Featured Artwork: “Eclipse” by Billy Kornbluth
* Spoiler Alert: This personal essay contains book reviews of Lorene Cary’s two books Ladysitting and Black Ice.On the long drive from my small town in southeast Pennsylvania, I looked forward to hearing Lorene Cary speak. As an award-winning writer and a leader in Philadelphia’s art and culture scene, she had achieved the status of a local celebrity. I was there to witness her reception of yet another award for her contribution to the arts, and hopefully to invite her to be a speaker at that year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference.
Entering the venue of the gala event, a popular bar and restaurant, a surge of exuberance and the urban mix of cultures lifted my mood. Out in my neck of the woods, only hair and clothes varied in color. Skin was consistently white.
While the buzz of background conversations respectfully softened during her speech, I still felt the electric hum of an energetic community. A writer had brought these people together! This sense of togetherness and respect for the arts was exactly why I’d thrown myself into the Philly writing community in the first place.
But my encounter with Lorene Cary held a couple of loose ends. It turned out she had a scheduling conflict and would not be able to speak at the conference that year. Secondly, despite my interest in her work, I realized I’d never gotten around to reading Cary’s memoir, Black Ice, about her experience as a Black teenager who had been selected to attend an elite boarding school in New England. Since I was devouring memoirs regularly, I wasn’t sure why I had not read this one.
The obvious reason was that I wanted to avoid my sense of feeling helpless and ashamed at the way Blacks had been treated in this country. Why had they not benefitted from that bold invitation on the Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired, your hungry, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” That warm welcome had saved my own ancestors from persecution. What kind of tragic twist of human nature had withheld the offer from the very people whose sweat and blood had helped build this country?
When I thought about this deeply unjust status quo, I wanted to cry. So, I had worked out a system of my own uneasy peace, knowing injustice existed but accepting I didn’t know what to do about it.
Once I discovered memoirs, though, I found a way to expose myself more intimately to their plight. Each memoir let me accompany one character on a courageous journey to make sense, not of the whole sorry mess, but of the obstacles these individuals had to face and overcome.
Looking at the big picture was a nightmare from which I couldn’t awake, but looking at each individual author’s thoughts and feelings showed me how one person could find their appropriate place within their own world.
Then in 2020, George Floyd’ s sadistic public murder ripped away the grand illusion of universal empathy at the core of the American Promise and vividly demonstrated the depths to which our society had fallen and, most shockingly perhaps–had always existed. I had to face the hard truth about myself. My privileged vantage point had insulated me from the fact that maintaining empathy requires constant vigilance. I could no longer remain passive. But what could I do?
Since I passionately believed the path to cultural enlightenment would be illuminated by personal stories of hope and effort, my response to George Floyd’s murder was to look for yet another memoir for spiritual and intellectual insight. I knew it wasn’t a widely-recognized form of social activism, but it reflected my trust in the power of wisdom to clarify our human experience.
I didn’t have to look far for my next book. Black Ice sat on my shelf just where I’d left it. What was it about this smart author that still intimidated me? Did I unconsciously assume that her writing would make me feel more complicit, guiltier, more ashamed of the racial tragedy in America than I already felt? Was my reluctance a symptom of what had been labelled White Fragility? Really? After all I’d been through and believed, was I still too fragile to allow myself to immerse myself in her honest story, and let her show me the world through her eyes? Whatever the reason for my reluctance, I felt I no longer had a choice. I dove in.
Just as the blurb promised, the book let me accompany the author, Lorraine, from her rowhome in Philadelphia to an elite boarding school in New England where she found herself in a spotlight, in the middle of an arena, the whole world staring at her wondering if a Black girl could survive in this white privileged world.
During this period, she had to go through the usual Coming of Age struggles of sex and drugs. And along with those daunting challenges, she had to face another one I’d been shielded from. She had to grapple with race and privilege, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, when American liberalism was attempting to erase 400 years of cruelty by welcoming a few smart Black students into their midst.
In her struggle to adapt to her new role as the Chosen One, she felt the urgent need to study, get good grades, and impress teachers. After a few pages into the book, I began to lose my grip on the present, as I slipped back into the past, alongside her, struggling in classes, and freaking out about tests.
