Memories of Kin

Deborah E. McDowell

"We passed long sultry July evenings in the age-old Southern way, rocking rhythmically back and forth on porches. Brandishing rolled-up sections of The Birmingham News, we swatted mosquitoes buzzing around our ears.... While Reggie and the other boys shot marbles in the vanishing light and Daddy rested up for the night shift, the girls and women on our street crowded on someone's porch."

It is this Southern world of front porch storytelling, beauty parlor gossip, gatherings at the local Baptist church to listen to Martin Luther King Jr., Emancipation Day celebrations with fried chicken, ice-box rolls, and creamed corn, and the black working class neighborhood known as Pipe Shop to which Deborah E. McDowell returns in LEAVING PIPE SHOP: Memories of Kin, a stunning personal portrait of her upbringing in the pre-civil-rights South.

Hers are the memories of a childhood shaped by images of segregation, a declining steel industry, the Civil Rights Movement, and always, the strong bonds of kinship both within her family and the community around her. Alternately, through the eyes and ears of McDowell's childhood self and the adult consciousness through which she tells this story come the rhythms and images of this segregated but incredibly rich and lively "front porch world" of Bessemer, Alabama in the 1950s and'60s.

Recalling the formative years she spent in a house built to accommodate four but "stretched to fit eight," McDowell, today a professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, brings to life the story of her family in Pipe Shop. There is her Mama, who ran a cottage sewing industry from a corner of her parents' bedroom; her Great-Grandmother, who commanded her to read some portion of the Bible everyday, and her father, who inspired in her a love of language. This Pipe Shop world meets, and at times collides, with the world of bourgeois social rituals that "Mother" made. As often as she could, Mother, McDowell's paternal grandmother, pressed on her the belief that "if you want to make something of yourself, you have to leave Pipe Shop." Mother worked for several years for a white family in Birmingham as a "private duty nurse," but nevertheless, took an active role in rearing her granddaughter and shaping her ideas about the world. When McDowell is chastised as a little girl at the Pipe Shop Elementary School for failing to properly "plait the Maypole," it is Mother who shows up "in her famous navy-blue suit and white blouse with faggoting down the front" to inform Deborah's teacher that, "in case [she] didn't know it, [they] send her to school to learn to read and write and speak correctly, not to plait some doggone Maypole."

Although Mother was much at the center of McDowell's formative years, LEAVING PIPE SHOP begins with the voice of Auntee summoning her back to Pipe Shop to investigate the cause of her father's death twenty years earlier. Like most black men of his generation, McDowell's father had worked as a laborer at the local steel mill, the U.S. Pipe and Foundry, which "gave [the] neighborhood its name and the men of Bessemer menial employment while the steel industry hung on, paying a barely livable wage." Having assumed for years that a stroke had caused her father's death, Auntee's late-night call suggests that asbestos poisoning might have been a factor. Reluctantly at first, McDowell finds herself drawn back to the Pipe Shop she had decisively (and she thought permanently) left behind her when she enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute in 1968, embarking on what would become a distinguished academic career. Here begins a remarkable personal story that is as much a social history of pre-civil-rights Alabama as it is a stirring personal memoir of a young black woman's coming-of-age.

With passion, eloquence, and humor, LEAVING PIPE SHOP transcends the confines of the written page, leaving us with a sense not only of a time, a place, and a culture that has passed, but moreover, with a sense of the haunting yet rejuvenating power of what it means to go home.

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