Geography of a Life, the Road Paved Black

By Deborah E. McDowell

Scribner: 285 pages; $23

Deborah McDowell's provocative coming-of-age memoir begins with the kind of "summons" --as her first chapter is called--that everyone dreads: an emergency call from home. This skillful play on the universal fear of personal disaster draws the reader into the author's life as a young girl in her neighborhood, called Pipe Shop, in Bessemer, Ala.

"You got to come home," announces her father's sister, Auntee, always the bearer of bad news. Ostensibly McDowell returns home to look into the possibility of a class action suit involving asbestos against the pipe factory where her father worked much of his adult life. In reality, she travels home to ascertain the health of Auntee, one of her last surviving relatives. The too- recent and premature deaths of many family members trouble her spirit and underlie the tangible sense of loss that the story evokes.

Soon the lawsuit eases into the background and the journey to learn more about her father's as she confronts old ghosts and new realities. The South she returns to 30 years later is far different from the South she left.

McDowell creates a complex portrait of a time and place that many Americans know only too well. Born in the early '50s on the eve of far-reaching legal and social changes brought about by civil rights protests, McDowell skillfully weaves a tale of what it took her family to survive and, in some cases. triumph She is quick to point out that many African Americans did neither.

She vibrantly maps the geography of her early life, an area bounded by street crossings, the large pipe factory called US. Pipe and Steel where most of the town's men--black and white-- worked; and sharply demarcated racial and class barriers.

Growing up to an extended family whose women were strong, opinionated and caring was an exemplary path, she says. "Mother came from a long line of black American women from the South who thought they could create the world in their own image. And if they met with obstacles along the way, why they simply ignored them or took a detour."

McDowell's mother re-created designer dresses desired by customers "clutching rumpled pictures torn from Vogue and Mademoiselle. The garments fit much better, McDowell asserts, than those in a Bessemer or Birmingham store where black customers could not try them on, much less have them altered.

Sometimes McDowell's images shatter stereotypes of class and color. We don't expect to hear I that her grandmother's home was filled with canopied beds, vases always filled with fresh flowers and crystal bottles on dressing tables. Dinner tables groaned with lovingly prepared food and monogrammed china, imported crystal, heavy silver and snowy white linens. People sat down to eat together with a prayer before each meal; each child was expected to contribute a Bible verse.

Through the shifting prism of memory, McDowell reflects on some of the mysteries that intrigued her as a girl; a female cousin moving away before her prom, leaving behind sorrow, all wrapped up in a yellow crepe gown; an uncle having a falling out with his mother, sabotaging his dream to become a doctor and dying young from drugs and diabetes; her father's own mysterious death. For some of these things she would find answer as a teenager; for the others, solutions would come through adult conjecture.

With a gift for making the common compelling, McDowell captures the aspirations and realities of the working-class residents of Pipe Shop, infusing them with unshakable dignity, luminous grace and profound compassion. The book is rife with the everyday humor of men and women, children and adults bumping up against each other, coming together in joy and separating in sorrow.

Although whites remain at the periphery of McDowell's account, the impact of their control is central to an understanding of how Pipe Shop lived and ultimately died. McDowell's treatment of the twin evils of racism segregation bears the authenticity of experience and acute observation. Thus she points to the irony that in the year 1995 there is still no pipeline for a sewage system in the Pipe Shop neighborhood, even though inhabitants had forged and created pipes for sewage systems around the world.

From the beginning it is clear that the author is troubled by her estrangement from her father. But not until late in the book do the reasons for the separation come clear. McDowell's moment of recognition of the cruelties in life that might have contributed to her father's withdrawal from his wife and children is searing. One comes away hoping that the daughter will indeed seek the justice her father and her family so richly deserved. For whatever humanity there was to Pipe Shop, McDowell and her family received a goodly share, not from the factory, but from the souls of ordinary black folk.

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