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Only in the Americas : EVERY GOOD-BYE AIN'T GONE : Family Portraits and Personal Escapades by Itabari Njeri (Times Books: $17.95; 226 pp.; 0-8129-1805-3)

February 25, 1990|Gail Lumet Buckley | Buckley is author of a family memoir , "The Hornes" (Alfred A. Knopf). She is currently writing a book on the African-American military experience. and

The title of this collection of nonfiction stories linked mostly by family relationships (a first book that began as fiction but ended as "literal truth") comes from an African-American proverb: "Every shut-eye ain't sleep; every good-bye ain't gone."

In demonstrating that life's farewells are not necessarily permanent, journalist/essayist Itabari Njeri travels to and away from a name, a culture, a gift and--most of all--an extended Afro-American/Afro-Caribbean family that is "too large, too loving in ways that negate the love itself, and too demanding."

It is a journey of conversions, as well as discoveries and farewells: from the child who loved music and made it a "god"; to the girl who changed her name and acculturation--seeing things only in black and white; to the woman who discovers the necessary value of synthesis. She takes a path from extreme and demanding "gods" to "balance."

Among the extreme forces in Njeri's life is her enormous family. It is a veritable New World bazaar--an assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents of varying colors and sizes whose multi-ethnic quality could belong only to the Americas. The author is African, East Indian, Amer-Indian and English--the great-great-great-granddaughter of a rum-running English pirate whose castle still stands in Barbados.

But, the author feels, this background would be deemed improbable by most Americans. "So institutionalized," she says, "is the ignorance of our history, our culture, our everyday existence that, often, we do not even know ourselves."

Njeri, however, is determined to "know"--and to write the truth. She is obsessed by family secrets, for they are also keys to self-knowledge. And within the natural duality of black-American life, family secrets also can be the means of understanding a whole people.

Njeri's opening story, "Granddaddy," outlines a journey to Georgia to solve a major family mystery: the search for the man responsible for the death of her grandfather more than 20 years before. All her life, she had heard the family story that drunken, drag-racing, white boys had collided with her grandfather's car and killed him--but the accident had been covered up.

She finds the killer, but no emotional catharsis. The rumors that made her grandfather a martyr to racism just aren't true. There was no drag-racing, and no cover-up. There was, in fact, a monetary settlement in favor of the widow--something that she (the grandfather's second wife) had neglected to tell the rest of the family.

There is no guilt, but there is no innocence either. Betrayal and casual racism pervade. A white doctor, considered a family friend, calls the grandfather a "bad man" who basically deserved to die because he favored integration and belonged to the NAACP. And when her grandfather's wife (who looked white) ran through the streets in her nightgown to the accident scene, a white policeman said, "Don't worry yourself ma'am. It's just a nigger."

The truth leaves Njeri only with unresolved anger and bitterness against an "insidious . . . social system that . . . seemingly left no one to blame, as if systems do not bear the marks of their creators."

Njeri is a gifted and generous writer who rarely hides her feelings. These explorations of family myths and revelations of family conflict are a tumble of colliding emotions--love, hate, anger, regret--and are often very funny. She is most successful in delineating family quirks and eccentricities.

The problem with families, of course, is coming to terms with them and finding a separate identity. Like the "Sleeping Beauty" ballet with its gift-bestowing good and bad fairies, every child feels both blessed and cursed at birth by its family. Every gift is double-edged.

From her philosopher/historian father, who sang like Irish tenor John McCormack, the author receives her greatest gift--a beautiful voice. She has the "celestial vibration," her father says. But she feels love from him only when she sings, for he is an abusive, embittered alcoholic--an "African-American intellectual in crisis," his career thwarted by racism and his own Marxist politics. She admires him as a teacher but hates him as a father. And parental separations are a fact of her Brooklyn and Harlem growing-up.

From her mother, a lapsed Catholic professional nurse of West Indian heritage, she learns to "persevere with grace." But her mother refuses to admit that alcohol has destroyed her husband and most of her family. This large West Indian family also is cursed by "colorism"--Alice Walker's word for the African-American obsession with skin color.

"Colorism" has wreaked havoc. Because Cousin Jeff looked like Ricky Nelson, he had to prove that he was the "baddest nigger on the block," finding heroin, prison and death on a Harlem rooftop in the process. But Great Aunt May passed for white to join the segregated ILGWU as a "Romanian," and her brown-skinned sister, Ruby (the author's grandmother), refuses to speak to her.

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