Unafraid of the Dark

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Overview

In this inspiring memoir, Rosemary Bray, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, describes growing up poor in Chicago in the 1960s, becoming one of the first black women at Yale, and eventually, a successful journalist and loving mother. With complete candor, she explains why she feels changes in the welfare system make if virtually impossible for her story to happen today: "Had it been in place thirty years earlier, the new welfare bill would have taken my mother out of our home each day." She ...
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0613177576 Ex-library book with usual markings. Clean text. SATISF GNTD + SHIPS W/IN 24 HRS. Sorry, no APO deliveries. Ships in a padded envelope with free tracking. 4026b

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Overview

In this inspiring memoir, Rosemary Bray, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, describes growing up poor in Chicago in the 1960s, becoming one of the first black women at Yale, and eventually, a successful journalist and loving mother. With complete candor, she explains why she feels changes in the welfare system make if virtually impossible for her story to happen today: "Had it been in place thirty years earlier, the new welfare bill would have taken my mother out of our home each day." She describes the increased hardships she and her siblings would have to endure with a mother out of the home, required to attend a training program, as the children would be left alone at home after school to fend for themselves. She continues, "No, this plan for self-sufficiency would have meant the disintegration of my already fragile family life."

When Rosemary Bray's mother decided to apply for welfare, it created a rift between her parents, yet it proved to be the salvation of the family, enabling her mother to devote time and attention to the education of her children. Bray writes movingly about her resourceful mother, who joined the Catholic church and shepherded the children to school and how, at that school, Rosemary's unique potential was spotted by the nuns, who arranged for Rosemary to attend Parker, a predominately white private school on the other side of town. As she describes in powerful vignettes the discrepancies between her life and the lives of her classmates, she also relates the experiences that gave her hope—a teacher who fostered her development and chose her to play the title role in "Alice in Wonderland;" the thrill of being accepted at Yale;falling in love; becoming a journalist; and ultimately, the blessings of motherhood. A moving memoir about how the dark in life can be overcome.

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Editorial Reviews

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

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
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: 9780613177573
  • Publisher: San Val
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Pages: 282
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 8.34 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Trapped by my birth, she could not leave me to seek freedom for herself. In truth, she would not leave me, or the brothers and sister that followed. She remembered what it was like to grow up motherless, and though she couldn't change what had happened to her, she was determined that it wouldn't happen to us. So she stayed with my father, as his fear and anger grew, as she bore the brunt of his unpredictable rages, endured the beatings that seemed inspired by everything and nothing. She started sleeping on the living room couch after my youngest brother was born. In those days, birth control was a haphazard undertaking, and she preferred risking my father's wrath to having any more children.

The times that Daddy gambled away the rent money grew more and more frequent. By the time we moved to the apartment on Berkeley Avenue that I always considered home, there were four children: myself, a sister, a brother, and another brother on the way. I was a sickly girl who didn't want to eat, and who possessed a host of allergies and bronchitis so severe I nearly died on one occasion. My brother showed signs of having some of the same problems. And Daddy's iron control of my mother's finances and life was tightening. "There were times when we hardly had a loaf of bread," my mother remembered. It was the prospect of not feeding us, of not being able to take us to the doctor, that helped her make the decision to sign up for Aid to Dependent Children.

Mama knew that the state of Illinois frowned on the presence of men in recipients' homes, so she simply told the caseworkers what they wanted to hear: Daddy wasn't around much, and he didn't have any money, even when he wasaround. It wasn't a lie: he spent long hours away, arriving only after he had exhausted all his options and his cash for the day. The state approved her, and before long, our five names had been added to the list of ADC (later AFDC) recipients in the state of Illinois. Our status yielded an even more precious commodity in Mama's eyes--a green card. This was not the green card associated with immigration, but a long green data-processing card that promised us access to medical care.

My father was noncommittal at first; it didn't bother him to pretend nonexistence, especially for a good cause--and extra money was always a good cause. That was before he realized that my mother had every intention of keeping that monthly check for us. Daddy despised what he could not control, and this show of defiance on her part enraged him. Her refusal to grant him even casual access to that pittance was the infuriating last straw. With rare exceptions, the two of them would remain forever at war.

The Aid to Dependent Children program, or ADC, had its origins in the Federal Social Security Act of 1935. Its purpose was to provide a minimal level of economic protection for children growing up without fathers--about 10 percent of all children during the disruptive period of the Great Depression. The historian Linda Gordon has written that what came to be known (from 1962 on) as AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was destined from its inception to stigmatize those most in need of its assistance. This was not intentional, Gordon says, so much as it was the inevitable consequence of a program designed as "small and temporary, because its framers believed that the model of the family in which the male was the breadwinner and the female was the housewife would be the standard."

Thus it was that the most pernicious requirements of ADC were institutionalized, in marked contrast to the requirements of other social insurance programs created at the same time, such as old-age or unemployment insurance. To receive ADC, you had to prove you were destitute and go on proving it at regular intervals. To get unemployment insurance or Social Security, you only had to apply for it. Once you were approved for it, particularly Social Security, it was yours indefinitely. Who you lived with or slept with, what you did with the money after you got it--these were no one's business but your own. To receive ADC, you had to relinquish any hope of privacy in your personal or social life. Who lived with you, or slept with you, or spent your money was now the business of the state.

