'Unafraid of the Dark': Studying out of despair

March 29, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

"Unafraid of the Dark: A Memoir," by Rosemary L. Bray. Random House. 282 pages. $24.

This book reads like a bedtime story: a linear tale about heroes and villains told in simple, vivid language.

Though not as gruesome as Grimm's, Bray's tale is the kind of don't-let-the-bedbugs-bite yarn that no sane adult would subject child to. Yet it's exactly the sort of secret truth that a curious, sensitive kid - one more afraid of not knowing than of knowing - would climb out of bed to eavesdrop upon as the grown-ups talked freely downstairs.

It reminded me of a confession I once heard from a man in pain: "The whole time I was growing up I was petrified of the monsters under the bed when they were out in the living room watching TV."

(In Bray's case, only Daddy played the ogre; a proud, bitter misogynist who seems as though he would just as soon have eaten his children as see them thwarted in whitey's world as he was.)

A children's author and journalist, Bray credits her mother, the welfare system of the 1960s, the discipline of Roman Catholicism and private education for guiding her out of the black poverty of Chicago.

The preface is a small, partisan take on the history of American welfare: "growing up on it, being in the system, leaving it to live my adult life was for me part of [the] crucible of change."

The epilogue says that the welfare reform of 1996: " . . . obliterated the country's obligation to its poorest citizens. . . . the momentum was on the side of punishment and blame. . . ."

In between are plaintive parables explaining why Bray feels this way; 40 years of remembrance from a poor girl whose intelligence and love of books (literature for escape, protection and advancement) were matched with a fiercely devoted mother who was able to stay home and raise her family because of Aid to Dependent Children.

Along with God's grace - "trouble don't last always," her mama liked to say - this combination took Rosemary Bray from ghettos that lashed black folks with blues to the white strongholds of Yale, suburbia, and the upper middle class.

Once she's made it - nearly from the momemt assimilation begins despite a racism that nips at her regardless of education or money - Bray's story becomes less interesting by virtue of her becoming more like everybody else.

Her recounting of falling in love, looking for work, setting up house and having kids reads like the diary of a split-level soccer mom, almost as bland as those silly holiday flags people hang from their windows.

Yet by the time you get to this stuff, you know she has earned the right to luxuriate in the mundane.

Of her days on the staff of the New York Times Book Review, Bray writes: "Part of the joy of reading is the hope of deciphering a writer's secret, rooting for his or her success."

The joy in reading "Unafraid of the Dark" is knowing that behind the doors to some of Baltimore's derelict rowhouses - with or without welfare reform - there must be a child and a parent making a pact to study their way out of despair.

It doesn't take too long to decipher Bray's secret. Isn't that why people write memoirs, to rattle the skeletons and cut out their hearts?

And you'd have to be a mean stick of wood not to root for her.

Rafael Alvarez has been a reporter for The Sun for 17 years. His "The Fountain of Highlandtown," a collection of short fiction, was published in 1997.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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