At this point, instead of leading me into an ever-deepening spiral of guilt about my complicity in the horrifically unlevel playing field of US race relations, she took me down an entirely unexpected path, that cut deep into my heart and awakened memories I had not let myself feel for decades: the soul-searing furnace of an academically-pressured high school.
Like her, I too desperately sought my identity in the halls of academia. My situation was not an elite boarding school, surrounded by the scions of society. I was at an all-boys, all-academic public high school in Philadelphia among the sons and grandsons of Jewish immigrants. My classmates and I fixated on success with the desperation of drowning men. So many of us were reaching for that peak that our high school that year had the third-highest number of Merit semi-finalists in the country.
I did well, keeping up with the group of incredibly brilliant boys that fate had called together in those classrooms. And even though every day was a mad struggle to keep up, I didn’t mind. This was my destiny. I would succeed. The dignity of my entire cultural heritage accompanied me into every class. My book bag was so weighted down that the fist with which I gripped it was the tightest muscle in my body.
While my outer world seemed to be going fabulously, my inner world began to run into problems. The first sign that my hopes might have a dark side came from a book I read in my junior year, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. As I did with every book, I entered it with an open heart, but unlike other books, instead of leading to healthy, worthwhile conclusions, this one introduced me to self-doubts.
Salinger trashed the romantic allure of education as a pathway into society. Instead, his novel exposed the whole system as a sham foisted on snarky, hormonal adolescents who were being beaten like hot iron on the anvil of Coming of Age.
Salinger’s miserable spin found a home in my heart, and as I read more literature like it, my doubts grew. While most people know about the upheavals of the sixties related to changes in music, hairstyle, and sexual mores, my life was being upended by the view of life offered in novels.
After Salinger ripped the idealism off the glories of higher learning, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” showed the weird, cruel arbitrary power of the justice system. And Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” used humor to present one of the most disturbing images of my reading life. At the end of Catch 22, one of the most chilling scenes in my lifetime of reading came when the hero heard a desperate man shouting “Help. Police.” – and realized that he wasn’t calling for the police to help him. He was crying out that it was the police who were assailing him!
In my more innocent years, the heroes of stories had given me a sense that things could be made right in my world. But my young adulthood was informed by a more sophisticated way of thinking. In each novel, I was identifying with heroes who felt overwhelmed by the forces of chaos.
At least in real life, all seemed to be going well. My spectacular SAT scores seemed to ensure my safe entry into the best places in life. And if the SAT scores didn’t do it, my placement as a Merit semi-finalist would. Then in one massively humiliating hour in April 1965, opening my mail alone in my living room, I learned I had been rejected by all seven elite schools I’d applied to. What began as a meteoric rise in an elite public high school ended in an equally spectacular crash.
Was it a fluke? A lack of understanding about the complexities of college admission. That darn C I’d gotten in ninth grade English might have been the tipping point. Whatever had caused the humiliation, I scrambled and found a spot at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They would let me in, if I agreed to start in summer school.
Arriving in Wisconsin, a thousand miles from home, ejected from my Jewish bubble, the first things I noticed was the difference in skin tone between the people I’d grown up with and the people who now surrounded me. I’d known that “semites” were a bit darker than Northern Europeans, but had never been awash in the differences before.
At first the only impact of so many northern Europeans was that it made girls seem even more attractive and less accessible than ever. Within weeks of my arrival, though, skin tone took on far more serious implications. In one of my first classes that summer of 1965, a sociology professor played us a recording of Nina Simone singing “Black Freighter” – about a Black cleaning lady who dreamt of murderous revenge for the way she’d been treated.
Shaken by the deep, cold anger of the song, I walked out of my first college class, I saw a group of students holding picket signs. It was my first sighting of a Vietnam War protest. Welcome to the sixties.
Within a couple of years, protests were sweeping through the nation, adding even more confusion to my already difficult attempt to find my identity. Stumbling through this world, so different from everything I had known, I forgot about academic success and latched onto justice as the only thing worth living for.
