Unafraid of the Dark: A Memoir

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Overview

In her deeply affecting, vividly written memoir, Rosemary L. Bray describes with remarkable frankness growing up poor in Chicago in the 1960s, and her childhood shaped by welfare, the Roman Catholic Church, and the civil rights movement.

Bray writes poignantly of her lasting dread of the cold and the dark that characterized her years of poverty; of her mother's extraordinary strength and resourcefulness; and of the system that miraculously enabled her mother to scrape together ...

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Overview

In her deeply affecting, vividly written memoir, Rosemary L. Bray describes with remarkable frankness growing up poor in Chicago in the 1960s, and her childhood shaped by welfare, the Roman Catholic Church, and the civil rights movement.

Bray writes poignantly of her lasting dread of the cold and the dark that characterized her years of poverty; of her mother's extraordinary strength and resourcefulness; and of the system that miraculously enabled her mother to scrape together enough to keep the children fed and clothed. Bray's parents, held together by their ambitions for their children and painfully divided by their poverty, punctuate young Rosemary's nights with their violent fights and define her days with their struggles.

This powerful, ultimately inspiring book is a moving testimony of the history Bray overcame, and the racial obstacles she continues to see in her children's way.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A clear, poignant, eloquent account of a courageous young woman whose tortured father and heroic mother helped shape her wonderful destiny."
--James McBride, author of The Color of Water

"Excruciatingly honest--Good autobiography requires not only literary skill but also passion and candor. All these Rosemary L. Bray displays in abundance."
--The New York Times Book Review

"In this richly told, well-written memoir, Bray pushes beyond easy summations of her life, beyond the boxes and categories; she claims and celebrates her life, presenting her story in all of its many dimensions."
--Chicago Tribune

"Straightforward--brisk and rousing--should be read by all who seek to 'know' welfare, not according to the fund of racist and malignant misconceptions but according to the testimony of one who actually knows it from inside."
--Washington Post Book World

"Inspirational--More than a memoir, it is a 1960s coming-of-age tale, a professional development review, and a collection of essays on class, race, and political issues as they intersect in a Black woman's life."
--Emerge

Kimberly Conniff
...[S]hows how a little opportunity can translate into immeasurable ambition....she reveals a woman both haunted and liberated by her past.
Brill's Content
Jonathan Miles
The memoir is to literature like the 12-bar blues is to music. At its best, the memoir, like the 12-bar blues, can be used to express a stunningly vivid range of emotion and experience. It is at this level that writers like Frank McCourt and Mary Karr work the keys and that musicians like the late Albert King worked the strings. At their worst, however, both forms are woefully perfect arenas for displays of fiery narcissism: the stadium guitarist in a loin-cloth fingering 20-minute solos, or the mid-list writer regaling us with what it really felt like, by God, to spend a year reading Proust. They are forms easily and relentlessly abused.

Which is why it is so unfortunate that Rosemary Bray, a former editor at the New York Times Book Review, chose the memoir form to explore the role of welfare in the United States. Bray has thrown her voice into the endless chorus of self-chroniclers with Unafraid of the Dark, a book about growing up poor and black on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, making her way through Yale and then breaking into the ranks of that venerable tabloid. It's not an uninteresting tale -- to a point. Where Bray falters is precisely where the guitarist falters when the crowd has stopped dancing and the drummer is counting the ceiling tiles: She keeps talking long after the riff has ceased to be intriguing.

In some respects, Unafraid of the Dark is not all that different a story from Times correspondent Rick Bragg's recent memoir, All Over But the Shoutin'. There's a malevolent father, a martyred mother and a smart and ambitious child determined to scrap his or her way out of poverty. But Bray sets out to frame her rags-to-byline story in the politics of the War on Poverty. It is here where her book might have succeeded -- and where it ultimately fails.

"Changes in the welfare system since the late 1980s have made it nearly impossible for this story to happen today," she writes in her preface, which, along with her epilogue, stand as eloquent bookends to her autobiography. Despite their eloquent promise, however, I suspect they were written as afterthoughts, as a way to imbue her story with a centrifugal force it might otherwise lack. Bray never quite achieves the promise -- or sustains the premise -- she shows there.

