Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
I Was There: Postcards from the Periphery
By Roxanne Fequiere
Growing up, I spent so much time at my friend Kim’s house that it began to feel like an extension of my own. Several times a week, I’d head home with her after school and dive into a number of distinctly late ’90s pre-teen activities—dancing to Now That’s What I Call Music compilation CDs, messing around on AIM, watching TRL. Kim and I were both afflicted with that particular strain of adolescent angst that makes one’s own parents virulently unpalatable but renders others’ automatically not that bad, so in addition to my recollections of our glinty suburban girlhood, I have warm memories of spending time with her family, too: rustling up the heartiest chuckle I could for dad jokes that she couldn’t be bothered to entertain, chatting at the kitchen table with her mother, Cora, long after she’d stomped off in some huff. Cora was an attentive homemaker, and she’d often poke her head into Kim’s room—prompting eye rolls and shouted admonishments to knock next time—to offer snacks, gather laundry, or run the vacuum. I thought she was just being nice, and told Kim as much. Kim thought she needed to get a life. So it went.
Kim and I began to grow apart once we reached high school, and it was during one of our increasingly rare catch-up sessions on the phone that she shared a recent revelation: “So I just found out my mother smokes. Like, a pack a day,” she said. I responded incredulously, asking all the usual questions. When? Whenever she was home alone, presumably—Kim’s father hadn’t even known. For how long? A long time, years. Where did she keep her cigarettes? Kim wasn’t sure. How on earth did she hide it from all of you for so long? Kim didn’t know.
I could almost hear the memories in my head shifting and rearranging themselves as I tried to contextualize the news. When I thought of Cora’s constant cleaning and upkeep, I now wondered if it had been in service of cleanliness or concealment. I remembered long afternoons spent rapt at attention in front of the TV, broken only by a friendly suggestion from Cora that maybe we’d like to take a walk—perhaps those moments alone were moments of respite, a chance to satisfy a craving that she didn’t want to admit to having. Her father, Kim’s grandfather, had been a smoker years earlier, and the whole family had rallied to help him quit. As far as revelations went, this one was pretty mild, but Kim bristled at the hypocrisy of it all. I certainly couldn’t blame her; no one likes to be left in the dark, after all.
In the prologue to Jessica B. Harris’ memoir, My Soul Looks Back, she warns the reader: “I am not central to the story, although I have lived it; rather, it is about an extraordinary circle of friends who came together, lived outrageously…while they created work that would come to define the era.” This circle includes James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Paule Marshall, Rosa Guy, and Toni Morrison, among others, and Harris’ entrée into this rarefied world is Samuel Clemens Floyd III, an English professor and Baldwin’s former neighbor and confidant. Harris and Floyd embark on a relationship that places her directly in the orbit of these luminaries and quite literally earns her a seat at their table, feasting with them in homes and restaurants from the West Village to Harlem, from Sonoma to the Caribbean and the Left Bank.
Harris, an award-winning culinary historian and cookbook author, describes these meals richly and meticulously. Where the details of a memory sometimes fail her, the remembrance of the texture and taste of an appetizer consumed decades ago steps in to do double duty. There is a recipe at the end of each chapter, introduced with a recollection and then laid out carefully for the reader to go forth and create their own.
Though she doesn’t see herself as vital to the story, her biographical details are the engine of her memoirs. When she falls in with Floyd, he is fifteen years her senior and she’s unsure why he’s hitched his wagon to hers in the first place. In the company of his friends, she is alternately mesmerized, self-conscious, and deferential—understandable, though hardly sufficient to drive the entire story. Harris remembers herself on the periphery of the group’s brilliance (perhaps undeservedly so) and so it’s difficult to engage with any of these personalities beyond her tentative, often starstruck narrative. It’s her parents’ ongoing attempts to place their daughter in society’s good stead, her attempts at performing arts, and her time at Bryn Mawr that bring earlier chapters to life.
Once Harris’ relationship with Floyd comes to an end, the story stalls a bit before circling back to their halting, tragedy-bound reunion. Floyd’s sudden death sheds light on their years together—and her naiveté—but also appears to snuff out much of her connection to the circle of friends he had cultivated. She grapples with those memories she thought she’d arranged neatly, searching for clues missed the first time around, until, years later, Harris manages to form a bond with Dr. Maya Angelou herself, national treasure and one of Floyd’s former lovers.
Harris visits with Dr. Angelou and attends gatherings at her home intermittently until her death, though Harris continues to mark every coup and slight, still pondering her position within the group even after the writer’s passing. It’s odd to read Harris’ take on her ticket to Angelou’s memorial being upgraded from Silver to Platinum (“Maya had reached out and moved me up”); odder still to read how “not invited, still tangential to the group,” she’d “piggy-backed attendance” to the meal afterwards for “immediate family and friends.”
Though My Soul Looks Back commits itself to telling other people’s stories, the lack of transparency regarding its author makes its primary goal somewhat tougher to swallow. The only intimate relationship she describes throughout the book is the one she shares with Floyd, though she’s candid about others’ sexual exploits throughout. Harris reveals details about Dr. Angelou’s health issues, and it reads less like an attempt to portray a truth about Angelou than it does proof that Angelou could confide in her. At one point, she voices an ambivalence about My Soul that has stayed with me, saying of Dr. Angelou: “I’m not sure how she would have felt about this effort.”
In recent weeks, Quincy Jones has launched himself into gossip columns and pop culture Twitter timelines everywhere as a result of sitting for two lengthy interviews with Vulture and GQ in which he didn’t “spill the tea” so much as he took an entire teapot, upended it onto the floor, and walked out of the room. From Michael Jackson’s Machiavellian tendencies to the Beatles’ one-time inability to play instruments, Jones spoke so freely that it appears we’re collectively unsure what to do with all of his disclosures. Armchair diagnoses of dementia have been tossed about, while others are simply fascinated and/or amused by the biggest bombshells dropped. Meanwhile, others wonder if these secrets were Jones’ to share in the first place—especially touchier subjects, like the sexual escapades of celebrities like Marlon Brando, Richard Pryor, and Marvin Gaye.
Anecdotally, it seems to me as if old age is where many secrets go to die. As my parents, aunts, and uncles get on in age, they share more and more unnerving tidbits and epiphanies that I struggle to take in stride. Each time my fiancé returns home from visiting his parents out west, he’s had at least one conversation with them that restructures their past lives in some fundamental way.
Of course, the gap between intrafamilial confession and public record is a large one—but without the access to the true intimacy of the former, the latter falls somewhat flat. Then again, by the time I reached the end of the book, it wasn’t juicier secrets about the black intelligentsia that I was craving—it was deeper insight into Harris’ life, independent of her famous acquaintances. She’s written a dozen critically-acclaimed cookbooks, holds multiple degrees, and travels the world, among other accomplishments. With all due respect, her story is so much more than her proximity to James Baldwin.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.
Follow along with Roxanne's #abookishyear here.