Ebony and ivory

A symphony of American race relations in the notes of a single biracial family

The best black novel to appear in America since "Beloved" has just been written by a white man. (Or at least so says this honky critic.) With "The Time of Our Singing," Richard Powers has fulfilled Martin Luther King's dream of a nation in which authors "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their" books. Or he's added another chapter to the nightmare of black experience in which everything of value - including their themes, their struggles, and their history - is appropriated by whites.

What an awkward moment for this panoramic novel about 20th-century race relations to come to dinner. The Bush administration has been busy trumpeting diversity on college campuses, while condemning affirmative action in admissions, which is something like hoping for a lush garden while sowing only marigolds. Meanwhile, a new study from Harvard claims that America's public schools are now more racially segregated than they've been for 30 years. From some angles, King's dream is looking more and more like a fantasy.

But Powers is looking more and more like a genius. At the center of his enormous new novel is an unlikely romance that develops during Marian Anderson's historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Among the 75,000 people assembled to hear the celebrated contralto, Powers creates Delia Daley, the daughter of a black doctor, and David Strom, a German physicist who's just escaped the rising flames of anti-Semitism that will eventually consume his entire family.

Delia, frustrated by the limits placed on her own career as a black singer, has come to hear a woman who's shattered every bigoted restriction. David, determined to abandon the racial classifications that are incinerating his people, has come to hear a beautiful voice.

In a moment forbidden by custom and outlawed in most of the States, they fall in love. The slights and slurs they endure together are far sharper than anything they've experienced separately, but they're convinced that family can drown out the bass line of racism that runs through their lives. Under the skeptical but nervously supportive eye of Delia's parents, they marry and begin raising precocious musicians of their own.

With nothing to guide them but a determination to jump into a colorblind future, David and Delia try to create a symphonic world that renders race irrelevant. Their middle child, Joseph, narrates the novel in a relentless attempt to understand their strange idealistic home and all its temporary "high-wire joy." "My parents both went to their graves," he writes, "swearing that any two melodies could fit together, given the right twists of tempo and turns of key."

Those efforts culminate in the talent of their eldest child, Jonah, a light-skinned prodigy whose "voice was so pure, it could make heads of state repent." Powers's technical command of music theory is extraordinary, but it never overshadows his ability to convey Jonah's transcending thrill when making beautiful sound - or Joseph's excitement at hearing it.

For many years, Joseph serves as his brother's faithful accompanist and our patient witness to a nation torn between its prejudices and its ideals. Following a structure that reflects his father's study of the spiral nature of time, Joseph moves around the decades, spinning his brother's peculiar progress through the racial conflicts of American history, from the lynching of Emmett Till to the Rodney King riots.

In retrospect, he's embarrassed that the national chaos remained so safely in the periphery of their lives: "Nine kids thread through the 101st Airborne paratroopers, just to go learn about Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis, while we sashayed in the front door of our conservatory to learn about sonata-allegro form." With the release of each album from Jonah, another American city goes up in flames; every laudatory review of the great new "negro" singer runs alongside a story of some ghastly murder. "Revolutions sprung up everywhere," Joseph admits, "except inside my brother and me."

Delia's dream of raising her children "beyond color" seems doomed to fulfill her father's angry appraisal: "You know what beyond color means?" he asks. "We're already there. Beyond color means hide the black man. Wipe him out. Means everybody play the one annihilating game white's been playing since [the beginning]." Decades later, Joseph's sister will realize with deep bitterness that "only white men have the luxury of ignoring race."

As his brother's career rises, Joseph grows increasingly perplexed about their ambiguous status in a culture determined to categorize everyone and keep the bloodlines pure. Trained on the classical sounds of Europe, the two young men struggle to ignore the suspicion that they're merely sophisticated minstrel singers in "the white culture game," quelling the fears of masters who need to see black men domesticated by civilized music. "We're a moving violation of everything in their creed," Joseph observes. "But out here in classically trained public, they keep that major-key smile." The two brothers never escape the baffled question posed by one of their Southern fans: "What exactly are you boys?"

Powers's previous novels have prepared us for this story's clever integration with theoretical physics and musical technique, but nothing in his oeuvre suggested that he could sustain such a complex network of characters, sweep across so broad a historical framework, or convey the experience of performing so beautifully. There isn't a false note or a slow passage in his entire blending of family and national experience. With this daring act of literary miscegenation, Powers has orchestrated a cast of characters rich enough to pose the most forbidden questions about race but sensitive enough to capture the most intimate struggle for identity. "The Time of Our Singing" provokes us all to consider how we're passing - as whites or innocents or martyrs in the greatest social experiment ever.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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