There are moments, to be sure, when Bray delivers on the issue of welfare -- and race, as well -- but they occur not nearly enough and fundamentally vanish halfway through the book, when she becomes rhapsodic in her descriptions of Yale theatrics and the Sturm und Drang of the New York magazine world. What she fails to present -- and what could have made this a work of some portent -- is a full and cogent exploration of the welfare system's effects on her life and her family's life. We are left to ponder an endless string of anecdotes, some worth the trouble, most quotidian.

It's not exactly the fault of her writing -- it is the form that defeats her, with its soft-focus emphasis on the slightest wisps of memory, its seductive tug on the ego. Rosemary Bray has the experience, intelligence and talent to have written a powerful and important book about the state of America's poor. Instead she chose to tell us, in excruciating detail, how thrilled she was to receive the title role in a high school production of "Alice in Wonderland." -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I am living proof of the 78% of African-American women who are raised on welfare but never return to the system," proclaims Bray, who grew up poor in Chicago, attended Yale on scholarship and graduated in 1976, after which she went on to hold editorial positions at Essence, Ms. and the New York Times Book Review. In this quietly affecting memoir, Bray traces her quest for identity as a writer, a feminist, a wife, a mother and an African American. Along the way, she imparts a visceral sense of what it meant to be poor and black in Chicago's South Side in the 1960s, loving her easygoing, nurturing mother but terrified of a wife-beating, obsessively jealous father whom she grew to hate and whose strictures to stay away from white people she flouted. Bray, who lived in Harlem in the mid-1980s, where she became embroiled in neighborhood politics, now raises two sons in suburban, integrated Montclair, N.J. This gracefully written memoir is framed by Bray's forceful attack on the "disastrous" 1996 welfare reform act which, she predicts, will force millions of children and workfare mothers into the ranks of the poor, denying them the opportunity of which Bray made so much. Author tour. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Contrary to the current emphasis on the detrimental effects of welfare, this memoir illustrates the help public assistance can provide to the family struggling to move up from poverty. Bray, one of the first black women to attend Yale, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, and author of Martin Luther King, a children's book, grew up in Chicago during the 1960s. Although she reports that her father beat her and that she was constantly cold and afraid, Bray loved to learn, and her abilities soon came to the attention of her teachers, who encouraged her to attend college. Bray writes from the heart; her message is forceful and penetrating as she tells of her childhood and later making her way as a journalist and neighborhood activist. She managed to defeat poverty, crediting a loving mother who stayed home to care for her children, thanks to welfare. The author is at her most eloquent when expressing disdain for the country's recent political turn to the Right, which she sees as wrongheaded and shortsighted for minorities and the poor. Highly recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/97.]Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
School Library Journal
YA-Bray's memoir is a rags-to-middle-class story. Born in 1955, the author grew up in Chicago; her mother eked out an existence on welfare while her father worked sporadically, hindered and angered by segregation and taking it out on his family. Her mother spent part of her AFDC check on Catholic school tuition for her daughter; the nuns, seeing Bray's promise, pushed her on to a private, liberal high school. She persevered and blossomed, while developing an interest in the civil rights movement. She won a scholarship to Yale, where she enjoyed the intellectual stimulation provided by fellow black students. Eventually, she became an editor at the New York Times Book Review. Married to her college sweetheart and living in Harlem by then, Bray led efforts to hold her neighborhood together. She now lives in suburban New Jersey and continues to write. In a direct writing style that flows easily from point to point, she fleshes her story out and distills complexities of feeling and situations into clear prose so that readers can readily understand subtle concepts. The last chapter makes a strong statement against the 1996 welfare-reform bill that will force parents of young children to work, making them unable to give the care that, thanks to welfare, her mother was home to give her. Bray says that we will all pay the price for these neglected children.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
Kimberly Conniff
...[S]hows how a little opportunity can translate into immeasurable ambition....she reveals a woman both haunted and liberated by her past. -- Brill's Content
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385494755
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ANCHOR
  • Pages: 282
  • Lexile: 1050L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.23 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Rosemary L. Bray is a writer and former editor for The New York Times Book Review, Essence, The Wall Street Journal, and Ms. , as well as the author of a children's book, Martin Luther King. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.
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Read an Excerpt

