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Cultured, Refined and Full of Rage

WAKING FROM THE DREAM: My Life in the Black Middle Class,\o7 By Sam Fulwood III (Doubleday/Anchor Books: $23.95; 247 pp.)\f7

April 21, 1996|Thulani Davis | Thulani Davis is the author of opera librettos, several books of poetry and the novel "1959" (Grove)

Sam Fulwood III's memoir, "Waking from the Dream," is part of a recent boom in African American autobiographical narratives, many by journalists. Those that come to mind are titles by Jill Nelson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Nathan McCall and Brent Staples. They relate the experiences of the '60s and post-civil rights generation, people whose lives were literally shaped by the movement and its gains in integration and affirmative action. They help us understand how racism works without the "whites only" signs.

These educated middle- and upper-class blacks contend in an arena of race politics in which the personal anecdote is the best means of communicating the daily disparagements and sabotage that blacks face in the workplace. Call it the New Racism. To be sure, it does not compare with the daily suffering of America's disenfranchised underclasses, but the quiet ongoing discrimination of the workplace is part of the picture of inequities running the length and breadth of the society.

Fulwood is a Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and has previously held well-paid, prestigious jobs at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the Baltimore Sun and the Charlotte News. He is only 40, but the achievement of these positions in journalism seems to have struck him as an acme from which to look back.

His story is not uncommon--a middle-class, well-educated African American climbs to the heights of a profession and there discovers he is carrying within him rage that most blacks know too well. It took Sam Fulwood a long time to acknowledge that his professional success did not protect him. "Waking From the Dream" does not say as much about the persistence of racism as it does about the will to ignore it.

Fulwood grew up in Charlotte, N. C., the son of a minister and a teacher, who provided a comfortable living for the family. His parents shielded him from contact with the civil rights movement taking place in the South during his youth. Fulwood recalls his family bypassing Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, the day of the march on Washington, to celebrate his birthday in Baltimore. In this way, a young black man came to be self-regarding in a time of great change and to see his place as apart from the motion of black history going on all around him.

Like all memoirists, Fulwood reveals more from his assumptions than from his assertions and has shown himself in an awkward close-up when a handsome profile was probably the intent. The young Sam, setting out to make his mark, makes up his mind to get ahead, alone if necessary, and never to smell the coffee, even when it is thrown in his face.

Most African American memoirs of this kind relay some early incident in which one becomes aware that race makes one's road tough. What becomes painful--and difficult to believe here--is that though the racial affronts were there, he ignored them. For the reader who has seen or felt them before, Sam Fulwood's inability to respond can cause a wince or even a flash of anger.

Fulwood says he realized being black was "special" when he was told at age 11 that he would be integrating a white school. And even though he saw himself as a "trailblazer," he did not go to white schools so much for their racial makeup as to move ahead. He did well and he did so with a single-minded zeal that is frightening to read even today. While in high school, Fulwood ran into the first of a series of signs that the racial caldron sometimes boils over. I mention this youthful episode only because he seems never to have seen a black protest he thought he could join. He does not tell us what the issues were that caused racial disturbances at the area high schools, so all one can know is that he wanted nothing to do with them. "Mini race wars were not part of my carefully scripted high school agenda. I wanted to get past high school to the productive part of life, where racial tension and antagonism would be forgotten." When "all hell broke loose," Fulwood says, he didn't even see it. "I went directly to my third-period French class."

At a part-time job in a white-owned men's clothing store, Fulwood decides to take the boss' advice to dress conservatively and buys a pair of wingtips that are "the ugliest things I had ever seen." He decides they are a necessity, "like fake smiles, to be worn daily. . . . Once I understood how to please white people, I had a new set of rules to follow, whether I liked them or not. I could work around the personal, unpleasant feelings." In this practical, self-effacing way, Fulwood made his way through white America. He took away what he wanted from the high school years: a successful, if solitary experience--proof that indeed he could put the race question behind him.

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