Many readers of this book will want to find positive, hopeful images, but poet Derricottea black woman who is sometimes mistaken for whiteprefers to "record the language of self-hate," the internalized racism she sees in herself and others. She began these diffuse but resonant notebooks some 20 years ago, during an increasingly infuriating search for a house in a white suburb of New York City. As her frustrations and isolation mount, her marriage frays; her dark-skinned husband who is a banker acknowledges to her that he married her in part for her light skin, while Derricotte confesses some revulsion at his looks. Her diaries plumb numerous racially freighted incidents. After she fights off a black attacker, the author thinks she hears him disparage her color. The white students she teaches write cathartic poems about childhood but black ones write about race. A white colleague at an artists' colony treats her with condescension. Yet the author also acknowledges she picks white women as confessors, "maybe precisely because they didn't have the same agony about race." Derricotte might have done more to analyze how much of her anguish is personal rather than racial, but her candor is brave. Author tour. (Oct.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Struggling against the bounds and burdens of race, Pittsburgh poet Derricotte rages and recoils with shame and sadness at her memory of living as a person of visibly indeterminate race in a society determined by race relations. She sometimes escaped the shell of her blackness, passing by choice, and sometimes escaped the substance of blackness, shunning herself. But her identity crisis resisted every dodge. Racial awareness weighed on her sense of self, motherhood, marriage, community, and work. It depressed her with something akin to Danish philosopher Sren Kierkegaard's sickness unto death. Her diarylike reflections mix the pain and pathos of Sue Kaufman's
Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967) and recent evocations of personal and public confusion of racial identity in Judy Scales-Trent's Notes of a White Black Woman (Penn State Univ., 1995) and Gregory Howard Williams's Life on the Color Line (Dutton, 1995). For collections on race, U.S. society, women, autobiography, and African Americans.Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe
The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, Derricotte revisits in a more exploratory and obsessive vein...contrasting the intimate family sites of blackness, fraught with danger, pain and desire, with the outer, white world, occassionally vicious, more frequently clueless and flat. Derricotte has kept these notebooks over twenty years, she explains, for several reasons: to examine blackness, to free herself from self-hatred (for being black, for not being black enough, for passing, for asserting her blackness): in short, to save her life. Edited down to some tow hundred pages, the book consists of an introduction and seven essays. It is a collecton of illuminating, often razor-sharp slices fromthe slagheap of black pain and white obtuseness and cruelty. Sometimes black cruelty, sometimes white kindness; but the color line never blurs, even as others fail to recognize the writer as black, even as the writer herself sometimes "forgets," tilting to the "white/American" side of African American double consciousness first named by W.E.B. DuBois nearly a century ago...." -- The Women's Review of Books
Poet Derricotte offers this portrait of a black woman's frustrating experience with racial prejudice from both outside and within her own people, and her own ambivalence about the color of her skin. This volume is largely comprised of the journals that Derricotte kept when she lived for the first time in a mostly white community. The author, who is light-skinned enough to "pass" when she wants, recounts keeping her dark-skinned husband away from real-estate brokers so that she could be shown better homes in nicer neighborhoods. This process secured her a house in an affluent suburb of New York but led to so much self-loathing and examination of her own feelings about the darker-skinned members of her race that she suffered a deep depression and ultimately separated from her husband. She wrote
The Black Notebooks, she notes in her introductory essay, not out of "desire" but to "save [her] life." At her best, Derricotte is reminiscent of Nella Larsen, for whom "passing" was a primary topic, and Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebooks, which is also about avoiding breakdown through writing. Some pieces in the collection are less cohesive than others and are subsequently less impressive from an artistic standpoint than pieces with a strong overarching theme. Typical of the latter group are "The Club," which concerns Derricotte's and her husband's sojourn in the white suburbs and the country club that they were never invited to join, and "Diaries at an Artists' Colony," with its collection of reactions from fellow colonists to her revelation of her racial background. "Blacks in the U." and "Face to Face," on the other hand, are more disjointed, but their point is not lost:It's not easy to be a black person in either a racially divided country or a color-conscious black community. A very strong first prose offering on an always provocative subject.