I've Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation

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In I’ve Known Rivers, sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot practices her unique "human archaeology,” peeling back the layers of six extraordinary lives. What she creates is a wholly original work, a penetrating portrait of the lives of middle-class African-Americans that has not been seen before.The six storytellers in Lightfoot’s work are poised in midlife, the time we all look back as a way to anticipate the future. In dialogue with Lightfoot, they reconstruct their lives with heroic candor, reflecting on the ...

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Overview

In I’ve Known Rivers, sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot practices her unique "human archaeology,” peeling back the layers of six extraordinary lives. What she creates is a wholly original work, a penetrating portrait of the lives of middle-class African-Americans that has not been seen before.The six storytellers in Lightfoot’s work are poised in midlife, the time we all look back as a way to anticipate the future. In dialogue with Lightfoot, they reconstruct their lives with heroic candor, reflecting on the "necessary losses,” the price of privelege. Any reader, regardless of race or gender, will identify with these lives, with the wya thses storytellers live with contradiction, change rage into love, and search for ways to "give forward.”Together these stories assume the power of a great novel, and through the mixture of losses and gains, despair and hope, trauma and recovery, ambivalence and ambition, Lightfoot presents a very all-American tale: the universal story of people moving up and out of their communities of origin toward some uncharted future.Lightfoot’s subjects represent a vast range of experience:Katie Cannon, a tenured professor of theology, writes her illiterate father for the first time. Charles Ogletree, a renowned criminal defense lawyer teaching at Harvard Law School, is haunted by memories of a close friend, in jail for life. The rape of her mother and the pain of her illgitimacy open the story of Toni Schiesler, research chemist and former nun. Tony Earls, a psychiatrist studying the roots of violence, enjoys the way both science and jazz improvisation enrich his research. A balance between public acclaim and intimate relationships is the enduring goal of Cheryle Wills, a glamorous and successful entrepreneur. In the final protrait, Orlando Bagwell, a documentary filmmaker, creates work that reveals the beautiful/ugly truths of history.

Mixing biography and autobiography, casual talk with soul-bearing revelations, the author of Balm in Gilead uses a kind of "human archaeology" to reveal the complex, nuanced lives of six middle-class African-American achievers. Strikingly candid portraits explore the experiences and events that have shaped their identities and influenced the course of their lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Responding to E. Franklin Frazier's somewhat disdainful Black Bourgeoisie , Harvard sociologist Lawrence-Lightfoot ( Balm in Gilead ) here portrays the complex lives, drives and commitments of six middle-aged ``African-Americans of privilege.'' Each subject, whom she interviewed over a period of several years, reveals something thought-provoking: Charles Ogletree, a criminal defense lawyer and Harvard professor, feels ``both burdened and inspired'' by the ghosts of his small-town past; Cleveland and Boston businesswoman Cheryle Wills describes learning the spiritual and material values of community at Cleveland's largest black funeral home; documentary filmmaker Orlando Bagwell recalls the abandonment (similar to the ``isolation'' noted by his subject, Malcolm X) he felt when his family moved to a rural white area. In a brief coda of analysis, the author has avoided some probing questons, such as the relationships of two subjects with white spouses. Also, Lawrence-Lightfoot allows the narratives to meander, following the line of her interview sessions; she might have done more to mold her subjects' stories. 75,000 first printing; author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Portraying six African American professionals, Lawrence-Lightfoot shows that even successful African Americans are affected by racism. Her work elegantly complements the statistical approach to African American life while offering valuable biographical information on these unsung individuals. (LJ 9/1/94)
Mary Carroll
A decade after her MacArthur Prize Award, six years after publication of her widely praised biography of her child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst mother, "Balm in Gilead" (1988), Lawrence-Lightfoot broadens her focus, reexamining the territory of E. Franklin Frazier's "Black Bourgeoisie" (1962) in probing conversations with six successful, middle-aged African American women and men. The book's "storytellers"--who were interviewed by Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociology professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, over several years--are Presbyterian minister and "womanist" philosopher Katie Cannon; defense attorney and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree; ex-nun and aspiring Episcopal minister Toni Schiesler; Felton "Tony" Earls, an epidemiologist and psychiatrist at the Harvard School of Public Health; cable entrepreneur and political fund-raiser Cheryle Wills; and documentary filmmaker Orlando Bagwell. Positioned at the midpoint of their lives, assessing what they owe to past and future generations, negotiating carefully but courageously the trade-offs and contradictions, challenges and rewards of what DuBois called African Americans' "double consciousness," Lawrence-Lightfoot and the men and women who trusted her to capture their voices and the complex realities of their journeys generously share with every reader their compelling and involving stories. A Book-of-the-Month Club main selection.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780201581201
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 9/11/1994
  • Pages: 654
  • Lexile: 1070L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 1.94 (d)

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