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Finding a groove // Issues of black authenticity


By Terry McMillan

Viking, $23.95


By David Haynes

Milweek, $21.95

Reviewed by Todd Kliman

We have arrived at a pivotal moment in black American life, perhaps as important as the days of boycotts and demonstrations in the early 1960s. Quietly yet steadily, a black middle class has grown and solidified, and with it, the notion that race is but one of the problems facing the individual in a complex, fluid society. At the same time, there are more poor blacks than ever. And this widening chasm between haves and have-nots has raised a crucial question: integration, but at what cost?

What was once a largely unified fight for equality is evolving into a complex war of words on the meaning of black authenticity. To blacks who have been raised with whites and exposed to opportunities unthinkable even a generation earlier _ those who have "escaped," as David Haynes' protagonist Brandon Wilson puts it _ identity is ambiguous. These men and women occupy a curious, precarious place in the culture. They are neither/nor: too "white" to satisfy all blacks, too "black" to meet the expectations of all whites. For them W. E. B. DuBois' notion of the double bind _ you are a black, you are an American _ is both ironic and absurd.

Two new novels speak to this burden of middle class blacks in the post-Civil Rights era. One addresses the issue indirectly, the other directly, a difference that may tell us as much about the complexity of thought and feeling of these "escapees" as any sociological study.

Terry McMillan bears the burden lightly. Hers is a deliberate defiance certain to draw attention, though it does little to advance her art. Her heroine in How Stella Got Her Groove Back is aware of the past _ as much as she is aware of anything _ but she is determined not to let that define her.

Indeed, the novel is all but a paean to the present. Its pages are littered with references to brand names and pop stars. Stella is just the sort of self-made woman that women's magazines are forever pushing on their readers. She holds two master's. She works as a financial analyst. She drives a BMW. She wants more "quality time" with her son. She speaks of the importance of "closure." When she wants to show her affection for the new man in her life, the impossibly named Winston Shakespeare, she whips out her plastic and indulges in an orgy of buying that astonishes the young Jamaican. As for the life she leads and the choices she makes, she is happily unapologetic.

If she is troubled by anything, it's that there is no man in her life to make it complete. Cosmo girl, c'est moi.

All this is delivered in a style that can best be described as breathless. Stella doesn't reflect, she records. For all their length, her sentences never address the absurdity of her circumstance. By choosing to let Stella tell her story in the present tense, McMillan has not only emphasizes the importance of the present; she has said "no, thank you" to the past. McMillan's prose isn't merely sunny; it's ahistorical.

By contrast, Haynes' novel is laid squarely on the matrix of history. Live at Five is all about the difficulty of reconciling past and present. Haynes juxtaposes the stories of Nita Sallis, a single mother who works at a department store in Minneapolis and takes classes at the local college at night and struggles to raise her three kids, and Brandon Wilson, an ambitious anchorman whose station is routinely trounced in the ratings.

Nita and Brandon represent the binary of contemporary black life: poor versus upwardly mobile; dark-skinned versus light-skinned; past versus present/future. The alternating chapters and alternating voices suggest an uneasy alliance.

It's May sweeps, and the new, slick-talking white station manager at KCKK offers his mannered anchor an ultimatum: invent the past he never had in order to connect with viewers who desperately want to relate to his "up from the bootstrap" mythology, or get canned. And so Brandon, who attended the best schools and lived his life without worry in predominantly white neighborhoods, moves into the ghetto and begins broadcasting each weeknight for a month from the apartment building where Nita lives.

Though ostensibly Live at Five is a novel about Nita and Brandon _ Haynes gives them equal time _ it is Brandon's story because he is the one who makes the journey. It is Brandon who must descend into the underworld _ downward mobility, as one of the chapter titles has it. It is Brandon who must move beyond his limited view of life in order to learn what it means to be black.

Wisely, Haynes resists easy answers in having his protagonist undergo too broad a change. The glib and privileged anchor "grows" but only moderately. What Brandon learns is that blackness is an abstraction.

During the novel's rich thematic climax, Nita tells Brandon, "I got news for you, Mr. Wilson. You is us." Brandon's response is a brilliant summation of the absurd, existential condition of the post-civil rights middle class black, who uneasily straddles past and present: "I am, and I am not. For some folks, yeah _ your basic redneck sees one n__- the same as another. But to a lot of folks, black and white, because I got out, I'm different. I am something else."

As to what the something else might be, Brandon confesses, "I don't know."

The past, Haynes knows, is important, is useful. The present is nothing without it. But to a generation raised in mixed neighborhoods and schools and playing by a book whose rules are still being written, it is at best an incomplete road map.

Todd Kliman is a writer who lives in Takoma Park, Md.