In October, 1967, we protestors gathered in the university Commerce Building and demanded that the government of the United States stop sending Black men to kill Asians. In response, a mob of club-swinging police broke through the glass front of the building, smashing heads and sending dozens of kids to the hospital. Our cries, “Help. Police,” had leapt off the pages of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and entered into my waking life, proving that the literature of despair was right.
I crashed a second time. First my academic and then my surge toward justice had been swept away. Now, my outer life, the one I was actually living on planet earth, fell in step with the guiding light I’d been shone in my literature of despair. Or more accurately a guiding darkness. Since nothing ever works out anyway, I might as well give up.
It took me many years to find a healthier path to my safe place in society. And one of the obvious requirements was to let all that depressing stuff go. Those long-ago emotions felt like they belonged to some irrelevant chapter of my life. Good riddance. Creepy memories. Gone forever.
However, trying to forget is very different from actually forgetting. And so, I spent decades in talk therapy trying to make sense of the bewildering difference between my original self-concept and the way my life actually played out. When I discovered memoir writing, I spent thousands more hours attempting to patch together a story that made sense. But despite all that work, there was one piece I glossed over until George Floyd’s death and my decision to read Black Ice. The racial piece. I discovered how the American obsession with race had reached deeply into my teenage heart, in a disguise that Lorene Cary and George Floyd helped me unmask.
I didn’t notice the racial insecurities in myself when I was first immersing myself in Lorene Cary’s teenage mind. Then, page by page, the emotions of my high school years came flooding back from their dark scary crypts. I recalled my gut-wrenching effort to convince everyone – my teachers, my classmates, myself – that I was brilliant. When I achieved 90 or higher, I felt safe, like I was riding out the storm. But just a few percentage points lower, and the illusion shimmered, revealing the ghoulish smile of humiliation and failure on the other side.
Despite the disturbing immediacy awakened by Black Ice, I was returning to those experiences armed with the wisdom of my own lifetime. I was lifted by Lorene Cary’s wisdom, as well. From this vantage point, I recognized a critical fact that I’d only known intellectually. The emotional implications of my status as a second-generation immigrant had slipped past me unnoticed. As the grandson of Jewish immigrants, a culture notoriously excluded from inclusion into every society into which it had attempted to enter, I was using my academic ambition in order to escape the terrifying gravitational pull of being seen as “the other.”
Before reading Black Ice, my position as an outsider in a Christian land had always been a historical curiosity, something that might have been important to my grandparents. Since I’d been born here, I’d assumed I’d inherited a piece of the American pie as part of my birthright.
But when I remembered my desperation in those classrooms, juxtaposed with Lorene Cary’s journey as a Black girl in a white school, my family’s immigrant status was no longer just some interesting side issue. It had been there all along, blazing in that hidden place in my heart which drives all teenagers crazy to find their place in society.
As if the brazen public murder of George Floyd tore away some last vestige of illusion, I had to face the inevitable insight, hidden in plain view; that color and racism have always been there, attempting to reduce the legitimacy of darker or other skinned people from the promise of the American Dream. Through that lens, I look back on my own early desperation and realize I was trying to rise above those fears of being the Other, into some mythical safe place where I could be accepted as “one of them.”
When I failed to achieve that fantasy position as an accepted member of the “elite” I was plunged into shame and humiliation as if I’d been expelled forever from the club I needed to join.
In my teenage mind, it all made sense. But after recovery, I’d done a pretty good job erasing that desperation from my memory. Looking back through my own and Lorene Cary’s eyes, I recognize that while I’d been consciously told that it’s okay to be any color, the exaggerated glory of white skin had burned its way into my unconscious. In my “mythical” mind, I’d formed the notion that you could only be a true American if you were either blonde or graduated from an Ivy League school. My genes had excluded me from the first criterion, and a bunch of admissions boards had excluded me from the second.
By the time I read Black Ice, all of those torments were ancient memories. A teenage mind. A terrifying fall into self-doubt and shame. The disturbing conclusion that all was lost. Immersing myself in Lorene Cary’s memories fifty years later had, through the magic of story reading, sent my mind back into the middle of that mental turmoil. Which explains why I avoided the book for so long. I thought I was avoiding guilt about the tragedy of unjust race relationships. Instead, I was trying not to awaken my high school fears that I wasn’t good enough.
