When we look at a person, we tend to see them as they are now. We seldom think about how they got that way. “Balm in Gilead” is the story of how Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence became who she is: a successful retired child psychiatrist, widow of the equally successful sociologist Dr. Charles Lawrence, and mother of three children who are successful in their careers. The book probes how she achieved that success despite the psychological scars of racism and sexism.
The book’s author is her daughter, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, a tenured professor of education at Harvard, and a winner of the MacArthur Prize, which enabled her to complete the book. Lightfoot takes us on the journey that led to her mother’s success.
Margaret Morgan was reared in a middle-class black family in the brutally segregated Deep South of the 1920s. Her father was one of the few Negro Episcopal priests. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Margaret Morgan was privileged. But just below the surface there were problems. Mary, her mother, suffered regularly from debilitating depressions brought on by her minister husband’s frequent moves to new towns.
“When the Morgans arrived in Widewater, Mary took to her bed. Each uprooting had disastrous effects on her energy and spirit. Mary would go to bed and stay there for weeks, unresponsive, unavailable, ‘with her face to the wall,’ ‘as though she were dead.’ ”
We learn of the fears and sadness of the young Margaret. As a little brown-skinned girl, she lived in the shadow of her nearly white-skinned, golden-haired older brother who died a baby. It was her brother’s death, which happened before she was born, that inspired 10-year-old Margaret to become a doctor. She wanted to save other children from death.
In pursuit of that goal at age 14, she decided to go to New York as a high school student to get a better education. Her parents supported her decision. In Harlem she lived with her domineering maternal grandmother, her overprotective aunts and her psychotic uncle. She got the foundation she needed for college and medical school, not just an education but exposure to important black women, including a leading physician.
“All these women conveyed their expectations through praise and admonition, but mostly by example; by the way they conducted themselves, communicated their thoughts, and pursued their goals; by their striking combination of personal ambition and community responsibility. Margaret revered them and wanted to emulate them in her own life.”
In 1932 she arrived at Cornell University on a full-tuition scholarship, the only black undergraduate on campus. No blacks were allowed in the dormitory. She worked as a live-in maid for a white family to earn room and board. On her first summer home from college in Vicksburg, Miss., she meets Charles Lawrence, a Morehouse College student. By summer’s end they are talking about marriage but they continue their studies and wait five years before getting married.
Despite good grades as an undergraduate, Cornell University turned her down for medical school. She recalls the dean telling her that ". . . ‘I was a very good student and a promising physician, but that I would not be admitted. He said he was sorry.’ . . . Margaret couldn’t believe what she heard. Still stunned, she heard his explanation for the rejection. ‘You know,’ he said without a hint of emotion in his voice, ‘twenty-five years ago there was a Negro man admitted to Cornell Medical School and he didn’t work out. . . . He got tuberculosis.’ ” Such is the logic of racism. She was admitted to Columbia Medical School, the only black during her four years there.
The racism and isolation she encountered in the North differed from the racism of the South. It was clear-cut in Mississippi, there was a separate black society. A white child called her nigger , but Margaret took it in stride. “I was not overwhelmed by these things.” But in the North she felt under attack.
“She never knew when racism would appear and in what form. She would begin to get comfortable in a setting, begin to trust the people surrounding her, and a subtle remark or gesture would make her feel vaguely uneasy. Then the dull pain would come . . . so much energy had to be put into fathoming the scene, discerning the nuance, and waiting for the surprise attack.”
She is able to achieve professionally and personally not only in spite of but perhaps because the psychological trauma she experienced pushed her to find solutions. She first worked as a pediatrician at Harlem Hospital before becoming the first black trainee at the Columbia University Psychoanalytic Center and going on to do pioneering work with inner-city families.
Although she was not reared in an emotionally healthy home, she married a man who was. Drs. Margaret Morgan Lawrence and Charles Lawrence combined career and family in an age before women’s liberation and microwave ovens. They were committed to serving the black community. Together they lived and worked for nearly 50 years until his death.
Their daughter, the book’s author, paints a picture of Charles Lawrence as Everywoman’s dream . . . strong, supportive, affectionate, dependable, successful, creative and brilliant. The book quotes many of his letters to his wife and children. The portrait is of a truly remarkable couple motivated by their love and desire to help the race. Given the times in which the couple began their careers in the 1940s, this would be an exceptional story even if the couple were white.
This is an important and inspiring book because blacks and non-blacks need to know that people like Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence and her husband are and have been around for years. In certain academic circles, the Lawrence family is well-known, but too few of us know of them or people like them.
The rise of the black middle class in this century is overshadowed by the continuing problems of what has come to be known as the underclass. While it is important for those problems to be examined, it is equally important to examine what works.
We need more books on positive African-American role models that can be used in school to help inspire a new generation to know that as others achieved, so can they. We all need to be reminded or taught the potential of the human spirit despite great odds when one’s mind is free. We see that potential realized in the life of Margaret Lawrence.
The book gives us insight into the problems young Margaret overcomes. We see what she’s made of. The book’s major weakness is that it gives no sense of any conflict that may have helped to strengthen her marriage.
When Charles and Margaret were married they were two post-graduate students. They reared three children. The book does not discuss common family problems. For example, there’s no hint that the husband or children resented the wife and mother’s time away or vice versa. If this high-powered career couple, parents of three, managed to avoid all serious marital conflicts in more than four decades of marriage, that is worthy of another book and at least an explicit mention in this one.
In all likelihood, the loving daughter and author is unwilling or unable to give any sense of this aspect of her parents’ lives. The book also occasionally lapses into a sterile academic writing style. The best writing is in the simple retelling of the family’s intriguing history. “Balm in Gilead” is part of the Radcliffe Biography Series on extraordinary women. The extraordinary life of Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence is well worth reading and celebrating.