Portrait of a Black Artist
Pinckney's 'novel' describes growing up in an era of mixed signals
THE name Darryl Pinckney may well be familiar to readers of Harper's, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, Granta, The New York Review of Books, The Village Voice, and other prominent journals that have featured his reviews and personal reflections on the topics of race, gender, and cultural identity. "High Cotton" is his first book. It is billed as a novel, but seems more like a collection of autobiographical essays.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Calling a book a novel may be a way of allowing the author freedom to modify the autobiographical material he is using, but, unfortunately, it does not auto- matically transform a disjunctive series of hasty, impressionistic reminiscences into an organic and shapely whole.
The 12 chapters tracing the boyhood and youth of the unnamed narrator (there seems no reason not to refer to him as Pinckney) can be taken as a sort of "portrait of the artist" and also as an implicit discussion of the meaning of being black.
But, despite the intelligence and (one suspects) the originality of thought at work, the result is something of a missed opportunity, providing neither a cohesive discussion of blackness nor a clear picture of an individual sensibility.
It's a promising subject: the story of growing up amid a plethora of mixed signals and coming of age in an era fraught with changes and conflicting messages.
The narrator (like Pinckney) hails from Indianapolis. He's raised in the family tradition of "Negro Firsterism" - which is not the black equivalent of American isolationism, but rather the pride taken in being the first Negro to achieve a new distinction or penetrate a new barrier, whether it's being the first to graduate from Harvard or the first to move into a previously whites-only neighborhood.
Around the narrator, barriers are falling. The promise of the New Frontier is that his generation will finally have the opportunities previous generations were denied:
"There was nothing to be afraid of as long as we were polite and made good grades. After all, the future, back then, assembled as we were on the glossy edge of the New Frontier, belonged to us, the Also Chosen."
To this child of the future, the South of his grandparents was the "Old Country."
Although "You were not an immigrant" and "there were no foreign accents, weird holidays, or funny foods to live down ... still you did not belong to the great beyond out there; yet though you did not belong it was your duty as the Also Chosen to get up and act as though you belonged, especially when no one wanted you to."
The tension between the brave new world of the future and the legacy of past generations who prayed and fought for that future is encapsulated in the young narrator's offish relationship with his grandfather Eustace.
A highly educated minister whose lot in life has been to preach recondite sermons over the uneasy heads of congregations who would have preferred a more fervent, emotional pulpit style, Eustace is a man who never really fits in.