The role model syndrome

Jill Nelson and Gwendolyn Parker are two sassy women writers refuse to play nice in their memoirs of life among the white -- and black -- elite.

Published October 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

epic struggle has characterized most of the history of African-Americans, but the 29 years since the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. have been essentially unheroic. Black political leaders have, for the most part, been as corrupt or ineffectual as their white counterparts. The dominant conservative culture condemns the so-called "black underclass," blaming its plight on "social pathology" and a lack of "personal responsibility." Meanwhile, a growing black middle class has tangled with the insidious ironies of integration. In the 1990s, there are few rallying points for black solidarity. For contemporary African-Americans, ambivalence and ambiguity are as much a part of the social order as oppression and strife once were. Today's racial situation is not simply tragic and volatile -- it's also absurd.

Most of the masterpieces of African-American literature were written during the age of epic struggle. And some of the best black writers of the post-civil rights era -- Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Ernest Gaines -- have set their most powerful tales in the bad old days when whites were more clearly evil and blacks more unassailably noble. But what about these days? How does the creative, socially engaged black writer tackle the murky racial complexities -- and absurdities -- of more recent times?

Any writer who does must contend with two rigid wings of America's literary establishment: white folks who consider themselves so racially enlightened that they need never question their own attitudes; and black folks who want to make sure that those enlightened whites have a good impression -- a "positive image" -- of most black people, but especially of black people like themselves. The members of the white wing prefer books about the sort of black people they rarely, if ever, meet -- poor rural folk or ghetto dwellers, victims to pity, gangstas to fear, blacks they can feel superior to. These arbiters of literature don't mind hearing about difficult racial questions so long as they are presented politely and do not provoke anything like self-doubt. The members of the black wing of the establishment prefer tales of triumph over tragedy. They are not very keen on the absurdity of race. They want black literature to be safe, uplifting, mainstream. They want black writers to be careful what they say, especially when writing about the black middle class. The underlying concern -- the source of their anxiety -- is always the same: "What are the white folks going to think?"

Two strong new books, Jill Nelson's "Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman" and Gwendolyn M. Parker's "Trespassing: My Sojourn in the Halls of Privilege," examine, in highly personal ways, America's post-'60s racial conundrum. These books are both memoirs. Both are written by black women from affluent backgrounds. Both authors were born in the early '50s. But their takes on what used to be called the Black Experience could hardly be more different.

One of the thrills of reading journalist Jill Nelson's first memoir, "Volunteer Slavery," was that the author clearly did not give a damn what white folks thought about anything. The book, published in 1993, used Nelson's four-year stint at the Washington Post as a frame for the scabrously funny story of her life. I've always found the title a bit much: Surely, hacking for a prestigious newspaper at $50,000 a year is not exactly comparable to picking cotton from dawn to dusk and suffering the sundry atrocities of black plantation life.

But then again, everything about "Volunteer Slavery" was irreverently over-the-top. Take Nelson's description of her white bosses' attitude toward her: "I keep getting this creepy feeling that the Washington Post is doing me some kind of favor. It's as if, as an African American, female, freelance writer, I'm a handicapped person they've decided to mainstream. The words to 'Look at Me I'm Walking,' the theme song of the annual Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, pop into my head."

"Volunteer Slavery" was one of the rare nonfiction books to have a great subtitle: "My Authentic Negro Experience." With that choice, drippingly sarcastic phrase, Nelson demolished one of America's most cherished social myths: that there is such a thing as a genuine, all-encompassing black identity. Nelson -- the daughter of a successful dentist and an "Indianapolis princess" who summered on Martha's Vineyard -- was unapologetically bourgeois and unsparingly honest in describing her family's genteel dysfunction.

