michael dorris, the champion of Native American fiction and history and pioneering crusader against Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, was found Friday in a Concord, N.H., hotel room, dead from an apparent self-asphyxiation. The 52-year-old Dorris had apparently been despondent over the break-up of his marriage with fellow writer Louise Erdrich. There were also reports Tuesday that Dorris was being investigated on child abuse charges. No details of the charges were available.
The ongoing divorce proceedings marked not only the cessation of their 16-year marriage, but of an impressive literary collaboration. Their careers had inexorably been linked, starting when Dorris posed as Erdrich’s agent in order to help her find a publisher for “Love Medicine,” her much-rejected first novel, which went on to win the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. They had subsequently worked together on many projects, including reading on each other’s audio-taped versions of their books. In 1991 they collaborated on the bestselling novel “The Crown of Columbus,” and together had three daughters.
Erdrich also became the co-legal guardian of the three Native American sons Dorris adopted as a single parent. In 1971, the 26-year-old part-Modoc Indian became one of the first American bachelors to be allowed to adopt. The boy he adopted from a Sioux reservation, Reynold, turned out to have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and Dorris’ struggles with his son’s chronic learning disabilities became the basis for “The Broken Cord,” an impassioned argument against drinking while pregnant that won the Book Critics award for nonfiction in 1989. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome had been a research issue before ‘The Broken Cord,’ but Michael Dorris was responsible for bringing the public awareness of the disease,” said Diane Miller of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health. Patty Munter, the head of the National Association of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, founded her influential organization after reading Dorris’ book. “After reading ‘The Broken Cord’ I thought there was no other choice but to do something to help.”
Dorris was an active member of Munter’s board. She was shocked to hear of his death, like most of his friends and colleagues. “I saw him a few weeks ago. He was talking about beginning a new book about FAS. He was going to look at the effects of crack cocaine on babies and compare that with the effects of alcohol. Michael spent the last 20 years completely devoted to issues of alcohol and pregnancy.”
Munter speculated that Dorris had not recovered from the death of his son, the subject of “The Broken Cord,” who died in a traffic accident in 1992. “When his son was killed it caused so much grief, he probably couldn’t get out from under it,” Munter said. Adding to his unhappiness, no doubt, was the recent legal battle with another adopted son whom Dorris and Erdrich took to court after he allegedly tried to extort $15,000 and their aid in publishing a manuscript of his own.
People who worked with Dorris remembered him as a driven, meticulous man. Dorris, who was born in 1945, never knew his father, a U.S. Army soldier who was killed in World War II. After graduating cum laude in English from Georgetown he went on to study anthropology at Yale. In 1972 he founded Dartmouth’s Native American Studies program and was recently on leave from teaching literature courses in the master’s program. Jo Ann Woodsum, now an assistant professor of Native American Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, studied under Dorris from 1979 to 1983, and considered him “inspirational to all Native American students at Dartmouth. Michael was the heart of that program. He provided intellectual and emotional support and was a strong and caring person.”
Dorris had been scheduled to begin work as a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota but pulled out two weeks ago, citing illness. Apparently he was not physically ill, but severely depressed. A friend observed that although Dorris appeared healthy and energetic during his recent book tour, he had moments in which he “mentally disappeared” in company.
Despite his full teaching schedule, Dorris maintained various active interests. He authored two books on Native Americans, as well as four young adult novels, hundreds of book reviews, essays and numerous introductions to other people’s books. He even found time to play in the Rock Bottom Remainders, the tongue-in-cheek rock ‘n’ roll band featuring Amy Tan and Stephen King. Bart Schneider, the editor of the Hungry Mind Review, remembers Dorris as being “incredibly generous with his time, especially for how little we pay. He was meticulous, knew exactly how he wanted every word, would fax me changes inserting an ‘and’ for a ‘but.’”