Certain things shape you, change you forever. Years later, long after you think you've escaped, some ordinary experience flings you backward into memory, transports you to a frozen moment, and you freeze. Being poor is like that. Living surrounded by fear and rage is like that. I grew up hating the cold, dreading the approach of night. Thirty years later, a too-cold room at night can trigger a flash of terror, or a wash of ineffable sadness. Voices raised in anger can still make me shrink. Every now and then, a sudden, innocent move by my husband makes me duck to protect myself. It took many years for me to think of night as a time of rest.

I can't remember what awakened me first--my mother's urgent voice, the thick, sooty smoke, or the blasts of icy air through our bedrooms.

"Get up, Ro, go sit in the kitchen while I air out this room." I had bronchitis, and the smoke was already starting to bother me. I stumbled through the dark into the dim kitchen, lit only by the burners on the gas stove and the faint flicker from the broiler. The oven door was open, and though the rest of the room was still cold, the space near the stove was almost toasty. I coughed a little as my mother brought my brothers and sister into the kitchen, then disappeared downstairs.

The house's boiler was out again. An ancient coal contraption, it always seemed to go on the blink in the dead of winter, pumping thick black smoke through the house. Whenever this happened, only turning the boiler off until the morning would alleviate the problem. There was a janitor for our building, but Mama often knew more about the boiler than he did.

Mama came back upstairs and led us back to bed in the now-frigid room. We climbed into our beds as she went through the rooms closing the windows again. It was four A.M. or so; in a couple of hours it would be time to get up. But Mama wouldn't sleep anymore that night. Already I could hear her putting one of two big buckets into the kitchen sink. She would fill them with water and place them on the back burners of the stove so we'd have hot water for washing up. By morning, the water in the house would be ice-cold. As long as the stove was on, someone had to stay awake. That someone was always Mama.

Poor, afraid--these were not the only things I was. There were long stretches of time when I gave no thought to my condition. I was black, I was a girl, I was smart, I was the oldest of four: these were the things I knew about myself; this was the knowledge I held on to in my own little universe. My world was an area of twenty square blocks on the South Side of Chicago, bounded by Forty-third Street to the north and Forty-seventh Street to the south, and by Drexel Boulevard to the west and Woodlawn Avenue to the east. The neighborhood was called Kenwood-Oakland in better times, but those times had come and gone.

That cold room, that ancient boiler, that shabby kitchen--they are gone, too. A vacant lot dotted with old trucks and cars is all that remains of the building I grew up in--4466 South Berkeley Avenue. Ours was the corner building; a once-grand limestone mansion with a stone porch and beveled-glass windows, it had been hastily converted into several overpriced apartments. Berkeley Avenue was the kind of street where folks sat on their porches and played cards and drank wine. Neighbors fixed their cars in the street and changed their own oil, watching it run down into the sewer grates. Women waited on the watermelon man and the vegetable man, with their green, horse-pulled wagons, to shop for staples on Saturday. Our street was the kind of place where everyone knew each other by sight, and most likely by name: Miss Elizabeth and Mr. Jones; Yvonne and Jessie; Mr. Bob and Mr. Brown; Mama Woodward and Miss Kathy and Stafford, Clorine, and Rowena; Mr. Davis and Mrs. Davis and Diane and Deborah. And then there was us: Mrs. Bray and her four children. People rarely spoke of our father, except in rueful, hesitant tones. They knew enough about him to know they wanted no part of him.

The block itself was unremarkable, typical of the transitional neighborhoods in ghettos throughout Chicago. The buildings were mostly low-rise limestones and brick townhouses, interspersed with large apartment buildings. Directly across the street from us were the two biggest apartment buildings on the block. I always wondered what they were like on the inside, but we never even walked on that side of the street. The residents were the folks you heard at night--fighting, drinking, yelling at each other--when you were trying to sleep. The tenants regarded our family with great curiosity, but let us be.

