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A black 'Company Man' writes of life in white corporate world


Ascene from the life of a black corporate employee:

He's the only person of his race at a marketing meeting. A white person he doesn't know well comes up, slaps him on the back, and says, "Hey, I bet you play basketball, don't you?"

Does he get offended by the stereotype and tell the guy off? Ignore him? Make a joke? What's more important -- defending one's dignity or not wanting to make an already touchy situation even more uncomfortable?

For Brent Wade, such an incident did happen. And for him, he says, it was just another day at the office.

His response?

"I said, 'Well, no, but I sure do love chicken and watermelon,' " Mr. Wade says now in a genial way, with just the right timing for a good story. Then he gets serious: "The guy got really embarrassed, and some people laughed and some people were really angry that I said it. But you have to deal with it.

"Anyway, black people are survivors, because there is a sense from the time you're 3 years old and go out into the world, you are different."

The dilemma of being "different" and black in a mostly white corporate world is a theme Mr. Wade explores in his first novel, "Company Man," newly published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Set mostly in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County -- he was born in Glen Burnie and still lives there -- "Company Man" is a sharply drawn and moving portrayal of Billy Covington, a successful black executive who finds that as he rises in the corporation he becomes less sure of who he is and where he fits in -- ultimately, he attempts suicide and becomes estranged from his "perfect corporate wife."

Early in the book, Billy says:

I became the one black man every white executive made sure they knew. Because you see, my name could be dropped. Knowing me was in a way a measure of one's fairness and open mind. A black employee who might have expressed concern about the lack of blacks in management would be told, "Well, Bill Covington seems to be doing okay. I see him pulling up here in a Jaguar every morning." I was like the black model who turns up in advertisements among a smiling group of whites, usually near the back in print ads, usually without a speaking part in television ads, but functioning in both as a symbol of some elusive mythical state of grace.

Early notices for "Company Man" have been favorable: "Brent Wade tells necessary truths," wrote the reviewer in Kirkus Reviews. Algonquin, a small but highly respected publisher, has shown its support with a first printing of 13,000 and a 10-city publicity tour.

"It seems that people respond very strongly to it," says Robert Rubin, Mr. Wade's editor at Algonquin. "We think it's the first novel written in the '80s and '90s dealing with the black corporate experience. With all the interest in the black middle class and black upper middle class, it's a very timely novel."

For the 32-year-old sales manager for AT&T; Advanced Technologies in Columbia, who worked on the novel nights and weekends for 4 1/2 years, it's a welcome realization of a long-held dream to be a writer.

Over lunch at a downtown Baltimore restaurant, he grows animated as he discusses the genesis of "Company Man" and its themes. His conversation is far-ranging: He moves easily from warm ruminations on growing up in what was then rural Glen Burnie ("we had neighbors who would raise and sell us chickens") to discoursing seriously on Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French observer of America, who predicted that the descendants of slaves would never be equals to whites in this country.

As a "company man" for Westinghouse fresh from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1981, Mr. Wade found the corporate life for a black man was "like being sent to another country to live and you realize it's really different. It was an experience that maybe my son -- if he chose to do it, and I hope he doesn't -- might be better prepared for it than I was. I didn't have a background, a relative or something, who had worked in corporate life.

He has had mostly positive experiences about working for corporations, he says, but the isolation of the black corporate executive is present even in the best of situations. And while he conceded that many readers likely will assume that the Billy Covington character is autobiographical, he cautions that this is not the case.

He has been interested in writing ever since he was a child, and even received some nice rejection letters from the New Yorker when he submitted a couple of short stories while at the University of Maryland. But a full-time day job and raising a son -- Wesley now is 9 and a second child is due in April -- has meant he could write only in intermittent stretches. Still, he persevered.

"I would write in the evenings from 9 or 10 till about 1," Mr. Wade says, rolling his eyes at the thought, "and would stay up all night Fridays. I hate coffee, but I would drink that stuff to stay awake. "Then I would sleep a couple of hours Saturday and go back to writing Saturday night.

Mr. Wade showed the finished product to a few people, including Charles Carroll Mish, an English professor at the University of Maryland with whom he had stayed in touch after taking one of his courses. "He was interested, he paid attention, he asked good questions, he understood things," says Dr. Mish, now retired. "I think he writes beautifully."

On the advice of a business acquaintance who had been in publishing, Mr. Wade then drew up a list of five small publishing houses that would be receptive to a first-time novelist without an agent. He sent the manuscript off in mid-1990 and waited.

The result was one that many neophyte authors long for but seldom get. "One night, I was feeling particularly beat at work. It was one of those epiphanies: 'I gotta get out of here, I'm dying on the vine,' " Mr. Wade says with a grin. "When I got home, there was a Federal Express package from Algonquin Press.

"At first, I was really depressed. But then I thought, 'Wait a minute -- why would they Federal Express a rejection back?' It was a real long letter about how much they liked the manuscript."

" 'Company Man' was a very strong manuscript," says Mr. Rubin, who estimated that Algonquin receives more than 1,000 manuscripts annually. "There were a few structural problems and a few things that were a little formulaic, which we worked on. But at the heart of it was this very strong voice and dramatic situation that provided the motor that drove it."

Mr. Wade says "Company Man" addresses "a lot of things that black people think about, but don't really articulate. Like the whole issue of black identity -- what being black means. Is it self-esteem, something that you carry around with you? Is it changing your name? It's much more complicated, and every black person has a sense of the complexity.

". . . You can't say that your skin or appearance has no value, which is what people used to say in the '70s -- that you could be color-blind. No black person that I knew ever took that seriously. Being black often meant something negative in America, but it always means something."

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