by Benilde Little
Reading a well-written novel is like sex.
First, the thrill of discovering the book on the shelves. The quick read on the train ride home is like foreplay, an appetizer for things to come. Once you’re home, you devour the book with all the intensity of intercourse—finding a comfortable position, bringing out “toys”—television, iPod, music and other accoutrements. The feeling of completion is exhilarating. Not as intense as orgasm, but definitely as satisfying.
This is the affect after re-reading Benilde Little's Good Hair. The novel has been read twice before; but like good sex, you often want to return to the scene of the crime. In this case, there was the need to re-sample her engaging characters and bittersweet reflections on skin complexion, status and relationships.
Benilde has written three books—Good Hair, The Itch and Acting Out. In May her latest—Who Does She Think She Is?—will hit the shelves. Each deals with the angst of the black upper middle class.
You know the the script: daddy is on the fast track at Goldman Sachs, mommy is a stay-at-home attorney, raising Courtney and Brooke with their playgroups and Jack and Jill activities. The parents and most of their friends are brown skinned or light; their families have vactioned on the Vineyard for two generations, and everyone knows each other from Howard or boarding school.
It's an inherently schizophrenic existence. Their African American credentials are dismissed by many other blacks, often accused of not keeping it real. Meanwhile, there's the added pressure of building the resume and fighting the new Jim Crow in the boardrooms.
Little's words are honest, searing and emotional. The dialogue is structured, and the characters studied and deliberate. The protagonist of Good Hair is Alice Andrews, a newspaper reporter and wanna-be BAP who has traded on her working class roots.
I had been living in Manhattan for five years, hanging out with a bunch of women who, in addition to sharing an alma matter, shared a 1950-ish goal of "marrying well." It was actually a phrase that we used to describe what we all wanted: a black Ward Cleaver, who made a million dollars a year and dressed in Armani. What these prized stallions would want in return from their wives-to-be seemed doable at the time: constant stroking, a happy disposition, and great hair--which meant long but requiring little artificial maintenance.
Basically, they were all Cosby girls.
Her writing is emotional, and evokes bittersweet memories of my own life. Growing up poor, attending to a top school, trying to fit in with the trust fund kids, the whole career thing. There are contradictions, too; certainly growing up, there were obvious social divisions between dark and light. It never made me want to become lighter, which would have been impossible. (Actually no, MJ has proved otherwise.) The division is evident when home in Chicago, and of course in the south. Out east, it doesn't play out so well. Definitely, being dark skinned has its advantages in NYC. Maybe that's what attracted me to the big city.
The author touches upon this her book. Alice meets a Jack Russworm, a light-bright bourgeois doctor. Like many great romances, it begins in first class ... on a Delta flight from ATL to LaGuardia. Alice is rebounding from a passionate, whirlwind romance with a playa, and Jack's studied demeanor and orderly life seems just what the doctor ordered. Literally.
There's the contradiction that the author expertly details. Jack is a young prince of the colored elite; his father was a doctor, as was his grandfather. Mother is a society grand dame on Striver's Row. Meanwhile, Alice is from across the river and light years away. She grew up lower middle class in Newark; dad is a mailman, mom is a seamstress. The family is not close, and she has been emotionally scarred by childhood incest.
The contradiction between Alice's shame and Jack's arrogance makes for fabulous reading. Against her better judgment, she falls for the prince. That's okay, no one can legislate the heart. Little exploits these contradictions to demonstrate how we carry our baggage from childhood. Alice must confront her fears—and aspirations—when mixing with Jack's landed gentry set, like when she attended a society wedding in the District.
I looked around the courtyard and there seemed to be a thousand light-skinned men with light brown wavy hair and blue or green eyes, escorting women who looked like their sisters, drinking Cooks' as if it were water, and debating whether Martha's Vineyard was better than Highland Beach.
Eventually, Alice makes peace with her inner demons and her agrees to marry Jack. But before they are hitched ... there's a hitch. It's a wonderful plot twist involving another woman, and Jack rises to the occasion and tries to do the right thing.
Benilde Little is one of our stronger African American writers; unfortuntaely, she's not as well known as some others, and doesn't seem obsessed with name-dropping celebs or pretending to be g-fab. That's not her world. The writing is personal and emotional, the plots are deliberate and the characters are painstakingly drawn. Let's look for her new title in May.
Also by Benilde Little:
Who Does She Think She Is? in May