If you walked two blocks to Forty-third Street, the limestones and apartment buildings gave way to once well-kept stores with prices too steep for us. The local department store, Alden's, sold a little bit of everything. Shoes and dresses, coats and hats. We looked a great deal, but we didn't touch. Our regular stops were the Walgreen's on the corner, the newsstand, the A & P and the High-Low Foods, and, every now and then, the bakery in mid-block. It was a memorable place, not only for its pastry, but for its decorative blue mirrors, which lent the place a serene charm. I used to like to go in there just to see them. What most of the stores had in common was that white people ran them. Occasionally, someone black worked in them, but if there was ever a question, someone had to find a white man or woman with the answer. Yet I had never seen any white people living near us.

I didn't know it, but all of us were part of a great urban transition taking place in the Black Belt, a stretch of Chicago that extended roughly from Thirty-ninth Street to Sixty-third Street, from Lake Michigan on the east to as far west as Western Avenue, though we never considered such far-flung streets as "our neighborhood." The neighborhood we lived in was once an exclusive area occupied by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a situation that changed in the 1920s when German Jews began to arrive. The trickle became a wave in the years during and after World War II, and by 1950, 85 percent of Kenwood was populated by German Jews. In just ten years it would become 85 percent Negro. It was the same all along the Black Belt: between 1940 and 1960, the population of black Chicago would grow from 278,000 to 813,000. Ours was the kind of neighborhood that urban pioneers would, thirty years later, fight to resettle, to turn into a showcase of gentrification. (On Oakenwald--once a street so thick with gang members that Mama forbade us to walk there--one of the renovated limestones recently sold for $200,000.) Landlords took advantage of a combination of factors, including the profound residential segregation still common in Chicago and the dearth of housing for black families in these last days before the advent of public housing. Thus the six of us came to be wedged into a first-floor apartment originally designed as the public space of an impressive home.

Our front door opened from the hallway into the living room. The room was furnished with a couch covered in a green-blue, faintly iridescent fabric, where Mama slept each night, and a stuffed chair, a bookcase I pretended was mahogany, and a gigantic console radio. To the left, through a set of curtains, was the children's bedroom. To the right was an enormous room with built-in cabinets. This clearly used to be the dining room; for us, it was both dining room and kitchen. Next to that was a kind of alcove, complete with a little closet where Mama stored the old wringer washer she sometimes used. Across from the alcove was the one bathroom in the apartment, painted a succession of ghastly colors--except for a memorable coat of emerald green enamel, which I loved because I was a May baby, and emerald was my birthstone.

At the other end of the apartment were a back door and two rooms. One room, which was unheated, was used as a storage room. Mama kept the rollaway bed in there, and an old desk, and a big orange freezer that Daddy had hustled for her somewhere. Mama kept a clothesline hanging in that room, for drying clothes we were in no hurry to wear.

The other room was Daddy's room. It contained a dresser, a chifforobe where he kept his clothes from a past, flashy life, a double bed with a patterned headboard, and a night table adorned with pill bottles, a lamp, and a radio. There were also two ice-cream-parlor chairs--the kind with bentwood backs. The pair had been painted every conceivable color; you could see the layers that had chipped away from long abuse.

I knew a lot about those chairs. Sometimes we sat in them--gathered around my father's bed like soldiers at the campfire, listening to grandly told stories of adventure. Sometimes they fell victim to my father's rage, tipping over as Daddy lunged forward to beat one or more of us for some infraction. Sometimes they were used for the interrogation of my mother. Daddy would scream at her to sit her big ass down, and he'd close the door to berate her away from our terrified eyes. Sometimes I glimpsed her through a crack in the door; she'd be sitting in one of those chairs, wearing a flowered housedress, my father looming over her, screaming, cursing.

"You lying, no-good whore!"

I lay in my bed in the front room, crying in the dark. Two rooms away, my father continued his tirade against my mostly silent mother. I could tell from the air on my face that the room was ice-cold; the boiler was out again and the whole building most likely was freezing.

