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Ace of Spades: A Memoir

Ace of Spades: A Memoir

4.5 4
by David Matthews

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A take-no-prisoners tale of growing up without knowing who you are

When David Matthews's mother abandoned him as an infant, she left him with white skin and the rumor that he might be half Jewish. For the next twenty years, he would be torn between his actual life as a black boy in the ghetto of 1980s Baltimore and a largely imagined world of white


A take-no-prisoners tale of growing up without knowing who you are

When David Matthews's mother abandoned him as an infant, she left him with white skin and the rumor that he might be half Jewish. For the next twenty years, he would be torn between his actual life as a black boy in the ghetto of 1980s Baltimore and a largely imagined world of white privilege.

While his father, a black activist who counted Malcolm X among his friends, worked long hours as managing editor at the Baltimore Afro-American, David spent his early years escaping wicked-stepmother types and nursing an eleven-hour-a-day TV habit alongside his grandmother in her old-folks-home apartment. In Reagan-era America, there was no box marked "Other," no multiculturalism or self-serving political correctness, only a young boy's need to make it in a clearly segregated world where white meant "have" and black meant "have not." Without particular allegiance to either, David careened in and out of community college, dead-end jobs, his father's life, and girls' pants.

A bracing yet hilarious reinvention of the American story of passing, Ace of Spades marks the debut of an irresistible and fiercely original new voice.

Editorial Reviews

When David Matthews was just one year old, his Jewish mother, afflicted with mental illness, abandoned him and his African-American father. After that, young Dave grew up in the household of his dad, a prominent black activist and journalist, but mostly under the care of a succession of good, bad, and indifferent stepmothers. What peace he achieved was mainly the gift of a kindly grandmother who guarded him as best she could as he descended into drugs, petty crime, and personal crisis. Ace of Spades can be read as a gritty coming-of-age story or as a memoir about "passing" in a multicultural society. Either way, you won't forget it.
Publishers Weekly
The son of an African-American father and a Jewish mother, Matthews tells of growing up racially mixed in Baltimore, Md., during the 1970s and '80s. Soon after his birth, Matthews's mother, a victim of schizophrenia, disappears from his life, and his father, "a prominent black journalist," moves through a series of jobs and relationships as Matthews begins a lifelong struggle with the circumstances of his ambiguous racial heritage. Adults in various states of mental and emotional disarray pass through Matthews's life. Some of his father's girlfriends are abusive ("She passed her cigarette from her clipping hand to her mouth, and... plunged a dinner fork into the bony flesh between my shoulder blades"); some are kind. As his father spends more and more of his time at work, Matthews comes into the care of his beloved grandmother. Until her death, this kindly woman will be at the eye of the storm that is his life. Unsurprisingly, Matthews drifts-into drugs, petty crime and a general slackness-which is the central problem here. While Matthews piles up nicely crafted anecdotes and a list of intriguing characters, there is a lack of tension, leaving a flat narrative. This memoir is long on adolescent male observation ("Julie, an Art Institute coed with apple cheeks and honeydew breasts...") and rather short on resonant revelation. Matthews builds a lot of momentum through the course of his tale, but with little genuine payoff. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With a black activist father and a white mother who dumped him, Matthews was stuck in the middle in 1980s America. With a ten-city tour; reading group guides. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal

