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Reality can be tough for the child of two dreamers

Miss Black America; Veronica Chambers; Harlem Moon/Broadway: 216 pp., $12.95 paper

June 20, 2005|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

Miss Black America

A Novel

Veronica Chambers

Harlem Moon/Broadway: 216 pp., $12.95 paper

*

How can a child be expected to grow up if her parents have never done so? Angela Davis Brown (the "Davis" added as an afterthought by her politically conscious father) is 11 years old in 1979, the year that her mother ups and leaves without a word of warning. A strikingly beautiful woman with ambitions of becoming an actress or model, Melanie Brown disappears shortly after being told she's too old and too married to enter the Miss Black America contest.

She's determined to pursue her dream and is fed up with working at menial jobs to supplement the family's uncertain income, uncertain because Angela's father is also an ambitious dreamer. The Amazing Teddo, as he's professionally known, is a talented, charismatic man who hopes to gain fame as a great magician. He's always seeking the validation of an audience, and as a father, he's better at pontificating than listening.

Published in hardcover last year under the title "When Did You Stop Loving Me," "Miss Black America" was the name Veronica Chambers originally had in mind for this, her first novel. A journalist and author whose recent nonfiction book ("Having It All?") surveyed the lives of successful black women, Chambers first gained recognition in 1996 with "Mama's Girl," her poignant memoir of growing up in Brooklyn without a father. Having directly experienced and written about the effects of a father's desertion, Chambers has made an interesting imaginative leap in her fictional debut, changing the parent who deserts.

Chambers understands the complexity of Angela's shifting perceptions of her parents, and she endows her young heroine with a shrewd and lively intelligence. She is just as adept at portraying Angela's complicated emotions, and she never lets us forget this young girl's vulnerability. Angela and Teddo are stunned by Melanie's desertion:

" 'Your mother thinks she's going to be a movie star,' my father said, still holding me close.

" 'Can you believe that?' He said this as if he was a man who did not earn his living pulling rabbits out of hats. It was like hearing Pinocchio talk about Alice, and how she needed to grow up and stop fooling around in Wonderland."

Selfish though Melanie was, Angela misses her mother: the way she used to braid Angela's hair, the way she would counter Teddo's ideological race theorizing with down-to-earth knowledge and insights gleaned from firsthand experience. When Teddo criticizes her for straightening her hair, Melanie retorts, "Look, Teddo, I'm as black as night. I won't ever, can't ever, forget what that means. I don't need an Afro pick with a black fist on the top to remind me I live in America." To her daughter, she bequeaths a pressing comb that's been in her family for generations. "If the teeth in that comb could talk," she assures her, "they would tell a history of black women. Your father doesn't understand.... It's got nothing to do with wanting to look like white women. I can't say it didn't start out that way, but it sure doesn't end that way. That comb is mine and it will be yours, regardless of what you want to do with your hair."

Teddo resents how much his daughter continues to miss her mother. As the remaining parent, whatever his deficiencies, he feels entitled to more respect and appreciation than Angela is able to give him. On Christmas morning, just months after his wife's departure, he's so angry to hear Angela include her mother in her prayers that he makes her denounce her errant parent as a selfish monster. Later he makes Angela write him a thank-you note for being such a wonderful father: "Doesn't have to be long," he adds, somewhat abashedly. "Just has to be sincere."

Chambers' portrait of Teddo is particularly well done, deftly conveying the charm and power of his charismatic personality, the sincerity -- and too often the shallowness -- of his convictions, and the sheer extent of his seemingly boundless egotism. Near the end, however, it is somewhat weakened when Chambers introduces a deus-ex-machina encounter with a celebrity, which shows her usually astute heroine uncritically worshipping a man who probably has many of the same flaws -- and virtues -- of her father.

Like quite a few children of childish, narcissistic parents, Angela manages to gain something valuable from her hurts and losses: a deeper understanding of people and a keener sense of reality. Fully aware of both parents' flaws, she is also able to give each of them credit for whatever positive influences they exerted on her. That Angela survives as well as flourishes is not at all surprising.

*

Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

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