Sparing the Commentary Would Not Have Spoiled The Children’s Stories
In 1971, soul singer Marvin Gaye produced “What’s Going On,” one of the first concept albums to be released. Gaye sang about Vietnam, racism and the ecology. One song on the album that has had an endless life span is “Save the Children,” with its haunting lyrics:
When I look at the world
It fills me with sorrow
Little children today
Are gonna suffer tomorrow
Oh what a shame, such a bad way to live
How often have we heard African American leaders and organizations talk about the need to save our children? We have done this to the extent of almost jumping overboard with our agenda. Forgotten is the reality that if we are talking about changing our condition today and not tomorrow, then the responsibility rests with adults, not children.
Souls Looking Back is a light meat combo of scholarly comments and autobiographical essays by 16 young people. This book made me feel like a movie patron sitting in front of someone who knows the plot of the film and keeps whispering about it in the dark. It would be a better book without the academic commentary. The jargon here is nothing but a curfew. The stories by some of the contributors should be permitted to sit on their own front stoop without concern or explanation.
The purpose of this book is to deepen the understanding of how social environments influence and shape the individual. It’s an outgrowth of a project that took five years and consisted of students who had studied at Dartmouth College, Simmons College and McGill University in Montreal.
The key premise behind the project was the belief in the importance of telling a story about one’s life. This is perhaps being overdone today. The memoir takes the form of a genre that everyone seems to be using right now, something defined as creative nonfiction. It’s like a jailbreak, and too often, writers seem to be wearing the same color clothes or saying almost the same thing. I felt I already knew some of the contributors. Liz, Susanna, Steve, Scott, Chantal, Viola, Denise and the others were baring their souls, but I already knew what their bodies looked like.
Souls Looking Back unfortunately turns some good personal essays into case studies. What we have is a type of person and not an individual.
The book is divided into three thematic sections — class and race in negotiating identity; identity and intersections; and resilience and resistance.
The editors are looking at identity formation among youth. They also want to examine issues of race and class. Special attention is given to youth who are biracial or mixed race. The young people in this book are trying hard to discard labels and overcome obstacles. A few find role models and heroes outside the National Basketball Association.
The pain recorded in this book is deep, and the salvation that is reached is very inspiring. In fact the book is a testament of how a few children can beat the odds.
Take Susanna, for example. She is the biracial child of a Swiss mother and an African American father who obtained a divorce when she was a baby. In her essay “Becoming Comfortable in My Skin,” Susanna makes the following opening comments: “I’m tired of explaining. I often wonder why more Black people haven’t gone into international relations; we have more practice at diplomacy than anyone. Our relationships with Whites require such constant diplomacy that we should get diplomatic immunity from the U.S. government.”
This type of freshness and insight can stand on its own. Susanna, like others in this collection, speaks with a truth and honesty that is often characteristic of the Black narrative. Now consider this remark by editor Tracy L. Robinson:
“Although the self is comprised of multiple, shifting, and simultaneous identities, a dominating identity represents a facet of the self that is most influential in self-definition. This identity can overshadow others and is influenced by the status of that identity, by reference group affiliations and identity development.”
Hmmm…. Makes me want to holler and throw up both my hands. Can we save our children with this? My soul looks back and wonders.
— Dr. E. Ethelbert Miller is a poet and the director of Howard University’s
African American Resource Center
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