Adult/High School
Matthews was born in late 1967 to an African-American father who was a dedicated journalist and his apparently unbalanced white Jewish wife who, with no word of warning to her husband, took her son to Israel shortly after giving birth. The boy was quickly retrieved, and he never saw her again. This memoir richly describes the childhood, youth, and early manhood of a bright and angry person. Stymied by his lack of a mother, his inability to own his racial identity, and the vagaries of every boyhood, such as filial disobedience and posturing within the peer group, Matthews led a life that included almost enough to eat, one or two good friends, and a late-dawning subscription to black pride. Contemporary teens of all backgrounds can learn a lot from Matthews, including the fact that maturity brings change to one's beliefs and outlook as well as to one's appearance and degree of personal power. Some of what he offers is provocative enough to invite book discussion or classroom debate, while much of his story clarifies a period and a place by personalizing them.
—Francisca GoldsmithCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
Debut memoir relates the author's struggles with a mixed-race identity, his family's battles with poverty and his search for a profoundly schizophrenic mother who disappeared during his infancy. Matthews, whose father worked for a variety of black publications in Baltimore, shows remarkable energy and imagination, as well as appealing self-deprecation, in his tale of success erected on a foundation of failure. Ralph Matthews "stole" his son from his estranged wife, who promptly decamped for Israel, never to return. The ensuing years featured deepening poverty, declining fortunes and an abusive stepmother who stabbed David with a fork and put his head through drywall. The author easily passed for white through much of his childhood and youth, telling the curious-and there were many-that he was Jewish, Lebanese, Palestinian, whatever they would believe. He stumbled through elementary school, dropped out of high school, watched a lot of TV, read a lot of books. He attached himself to the neighborhood stud, whose father taught martial arts and kept firearms around the house. After much difficulty, Matthews began to take his life more seriously, obtaining a GED and attending college. When he finally contacted his mother's family, he learned she had died. His reminiscences include the obligatory sexual coming-of-age stuff, some of it sordid; he renders the almost equally obligatory drug-deal-gone-bad sequence in screenplay format. The tone throughout is ironic and playful, but often overwrought as well. Usage and grammatical errors include dangling constructions and inappropriate pronoun cases. The author sends ten-dollar words to do ten-cent jobs, and his vocabulary sometimes exceeds hiscomprehension (he should check the definition of soupcon). He also employs cliches. Opening an envelope containing the first photo he's ever seen of his mother, must he have a lump in his throat?Moments of exuberant power, but Matthews too often stumbles over his own sentences. Agent: Kate Lee/ICM
From the Publisher
"Ace of Spades by David Matthews is a memoir with lightning strikes of awareness and brilliant analyses of race in this country both as it was and is. The book is not possible to put down, a raging fire runs through it yet it is filled with pained humorous moments as this child of 'mixed' parentage makes his quivering yet always valiant way through his early years as child and young man."—Paula Fox, author of Borrowed Finery and The Coldest Winter

"As honest as autobiography ever gets. The memoir has a long, heralded history in Baltimore, the coming-of-age tale in particular. Henry Mencken and Russell Baker pulled intimate classics from the same rowhouses and streets as David Matthews, but did so with a distinct advantage, knowing as they for the most part did, who they were and whereabouts they were going. Born a prisoner to our national pathology of race, Matthews has won his freedom and written a classic all his own, a story of a life lived in a later, different, but altogether American city."—David Simon, author of Homicide and The Corner

“Matthews writes with candor, anger and humor about what it means to be all mixed up. Like the best of this genre, Matthews’ memoir balances introspection with cultural commentary, using vivid scenes from hi life to illustrate the themes of the times.”—The San Francisco Chronicle

“What Ace of Spade” demonstrates so vividly is the conditional nature of racial identity….[Matthews’s] skill as a writer…is considerable.”—The New York Times Book Review

"It's a testament to [Matthews'] skillful writing that, despite a tortured life chronicled over 300 pages, we still want to know more."—Associated Press

"A memoir with meaning, Ace of Spades is a story of self-depracation and, ultimately, self-empowerment."—USA Today

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Ace of Spades

A Memoir

By David Matthews

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2007 David Matthews
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0503-9



God knows why, labor was induced a month early, on the afternoon of November 8, 1967, while my father, who had received an unruffled phone call from my mother informing him of the impending proceedings, was at work. By the time he arrived at Washington, D.C.'s Sibley Memorial Hospital a few hours later, my prunish skin was settling somewhere closer to Caucasian than Negro. That is what my father, a lean, butterscotch-colored man, was called then — a Negro. It says "Negro" on my birth certificate as well. My mother was white. She was also Jewish.

