Nell Irvin Painter


"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
Merloyd Lawrence/Addison-Wesley
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.

:: Nell Irvin Painter is the author of "The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South.

Copyright Nell Irvin Painter

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