Making Peace With The Past: A Journey Home

By Natasha A. Tarpley

When Deborah E.McDowell left Pipe Shop, the black working-class neighborhood in Bessemer, Ala., where she was born and raised, to attend Tuskegee Institute in 1968, she vowed never to return, except to visit family. She was hoping to put permanently behind her the "images, slights, and restrictions of racial segregation."

Pipe Shop got its name from U.S. Pipe and Foundry, one of the largest pipe manufacturers in Alabama and the employer, during the boom times of the steel industry, of almost hall the men in men in McDowell's family and in the community. In 1994, McDowell, now an author and an English professor at the University of Virginia, was summoned by her Anutee Estella, who called to tell her of a class action suit involving asbestos poisoning that had been settled on behalf of former employees of U.S. Pipe. Auntee urged McDowell to file a claim on behalf of her late father, who had worked at the plant off and on for 28 years.

The call, questions about her father's death and the fragility of Auntee's voice as she pleaded with her to come home opened up a place that McDowell thought she had long ago sealed off for good. That night, she writes, "memories, roiling, roiling, roiling from the deep, pried my eyes wide open." It was time to go back home. Although this memoir is titled "Leaving Pipe Shop," it is really her return that is the heart of McDowell's story.

Spanning the time from McDowell's childhood in the early 1950Ős to Memorial Day 1995, "Leaving Pipe Shop" is divided into six parts, each comprising a series of vignettes that recount significant events and memories from McDowell's past. Through these snapshots rich with details of her surroundings and the voices of family members, we accompany McDowell along the winding path of her journey home.

In the process of remembering, McDowell re-enters the often-painful silences of her family's history, viewing them with new understanding. In the sections "After the Stroke" and "Mother's Effects," McDowell reflects on the life of her grandmother, whom the family called Mother, after a stroke left the once fiercely independent woman partially paralyzed and unable to care for herself. During the course of hell Mother's husband, Papa, man who loved her back to life, to care for Mother, McDowell discovers papers that raise the possibility that Mother may have had an affair. Later, in "Revelations," we find out that Mother did have an affair, with a preacher. Although Papa never found out about it, their son, Uncle Jr., did. We learn that this is probably the cause of his moodiness and his estrangement from Mother after he left Alabama to attend Howard University, in Washing ton, D.C.

But also in these three pieces, McDowell reveals the strength of Mother's and Papa's love--a love she may have been searching for when she got pregnant while at Tuskegee. In "Termination," McDowell describes her choice to have an abortion in a shotgun house smelling of "cold cooking grease and camphor." Her boyfriend at the time, a popular campus athlete, let her know that she was on her own, even accusing her of trying to trick him into caring for another man's child.

In "Hush Now, Don't Explain," McDowell recounts the painful discovery of her own father's extramarital affair, just before she left for college, and its impact on their family. One night her father didn't come home, and the next morning McDowell and her mother found him in an alley embracing another woman. This marked the beginning of McDowell's estrangement from her father:

''[Wlhenever he was home, the air was supercharged with tension and Daddy sat in smoldering silence, burrowed down inside himself in some unreachable place, or snapped at everybody for any little thing. Since we had once been very close, I felt his distance keenly, and sometimes wished he'd go away. Absence, I told myself, would be a far sight easier to bear than this silence and the shadowy side of his face."

McDowell's mother always blamed his problems on his unsteady work. But it is only when McDowell returns to U.S. Pipe in 1995 to try to locate her father s employment records and discovers that he was earning just $4.168 an hour when he died in 1974 that she understands the tremendous pressure he was under, and begins to forgive him.

Through the telling of her family's stories, McDowell also paints a vivid picture of Southern black small-town life in the 1950s and '60s. There was Miss Ophelia's, where most of the women of Pipe Shop went to get their hair done and to gossip; Miss Georgia's shot house, the local juke joint; The Birmingham World, Alabama's oldest black semiweekly newspaper; 4th of July barbecues and fireworks; elders to run errands for; and treats to be purchased from Blankenship's, a local mom-and-pop store.

McDowell chronicles the impact of the civil rights movement on Pipe Shop and its residents. "Easter Sunday" depicts the centrality of the church in organizing and mobilizing the community, and "Reverend Lockhart" illustrates the ways in which the mobilization of black people has often been thwarted or slowed by violence. Following the grisly murder of Lockhart, a community leader, "the church reclaimed its age-old reputation as a sleeper."

Just as memory occurs in snapshots and fragments, bits and pieces of stories surfacing and then vanishing, so does McDowell's record of her return home. In "Leaving Pipe Shop," McDowell does not attempt to put together all the pieces, to make the history and the stories of her family fit into one airtight, cohesive volume. Instead she chooses to enter the gaps and the silences; to confront the memories she had so long suppressed; to allow answers to evolve out of the perspective she has gained with distance and with age; and to let the unanswered questions stand.

There is a line in a song that says, "We all, every one of us, have to go home again." In "Leaving Pipe Shop," McDowell presents us with a way to make peace with the past, to reconcile the lives--the ones that we make and the ones that made us--that can sometimes feel like two distinct parts. Remembrance is the bridge in between."We all, every one of us, have to go home again." But we can only return when we are ready, with our hearts and eyes open. Otherwise, we will never see that home is the only place worth searching for, the only place worth finding.

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