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Woodholme: A Black Man's Story of Growing up Alone.

Dewayne Wickham. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995, 285 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by

Roland L. Williams, Jr. Temple University

A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people. (Frederick Douglass)

Syndicated columnist and Baltimore native Dewayne Wickham has written a wonderful book. Entitled Woodholme: A Black Man's Story of Growing up Alone, it represents a novel version of a venerable story. African Americans have been quick to tell such a tale. They have done it for better than two long centuries. Some of their most distinguished authors have committed variations to paper. Among the works, Woodholme ranks near the top. True to type, thematically, it suggests, the world is a restless sphere like a big sea where peace flows from finding a way to sustain yourself with the agility of a seasoned swimmer.

In effect, Woodholme is an autobiography. Laced with several layers of meaning, the narrative opens in 1960 with Wickham, just fourteen, working his way up a narrow, winding path to a hilltop country club. By turns, the violent death of his parents, six years earlier, has scattered his three brothers and two sisters, stifled his interest in education, and sent him to the resort. From the home of his aunt, who has had to work two jobs to care for him, along with her own five children, in the wake of her husband's vanishing, Wickham has drifted into an apartment shared by his two older brothers, a college student and a stock clerk. On a tip from a friend, the boy heads to the club, a private facility named Woodholme, to apply for a position as a caddie in order to carry his own weight and improve his lot.

Although he lands the job, it fails to bring about smooth sailing. Wickham suffers a rocky start; yet, in a little while, "never [turning] down a chance to make money," after a crash course on the etiquette of golf, he gains a grade-A rating from a stem white "caddie master" who awards him choice assignments which send him home at the end of a day, "having earned thirteen dollars, just a buck short" of what his brothers pay weekly in rental for their residence. Getting a bag to carry for a golfer becomes his main concern. It allows him to expand his wardrobe from a few pieces in a dresser draw to a closet stocked with lots of apparel. The youth prizes the occupation over staying in high school; as a result, he is soon dismissed from a local academy for poor behavior. Feeling "like a cabin boy on a ship full of crusty old sailors," he picks up bad habits, such as gambling, from his fellow caddies at Woodholme (all black, save three white ones) who, as a rule, hail from rough backgrounds that have pointed them toward vice for fun. Looking back, Wickham recalls, "Expelled from high school, I spent my days in Woodholme's caddie shack with drug users, winos, and hustlers - and my nights glued to the television set while my mind atrophied."

The related disposition reflects the mental inertia into which Frederick Douglass sinks as a slave for Mr. Covey in his original autobiography. It stands to reason, for caddie work represents a modification of plantation slavery. A black caddie can only work his way up to the level of a pet pack animal, between jobs penned in the caddie shack, which clings to other parts of the country club "like a barnacle to the hull of a ship." Constructed by racism, the notion that blacks lack the necessities to assume authority restricts their status. The narrator notes:

A lot of club members treated caddies, regardless of their age, like children. . . . I think it resulted from an unspoken belief among more than a few Woodholme members that black people were both hopelessly immature and intellectually inferior. I don't think they thought we were capable of thinking and acting like adults, at least not in the same way that they did.

Thanks to Isidor Cooper, a Jewish shopkeeper, and Pop Henry, a senior caddie, among others, who urge him to resume his education, Wickham develops a higher opinion of himself.

After a four-year stint, he leaves Woodholme, as well as his hometown, exhibiting the faith with which Richard Wright flees the South in the initial edition of Black Boy. He believes that he can put his mind to use and live a dignified life in spite of his past. Through a fair chance to finish school in the Air Force, he plans to succeed. His disposition is highly optimistic. The reader is left to imagine that Wickham triumphs as the story ends with him walking away from the country club.

In sum, Woodholme is the story of a young African American who escapes from dire straits by means of a dedication to learning. Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery paints the same picture. The Autobiography of Malcolm X does likewise. Besides the personal histories of Douglass and Wright, there are reams of similar texts including Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi, and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Classic slave narratives such as the writings of Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs pioneered the tradition, and Colin Powell's My American Journey recently extended it.

In addition to its companions, Wickham's book attains the significance of an epic in African American culture. The autobiography conveys and celebrates a social ethos that has defined the heroic in the black community. Since the difficult days of slavery, African Americans have envisioned knowledge as power. The perspective forms a species of cultural subjectivity that has vivified black life. Woodholme certifies the view's prominence through its remembrance of Essie Meade Hughes, a vice principal, who, like her old classmate Thurgood Marshall, rose from humble origins with the help of a good education. Wickham finds Hughes to be an upstanding member of her society because she "didn't shut doors, she opened them" to black children looking to learn; she coaxed the youth to read good books; in learning, she perceived a means for them to overcome racial bars, as Marshall did in his career.

Woodholme belongs in college courses on black history, thought, and culture. To its credit, the narrative contains discreet reminiscences of important events from the early years of the Sixties like the March on Washington in 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On top of that, it embodies many contemporary figures, sharply drawn with wit and wisdom, who manifest the struggles and goals of the era in black circles. Most notably, nevertheless, the autobiography exemplifies a specific instance of a general tendency in African American literature that has evolved into a vital genre worth serious study. But, since it comes with subtlety and suspense, presented by an intelligent narrator, Woodholme could simply be enjoyed as a work of art. In spite of the approach, an encounter with the book is bound to leave the impression that you can beat waves of trouble with a little learning.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Williams, Roland L. Jr.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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