Blue As the Lake: A Personal Geography

Overview

"A lyrical new book on African-American communities."

—Condè Nast Traveler




Blue as the Lake maps out an African-American landscape unique in American literature. From Idlewild, the black resort on Lake Michigan where he vacationed as a child with his grandparents, to Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Robert Stepto traces a history of generations finding and making a home. His family lore careens through American history— we meet a black regiment in World War I; legendary jazz musician Coleman Hawkins, and ...
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Overview

"A lyrical new book on African-American communities."

—Condè Nast Traveler




Blue as the Lake maps out an African-American landscape unique in American literature. From Idlewild, the black resort on Lake Michigan where he vacationed as a child with his grandparents, to Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Robert Stepto traces a history of generations finding and making a home. His family lore careens through American history— we meet a black regiment in World War I; legendary jazz musician Coleman Hawkins, and Inabel Burns, pioneering feminist and great-granddaughter of slaves.
Beautifully and intimately rendered, Stepto's memoir is a stunning meditation on what it means to be American.

"Through loosely linked, informal essays Stepto . . . traces his own past through his family's history and migrations. . . These evocative meditations on home and the family are thoughtful and moving."


—Publisher's Weekly
"[A] graceful family memoir. . . . [Stepto] wonderfully evokes the delights and confusions of childhood."


—Laura Green, The New York Times Book Review
"A book . . . [where] eloquence is the essential ingredient. A major waterway for our national journey."


—Michael S. Harper, author of Songlines: Mosaics; Dear John, Dear Coltrane; and Images of Kin
"Blue as the Lake is a lyrical memoir rendered with precision, grace, and intimacy. Stepto takes us on a 'blues-ride' through places . . . which are locations in his personal geography but also special places in the collective memory and history of African Americans."


—Mary Helen Washington, editor ofBlack-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds
"Stepto, an English and Afro-American Studies professor at Yale, vividly portrays the sights and sounds of a black resort in the 1940s and 1950s and the racially changing Chicago neighborhoods of his youth. In his lyrically written memoir, he recalls summers at Idlewild, a resort in Michigan, where black families determinedly built enclaves for themselves, a place to bring their families and not face the ever-present threat of racial prejudice and discrimination, even in the North. He traces the racial changes in Chicago's neighborhoods as his family migrated from working class to upper middle class, changing geography as they progressed. His intertwining stories of his ancestors offer similar portraits of changing geography (through Virginia to Missouri to Chicago to Connecticut) and social statuses (attaining degrees and progressing, along with the race, to new jobs and opportunities). And Stepto manages to recall not just his family's development but also that of African Americans generally in their journey through the same time period--postslavery to the present."


— Booklist
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Through loosely linked, informal essays Stepto, a professor of English and Afro-American studies at Yale, traces his own past through his family's history and migrations. Starting with his childhood in the Washington Park and Woodlawn sections of Chicago and his family's summer cottage in Idlewild, a black resort on Lake Michigan, Stepto recreates his comfortable, middle-class childhood and mourns the changes that have made it dangerous for him now to walk the streets that once gave his life form and substance. The essays in the second section tell compelling stories about individual members of his multi-racial family, including jazz legend Coleman Hawkins. But they also tell about the diversity of memory, as when he describes differing family legends of how his paternal grandparents met and married. Stepto lets his material speak for itself; his difficult relationship with his father is summed up in a description of a family photo, in which they 'are up against a wall.' The writing is often pure elegy, e.g., when he recalls Hawkins' father 'ending his life by walking into the Missouri River one frosty February morning, his pipe still lit and glowing as he fiercely waded deeper and deeper -- tired, so tired of being a shipping clerk at American Electrical and a `credit to his race' (as reported in the obituary), and maybe tired of his family, too.' Only the final essay, with its cranky observations about black youth culture and the marketing of black images on Martha's Vineyard, falls short of the elegance of the other pieces. Overall, though, these evocative meditations on home and family are thoughtful and moving.
Library Journal
In this intimate memoir, English professor Stepto recounts his childhood in Chicago, his summers vacationing with his grandparents, and his family history from slavery in the East to Missouri.
Laura Green
. . .[A] graceful family memoir. . . .He chronicles six generations of strivers. . .[and includes] generous evocations of time and place. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A memoir by an African-American college professor (English and Afro-American Studies/Yale) that is a both a summertime boyhood idyll and a jarring coming-of-age tale. The Stepto family is headed by a well-to-do obstetrician father and is well-grounded in American upper-middle-class values acquired at Spellman College. And nothing is more normal and American than the vivid descriptions of the all-black Great Lakes resort of Idelwild, Mich., where they spend their summers. The conflicts between the quieter, more conservative older generation and their kids, who engage in some dangerous lakeside showboating (recklessly driving yachts), will sound familiar to many readers whose family had a summer place. Much of this memoir is a warm and nostalgic reverie, boy-into-man stuff: there's the first girlfriend and frantic petting by the lake, a summer fling with an out-of-town girl that peters out in the mail 'by Thanksgiving.' At the end of every season the house is boarded up, and the author makes us feel the preciousness of these endless childhood summers when the vacation house is eventually sold (along with his father's dream of retiring in Idlewild). Summers felt more endless as the author's family forced him to read for hours each day. When his friend Mike came over and rejected games to enjoy all the reading material, Stepto's family nodded approvingly and believed that 'thanks to Mike, the race's fate was in good hands.' Race emerges as a significant theme, as the author is too black for white racists (like the ones who refuse to serve his boy scout troop in a restaurant) and too light-skinned for some blacks Visiting his former home in South Chicago brings back memories of playingstickball. At one game a bully wouldn't pick him, teasing him about being too white. Stepto is too proud to 'pass,' like one of his relatives did, and this memoir rebuilds a rock-solid island in the past that he can retreat to whenever being African-American feels like too much of a conundrum.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807009444
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Pages: 209
  • Product dimensions: 5.94 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert B. Stepto, author of From Behind the Veil, is professor of English, American Studies, and Afro-American Studies at Yale University. He lives in Woodbridge, Connecticut.
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