The most significant decision in designing ADC came in how it was funded. Financed by general revenues alone, the program almost immediately became vulnerable to the charge that it was taking money from the pockets of "decent" people who paid income and property taxes. Old-age insurance was designed as a contributory program, funded in part through a separate payroll tax. Workers who ultimately received benefits were thus always viewed as "entitled" to the money, since it was supposedly theirs to begin with. In fact, Social Security has always used both contributions and general revenues to fund itself. Recipients always get back much more than they ever put in.

Even more harmful, Gordon writes, is the disregard built into the system for the invisible work that women do in caring for children and other dependents, such as aging parents. "This stratification," she writes, "created the meaning of welfare today. . . .Originally intended to serve what . . . seemed to be the most deserving of all needy groups--helpless mothers left alone with children by heartless men--AFDC became shameful, making its recipients undeserving by the very fact of providing for them."

Gordon puts her finger on an underlying premise that has helped to make the welfare system the scapegoat it has become. The dependence of women and children was assumed in the formation of the system; the dependence of men on old-age or unemployment insurance was not. However, the dependence and vulnerability of women and children has a basis in reality. A woman responsible for a child or children is more vulnerable than one without children. Her needs for shelter and food, medical care and other things to ensure her children's safety are more urgent, and certainly more intensely felt, than the needs of those women and men who find themselves on their own.

That reality has come head-to-head with new realities having to do with economic instability, with the disappearance of certain types of work, and with the rapid and permanent infusion of women into the workforce. In addition, the deep-seated need in many parts of our culture to control women's behavior--particularly their sexual and reproductive behavior--has shaped thewelfare debate in recent years. The ugly specter of race has reasserted itself as well, bringing to bear on the welfare debate all the stereotypes of women of color as profligate and uncontrollable sexual beings producing illegitimate children to be supported by the state.

Now that debate has ended. The AFDC program, part of welfare as I knew it, is dead--and the guilty parties are legion. The federal guarantee of support to poor children was killed by political opportunism and misguided attempts to "help" poor kids. It was murdered by upper-middle-class pundits and working-class bigots and Christian moralists, abandoned by disappointed liberals, ignored by privileged and childless feminists. And it was killed by silence from those of us who knew better--and that includes me.

The year my family entered the welfare system, 1960, marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of the creation of the Cook County Department of Public Aid. In the introduction to its annual report, the department remarked that in the year of its founding, 102 staff members did the Department's work on an annual budget of $658,360. Today, a staff of 3,150 administers an average monthly . . . expenditure in excess of $13,000,000.

"There are those--uninformed on the details of government and critical of it in any case--who hold that this rise . . . is the mark of public sentimentalism, or incompetence, or both," the report continued."It is not sentimentalism, but rather a realization on the part of an entire, wealthy, privileged community, that all its members must pull together in a hitherto unknown kind of public brotherhood, a conviction that the least lucky individuals should be helped--in some degree--by the charity of the lucky."

I stand now at midlife--writer, wife, mother--witness to a host of efforts that would make of my life and the lives of others an unfortunate aberration, a misguided attempt at social engineering, a lie. But I am not confused by these efforts, or by a shift in public sentiment. I know who I am. More important, I know who I was and I know who I became; I understand the journey from there to here. I am the great-great-granddaughter of slaves and the granddaughter of sharecroppers and the daughter of poor, proud, angry people determined to make more of me than they could of themselves.

I understand that there is a world of people determined to make me ashamed, make me embarrassed, make me forget what I know to be true. I understand that such people never go away. But I have been given priceless gifts I have no right to squander: a family, a once-committed nation, the luxuries of education and political awareness, opportunity and time. Most of all, I understand that these things were mine for a reason: to secure for others what was once secured for me.

I had always imagined the path I traveled would remain there for others. I had always imagined that hands would guide the others who would follow me. But now the path itself is being overgrown by cynicism and greed and carelessness. The hands of those who once bolstered children traveling this road have pulled away, weakened by narrow minds and personal pain. The path itself has grown a thousand times more treacherous. And now there are those in our nation who ask us all to be practical, who insist that the journey cannot even be made. They are wrong; I know it can be done. But the secret in traveling the path is that it is impossible to travel alone.

It may be too late to undo the damage done to our characters as Americans by the erosion of our faith in the possibility of change. We have been poisoned by the idea that nothing we do matters, that nothing the government does will matter. This is a lie, and my whole life is evidence of that fact. I have been lifted up by hands both seen and unseen, both individual and governmental. People, institutions, governments--all of them have something to offer people, something particularly important to the least among us. They are all avenues of justice and hope. Each, in its own way, matters immeasurably. If anyone knows the truth of that, I know. It has been the story of my life.

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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 ofhim 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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Customer Reviews

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  • 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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    Posted January 13, 2010

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