Now that those feelings had been awakened and I’d allowed myself to go deep into the psychological stew that had primed me for the chaos of the sixties, it was time to reflect on the tremendously healing opportunity that had been offered to me by Lorene Cary’s participation in the Memoir Revolution.
While I had been torn down by the literature of despair in the sixties, Lorene Cary’s story had been written in the hopeful framework of the memoir genre. In this format, I could reframe the painful struggle of growing into one’s place in society. Instead of being forced to meet some mythical, fictional ideal of success, through her voice, in this hopeful genre, I could see it as a deeply felt, authentic quest for personal dignity.
The hero of Black Ice refused to be defeated by the downbeat swirls of self-involvement that crashed in on her adolescent mind. Instead of giving up, the way I and the dystopian anti-heroes of my youth had done, she was able to take advantage of this educational onramp into society. By joining her on her journey, I experienced the positive surge of the young person’s ambition and felt the thrill of climbing higher.
While the anti-heroes of my younger years stole my hope, Black Ice and the literature of the Memoir Revolution restores the hero to her rightful place, as someone who faces obstacles, overcomes them, and grows.
Better late than never. Even though I didn’t embrace hope when I was growing up, I am grateful for it now, as I grow older, and read the disturbing, sometimes even dystopian headlines that appear in the news. Just as I hitched my wagon to the sinking feeling of despairing literature back then, I can hitch it to the uplifting, life-affirming literature of today’s memoirs in which each individual finds their higher truths.
This new surge of hopefulness is coming at a perfect time. Because not only has George Floyd’s murder stirred up a wave of introspection and discussion about what inclusion into the American Dream really means. It is also happening at a time when I have yet another reason to worry about my place in society. These messages of human dignity grow more important each day, as an increasing proportion of my identity slips into the past.
Lorene Cary taught me so much about myself and my place in the world, I didn’t want it to end. So I looked for another memoir by her and found Ladysitting. In it, she tells the story of caring for her aging grandmother. Memoirs about aging are important in my reading life, since I’m growing old myself, and know many people who are inexorably heading in that direction, as well. So, it was easy to jump in.
Ladysitting turned out to be a timeless story about the indignity of aging and a caregiver’s superhuman attempt to support that dignity as long as possible. Ladysitting is a good preparation for anyone who has an aging parent, or is an aging parent, or might someday become one. The end of life is the great shame, the great falling apart, and to share Lorene’s attempt to maintain her own demanding schedule, while patching together her grandmother’s sense of self is heartwarming, life-affirming, and deep.
Reading Lorene Cary’s two books alerted me to a far deeper, all-encompassing message about the human condition. Our shared struggle isn’t just about race, or about equality. Those are subsets of a larger and more universal desire. We are all struggling to find our dignity.
In Black Ice, Lorene Cary found her dignity in the long hard slog of growing up. In Ladysitting, she did everything in her power to protect her ancient grandmother from the ravages of time. By showing how the main character, the “hero” fought for dignity, her own and the people around her, these memoirs offer an important antidote to the dark grip of hopelessness that fights for our attention.
Memoirs provide beacons of light that illuminate the path that leads to what Martin Luther King called the “high ground.” Away from humiliation, of one group putting another down, and towards individuals trying to rise up in self and mutual dignity.
These two books and the hundreds of other memoirs on my bookshelf highlight the real issue of human desire. We all want dignity, that quality of self-respect within our own minds and our own communities. Writing a memoir chronicles our search for that dignity within ourselves. And reading memoirs allows us to experience a similar respect for the people around us.
Humans have been driven by their stories since the beginning of recorded history. Now in the 21st century, thanks to the arrival of the modern memoir, we repurposed this notion of a hero on a quest for a higher truth, Instead of fictional heroes, we are seeing ourselves in those roles.
I believe through the power of our own individual stories, we will discover that our hope for ourselves, for our society, for each other, lies in these stories of our search for dignity. Each time I read such an account, I feel closer to a view of the world filled with kindness and compassion, the one that makes me and all of us, truly human.