My father, Ralph Matthews Jr., a prominent black journalist, then forty, married my mother, Robin Kahn, then twenty-seven, in the spring of 1967. They were both working for Sargent Shriver at the Office of Equal Opportunity. Shriver had joked to my father that despite Robin's marked fecundity and the occasion of their marriage (my pop is still hazy about which situation arose first, which can only mean that the ghost of a freshly dead rabbit accompanied them to City Hall), "there would be only one raise allocated per household."

My mother was a secretary at the OEO, and my father a public information officer. Back then, whites who worked in the civil rights movement were referred to by blacks as "well-meaning white liberals," a label interchangeable as pejorative or commendation. My mother was obviously one of these wmwl, though to her credit, she walked the walk, all the way down the aisle. It seems to me now, under the sickly glow of political correctness, that their pairing was doomed from the beginning. If interracial unions today account for less than 4 percent of all American marriages (by interracial, I mean black and white — the percentages of other combinations is a whopping 12 percent, which suggests that black and white remains the hardest love of all to forgive), then in the heat of the civil rights movement a black and white union could end in rope burns and lead poisoning. With stakes that high, my mother and father must have been in love. Love would have been their ballast in the midst of that squall. None of my father's black friends understood (there's an old Richard Pryor joke that goes something like: don't ever marry a white woman ... why should you be happy?), and my mother's family abandoned her.

On the night of their wedding, my maternal grandfather — who had refused to attend the civil ceremony — called my father to express, in the sincerest of terms, how untenable an alliance between him and his daughter would be. My father said, I didn't marry you, and hung up on him. It was my mother and father against the world. That is, until the morning of June 5, 1967.

My father knew very little about his pregnant bride. He hazily remembers her as an impish, corporeal version of Modigliani's Jeanne Hebuterne. Robin was at once restive and fey, which lent her the ephemeral air of a doe stumbled upon in the woods, the snap of a twig or scent in the wind enough to break the spell. She was in therapy, like many upper-middle-class Jews of the time, and my father found her relatively benign quirks and peccadilloes charming. He was aware that she had moved to D.C. to escape her rigidly Orthodox father (a man, my father recalls, of some renown in Jewish studies) and he had admired her willfulness. My father still smiles at the remembrance of Robin's apostasy, her sly quip that she had given up Orthodox Judaism because there were "too many dishes to wash."

On that morning, at 7:45 A.M., Israeli Mirage III warplanes preemptively wiped out the Egyptian air force, and the Six-Day War began in earnest. The same afternoon, at a famous D.C. watering hole, my father and some reporter cronies were tucked into a leather banquette, two or three martinis into their 80-proof lunch, when in walked my three months' pregnant mother. In full Israeli army combat fatigues. Fucking beret and all. Everything — the organ grinder, the handlebar-mustachioed waiters — stopped. My dad's colleagues, always up for a good one, scooted farther into the booth, elbowing each other with why don't you join us malicious glee. My mother sat down, exchanged banal pleasantries, and ordered something to eat. In what must have been one of the longest lunches in history, the men sat slack-jawed, suppressing titters and disbelief while she picked at a Caesar salad; and no one — not my mother, not my father, not his ribald friends — mentioned the fact that she looked like the Little Drummer Girl. She would settle in to the rest of her abbreviated pregnancy with no further displays; but alas, the bar had been set, and my mother would not rest on her laurels for long.

A few months after my birth, but before Robin left us forever, she did endeavor to have a measure of quality time with me, a "take your son to war" day of sorts. From my father's account of the (mis)adventure, my mother's sanity — to put a fine point on it — had finally shit the bed.

One evening at the office — his belly just beginning to gnaw a telegraph to his brain that perhaps it was getting nigh time for dinner — the phone on my father's desk rang. My mother was on the other end.