"You think I don't know about all your men, you stinking bitch? You think I'm some kind of damn fool?"

I heard my mother murmuring what might have been an answer. Then I heard the slapping sound of flesh against flesh, and the thump of my mother's body against a wall. I knew they struggled, because I could hear the grunts they made as Mama tried to defend herself and Daddy continued to attack her. The floor .vibrated with the blows from their wrestling bodies. It felt as though they were fighting right up under my bed.

"You think I don't see all these men after your ass, you no-good whore? They used you up, bitch!" Daddy was screaming, growing hoarse with the effort, but the more hoarse he became, the louder he got. I could tell from the sniffles in the room that I wasn't the only one awake. My brothers and sister could hear them fighting, too. But I didn't say anything out loud. I was too busy monitoring the dreadful silences between his tirades, wondering whether he had killed Mama, straining to hear the murmur of her voice that would tell me she was abused, but still alive.

He started in again, with more blows, the sharp slap of his hand against my mother carrying clear through the house. I jumped up from my bed and ran through the cold rooms to where they were. "Leave her alone," I screamed. "Get away from her! "

Both of them turned toward me, standing in the doorway.

"Get your little ass back in that bed," my father snarled.

"I'm all right, Ro. Go on to bed, baby," my mother said, in the same moment. "He's not hurting me." Her voice was warm, but anxious; she didn't move from the chair.

"Stop hitting her! Why do you have to hit her?" I didn't understand what he was so angry about. Why couldn't they smile at each other, hug and kiss the way folks did on television?

Daddy ignored me, turning his attention to Mama. I wanted to go to Mama, protect her, make Daddy stop. But I knew if I stayed, he would turn on me, cut my skin with the leather belt he wielded, sometimes without regard to where its buckle was. I was too afraid to stay, ashamed of being so young, so small that I couldn't defend her. All I could do was go back to bed and lie there, listening to the ebb and flow of my father's rage, waiting for it to subside enough for me to sleep a little, crying and asking God to make it stop, hating the night and longing for morning.

In the morning, I woke up before my brothers and sister to the sound of the back door slamming and the distant roar of a starting car. My mother was in the kitchen, singing some spiritual under her breath. I was filled with an aching relief. He was gone for the day; Mama was all right. I went into the kitchen to see for myself, and she was there, in her flowered duster, getting ready to fry bacon, the dull silver of the coffeepot winking from the back burner of the stove. Mama had already poured herself a cup of coffee, which she sipped as she worked. When she saw me at the doorway, she smiled a little and reached over for a purple cup and saucer made of melamine. The cup was cracked and stained from too much use, but it was beautiful to me, a symbol of quiet time with her. She poured in a little coffee and a lot of milk, stirred in some sugar, and presented it to me at the kitchen table. All the while she worked, Mama talked.

"We have to wash clothes today, and go to the store. I need some neck bones. I'm going to boil them down with potatoes and onions, and make us up some corn bread. That ought to be a good dinner. I need soap powder too, but I got enough bleach...."

I sat next to her, safe for the moment, listening to her make the list of things to do that day. It felt good when Mama confided in me about the work of the household, and I tried to be a help to her in every way I knew how. But the thing I wanted to do most, I couldn't do. I couldn't make Daddy leave her alone. I couldn't make them stop screaming, or make them act like the mothers and fathers on television. I couldn't make peace.

For all her passivity about my father, Mama was unbending in her insistence on a set of standards for herself and for us. We represented her, and she refused to tolerate anything that smacked of rude or thoughtless behavior. She was much kinder in her strictures than Daddy, but no less firm: there were kids we could play with and kids we couldn't, folks we could associate with and others to whom we were permitted to exhibit only a perfunctory politeness. "I hate a bum," she used to say as we followed her from chore to chore, and much of her time was spent distinguishing herself from the people she thought were bums.

