Around three complex and piercing portraits--his mother, a writer who was his male mentor and lover, and a woman who was once the queen bee of a literary gay set in Cambridge, Maine, and New York--Hilton Als has wound a skein of recollection and rumination about being black and homosexual.
"The Women" is clarifying and foggy, delicate and deliberately transgressive. We track Als along the twists and doublings of his reflections, sometimes losing him in the elaborate elusiveness of his sentences only to have him reappear plain and troubling.
Als' mother was a middle-class Barbadian who left her husband to follow her lover to New York, where she bore him six children, including the author. The father came and went; the mother worked as a maid and hairdresser to support her family. Absent father, mother as mainstay--it is a familiar theme in the work of black writers. But if a Toni Morrison or an Alice Walker can portray pillars of matriarchal assertion and magic, Als portrays his mother as a pillar of recessive denial.
He is loyal to her recessiveness; he sees in it a peculiar pride and resistance. He uses the word she used for herself; partly, perhaps, to shock other blacks and some whites: "Negress." When she arrived in New York in the 1940s, Als writes, "being bright, a high school graduate, and practical, she looked at the world she had immigrated to, picked up her servant's cap, and began starching it with servitude."
Starch is her medulla. Formal, unbendingly genteel and pillaged of hope or a sense of herself, she has only manners and abnegation. These and death, which she acquires bit by bit--hair gone, teeth gone, a leg gone, a kidney gone--over 20 years. "The only way the Negress can own herself is through her protracted suicide," Als writes. Toward the end, "she remembered two things, that she was polite and dying."
As an imaginative boy may do, Als felt himself to be her paladin. There was no man nor possibility of one. He writes that "maleness is not a viable construct in colored life."
Accordingly, he gives his homosexuality a banner: a child's determination to become his mother. He too has been a Negress, he writes. At 10, he seduced a man into raping him. As he might try on his mother's clothes, he was trying on the sense, endemic to his Negress-figure, that to get a man to do something he knows is wrong disempowers the man and empowers himself.
Some of Als' theories about the Negress as product of the distorted interior life imposed on black people are very hard to follow. At one point he even calls the late Malcolm X a Negress, arguing that his macho persona covered a suppressed identification with his light-skinned mother.
What he carries away, more successfully, in the two portraits that follow are the notion of self-rejection and the need of assuming an artificial role. He writes of Dorothy Dean, a light-skinned black woman who attended Radcliffe in the 1950s and re-created herself as a Firbankian heroine, presiding blithely over the gay artistic and literary set, first at Harvard and later in New York. It is a lively and forlorn story. She was Wendy to their Peter Pans--she thought of herself as white--only it was the Peter Pans who grew up to success and prominence while Wendy, alcoholic and failing, only grew old.
He writes of Owen Dodson, a poet and teacher associated with the Harlem Renaissance who, in his old age, became Als' lover. Als writes about the sex, where he seems to have played the more active role; he also draws a touching portrait of a frail, forgotten literary figure.
The "Negress" concept--the artificial identity--comes in his complaint that Dodson, like such better-known figures as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, substituted "reflexive, sentimental race-consciousness" for rigorous artistic challenge. They feared, he writes, "that should they be divested of rhetoric, they would no longer exist--or, at the very least, risked being absorbed by the existential debate that consumes every writer: Who Am I? Instead, they chose ideology, the sanctimonious: As a Black, I Am, or Was, or Should Be."
"The Women," suspicious of ethnic fashions and passions, including those of some of the best-known black writers of our time, focuses intensely on "Who Am I." The danger is solipsism, and Als falls into it sometimes, not so much in his provocative ideas as in the introspective convolution of some of the writing. It is an original kind of solipsism, though; it proclaims not so much "Only I am here" as--a tribute to his mother--"I am not really here."