Chosen for Black History Month, High Cotton by Darryl Pinckney is a fresh and contrasting perspective of a young, upper-middle class black man in America from the stereotypical drug, violence, and crime riddled experience, typically depicted of the black poor. In 1903, scholar, activist, and first African American to receive a doctorate degree, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “Talented Tenth” in an essay by the same name. It was a term that designated the leadership class of African Americans and described the likelihood of one in ten black men becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change. Du Bois strongly believed that blacks needed a classical education rather than the industrial education promoted by the Atlanta Compromise, endorsed by Booker T. Washington. It is from this heritage that the story is told by an unnamed narrator in High Cotton as he moves from his comfortable childhood in white suburban Indianapolis to Columbia University to enjoying a brief stint as an expatriate in Paris.
The book is a fictional, yet mostly an autobiographical bildungsroman of a fourth-generation product of the old (as opposed to the post-civil rights new and budding) African American middle class. Although it contains historical elements of the author’s life, it is done on a large scale of finding and creating an identity, all the while getting at society, history and the spirit of the age. Prominently featured in the story is the narrator’s grandfather Eustace, the son of a Baptist preacher who attends Brown University, Harvard Graduate School, and eventually becomes a lousy business man and a controversial Congregationalist preacher. The narrator tells us his grandfather was “a terrible snob, his pride somehow outrageous and shaky at the same time. He had a finely developed idea of his own worth and enjoyed, like ill health, the illusion that no one else shared it.” His grandfather represents the Negro past — something to rebel against. There is an almost orthodoxy and inherent demand in Du Bois “Talented Tenth” or as the narrator calls “The Also Chosen” that educated blacks have a commitment to their community- much more so than could ever be expected of anybody who is white. The narrator is trying to forge his own identity while dealing with the inherited identities and expectations he was born with. He says “All men were created equal, but even so, lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow. You were just as good as anyone else out there, but they —whoever ‘they’ were — had rigged things so that you had to be close to perfect just to break even.”
The book is not an easy read – it is almost painstakingly slow. Every paragraph is dense and references so many allusions that you almost need to decode, unpack, lookup, or at least reread every other sentence. For example: “Nothing ever broke through the narcotic of Grandfather’s nostalgia, although the traditional horrors actually happened. What now seems tired was then fresh… One night Esau hid under the floorboards of a forsaken country church while the necktie party that had elected him honored guest of the hickory tree raged over the benches…” is referencing a lynch mob that was after his grandfather. Overall, the effort of the difficult read is worth it. Pinckney’s prose is beautiful and, like poetry, must be consumed at a slower, contemplative pace. There the reader will be rewarded with humor, wisdom, sarcasm, and a fresh view of a black life in America.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 5. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 7 to discuss High Cotton at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.