My mother's endurance was a mystery to me. I understood why she said she could not leave us. I was grateful that she refused to disappear. But what I never understood was how she was able to do what she did for as long as she did it. It was my mother's genius at making do, combined with a vivid imagination and a surprising sense of humor, that made our lives work as well as they did. Yet there were no kind words for her, no respite, nothing to look forward to--except, perhaps, the dream, a conviction that our lives somehow would be different. There was only the relentless quest for survival.

She shopped ruthlessly, bargained, cajoled, charmed storekeepers and managers of all the little stores along Forty-third Street, where we shopped. She brought us with her everywhere she went, so there could be no denying that she had several mouths to feed. The butcher shop, redolent with the smells of sawdust and uncooked meat, was a place where she bargained for an extra piece of meat or a spare neck bone. She knew people sometimes felt sorry for her, and she didn't care, if it meant more food for her kids. Contrary to my father's opinion, she was not running around on him. There was no time or opportunity to cheat on your husband with four kids in tow. But she could have if she'd wanted to, because my mother was a big, pretty woman with sparkling eyes, and the men in the neighborhood noticed her. Even as a little girl, I came to recognize the slow drawl and insinuation in the voices of men who offered to help my mother with all those packages and all those kids. My mother always declined any offers, except for those from a couple of very familiar neighbors. I suspect that Daddy had taught my mother everything about men that she ever wanted to know. The result was the suppression--if not the end--of her desires. We became, and remained, her primary passion.

Mama's food store of choice was High-Low Foods on Forty-third Street near Drexel. Part of a small local chain that no longer exists, it offered sometimes slightly spoiled, always overpriced food that was nonetheless cheaper than the food at more prominent chains, such as A & P. For Mama, the most important aisle was the one with canned goods--rows and rows of them in bins stacked three high. There were pork and beans, creamed corn, mixed vegetables, sardines, Vienna sausages, and potted meat, all at ten cents a can. If she had the cart with her, she could roll home dozens of cans of everything it took to make a meal to stretch for six. Jack salmon was twenty-five cents a can. Jiffy corn bread mix was a dime a box; so was piecrust mix. We helped out of necessity, scurrying around the store like couriers, searching for forgotten items. If bacon was on sale, that meant baked beans with strips of bacon on top. If potted meat was plentiful that week, it meant lunches of potted meat sandwiches and mayonnaise with sweet pickle. If Mama found salmon, she could mix it with eggs and flour to make salmon croquettes.

Later, we would go to the A & P for frozen orange juice, milk and sugar, and Cheerios or cornflakes for breakfast. It was Mama's chance to say hello to Miss Mildred, who worked at the checkout counter. And it was a chance to earn Plaid stamps, which Mama kept in a drawer. Every few weeks, we'd all get redemption books and sit around on Saturday night, pasting in the stamps, talking about what we could get. Mama once used them to buy clippers to cut my brothers' hair; she still has those clippers. She got a really nice set of drinking glasses, too, that we could use for the holidays; they had white flowers etched on them. Most days, we used old jelly jars and some aluminum cups we had.

Food stamps made things easier. The formal Food Stamp program began in selected areas of the United States in 1961. I cannot remember a time when we did not have those slender coupon books, put aside in an old purse my mother kept in a dresser drawer. For a certain amount of money each month, say fifty dollars, you could buy sixty-five dollars' worth of food stamps. There was a host of rules about their use; no toilet paper or diapers were permitted, but milk and bread and other food staples were allowed. Stamps had to be in their books. You weren't allowed to tear out a five-dollar coupon and run to the store for some basics. And in the early days of the program, even your change at the checkout came to you in food-stamp coins: plastic disks of burgundy or gray.

Mama bought food stamps at the same place she conducted all of her AFDC-related business: at the currency exchange--the closest thing to a bank in the ghettos of Chicago. In other cities, these are known as check-cashing places. Whatever they're called, they are the financial institutions of the poor. Mama cashed her check there and bought food stamps, got money orders to pay the phone company and the gas company, even bought stamps to mail her bills. The charge for their services: as much as 1 percent of the total amount cashed. Not terrible, but enough for us to notice.

