The University Record, October 24, 1994


Review: Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White

Brent Staples’ Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White (Pantheon) made a powerful impression on me. It is a book of great value for anyone in higher education who wants to understand better the entry of young Black men into that environment. The current issue of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has a long and interesting section describing the demographics of the situation, which are more or less what we all know; there are few now and fewer than in the past. Parallel Time helps understand something of why this is the case.

The book has a classical form. The first section might be labeled presto; in a few quick pages, it sets out the major theme with crashing power as Staples summarizes the coroner’s report for Blake, his young brother, shot six times with a .44 Magnum by a rival drug dealer.

The long central movement, largo sostenuto, restates that theme and weaves it with others. Staples’ large, difficult family lived on the edge, moving constantly to keep ahead of bill collectors. While both sides of the family had been rooted in rural Virginia for generations, the Depression scattered many of them. With seven addresses by the eighth grade, Staples grew up mostly in Chester, Pennsylvania, a factory town south of Philadelphia. In many ways it was a normal 1950s boyhood: comic books and sports were combined with an intense fascination with cars and girls. School was a largely perfunctory caste system with industrial, commercial and academic tracks. Staples settled in the middle, learning shorthand and typing, but he was surprised to find how much he enjoyed his English class where people loved words. The “thees” and “thous” of Macbeth, initially repellent, gave way to excitement: “There were ghosts, witches, prophesies and murders aplenty. I was at the edge of my seat,” he writes, “when Birnam Wood got to Dunsinane.”

But generally the perfunctory outweighed the exciting. Some friends had plans for college but he had none. No one in his family had ever been to college and there was no interest in, no hope of, paying for it. A chance encounter with a professor from a local college changed all that: Sparrow—a vaguely beat sociologist—suggested that Staples go to college, that he apply for Project Prepare, a new program designed to integrate the college. He was accepted, and did well.

The paradox of youth is played out through their relationship:

I felt it my duty to aggravate Sparrow. I was painfully aware that he’d saved my life. I kept hearing the gospel song “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost but now I’m found.” I hid my gratitude and played hard-ass. (p.186)

He piled up As. Faculty members urged him to go to graduate school. “I chose the University of Chicago with no greater care than I’d have taken hailing a taxi,” largely to get away from his girlfriend. He was awarded a Danforth Fellowship. Staples’ memoir of Chicago is the sweetest, funniest, and meanest part of the book: recreation league basketball, Freud’s Cocaine Papers, Saul Bellow, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the “hawk.” But particularly Bellow: Staples considers again and again the relation between the constructed stories in the novels and the lived stories on which they were based. One summer a white student was murdered by two Black men. Staples, writing a thesis on the mathematics of decision-making, pieced together his view of what had happened: a terrible series of random events involving whim, clumsy and unpracticed criminals naively invited home, all mixed with too much alcohol, created a disaster.

That murder became the basis for Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December. While faithful to the facts, “Bellow admitted nothing so pedestrian as chance. In his view the dead student had been overtaken by Evil... this golden child had been slain by men of lead,” baser even than Plato’s lesser men of bronze and copper.

I’m not sure how to mark the last movement: “allegro with freight train” might do. The new Ph.D. with dreams of Harvard finds himself teaching stats 101 at Roosevelt, so he gets a job as a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, not fun, but with a future. It is only shortly later that Blake is shot, early in 1983.

Staples today is on the editorial board of the New York Times after a term as editor of that paper’s Sunday Book Review. After Blake’s death, he found himself in demand: Black reporters were scarce, in no small part because papers had kept themselves snow-white even as the cities around them had grown blacker and blacker. In every job interview, most excruciatingly at the Washington Post, he was asked what he calls “the Real Negro questions.” Was he “an authentic nigger who grew up in the ghetto” or a Faux Negro from Chevy Chase? And if he were the former, how had he become “successful, law-abiding, and literate when others of [his] kind filled the jails and the morgues and the homeless shelters?”

His explanation—Sparrow coupled with chance—was unpopular. “There but for the grace of God go I” is only an acceptable prayer for the many who see one of themselves fall, not for the one who rises from the mass. No, his success must be seen as the result of moral choices and energy, of protestant diligence; else, how to account for all the rest back there in the ghetto? Staples is kind in his reading of the situation for he only attributes this interpretation to the “least charitable” of them: “The American dream was alive and well—if only those shiftless bastards in the slums would reach for it,” like he did.

But Staples, with a brother dead on the coroner’s stainless steel table, isn’t buying. In no way could he find himself to be fundamentally, even substantially, different from his brother. So how did this happen? How did he get out while his brother did not?

I grew up a decade or so earlier than Staples. Comics, baseball, girls, cars, mostly the same stuff; no bill collectors I ever heard of. My brother was not shot with a .44; he lives in Little Rock with his wife where he runs a small business. I got a Ph.D., but never a Danforth Fellowship. The same kind of differences are there, but they are smaller, quieter. We often understand Black experience as if it were an “other.” We do Black history in a month (the shortest one, at that). Staples shows us an American life, not different but bigger, so much bigger, so much more intense, so much more painful; it is a variation, a riff, on my life — with my own mixture of luck and will — amplified so loud it hurts my ears, hurts my soul.

“Luck,” I’ve long said, “is being in the right place at the right time, [pause] and knowing what to do about it.” I have always said it with that two-beat pause after the comma. Staples shifts the balance back across the “and”: so many clever, knowledgeable friends, kind acquaintances, brothers, who knew what to do, but for whom there was never a right place or a right time.

Daniel E. Moerman

Professor of Anthropology, U-M-Dearborn