I'll be home soon, my father answered, what's for dinner? There was a faint echo, his words bouncing back through the receiver.

There was a silence on the other end, which made my father wonder if Robin had heard him. After a beat she replied, We're at the airport.

Why are you at Dulles? he asked, the hairs already going horizontal at the back of his tidy Afro.

There was that delay again, and by the time she answered, We're at Tel Aviv International, my father knew that something was definitely not right; and a beat later, when he uneasily repeated, We? and she answered — her voice and mind four thousand and one million miles away — I'm with David, my father knew that something was very, very wrong. I spent a little more than two weeks in Israel, a retroactive Sabra, until my father's exhortations and my failing health shocked her back to lucidity and Washington. No one knows what we did during those weeks; no one but Robin.

A month after my return, in what would become his act of penultimate heroism, my father rescued me from my mother. While a friend distracted Robin at the front door, my dad hurried me (any decent messianic complex begins with the unfledged being spirited away in swaddling clothes) out the back door. From what I hear, it took a few days for Robin to notice we were gone. Within a week she had returned to Jerusalem. My father and I neither saw nor heard from her again.

In addition to the passel of doctors and nurses who surrounded my incubator in the days after my birth, I am told that my maternal grandmother briefly materialized and hovered worriedly nearby. That was as close as I ever got to any other Kahns; Robin and the rest of my Jewish relatives set my father and me adrift in a two-man diaspora, retreating to their brownstones in glass-eyed great cities, or to lime carriage houses in deathless, tony suburbs. My father's letters to Robin's family — in case she ever returned to the United States, us, or sanity — came back unopened. His sentiment then, and now, was Fuck them if they don't want us.

Time heals all wounds, or else infects them.

* * *

Despite Robin's departure, my first memories are of a mother's love. Jan was my father's girlfriend when I was still an infant, a bob-haired University of Maryland graduate student, maybe twenty-two, just gorgeous. I remember her primarily as a name. Any visual memory I have — misty images of bell-bottoms and chunky turtlenecks — comes paired, almost a priori, with a jarring, plaintive, unbidden shriek. In that blackest part of the night where the mind cannot distinguish the rumpled pillow in the corner from the world of silent, morphing kobolds, I would strain against the bars of my crib, screaming, IWANTJANIWANTJANIWANTJANIWANTJANIWANTJAN ... I knew Jan as a need, which is, I suppose, how most infants (if only it stopped there!) know their mothers. Perhaps that is where it — contentment, love — all begins, in the vacuum that develops after a child suckles his fill, his needs met. But that is another story, not my own.

Jan was the first woman to imprint herself upon my consciousness, the way a mother doll made from scraps of carpet and yarn is held fast to an infant chimp's heart. My father was obviously a fan of one-stop shopping — Jan also worked at the OEO, although she and my mother had never crossed paths. I remember trailing behind Jan, my Lilliputian hand in hers, as she went about campus; to this day, holding a woman's hand is an almost unbearably intimate act. I would sit in the back of a classroom, occupied by a book or doll, while she sat beside me, one hand at the ready, even as the other took notes, to brush the hair from my eyes or stick a straw under my lips so that I could slurp the carton of orange juice we shared. Jan was white, and way too young to be saddled with a forty-two-year-old lover and his motherless son. My father was slight of frame, a darker iteration of deputy Barney Fife from TV's The Andy Griffith Show, and barely solvent. He has, however, a preternatural ability to make one feel as though there are truths about oneself, and the world, which can be found only at his feet. Anyone who has spent time in his presence inevitably walks away feeling frustrated and unheeded, yet unable to deny his bracing intelligence. To a young girl, possibly laden with white guilt and a slight maternal pang, my father and I must have been irresistible.

We all lived together in a modest apartment in D.C.'s Turkey Thicket Park. I suppose that for my father, part of Jan's appeal had been her willingness to "adopt" me. My father knew nothing about changing diapers, heating Similac, or transporting an infant across the country to cover news events. The first months on our own had been tough, as single fathers were about as plentiful then as Arabs at a Hadassah benefit.