Given the squeamishness and racial hypocrisy of the American literary establishment, it is not surprising that Nelson had a hard time getting her first book published. The general readership in the U.S., though, is not as squeamish or hypocritical as the arbiters of literature, and once "Volunteer Slavery" came out, it did extremely well. In literature, as in every other realm of American life, money talks. When you write a bestseller, the establishment decides you must be pretty good after all. Nelson's follow-up is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

"Straight, No Chaser" (the title is from Thelonious Monk's hard bop classic) is something of a hybrid, two books wrapped around each other. One book is a sort of sequel to the last -- like "Volunteer Slavery" with all the Washington Post material cut out. We learn more about Nelson's parents and she recounts, in the same idiosyncratic voice, her relationships with men, the harrowing day when the authorities tried to take her infant daughter Misumbo from her, a hilarious 1979 rally where Afrocentric activist Queen Mother Moore tells her audience that "polygamy is the answer!"

The other book in "Straight, No Chaser" reads like a combination self-help manual and manifesto of sisterhood. In these pages, the quirky, edgy Nelson voice we know so well disappears. It's replaced by a voice that is earnest and therapized: "I thought there was something wrong with me, that everyone else was living happily ever after while I could find no center of power." Nelson urges black women to "seize visibility, voice and power." There is much talk about the need for a collective identity or a collective voice or a collective agenda.

Often, Nelson segues from a fascinating personal story into a generalized, long-winded tirade. A lot of the material here is tediously familiar: the usual bemoaning of the loss of '60s idealism; the boilerplate criticism of black stereotypes in the media; the obligatory brother-bashing, damning black men for everything from beating and killing sisters to dating white women. Instead of the Stoli-swilling badass of "Voluntary Slavery," "Straight, No Chaser" presents a well-adjusted Jill Nelson, extolling the virtues of exercise, sobriety and community service.

On the one hand, I say: more power to her. Yet it bothers me that Nelson seems to have embraced the notion of racial authenticity -- at least when it comes to black women -- that she mocked in "Volunteer Slavery." Her eye for the absurd is only half open. I worry that America in general and black America in particular may be losing a brilliant writer and gaining yet another preachy role model, exhorting folks to do, say and think the right thing.

How authentic is Gwendolyn M. Parker's black female experience? In the early pages of "Trespassing," this Durham, N.C., native tells us she is "the daughter of a pharmacist and a teacher, granddaughter to a banker and a businessman, great-granddaughter of a doctor who'd built one of the largest black-owned businesses." Parker's family life is notably free of drama and trauma. After the Parkers move north, Gwen goes on to a Connecticut boarding school, Radcliffe, NYU Law School, a two-year sentence in the whitest of Wall Street law firms, then an eight-year stay at the relatively multicultural American Express where she is, for the most part, a happy camper. When she quits at 36, she seems more motivated by professional ennui, a superachiever's burnout and a desire to write than by anything explicitly racial.

Where "Trespassing" excels is as a subtle and elegantly written dissection of the sort of intellectual warfare that so many African-Americans must engage in. Back in Durham, Parker's maternal grandmother, Miss Bea, knows the score. She teaches little Gwen that "intelligence was a weapon, a sharp, infinitely useful instrument, good for dealing with anyone but especially with white folks, who, as she put it, never expected colored people to have any brains."

A junior high school teacher gives Parker a C because he assumes that the well-crafted poem she submitted was plagiarized. When the law school newspaper compares the LSAT scores of black and white students, it opens up "an age-old wound: the charge that intellectually, as a race, we did not measure up." Parker becomes a "racial avenger," feeling that she must constantly prove she is smarter than condescending whites. "I wondered," she writes of her snotty law firm colleagues, "if white people, or at least those in the grip of this illusion of their own mythic superiority, were truly insane, or if they hypnotized themselves every morning in order to believe the absurd things they did."

Absurd is the word. At their best, Gwendolyn M. Parker and Jill Nelson explore, humorously, poignantly, insightfully, the weirdness of America's race and gender obsessions in this curious and uncertain era. Through the complexity and specificity of their voices, they remind us that there are as many different black consciousnesses as there are black people.

By Jake Lamar

Jake Lamar is the author of "Bourgeois Blues," a memoir, and "The Last Integrationist," a novel. He lives in Paris.

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