"PRIVILEGED LIVES: THE STORY OF A BLACK FAMILY," Review by Nell Irvin Painter in The Washington Post Book World, 6 November 1988; Page x5
BALM IN GILEAD Journey of a Healer
By Sara Lawrence Lightfoot
321 pp. $18.95
African-American images are full of paradoxes, many only
half-glimpsed. Ralph Ellison called us invisible, without adding that
our invisibility coexists, paradoxically, with a longstanding curiosity
about us, especially as refracted through the lens of individual life.
As far back as the early 19th century, this fascination created a market
for black autobiography and biography, first in the form of slave narratives,
which sometimes unspokenly combined both perspectives.
Yet for all the interest in particular black lives, black
autobiography/biography has not been a straightforward undertaking. In
the 19th century there was the matter of the abolitionist amanuensis who
might shape the fugitive slave's narrative. Even when authorship was not
controversial, African-American autobiography has still been other than
the life of the individual, more than the history of Frederick Douglass
or Linda Brent/Harriet Jacobs or Maya Angelou.
Until quite recently, Afro-American biography was a stylized
undertaking, veiled and censored, hedged all around with unspoken taboos.
Respecting the form and their readers' expectations, autobiographers generally
left a good deal unsaid. Addressing the drama of the individual's struggle
with racism, authors concentrated on transcendence and triumph, ignoring
rage, deformation, individual peccadillos, failures and other "isms" (like
sexism or homophobia). Black auto/biographers presented credits to their race who were strong enough to surmount the kind of racism that scars.
Happily (for those of us who relish the ambiguity that
makes human life engrossing), Afro-American biography has grown beyond
the role-model phase. Biographies published in the 1980s have embraced
individuality even to the point of pursuing insights from psychoanalysis.
I have in mind John Hope Franklin's portrait of George Washington Williams;
Kenneth Manning's Ernest E. Just; Arnold Rampersad's Langston Hughes;
and Thadious Davis's forthcoming life of Nella Larsen, none of which prettifies
subjects or censors foibles. In its sensitivity and candor, Sara Lawrence
Lightfoot's biography of her mother, Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer,
joins this illustrious company, even though it belongs to a somewhat different
sub-field of biography.
For reasons I cannot fathom -- filiopiety? therapy? narcissism?
-- writing about one's mother is now the fashion. The daughters of Margaret
Mead and Anzia Yezierska have published books about their mothers, as
have Vivian Gornick and Wendy Chapkis, whose mothers were not otherwise
well known. And this is not to get into the movie stars (Lena Horne, Bette
Davis) whose daughters have proven themselves voluble and bankable. On
the surface, at least, Balm in Gilead is one of these, without the preening
and pouting that the genre invites. With enormous warmth but no sentimentality,
Lightfoot presents her mother, Margaret Morgan Lawrence, an extraordinary
woman on a human scale.
Margaret Morgan, born in 1914, grew up mainly in Vicksburg,
Miss., the brown-skinned daughter of Sandy Morgan, a dark-skinned Episcopalian
minister, and Mary Elizabeth Morgan, the light-skinned daughter of a family
of strong women ("Mom Margaret," who sounds like a character out of Toni
Morrison's novels, and the "Aunts"). Her mother was frequently depressed
during her childhood, and Margaret Morgan learned early to shoulder responsibility.
She remembers her life in Vicksburg as privileged, for she was well-placed
within the city's black community and had virtually no contact with the
dehumanizing white city. The first third of Balm in Gilead, which I found
the most compelling, is family history.
After moving to New York for high school, Morgan worked
her way through Cornell University, earned a medical degree and a master's
in public health from Columbia University, and certificates from the New
York Psychiatric Institute and the Columbia Psychoanalytic Clinic for
Training and Research. In the 1970s she published two books, The Mental
Health Team in the Schools and Young Inner City Families. In Vicksburg
in 1933 she had met a handsome, light-skinned Morehouse student, Charles
Lawrence, whom she married in 1938. Charles and Margaret Lawrence enjoyed
an extraordinary loving relationship during the nearly 50 years they were
married before his death. Sara Lightfoot includes excerpts from his letters
to his wife and family, which invariably begin "My Lovely Margaret," "My
Lovely Family," and "My Mighty Lovely People." The very warmth of his
letters resonates with the revelation, established early on, of the importance
of skin color in these (and other, middle-class African American) families.
DESPITE their privileges, the Morgan and Lawrence families
knew the deeply human emotions of anger and envy, often organized around
the theme of skin color, which black biography generally sets out of bounds.
Not here. With honesty and courage, Lightfoot relates what every black
American knows, lives with, and yet hopes that white people somehow do
not suspect -- that light skin is prized and dark skin is despised by
black people and that this distorts black women's self-image. Lightfoot
speaks openly of the anger and even madness that stem from racial dynamics
manifested within families and from plain human cruelties from which black
people, by dint of being oppressed, are not immune.
Perhaps Lawrence's psychoanalytic training encouraged the
openness that illuminates this treasure of a book, but I suspect it is
more than that. Both mother and daughter exhibit unusual ego-strength
(to use Lawrence's term) that exceeds the brittle confidence of worldly
success alone. Their self-esteem seems to be grounded in loving families;
indeed Lightfoot mentions early on her gratitude for being allowed simultaneously
to play the roles of daughter, inquirer and narrator. Lightfoot knows
exactly what makes this document so compelling: as author she beautifully
integrates contradictory strengths. Combining the passion of a family
member with the skepticism of a social scientist, she raises the standard
of authenticity in African-American biography.
Copyright Nell Irvin Painter
:: Nell Irvin Painter is the author of "The Narrative of Hosea Hudson:
His Life as a Negro Communist in the South.
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