In April of '68. after soundly trouncing Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy in a raucous pillow fight, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out of room 306 at Memphis's Lorraine Hotel and onto the balcony He never made it to his scheduled dinner with Memphis minister Billy Kyles, and D.C. burned for days afterward. My father held me on the front porch while M60 tanks razed our front yard, Hueys beating the skies above us. Without Jan running provisions (and this was no mean feat for a white girl in the middle of a race riot — remember Reginald Denny after the Rodney King verdict? Cube that), my dad would have had to continue using newspapers as diapers and catsup as baby formula. After nearly three years of this, Jan began to explore the world beyond premature motherhood. The enticements of giving up her youth, and likely her studies, to raise a child that was not hers were not enough to keep her around. Jan left me with those shrieks, and needs, and a plastic Donny Osmond toy electric guitar.

While my real mother left me, teats swollen with rotting milk, Jan had given me a sort of love, as well as a sort of poison. In some ways, I wished I had never known a mother's love in any form. Had I never had it, would I have missed it? The months spent with Jan were my first hit off the mother pipe, and I would forever chase that high.



From the mid-1960s until his death in 1999, the rangy, latte-hued D.C. poet/junkie/activist Gaston Neal was my father's best friend. A prepossessing guy, Neal was able to, with no apparent sense of irony, conflate the contradictions of drug dealing, petty larceny, prosody, and black nationalism. He had a gravelly voice, and a serpentine form that, in later years, he would top off with a wide-brimmed fedora, his London Fog overcoat trailing behind him, the whole appearance an almost spectral version of an international arms dealer, or jaded flâneur.

Neal's running buddy — a dark-skinned, slinky hustler named Smitty who was into a little bit of everything, most of them illegal — had a girl named Karen, a flaxen-haired beauty, all Ivory Soap skin and lissome, milk-fed limbs; a Patty Hearst-type white chick who came from the bucolic suburbs of wherever, and emerged from the sixties determined to piss Daddy and America off.

Karen slid into the black revolutionary underground on rails made of Peruvian Flake and Black Tar (drug culture having always been an ersatz desegregation movement, bringing whites and blacks together for the egalitarian cause of copping) and stayed with Smitty until the summer of 1970 or so, when regrettably, if not inevitably, Smitty was slapped in irons and remanded into the custody of the District of Columbia. Karen, who stayed in touch with Neal and my father, averred that Smitty was languishing in a jail cell by dint of his Black Pantherism, and not as the result of various petty larcenies, nor his possession of heroin with intent to distribute (my dad's version of events and likely the truth). The whole minor tragedy was a pitch-perfect rendition of the somewhat recent trend among brothers who, in the face of criminal charges, attempt to exculpate themselves with the following (which, if uttered in your presence, signals unequivocal guilt):

Aww, man, they got me locked up on some bullshit ... In this instance, "bullshit" does not refer to the specifics of the charges but rather to a set of unfortunate exigent circumstances: the getaway car ran out of gas; the minks and Tiffany china belong to your cousin, but he's not home right now and he a veteran, got a fucked-up memory so you can't believe a word that nigger say anyway....

A variant on this theme is the phrase, got me locked up behind some bullshit (archaic); however, in both intent and meaning the two are the same. There is no equivalent in the Caucasian criminal world, as whites, generally assured of fairer trials and shorter sentences, simply plead the Fifth, or say their dog told them to do it. In any event, Smitty left his old lady with their four-year-old son Elijah, a wide-eyed boy of burnished caramel.

