As many of you know, I’m in the process of writing a memoir, currently titled The Enemy Within. I’ve had to work through a lot of memories. I’ve had to find my way back to incidents and images from the past, some of them pleasant, some of them disturbing. It’s not an easy task—in fact, it’s a messy business. Memories aren’t like dogs, they don’t necessarily come when you call them. So, in trying to organize my thoughts, I’ve done a lot of preparatory note taking and writing, stuff that may not end up in the memoir in its present form but that serves as a tool to help excavate old thoughts and feelings and make something coherent of them.
Below you’ll find some of these notes. It’s a sketch of my early life, the South Side milieu in which I grew up, and a bit about my early academic career. Avid TGS fans will find the broad outlines familiar, but I include more detail here than I have in the past, some of it beautiful, some of it ugly. In writing this memoir, I’ve tried to be as honest as I can about where I came from and what led me to where I am. Not everything I experienced was good, not everything I did was admirable, but for the book to be worth anything, it has to be truthful.
As always, I’d love to see your comments on this work-in-progress.
Oh, and by the way, we’re trying something new here. The first part of this post is free and available to the public. To read the whole thing, become a subscriber. You’ll get access to this post (and more like it in the future), along with the full range of benefits, like early access to TGS episodes, an ad-free podcast feed, and the opportunity to participate in monthly Q&A sessions with John McWhorter and me.
The Chicago of my youth exuded beauty and brilliance amidst compromised standards and awful pain. I was born to working class African American parents early in the post-war baby boom and attended public schools (five different ones before I had finished fifth grade). I have vivid memories of growing up in the city's South Side neighborhoods in the 1950s and ‘60s. I can recall the hustling, the rent parties, the ever-present jazz and blues music, the strangers who let rooms from my Auntie Eloise, who also sheltered my mother, my sister, and me. I recall with affection my Auntie’s husband, Uncle “Call me when they start integrating the money” Moonie. He was a self-made small businessman, a barber and shopkeeper who was also an inveterate skeptic about the virtues of racial integration. And in my mind's eye I can still see the faces of the many great aunts and uncles on my mother's side of the family who had migrated to the North from rural Mississippi in the years after World War I.
There was premature death and rampant adultery. There were hipsters and gangsters with style. And everywhere there was enormous social vitality. The South Side of Chicago was alive with all the good and bad that comes with life. My mother's two brothers embodied these contradictions. Uncle Adlert was a brilliant man who graduated at the top of his class from Northwestern University Law School in the early 1950s, at a time when black people simply didn’t do such things. I recall his stunning eloquence and his erudition. He inspired me. But, and tragically, he was disbarred after getting caught up in some shady family business. Eventually, he drank himself to death. Uncle Alfred looms in my memory as larger than life. I remember his charm, spiritual intensity, and physical beauty, but also his polygamous ways. He maintained overlapping families and fathered 22 children. Even so, he was, in his way, the quintessential “family man,” remaining devoted until the end of his days to every single one of his progeny.
Our close family friend Boo-Boo was a brilliant student, but his father fatally shot himself in the head while sitting on my mother’s living room couch. When I was a child, a great aunt took care of me while my mother was at work, and at her home I was sexually molested by both male and female relatives. Paul, the quiet kid down the block, an outstanding Little League shortstop, overdosed on heroin at 18. Other classmates followed his path, ending up addicted, dead, or in prison. Cousin Ronnie was strung out—he would stop by the house from time to time to get something to eat and also to steal money from my mother’s purse. Compassionate to a fault, she knew exactly what he was doing, and let him.
I recall my mother’s sweetly melodic voice and giving heart, Uncle Moonie’s enterprise, Aunt Eloise’s steadfast love of family, her elegance and ambition. I recall the imperial style of the great aunts who had managed to “make a way out of no way” in the years after the Great Depression: their silverware and tablecloths, the ivory and mahogany furniture and crystal. Their homes were draped in Persian rugs and lace curtains, and they wore mink and fox and chinchilla stoles out on the town.