'Flight of the Blackbird' -- patina of affluence

November 10, 1996|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

"Flight of the Blackbird," by Faye McDonald Smith. Scribner. 352 pages. $23

This debut novel is the surprisingly compelling story of a couple in crisis whose responses to their situation provide a penetrating commentary on the economic and social insecurity of the new black middle class.

Mel Burke is a well-paid executive staffer at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Her husband, Builder, owns a small contracting company. They have a 12-year-old daughter, Sascha, and a lovely home in which they enjoy entertaining friends. On the surface, the Burkes are a model of black middle-class success in the New South.

But the foundation on which their lives are built is less solid than it seems.

Cracks appear when Mel unexpectedly loses her job due to a corporate downsizing. The resulting loss of income also reveals the precarious state of Builder's business, which isn't doing nearly so well as everyone believes.

As the debts pile up, the Burkes struggle to maintain their comfortable lifestyle. When their distress becomes apparent, status-conscious friends unceremoniously drop them. Sascha, embroiled in adolescent turmoil and resentful of her parents' inability to keep her in private school, becomes depressed and withdrawn.

Finally, Builder realizes that, with his company teetering on bankruptcy, he can no longer pay the bills. The bank threatens foreclosure. Mel is furious because he has taken a second mortgage on their home to offset his business reverses. He blames her for losing her job. The marriage slowly starts to disintegrate amid constant bickering and recriminations over money.

The fragility of the new black middle class stems from its lack of real wealth, a legacy of America's long history of institutionalized racism.

Although a patina of affluence shields them somewhat from the harsher realities endured by the black poor, middle-class blacks like the Burkes are by no means immune to racism's toxic effects.

They are, for example, far more vulnerable than their white counterparts to job bias and discrimination by lending institutions. Unlike many of their white peers, they live largely from paycheck to paycheck, with few accumulated assets.

jTC The old, pre-civil rights era black bourgeoisie described by sociologist E. Franklin Frazier compensated for its economic and social marginality by exaggerating the achievements of black business and creating a make-believe world of black "society."

The post-civil rights era middle class represented by the Burkes has adopted similar coping mechanisms to deal with a presumptively integrated society still marked by deep racial divisions that are only partially mitigated by corporate tokenism and toothless black political power.

It is to Faye McDonald Smith's credit that she refrains from giving her tale a happy ending. Suffice it to say that Mel and Builder eventually come to terms with their dilemma, however painful.

The author writes a clear, concise prose admirably suited to her theme. The value of her novel lies in its unflinching honesty and an authorial eye that unfailingly discerns the larger social truths embedded in the everyday lives of otherwise quite ordinary people.

Glenn McNatt, The Sun Arts columnist, was previously an editorial writer for 10 years at The Sun and began his career as a college English teacher.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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