Golden, Marita. Long Distance Life
When the phrase "the Black family" is uttered, all too often the image that is conjured is one of desolation and despair. On the stroll and in the ditch, from the lock-up to the precinct blotter, "the Black family" has all too often proved a marked-down, fretted-up "Etch-A-Sketch" on which Americans -- white and Black -- have scratched their latest anxieties and fears. Unemployed parents, un-supervised youth, drug addicts, school drop-outs, the delinquent, dull, and damned -- these are the signs of "Black family" that scream while the Buppies hustle to gentrify Harlem. These are the sounds of "Black family" that scream while our youth solicit Walkmen on the ivy-kissed quads of Howard and Atlanta University Center (A.U.C.).
Of course, many Black families possess incomes and ideals that rise well above the national poverty line. Nor can all Black families be measured, matched, and typecast to an arbitrary tenement-rat-and-shithouse (TRASH-E) norm. As many American writers have cauterized this media malignancy as ardently as others continue to feed it. Marita Golden's Long Distance Life marks a further step in this revisionary process. Her novel, tracing five generations of a middle class, Black American family, explores the group's spiritual angst and identity as much as it celebrates their achievements. From a history as vast as the void from which God has shaped the earth and heavens, Golden has created one family history that quickens and fades to the pulse beat of a nation. And her creation rends the stereotype asunder.
The odyssey of the Johnson and Spenser families from rural North Carolina to suburban Washington, D.C. is one that Golden routes on an epic scale. The journey begins in Spring Hope, small and arduous, where washing clothes means boiling the bundles over an open fire and working the tobacco means coaxing the crop with mules, callused hands, and dime-store spoons. After a stagnant teen-age marriage and the promise of death on lean and bitter land, Naomi Reeves flows into the Great Migration of Blacks leaving sharecropping and slow suffering for the North. Buildings and children register Naomi's ascent in propriety and wealth: two houses carved for roomers on P and R Streets, bought with the bounties of daring bets on illegal numbers games; a daughter, Esther Johnson, grandsons and great grandchildren and a golden Victorian on regal Harvard Street.
Golden sends these generations on their way with an epigraph from the 127th Psalm: "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain" (Ps. 127:1). When the characters in her novel falter, it is because they have built their houses upon materialism and greed, not the truths bequeathed to them from the altars of their African and Christian gods. They labor in vain unless they labor in the belief that their ancestors can help them from beyond. They labor in vain unless they labor with the certainty that only their own institutions can set them free. They labor in vain unless they labor with the assurance that their history is not to be forgotten.
In the sharecropping days, recalls Naomi, "the whites'd lynch you as soon as look at you. It's a shame young folks today don't know nothing about how we were treated then. It's too bad we were so ashamed, we figured it was best to forget and our children not to know" (25). In spite of this degradation, observes her friend Cora, Africa's sons and daughters turned their brands of shame into banners of achievement and fame. "Half the folks in the history books was outcasts, raising hell, discovering things, inventing, just `cause folks told them they was ugly, dumb or no-count or didn't know who they daddy was" (128). You are, Cora schools,
what you think you are. White folks used to call colored folks niager all the time, niager this and nigaer that, Come here. nigger, Go on, nigaer. …