* * *

A succession of babysitters and the sporadic attention paid to me by some of my father's female friends or secretaries had been a piecemeal solution to the new lack of Jan. Karen mentioned to my father one day that she had an upstairs neighbor — an Ethiopian girl — who might be the perfect live-in babysitter. Soon this woman — who had no experience as a child-care provider, but was willing, inexpensive, and, most important, fine — moved into the extra bedroom in our Adelphi, Maryland, apartment. The first night in her new home, she ingratiated herself to my father by eating a cluster of grapes, then convulsively spitting the seeds onto his newly purchased oriental rug. She responded to my father's alarm by cooing, It will be fine; I love America. Her reply (between expectorations) to his question, What's for dinner? was, Oh, anything is fine with me. The next morning, as my father was on his way to work, harried and late (as usual), he watched me toddle, diaper-laden and sagging, below the refrigerator's handle, vainly trying to open it, before falling onto my rear with an explosive squish. Cracking the door to my new babysitter's room, he found her just beginning to stir under the covers. With a temperate urgency, he asked her why his son was foraging for food while stewing in his own excrement. She yawned, stretched her arms above her head, rubbed the comforter in loving circles, and purred, It's just so luxurious, before rolling over to catch a few more winks.

The next day, after the babysitter had been relieved of her duties, my father asked Karen, What the hell were you thinking, foisting that woman upon us? After apologizing profusely, she dutifully proffered, Why don't you let me give it a try?

The whole live-in babysitter thing (d)evolved, as these things are wont, into a less than professional relationship; within a few months Karen had gone from paid domestic to plain old domestic. There had been a brief courtship, the walls between their bedrooms delimited by gossamer, the physical proximity of a widowed-by-abandonment father and a similarly unattended mother no match for propriety. She moved her son Elijah (who had been staying with Smitty's parents' in southeast D.C.) into my room, and I now had a brother to go with my new stepmother. He was funny, and from the beginning rather protective of me. His mother, less so on both counts.


Excerpted from Ace of Spades by David Matthews. Copyright © 2007 David Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Matthews is a writer living in New York. He has appeared on The Tavis Smiley Show and the CBS Sunday Morning Show, and in People magazine.

David Matthews is a writer living in New York.

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Ace of Spades 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Of spadeclan
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Filled with both humorous and tragic personal anecdotes about growing up biracial in 1980s Baltimore when 'black' and 'white' were the only categories allowed, David chose, at a very young age & before he could even be aware of the implications of his decision, to pass for white. I read the entire book in one sitting, and slept through my alarm clock's ringing the next morning as a consequence, but it was so worth it. Throughout the book, Matthews addresses the episodes of racism he experienced, from the the off-hand comments of his peers to the incidents of violence (and yes, he was mugged a few times!), and his growing longing to find out more about the mother he never met, but whose Jewish identity he embraced like a life-preserver throughout his adolescence and young adulthood. Of the several new memoirs I have read recently, none is as emotionally gripping and heartbreaking as this book. The book ends on a cliff-hanger, which will leave the reader praying for the sequel to be released ASAP, to find out what happens next. This book should be a popular pick for book clubs everywhere. 5 stars, and highly, highly recommended!
harstan More than 1 year ago
David Matthews provides an interesting memoir of growing up in racially mixed America. He is the son of an African-American journalist and a schizophrenic white Jewish mother, who deserted the two males just after David was born. Over the years he passed for white at school and in the middle class neighborhoods he and his dad lived in. While his dad spent most time at work, David¿s grandmother took care of him showering him with love until she died. Without her anchor, he turned to drugs, crime and not caring about anything or anyone. As he left his teens he began to turn his life around trying to come to grips on his mixed racial heritage that had no blocks on the EEOC classification. --- This is an interesting autobiography of a mixed racial person struggling with his identity and a need to belong. Mr. Matthews provides fascinating anecdotal bios from his life especially growing up in the 1970s and 1980s (pre Tiger Woods¿ opening the mindset of Americans). Though at times the language feels overly emotional and flowery to invoke reader compassion, ACE OF SPADES is a well written memoir of a zebraic man who is part Black Nationalist and part Jewish intellect in a country that prefers neater stereotyping. --- Harriet Klausner