffle, and backed up their threats by shooting at his feet. One night Esau hid under the floorboards of a forsaken country church while the necktie party that had elected him honored guest of the hickory tree raged over the benches. Grandfather hoarded these memories. Those that he handed out freely, the gentle yarns improvised during sermons and radio talks, gave him a satisfaction not unlike watching someone who has power of attorney sift through a shoebox of Confederate dollars.
One by one Esau commended his sons to the high school attached to his alma mater, renamed Morehouse College, from which rock Grandfather and his brothers were catapulted North. Hannah in her collar and the three dazed daughters in their pegged skirts watched the caboose for a sign. This was the eve of the Great War and the Great Migration, when thousands upon thousands of black people got up and quit the South. Grandfather said that the emptying of a town like Augusta was so sudden it was like the lancing of a wound.
We have enough, but not too much To long for more.
Grandfather enrolled in Brown University in 1917 and failed his first English essay assignment, "How to Carve a Turkey." Everyone on College Hill wanted to be an officer. Grandfather surrendered to the Army Training Corps. He sat in chilly alphabetical order with every other freshman in Sayles Hall, but army rules did not permit the six black students to eat or sleep among whites. During exercises they were set up as a separate squad at the foot of the column, with space left for imaginary soldiers. But no amount of serge could help him to pass muster at Sigma Phi Delta.
Excerpted from High Cotton by Darryl Pinckney. Copyright © 1992 Darryl Pinckney. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
One: The New Negro,
Two: Old Yellow,
Three: Black and Blue,
Four: The Color Line,
Five: Heirs of Malcolm,
Six: Valley of the Shines,
Nine: Equal Opportunities,
Ten: The Handbook of Interracial Dating,
Eleven: Minority Business,
Twelve: Going Home,
Also by Darryl Pinckney,
About the Author,