Mary, Wayfarer, An Autobiography, by Mary E. Mebane. New York: Viking Press. 1983.
By Nell Irvin Painter
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1984, pp. 13-14
In the second volume of her autobiography, Mary Mebane again talks of desegregation and takes aim at the black bourgeoisie–or more exactly, the brown bourgeoisie. Early in Mary, Wayfarer, she fires a telling shot:
One of the ironies of life in the South is the fact that the black professional class, thinking that under integration it would entrench its position vis-a-vis black folk, instead found itself in many
cases as discomfited by the changes as the whites were.
But the people with whom Mebane identifies herself, poor, dark-skinned blacks, “could not have cared less; any change at all was a decided improvement for them.”
Perhaps Mebane is too sharp. In Mary, Wayfarer, as in Mary, she reserves her bitterness for blacks of the better class, particularly those in her home town of Durham. But for all her social myopia, she has exposed a little-discussed aspect of desegregation: a sort of equalizing of educated blacks, regardless of skin shade or economic background. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Mebane spent twelve years, she says that some people “respected my gifts, and that was a first for me”–even though all her previous schooling and teaching had been in black institutions.
Better-class black Durham’s presence in Mebane’s life is devilish but significant, if the number of pages she spends denouncing its prejudices, weaknesses and hypocrisies supplies a fair measure of her fixation. She teaches a lesson that most sensitive Americans already know about black life: Light skin carries connotations of beauty and wealth, and beauty and wealth attract people, especially men. The revelation is not new, although Mebane delivers it with unusual intensity.
New here is her gleeful exposure of what her betters lost through integration. She tells of a light-skinned woman, a fellow student at Carolina, who was pained when a white woman confused her with poor blacks. Mebane also reports hostility from black, better-class colleagues at North Carolina Central University, when she was well received at the University of North Carolina.
Mebane says the cream of the cream of black society at NCCU in the 1960’s saw the university as an enemy disturbing their social order. “By opening its doors to all blacks, and not limiting its admissions to blacks of a certain class or color,” Mebane says the university inadvertently broke one of black society’s unwritten rules–that only the elite were to garner such rewards.
As a dark-skinned non-Southerner who was (mercifully) brought up in the West, I nonetheless felt a certain satisfaction in watching Mebane prick the bourgeoisie. But the pain in this woman’s life diminished my relish. This is an angry book, although the emotions are muted in comparison with the first volume, Mary.
Even so, I found myself drawn into Mebane’s autobiography The material on black Durham is most fascinating But I also learned from her descriptions of the civil-rights years in Durham and Chapel Hill. I made a mental note, too, that Mebane is one of a growing list I am keeping of black women who find that they cannot keep their sanity and continue to teach in some white, male-dominated situations. (My list now numbers six women–and I am on it–who left white departments to preserve their mental health.) Here again, Mary Mebane’s autobiographies are enlightening.
But Mebane also provokes pity and annoyance. Reading her painful descriptions of her unloving and drunken family–whom she was not able to leave until she was in her mid-30’s–and of her frustrating encounters with men, her school-girl ideals about elegance in love compared with her squalid encounters, I sympathized with this woman who never felt valuable until she came to Chapel Hill. Her feelings of worthlessness are raw and exposed, and I wonder to what extent she succeeds in convincing other readers that her experiences may be taken as typical. For my part, she represents an unusually sad case, and this impression carries over from the first volume to the second, although the second is more smoothly written, its emotions less aroused.
Both Mary and Mary, Wayfarer suffer from the author’s lack of distance from her tormentors–her mother, her family and Durham’s black bourgeoisie. Years of therapy have finally allowed her to see her mother as a victim of poverty and segregation. But leaving the South–she now teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee–has given her little insight into social dynamics. She cannot see that the pretensions she deplored in Durham and the snobbery she attaches to North Carolina Central University occur elsewhere among other groups of people. Pretension and snobbery remain the monopoly of better-class black Durham, and Mary Mebane’s anger at them remains unabated.
While Mary, Wayfarer and Mary lack the warmth and humane vision of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes (much of the latter set in Durham), the narrowness and bitterness of the Mebane books point to the anger that those at the very bottom of the black hierarchy can harbor against other blacks. Mary Mebane tells awkward truths about class, color pnd sex, but her truths are true anyway.
Nell Irvin Painter teaches history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She grew up in northern California and is the author of The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South. This review first appeared in the North Carolina Independent.