New memoir explores middle-class blackness in the post-civil rights era

Tracy K. Smith (Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

ss04242015p06pha.jpgORDINARY LIGHT: A MEMOIR
By Tracy K. Smith
Published by Knopf, $25.95

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith's memoir, Ordinary Light, is what a reader who was an avid fan of "The Cosby Show" might expect to find if Rudy Huxtable grew up to be an astoundingly good writer and published a memoir. In fact, Smith recalls that to describe her family to other peers who had never met them before, her friends would say, "They're just like the Huxtables."

Absent the hardships and complications that often characterize the memoir genre -- poverty, inner-city life, drug addiction, interpersonal violence, depression, closeted homosexuality, physical and sexual abuse, hypercompetitive stage parents pushing their children to early fame in sports or entertainment -- Smith's narrative has the potential to be boring. Much of the narrator's life is lived internally, reflecting the pensive nature of a precocious child and a budding writer. She observes, with nuance and detail, a family's rudimentary existence and her own identity as a daughter committed to obedience but longing to know and explore her own desires.

I wager every reader will witness the prologue with the richness and weight contained in its title, "The Miracle," but readers who prefer a harrowing tale of hardscrabble survival may not make it past Chapter 1. By putting down Ordinary Light unfinished, they will miss an extraordinary exploration of middle-class blackness in the post-civil-rights era.

Born in 1972, four years after the conclusion of what historians call the "heroic period" of the civil rights movement and somewhere in the middle of the movement's shift to black power, the narrator experiences all the advantages that parents who escaped the segregated South could have imagined for their offspring: a suburban home in Northern California, gifted programs in schools, ballet and music lessons, graduation from Ivy League institutions.

Nonetheless, a father who serves in the Air Force and a mother who works at making the house a home cannot spare Tracy from the silent awkwardness, isolation and sometimes agony of being black in a society integrated by law instead of by choice.

Though her parents didn't demonstrate a desire "to live to the extent possible within a bubble of race pride and consciousness" by giving their children Swahili names, Tracy and her siblings grow up well aware of and secure in their blackness, as is evident when a white classmate asks an elementary-school-aged Tracy if she wishes she were white.

The narrator, however, is haunted by her race's nearly silent history. While her parents barely speak of them, the specters of slavery and Jim Crow linger over young Tracy, just as they hover over the country, sparking senses of fear, injustice and affinity within her.

She hears her parents acknowledge that same connectedness with other African-Americans in moments of "code-switching." The patterns and intonations of her parents' speech change when they are among black friends and extended family, and Smith's writing brings a lyrical quality to these instances.

Tracy learns to articulate her feelings years later, when she encounters W.E.B. Du Bois' writing on "double consciousness." Rather than affix a sociologist's theory to her experiences, Smith writes her thoughts about them. She expresses how she feels when children are mean to her on purpose or ignorant without meaning to be.

Most of her peers are presumptuous, expecting her to be different from who she is. In her elementary and junior high school years, Tracy and at least one of her four siblings have a few altercations with other African-American kids who were raised with a different concept of blackness. (If they write memoirs, theirs may be about poverty and inner-city life.)

Yet Smith doesn't regard their behavior, speech or mannerisms with disdain or judgment. She exhibits an admirable level of empathy with them, not on the basis of skin color, but by understanding the threat that her behavior, speech or mannerisms might constitute to them. With this memoir, Smith says that her life, too, is an equally authentic portrait of blackness in America.

Smith's black experience is different from the traditional narrative in one other notable way: religiously. Although Tracy's childhood exemplifies a line found in many obituaries for deceased African-Americans of a certain age -- she is born to Christian parents and gives her life to Christ at an early age -- black church life doesn't dominate her story. Her religious views take shape within the family unit, through her mother's gentle teaching, siblings' exemplary behavior, and father's peaceful position between belief in God and science.

The absence of memories of a preacher's words, however, makes Christianity no less foundational to the narrator's life. As she explains, "My day-to-day life wasn't completely saturated with the ceremony of religion, but belief in God was a kind of bedrock; He was under our feet and in our hearts, always quietly present."

Tracy's questions about God and religion are always quietly present, too, as is her uneasiness about her belief. She wonders what people think of her mother's proselytizing. "Wasn't it silly to try to scare a person into God's arms? Wasn't God a choice to be arrived at with calm assurance?" she asks herself.

Most of the time, Tracy arrives at such questions amid long, sometimes slow passages that seem tangential but reward readers with beautiful moments of revelation, a style that reflects just how subtle life's moments of impact and transition can be.

Though they follow her into adulthood, like the pain of black history, most of Tracy's doubts about her faith are left unspoken. Smith has not structured her memoir as a collection of scenes and reassembled dialogue interspersed with analysis. She is guilty of telling much more than she shows, a tactic memoir writers allegedly use to protect themselves from the shame of baring all. This is especially true when Smith writes sexual content.

Readers will be challenged to determine for themselves whether Smith withheld some of herself -- her ugliest, most mortifying moments, the kind no one would ever want to see in print -- or whether she, as a poet, used her prose economically and simply gave readers what was necessary, using language no one could call ordinary.

[Mariam Williams writes the online column "At the Intersection" for NCR.]

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