Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood.
Near the end of this slender, moving memoir, Gerald Early engages the central themes of American male literature. Reflecting on Richard Wright's The Outsider as an expression of the defining male desire to escape from social "bonds" (understood as spiritual restriction), Early writes: "But it was in the very `restrictions of marriage' and of family life that I had gained the greatest sense of freedom and the highest form of liberation. For it was through being bound to others that I found that I could lose myself, escape the entrapment of solipsism, cease the restless search for that fulfillment of myself simply through acts of absorption." Especially because it grows out of a detailed, and sometimes painfully honest, picture of the daily struggles of trying to make family something other than an abstraction, this moment adds something new to our developing understanding of the complicated synergy of race, class, and gender.
To some extent, Early's insight simply reiterates perceptions familiar to anyone who has been even minimally aware of black womanist writers such as Katie Cannon, Rose Brewer, bell hooks, or Audre Lorde. Still, each of these writers would appreciate the value of Early's engagement with what being a father means to a middle-class black male intellectual. Each of the terms is important to the feel of Early's conclusion. Some of the very best passages in Daughters reach deep into the African- American cultural tradition in a manner reminiscent of James Baldwin. Early's thoughts on the blues, for example, respond intricately to the calls of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray: "Perhaps I love them because the attitude toward life expressed in blues records--that everyone has troubles but they can be endured, that happiness is not lasting, so don't be fooled by your good times--is truly the essence of `blackness.' Blues do not promise that people will not be unhappy, but that unhappiness can be transcended, not by faith in God, but by faith in one's own ability to accept unhappiness without ever conceding oneself to it."
Perhaps because I share Early's experience as a father of two daughters negotiating a complicated interracial terrain within academia, the core of Daughters seems to me to involve gender. In many ways, the book is about learning to be male in a female household, learning to respond to voices and energies that were of little concern to Frederick Douglass, Melville, Faulkner, or Wright. There have been very few models for men concerned with the issues Early raises. One of the strengths of Daughters is that Early understands clearly that becoming a father is an ongoing process, as much a part of the creation of a meaningful American identity as going to the territories to kill spiritually resonant large animals.
My only quibble has less to do with the work itself than a developing publishing culture that markets what amount to long essays by black public intellectuals as separate commodities. Like Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates's The Future of the Race, Daughters is more long essay than fully developed book. The fact that it is a wonderful essay compensates for much. But the fact that Early has published so many books in such a short period of time makes it likely that the less important work (for example, his disappointing One Nation Under a Groove) will receive as much attention as the work that deserves lasting attention.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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