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Sketches of town life in the South during the 1930s and '40s

The Avenue, Clayton City, by C. Eric Lincoln. New York: William Morrow. 288 pp. $17.95. The Avenue - officially, Booker T. Washington Avenue - was so named by the white residents of Clayton City in order to provide the black residents with a street named for a black leader. It was the only avenue on the west (``colored'') side of town which, although not paved, had sidewalks. In the white neighborhoods, it became Morris Street. The Avenue was weed-choked and littered with Coke bottles, but it was nonetheless a source of pride to the local black population. The Avenue was the home of the local black doctor, Walter Tait. On this street were the community's small businesses, its only two-story house, three brick houses, and the Congregational Church and its minister. The Avenue also served as a bridge between the white and black communities.

This novel by C. Eric Lincoln depicts the people of these two communities, black and white, in the period before and after World War II. The novel's narrator and leading character is Dr. Tait, who views his society, its Civil War origins, segregation, and his own life with a mixture of anguish and compassion. But the novel is not Tait's biography. It is an account of his community as he brings their voices to life: teachers, sharecroppers, trashmen (known as the ``Honey Squad''), and various domestics.

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Tait describes the routines and living accommodations of working people: cooks and maids hurrying off to prepare breakfasts and make beds, porters and janitors cleaning and preparing the shops after making their own beds and washing and feeding their children in the weak light of early morning. Memorable characters abound, such as ``Guts'' Gallimore, owner and operator of The Blue Flame (the only place where blacks can eat), where a lard tray of beef stew is 15 cents. Guts longs to preach and knows that someday he will be called to spread the word of the Gospel.

Mama Lucy is the heart and soul of the book and of the community. The passages recounting her death and funeral recall the poetry of James Weldon Johnson's ``God's Trombones'' and will be familiar to anyone who has loved and listened to gospel music or has experienced the fiery sermons of the black Southern preacher.

This is the most moving section of the book, leading to its tragic conclusion. Tait's perspective represents a cold intellectual focus on what the customs and rigidity of the community mean to the people living under segregation and race laws. The cast is as varied as the whites and blacks who sit on the benches outside the courthouse, chewing tobacco, or the families who sit on their front porches, waiting for news of their small society.

This is an original novel by a professor of religion and culture who is best known for his study ``The Black Muslims in America.'' ``The Avenue ...'' is perhaps best described as a series of sketches about town life somewhere in the South in the second quarter of the 20th century, an experience neglected by most modern black writers. It is most effective when depicting the character of Mama Lucy, and in the portraits of community life, in which the highlight of the week is attending church in one's best clothes. For literary comparison, one has to look at the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, and Jean Toomer.

Yet Lincoln does not indulge in nostalgia. His is a realistic portrait, told without the bitter anger of other works we have seen from black writers wherein women are pitted against men, or blacks become the helpless victims of lynch mobs and bullying white sheriffs. It is to be noted that these things occur in ``The Avenue ...'' but are portrayed in such a way as to become a natural consequence of the characters' lives.

The failure of this book, albeit slight, is that although the settings are clearly presented, characters are sometimes sketched too lightly, without clear motives or interaction. The novel seems lacking in the strong narrative flow and conclusive endings we have come to expect from contemporary fiction and as a consequence, progresses in a circular fashion, reaching its conclusion at a slow and deliberate pace. But with its strong, authentic language, ``The Avenue, Clayton City'' nevertheless provides the reader with a singular - and very special - point of view.

Sam Cornish is a poet and a critic.

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