In January, Scribner’s published Dorris’ second novel, “The Cloud Chamber,” a follow-up to the critically acclaimed “Yellow Raft in Blue Water.” He had recently finished a long book tour and had been actively lecturing while working on “Matter of Conscience,” a book about the subtly devastating effects of mild drinking during pregnancy. This past weekend Dorris was scheduled to have spoken at ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of Dartmouth’s Native American Studies Program. In March, Dorris had lectured at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif., and Amon Emeka, instructor in sociology and Native American studies, was saddened and surprised by Dorris’ suicide. “When I saw him in March I never would have guessed that he would be gone a month later. He seemed together. He was well received here. He seemed to know where he was going.”
April 15, 1997
“I never had it made”
Everybody is celebrating the Jackie Robinson story. But the reality of his life left America’s hero of the hour in a position that was anything but celebratory.
BY EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON
on Tuesday, President Clinton is scheduled to step onto the playing field at New York’s Shea Stadium and stand at second base with Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson. Before a nationally televised game, Clinton will salute Robinson’s memory and tell the world how his towering accomplishment — smashing major league baseball’s color barrier 50 years ago — permanently enriched American sport and society.
Clinton will be right. Anytime a black sportsman smashes the color barrier, there is cause for celebration. But Robinson felt “uneasy” standing at second base for his first game in the majors. And 25 years after that day, Robinson’s uneasiness had become bitter doubt. In his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” he declared unapologetically, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world. I never had it made.”
There have already been loads of romanticized testimonials about Robinson’s baseball story, and there will be loads more to come. But there will probably be little about his story in the world outside baseball — a story Robinson himself told in his autobiography, letters and columns in the New York Post and the Amsterdam News.
You won’t hear much about the time in 1949 when Robinson was pressed to refute Paul Robeson before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee after the black singer and activist made an ill-timed (and much distorted) statement that blacks were sympathetic to the Soviet Union.
Robinson appeared before the committee but refused to be used as a black pawn to attack Robeson. In his testimony, he opposed communism but also criticized the committee for its “partisan politics” and fiercely attacked racial discrimination. Years later, he wrote that he did not regret testifying, but explained that he had agreed to speak only because “in those days, I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today.”
Robinson was not much happier with black civil rights organizations. He gave speeches and helped raise funds for the NAACP and contributed generously himself, becoming a member of its board of directors. But he resigned in 1967, accusing the board of being “insensitive to the trends of our times, unresponsive to the needs and aims of the black masses — especially the young,” adding “more and more they seem to reflect a refined, sophisticated, ‘Yessir-Mistah-Charlie’ point of view.” His criticism foreshadowed identical charges that would nearly wreck the NAACP almost two decades later.
Earlier, many blacks had called Robinson an Uncle Tom and a sellout for supporting Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. But Robinson’s sole litmus test was support of civil rights. “I was not beholden to any political party,” he wrote. “I was black first.” And the Nixon of 1960 was the man who, as Eisenhower’s vice president, had fought vigorously for major civil rights bills while the Kennedy of 1960 had voted to water down a section of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill and had actively courted racist Southern Democrats. Robinson also promised, “I’ll be right back to give him hell” if his candidate betrayed him on civil rights. He was good as his word, openly denouncing the mean-spiritedness of Nixon and his party.
Robinson also worked to make self-help and economic empowerment a reality for blacks long before they became buzz words, becoming board chairman of the black-controlled Freedom Bank, which made loans and investments in black areas. When the bank ran into serious management and solvency problems, Robinson tried to keep it afloat on the grounds that “there were two keys to the advancement of blacks in America — the ballot and the buck. If we organized our political and economic strength we would have a much easier fight on our hands.”
His efforts here, as in so many areas, failed. Even baseball turned sour for the former star. In 1972, Robinson refused to attend an old-timers game and accused owners of running a “big, selfish business” for refusing to hire blacks as managers, coaches and front-office executives. He would certainly not be cheered to know that blacks are still woefully underrepresented in these positions.
Undeniably, Robinson got a big break. As the man picked to smash baseball’s color barrier, he was courted by politicians, showered with personal honors and enjoyed a measure of financial success. But at the end of his life, he remarked, “I can’t believe that I have it made while so many of my black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity, live in slums or barely exist on welfare.”
That is why Robinson insisted — and would insist today — “I never had it made.”