Despite racism, these black Americans achieved

February 16, 1992|By Maurice Taylor

CHILDREN OF THE DREAM:

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BLACK SUCCESS

Audrey Edwards and Craig K. Polite.

Doubleday.

287 pages. $21.50.

My initial fear was that "Children of the Dream" would be just another celebration of the conspicious -- i.e., Ebony in hardback. The authors chronicle the achievements of 41 successful

African-American men and woemn born between 1935 and 1965. Representing the first fruits of racial intergration, they were interviewed between 1987 and 1990. Included among the success stories are Baltimore natives Reginald Lewis and Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

The premises of the book, as stated in the introductory chapter, did little to allay my fear. The authors contend that it is better to focus on examples of success (rather than upon social pathology) "within the black race to identify the skills necessary to prevail in the face of presistent racism." When I noted in the opening chapter that the first example of a successful African-American was John H. Johnson, I was ready to recommend that interested parties pick up a copy of Ebony (which Mr. Johnson publishes) at the newsstand and save themselves the $21.50 retail price of the text.

Like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, however, I was converted by the time I read the last chapter. The conversion began with the authors' discussion of the Little Rock 9. The image so vividly depicted in the second chapter, of Elizabeth Eckford isolated and surrounded by "a mob of whites who taunted and threatened her with death" as she walked to school, still haunts me.

Mrs. Eckford, now 45, who "has never given an interview or spoken on the subject of that particular trauma," is presumably also haunted by the same image. And my conversion was complete by the time I read an account of what can best be described as a made-for-prime-time love story: Raymon Hervey's salvaging of Vanessa Willialms' career.

"Children of the Dream" is an important text because it uses life experiences of African-Americans as diverse as Ms. Eckford and Mr. Hervey to teach us of the commonalities among black achievers. We learn that regardless of career choice there is a "black tax" -- the toll race exerts in the workplace. The result: "No matter the class or skin clor, the personal circumstances or particular successes, to be black is to live with anger as the defining emotion of a racial experience.`

The styles of managing anger vary among achievers. Some, like newspaperman and critic Les Payne, manage their anger like gunslingers, prepared to shoot even those already wounded from an array of personal and social battles.

In the end, the authors inform us that while some black success may be characterized as "ascent by agitation," it is most often "sheer persistence: in the face of racial opposition that is the critical quality between success and failure in the black experience. Chapter 11, "A Dream Deferred," demonstrates graphically how the failure to manage anger can lead apparently successful black achievers toward self-destruction.

"Children of the Dream" does have weaknesses. The authors' depiction of successful lifestyles occassionallly becomes laden with triviality, such as the number of suits, ties and shoes in a closet. Analysis of the impact of life experiences on the psyche of black achievers too often becomes a platform from which the authors launch into flights of existential fantasy. For example, they ponder which came first, (white) racism or (black) inferiority; or which is more oppressive, racism or sexism. Similarly, the analysis of the impact of gender on black achievers amounts to little more than canonization of a stereotype, when the authors claim that "power is to men what marriage and children are said to be to women."

Despite these problems, the importance of this book is not diminished. "Children of the Dream" is a text about black life lessons from men and women who have persevered in America and, and as a result, have achieved a measure of success. The authors refer to the 41 successful blacks as "experts in the art of victory." The victories, however, transcend race, and the lessons instruct us more about the power of the human spirit than about the consequences of color.

Dr. Taylor is assistant dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at Morgan State University

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