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The Journey to Belonging : BLACK ICE, By Lorene Cary (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 256 pp.)

March 31, 1991|Ellen Goodman Lorene Cary | Goodman is a syndicated columnist at the Boston Globe ; her latest book is "Making Sense" (Atlantic Monthly Press).

These are days that often seem marked by retreat from a belief in integration. Our country, which once thought of itself as a melting pot, now talks about being a stew, a salad, even a stir-fry. The hope of becoming one America seems to have lost its grip on our psyches.

Diversity is now the politically correct term used to describe the revised goals of a multieverything society. But even political correctness isn't as correct as it once was.

On university greens, black students now sit-in to pressure not for equal access but for their own segregated dorm. At a Mills College rally last spring, the younger sisters of women who sued to get into the Ivy League rallied around the cry: "Better dead than coed!"

Into this confusion about race, gender, equality, integration and identity come the new voices of our culture. We are finally hearing from the internal immigrants, a new generation of Americans who walked through doors that had been opened a crack but led into an emotional maze.

Lorene Cary is one of those writers. Cary was not the first black girl to attend the elite St. Paul's in 1972. She was the second. She didn't sue for admission to the preppiest of prep schools. The New England training ground for the Establishment was indeed "looking" for black girls, recruiting them, offering them scholarships and education.

The Philadelphia daughter of a middle-class family, she had been groomed and pushed for success. She was to be the next in the line that stretched from the slave quarters to the power center. Indeed, she could easily see her chance at St. Paul's as part of the eyes-on-the-prize progress of her race: "Wasn't it time for me to play my part in that mammoth enterprise--the integration, the moral transformation, no less, of America."

"Black Ice" is both a memoir and meditation on what it's like to play such a part when it is more complicated than the original script. Cary has written about being black in a quintessentially white world, female in a male environment, scrape-by middle class in a rich world, and nontraditional newcomer in the traditional.

She has recorded all the voices in her head beginning with the first chapel morning when the chaplain welcomed students as part of the St. Paul's tradition.

"Part of the tradition, my eye," she remembers thinking, "I was there in spite, despite, TO spite it. I was there because of sit-ins and marches and riots. I was there--and this I felt with extraordinary and bitter certainty--as a sort of liberal-minded experiment. And hey, I did not intend to fail."

Cary's book ranges in time from when she first heard about St. Paul's through her years there as a student, a teacher and finally a trustee. It's a clear-eyed and appreciative journey--cleansed by and of anger--from a woman who would later tell students to "try and think of St. Paul's as their school, too, not as a white place where they were trespassing." She knows precisely, from firsthand experience, how hard that mind-change can be.

In some ways, "Black Ice" follows the tradition of other hyphenated-American writers--second- and third-generation Catholics, Jews, Irish, Polish--who chronicled their awkward, painful trip into the mainstream. Such a transition inevitably takes its internal toll, testing the allegiance and the bondage to family and culture. Cary explores these issues anew: By changing, do you betray your past? By growing, do you lose connections with your roots?

These are matters ripe with meaning, especially to her generation of African Americans. As Cary writes: "Once you've made the journey, you can't pretend it didn't happen, that everything's like it was before except now you play lacrosse."

When her white and wealthier classmates told her repeatedly, in liberal cant, that we are not black or white or green but just people, it was a bit like rich people telling the poor that money doesn't matter. But Cary's eloquent and honest exploration is also and inevitably about identity, the search for one seamless sense of self, in a world that subdivides many into pieces of their genetic code: skin color, gender, even family.

In her years at St. Paul's, she tried to piece together a whole from the part that belonged to the black students' group, the part that belonged to the student government, the part that desperately tried to pass calculus, to play sports, to please parents, to make friends. In the process, she chronicles the whole mess of adolescence, and the way we lurch between disasters toward adulthood. There is a date-rape before the word existed, a conflict between friendship and the honor code, a family that is loving, demanding and misunderstanding, and a "pose" she adopts as a camouflage.

If there is a weakness in Cary's memoir, it is in the pages that track ordinary weeks at St. Paul's in a most ordinary style. Unlike the rest of the book, which is ageless, they seem targeted at a young audience. But for the most part, this work is honest and eloquent and ultimately optimistic.

The stories of Cary's parents' generation were inscribed in legal briefs. Her generation needs autobiography. Only the memoir may be subtle and personal enough to describe the complexity of change. In a time when many seem to be stepping back from integration, Cary has written a cautionary and hopeful story about the journey to belonging.

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