Mon August 18, 2003
Harris recounts the day in the third grade when a group of white dentists came to her elementary school and provided free services. They took no pay, but neither did they drill and save teeth: they only pulled decaying teeth.
By Don Noble
Trudier Harris, the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a prolific and well-known critic and editor of African-American literature. Now Ms. Harris has written her memoir, the story of growing up in segregationist, indeed racist Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the fifties and sixties. She was born in 1947, first raised on a farm owned by her father in Greene County and then, after his death in 1954, in Tuscaloosa?s West End.
Unareed Harris, Trudier?s mother, who raised seven children alone, is painted in the same warm glow as Rick Bragg?s mama in All Over But the Shoutin?. Her mama loved her church and loved to sit by a pond and fish. Those two saintly women are surely together somewhere, enjoying their hard-won peace and rest.
Which really generates her biggest problem as an African-American memoirist. Yes, life was extremely difficult in her youth, yet obviously not impossible. Yes, there is still prejudice and racism today, but of course she must acknowledge that enormous progress has been made.
The result is a kind of ?Yes, but? structure to these essays. In Harris? memoir, every silver lining is surrounded by a large, dark cloud. For example, in the essay entitled ?The Price of Desegregation,? Harris discusses the ?so-called progress? in Tuscaloosa. It was the right thing to do. There was no choice. But she calls it a fiasco, an integration process which did not truly integrate, and much was lost.
Previously, black schoolteachers taught black students with real passion, lived in the black neighborhood, stopped by the house if a child was sick, told the parents if the child?s behavior was slipping. It was the kind of village it takes to raise a child.
In another essay, Harris recounts the day in the third grade when a group of white dentists came to her elementary school and provided free services. They took no pay, but neither did they drill and save teeth: they only pulled decaying teeth. Years later, Harris, as well as many of her peers, had problems caused by the vacant places in her jaw.
Not all the problems came from the white side of town, however. As a student at Stillman, she tells us, she was propositioned by a black professor and further, she says, it was not rare for a black professor to take a poor undergraduate girl as a mistress, making promises of financial rewards.
Even today, she experiences what she is sure is racism on an almost daily basis: occasionally colleagues snub her or white neighbors or salesclerks fail to be courteous. And I am sure she is mostly right. But what seems to me missing is the possibility, even probability, of some human failing other than racism. Some colleagues envy her success, surely, and, as hard as it is to believe, some people just don?t like us. Some things in this world are personal.
On balance, however, this is a valuable book to read. Harris writes of a day mostly gone, when individuals and whole families had a front-porch society in a secure neighborhood, an era in which church singing gave joy several times a week. It was a time when parents had what she calls cotton-picking authority: ?How much cotton have you ever picked? Huh? That was real work.?
It was both a crueler world and a slower, gentler world, and Harris captures much of it. The title suggests that the good outweighs the bad, for Harris tells us that African-Americans who truly consider themselves to be Southerners are as rare as summer snow. But she is one of them.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.