Stories of black family life, without cliches





Edited by Mary Helen



$24.95. 416 pages.

I have an embarrassing confession: For a few years now, have been boycotting certain black female writers. For the most part, I have found a couple of them, particularly Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, too dense, depressing and anti-male. Frankly, the black people they wrote about simply don't resemble any black person I know. But I admit that I probably am avoiding the unpleasant realities about life and relationships that these writers expose.

And I know I am deliberately rejecting some of the most creative, talented and thoughtful perspectives on black people.

Thus the intriguing "Memory of Kin: Stories About Family by Black Writers" -- edited by Mary Helen Washington, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, College Park -- arrives at just the right time to get me back on track.

Come to think of it, considering the continuing debate about American families today, it is curious that there have not been more collections of stories about the black family.

Ms. Washington has assembled stories and poetry by familiar writers -- James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, former Maryland poet laureate Lucille Clifton -- and the not as familiar -- Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove, Alexis De Veaux and William Melvin Kelley.

She groups the stories and poetry by familial relationship -- mothers and daughters, grandmothers, aunts, brothers, the extended family. Then she gives a brief biography/commentary on most writers and an analysis of their stories.

What I most like about the collection is Ms. Washington's effort to challenge the reader: "I wanted to make it difficult for myself as well as other readers to fall back on conventional notions of family, especially of the black family. I wanted readers to question and to discard sentimental cliches about the family as a unit of supreme unselfishness and total support, a rock and a shelter on which we can always depend in hard times."

Here she succeeds, with Ms. De Veaux's "Adventures of the Dread Sisters," about a woman who has created her own idea of family. In "Aunt Carrie," a woman reflects on her incestuous relationship with her married brother, years later, to her niece -- her brother's daughter. The families in this collection are complex and human -- no long-suffering earth-mother grandmothers or welfare mommas of 15 here.

I especially enjoyed Ms. Bambara's amusing "Gorilla, My Love," about a young girl and her uncle, and "The Circling Hand," by Jamaica Kincaid, about the painful separation between a daughter and mother.

Ms. Washington's commentaries reveal the writers' background along with analysis of their stories. The biographies give a perspective on the writer that in turn give the stories a more personal perspective. It helps to know that Paule Marshall ("To Da-duh, In Memoriam") was a second-generation Barbadian-American, and that she writes mostly about West Indian immigrants in America, or that Andrea Lee ("Mother" and "New African") had an upper-middle-class upbringing.

Other commentaries effectively include additional writing about family issues in literature, especially mother-daughter relationships. Some analyses are weak -- they are simple repetitions of the story line, or are too brief to answer the desire for more explanation that the stories provoke.

Yet in all of the stories, I sense an underlying sadness, futility and powerlessness that I cannot explain. Is it that in writing about black American families, there is the shadow of racism and oppression, even if the stories have no white characters?

Thus "Memory of Kin," even at 416 pages, is more a requisite starting point for one interested in a comprehensive perspective on family.

Ms. Berry is a copy editor for The Evening Sun.

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