The endless counting of change, the rush to search out dropped pennies, the constant monitoring of the curbs and vacant lots for empty pop bottles--these are the memories that exhaust me. I am profligate with money in response to all those years of relentless scrimping. I flail against them by going into grocery stores and buying what I like. I never look at prices; I don't want to know. I simply shop until the money runs out, determined in this one thing at least to have what I want: not the things that are cheaper, not the things on sale, definitely not the generic, no-frills food that reminds me of the packages of government food we sometimes got from church. I had no shame about eating it; it didn't taste worse than the other food we ate. But to see those packages now, to actually buy them and keep them in my house, would mean I had gone backward, and one of the few things my mother and father agreed on was the importance of never going backward. Whenever you move, they always said, go forward.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The author writes, "My mother's endurance was a mystery to me....[W]hat I never understood was how she was able to do what she did for as long as she did it." (p. 10) In what ways does she have a better understanding of her mother's endurance by the end of the memoir?

2. Talk about the author's point that one of the basic flaws in ADC was that it wasn't designed originally as a permanent social insurance program like Social Security. Do you agree or disagree? And why?

3. The author notes that her mother and other African-American women of that generation felt their lives were less important than the lives of the children they raised. Is this a truth that still exists today? That transcends economic and racial barriers?

4. The author's father beat her and terrorized her family. He also encouraged, demanded, and instilled a love and respect for books and learning. If the reverse were true (a loving father who had no respect for learning) how might her life have been different? Do you think she would have accomplished what she has?

5. Welfare made the author's father a "shadow man." Talk about this phenomenon and what it does to men and to their families.

6. Talk about the changes that occur in the author's perceptions and understanding of her home and neighborhood every time she ventures farther from it.

7. Is the author more like her father than not? In what ways?

8. How can a teacher change a student's life? How did her teacher at Francis W. Parker School do that for the author? Talk about experiences you've had with an inspirational teacher.

9. Talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--the author's perceptions of him and her understanding of the movement for racial equality and how it changed at different points in her life. Can you chart such points in your life?

10. The author writes that she learned to "negotiate a way of belonging in this largely white, culturally very different world without abandoning the rest of my real life." (p. 106) What price does she pay for doing this? Is there a choice for African-Americans? Do white people ever have to do the same?

11. Diversity and integration? Or, separatism and co-existence? At what points in the book does the author feel one way or the other is best?

12. Talk about the author's pragmatism regarding affirmative action. Talk about the current state of affirmative action--the arguments for and against it.

13. When the author enters the workforce, she has to deal with a whole new breed of problem--an unsupportive boss. Talk about this as a reality of life. Is it worse, or more common, for African-Americans?

14. Free of her husband, her children grown, the author's mother chooses to be a companion and helper to a wealthy white woman. How does the author come to terms with this? How would you?

15. Talk about the author's relationship with Royce in Harlem. Would you have helped in the same way?

16. Talk about the difference between the world of men and the world of women. In the African-American community, who pays a bigger price for day-to-day existence? For achieving dreams?

17. Talk about Evangelical Christianity as a faith that leads Christians "not to a larger embrace of the world...but to a profound sense of hopelessness.... Their great love of God had ruined them in the company of humanity." (p. 262)

18. The author considers "color-blindness in America both an insult and a lie." (p. 263) Do you agree? Why or why not?

19. The author notes that Shelby Steele argues for forgetting and forgiveness in regard to racial issues. The author argues that "consciousness is the only path to forgiveness and reconciliation." (p. 268) What do you think?

20. Talk about the welfare reform bill of 1996. Do you agree with the author that it is a "betrayal of our interests as women." (p. 274) Have your feelings about this been influenced by reading this memoir or from your personal experience with welfare?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2001

    Unafraid of the Dark

    This book sat at my bedside for a year, was picked up one evening and finished a few days later. I became immediately attached to Rosemary as a young girl struggling with her poor family to make do with very little. She is blessed with intelligence and a loving mother. I felt like she needed to keep letting the reader know how really bad her life was, even though she had many very important things going for her. She shines an excellent window into life in the welfare system in the 60's and foreshadows the doom of our existing system. I enjoyed learning Rosemary's perspective.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2010

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