Looking for peace anywhere but here

November 02, 1993|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Staff Writer

". . . one is an exile only when one is not allowed to live in reasonable peace and dignity . . ."

So wrote Oliver W. Harrington in "Look Homeward Baby," one of several essays of remembrance in this collection. The quote is worth noting. It sums up why, in years past, many of our finest black artists left America for saner, more hospitable climes. Richard Wright, Josephine Baker, Dexter Gordon, Henry O. Tanner and others sought a "reasonable peace and dignity" they could not find here, where the burden of race bends spirits, shatters souls. In the crucible of becoming, some lost their way, or found their way -- to Paris, Denmark, anywhere but here.

Mr. Harrington, 81, artist, writer and close friend of Richard Wright ("Native Son"), was in Paris during that exquisite, post-World War II era when "the streets glowed in that exhilarating luminosity which exists only in Paris" and, for a few brief years, there seemed no better place for a black artist. In the words of the late Chester Himes, a fellow writer and expatriate, "Ollie was the center of the American community on the Left Bank in Paris, white and black, and he was the greatest Lothario in the history of the whole Latin Quarter."

Perhaps Himes exaggerates, or Mr. Harrington prefers not to delve into his escapades. None are mentioned in the nine essays and speeches presented here, of which three are not worth remembering. Mr. Harrington's strength is autobiography, not reviews.

"Look Homeward Baby," "How Bootsie Was Born" and "Our Beloved Pauli" give a sensitive and richly detailed account of life during wonderfully fascinating and trying times. They are the triumphs of this collection. Even the two opening essays recalling Mr. Harrington's friendship with Richard Wright, "le grand monsieur," pale by comparison.

Mr. Harrington was there for the stories and discussions, the coffee, Scotch and cognac poured in the room not too far from the sturdy Underwood typewriter upon which Wright poured his heart. He gives us Wright's humor; Wright puttering about a farm, lavishing fresh potatoes on friends; Wright finding pity in his heart for those poisoned by racial hatred.

And Mr. Harrington gives us the silence and sorrow felt in the rue

Regis after Wright's death in 1960, the circumstances of which he still questions.

Having spent more than 40 years abroad, Mr. Harrington understands the black expatriate's life and why it became of such concern to the U.S. government. Europe offered freedom and experiences, that "reasonable peace and dignity."

Yet, it was not always the best of times. Mr. Harrington scuffled to get by, shipping his cartoons stateside to black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender. But he was in a better place. The burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

Not so for others. He remembers one friend, referred to only as Harris, who found himself unable to follow the advances of a young white woman. Harris ended up in a Parisian bar, wailing, "That's what the dirty . . . have did to poor old Harris."

Racism is the crippling disease we carry.

Born in Valhalla, N.Y., in 1912, Mr. Harrington grew up in the 1920s, as bad a time as you'll find for race relations in America, even in the North. The memories of his childhood in the Bronx are harrowing. A psychopathic policeman beat black folks as a matter of course. A teacher brought him and another black student before their classmates and said: "These two, being Black, belong in a waste basket." He remembers "black children carrying their 'niggerness' like lead weights on anxiety-tensed shoulders."

A Jewish merchant helped relieve the awful pressure of that time. He told Mr. Harrington about black poets, teachers, doctors, and Paul Robeson. Life was not the same afterward. In "Our Beloved Pauli," a tribute to Robeson, Mr. Harrington remembers the seminal moment.

"Meyer's piercing eyes refused to release my unbelieving stare. They willed me to think that there was such a black man. And if there was it would mean that we were not trash and dirt -- even though black. It was a soul-splitting thought. It was a blow-torch burning out the foundations of existence."

Five years later, having graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, he escaped the Bronx and landed in Harlem. It was 1929, a time of Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell and Robeson, "who was singing songs which gripped some inner fibers in us that had been dozing. And he was saying things which widened black eyes and sharpened black ears, things which sounded elusively familiar."

During World War II, he went overseas as a correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier. The black soldiers are at times bitter, their humor grim. And why not? They were fighting in a segregated army, dying for a country whose European prisoners could, at war's end, enjoy more of America than they. He wrote:

"You fought, if you are a Negro veteran, to tear down the sign 'No Jews Allowed' in Germany, to find in America the sign 'No Negroes Allowed.' "

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