The Avenue, Clayton City by C. Eric Lincoln. (New York: William Morrow, 1988. 288 pages. $17.95.)

The Avenue, Clayton City by C. Eric Lincoln. (New York: William Morrow, 1988. 288 pages. $17.95.)

By Frye Gaillard

Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, pp. 20-22

Blind Bates began to caress the strings of his battered old guitar. This time he was playing for love. Love for a woman he had never seen, but whose love he had known not only through the meals she had fixed for him, or the shirts she had patched, but through the sharing of her time, her wisdom and her compassion.

Tears flowed from beneath the dark glasses covering his sightless eyes as he riffed the steel strings with the glass bottleneck on his little finger and launched into a song he had written in his mind for Mama Lucy. It was a sad, lonesome song.

Train done gone

Train done gone

The funeral scene stays with you for a while. The prose itself is haunting in its rhythms–as C. Eric Lincoln describes the little church, hot and crowded and overflowing with grief.

A leading black citizen has died, a matriarch of tenderness and strength, and her funeral was, as Lincoln writes, “an occasion licensed by the whole community to break down–to scream and to shout, to moan and to weep, to engage in the delirium of temporary relief from sadness, from fear, from hatred and frustration….All in the name and the presence of God.”

Lincoln is a scholar by trade, a professor of religion at Duke University, author of nineteen works of nonfiction, but never a novel until this year. Now, with the publication of The Avenue, Clayton City, he seems destined for a place in the front ranks of black writers.

The book is an alternate selection of the Literary Guild, with a large first printing of about 25,000. Paperback and movie rights are already sold, and critics are using such words as “masterpiece.”

Lincoln says he worked on the novel for more than thirty years, writing a chapter here and there and then putting it aside, and for much longer than that he has carried the stories and the characters in his head–the prototypes of life in the black rural South.

He knows the story firsthand. He was born in Alabama in 1924, coming of age in the little town of Athens, in the cotton country near the Tennessee line. He found bits and pieces of heroism there, traces of nobility during a time of segregation. But mostly what he saw–the enduring image that takes shape in his novel–was the crazy futility of life in those times, the lost and squandered dignity among his neighbors, black and white.

Lincoln was raised by his grandparents. His mother went away when he was four. She married a preacher and moved off to Pittsburgh, leaving her son in the care of Less and Mattie Lincoln.

Mattie worked for white families as a cook and a maid, and in many ways ruled her own family with a kind of ferocious generosity–quick to punish a misbehaving child,

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but ready to go to war if they were ever abused.

Less Lincoln, meanwhile, was a farmer. He did odd jobs for white people on the side, but his passion–his calling–was tilling his own field behind his wood frame house.

He was a gentle man, his grandson remembers, dignified, with iron gray hair that was tight and springy to young Eric’s touch, and the two of them were great friends. They would sit around the fire on a Sunday evening, roasting sweet potatoes on the hearth while Mattie was off at church.

For Lincoln, such memories are mingled with those of deprivation–the six-room house so cold some nights that ice formed on the floor–and also of cruelty, an ever-present possibility in time of white supremacy.

“My experiences with white people were varied,” he says. “I played with white kids and loved some of them. It was not unusual for poor whites and blacks to eat together, to hunt and fish together….Yet there was supposed to have been a hatred. I didn’t see much of that, but then, I wasn’t looking. I do remember one time that I was cheated and kicked, for the reason that I unwittingly challenged a white man.

“I was 13 or 14. My grandfather was on his deathbed, There was no food in the house, no fire in the house, no money in the house, My grandmother and I went out to the fields where the cotton had already been picked, not only our fields but those nearby, and we pulled the only bolls that were left.”

That night, he says, they picked the cotton from the bolls and the next morning, Eric put in in [sic] a wheelbarrow and took it to the gin. It was 7 a.m. when he arrived, and the owner, Mr. Beasley, was sitting on the porch.

“Whatchoo got there, boy?” he said.

“Cotton, sir.”

“Well, dump it out.”

So they put it on the scales, and the weight came to forty pounds, and young Eric made a quick calculation: At nine cents a pound, that would mean $3.60 for food, firewood and other family necessities. He was startled, therefore, when the white man casually flipped him a quarter. “Mr. Beasley,” he said, after a long hesitation, “I think you made a mistake.” Beasley’s face turned red, and he got up abruptly and bolted the door. At first, the boy merely puzzled. But then he found himself gasping, his lungs suddenly empty from a blow to the midsection, as the white man began to kick him and stomp at his head.

“He was in a frenzy,” Lincoln remembers, “and I’ll never forget his words: ‘Nigger, as long as you live, don’t you never try to count behind no white man again!'”

There are times, for Lincoln, when that story comes hard–when he tells it with such emotion that he has to stop for a moment and wipe the tears from his large, expressive eyes.

But there are other stories, too, he says–other experiences with white people of a very different kind. One man, for example, a high school principal named J.T. Wright, praised and encouraged Lincoln’s gift as a writer, and lent him $50 so he could go off to college.

“I was 14,” Lincoln remembers. “I had just graduated from high school in May of 1939, and I had an uncle in Rockford, Ill., who worked at what he called ‘an auto laundry’–a car wash, we would call it today. I was going to go there and take a job, and the principal, Mr. Wright, loaned me some money and said, ‘C. Eric, while you’re up that way, stop on by the University of Chicago.'”

Lincoln did and eventually emerged with a divinity degree. But there were some stops in between his enrollment and graduation–a couple of years in the Navy, several more at a black college in Memphis, and a singular job opportunity one summer that caused him to travel extensively across the South.

He became secretary-road manager to a Negro League baseball team, the Birmingham Black Barons. It was an outstanding collection of talent, he remembers (among its players was an Alabama teenager by the name of Willie Mays), and as Lincoln handled the team’s financial affairs, he got to know the South in a way that stayed with him.

Every town, it seemed was remarkably the same. Despite some colorful differences in detail, each had a similar cast of characters: a wise man, a fool, a chief bootlegger, a white patriarch.

They were prototypes, and they provided, for Lincoln, the images and building blocks of a novel about the South.

Not right away, however, for his major energies were soon channeled into scholarship. He taught over the next thirty years at Clark College in Atlanta and Fisk University in Nashville, at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York, before finally coming to Duke in 1976. His best-known books during that time were The Black Muslims in America and The Negro Pilgrimage in America, which together sold more than a million copies.

But he also worked now and then on his novel, and last

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year sent the manuscript to his friend Alex Haley, seeking a critique. The response was encouraging.

Despite such encouragement and despite the strong prose and passion which make it easy to read, Lincoln was braced for mixed reviews.

The structure, for one thing, is unorthodox. Each of the ten chapters is a self-contained story, and, though some characters appear more than once, the chapters are connected more by theme than plot. They read almost like a collection of short stories that together produce a powerful portrait of a place.

In addition to that departure from the standard form, the novel may offend. It is as unflinching in its portrayal of blacks as it is of whites, for the people of the Avenue in Lincoln’s Clayton City are not always admirable, or even sympathetic.

There are some heroes–Mama Lucy, based loosely on Lincoln’s grandmother, or Roger McClain, a white educator who resembles the real-life principal at Lincoln’s high school. But there are also petty criminals and assorted other hustlers whose choices are self-centered and sometimes disastrous, and who only add to the debasement that white supremacy has produced.

Most of the characters, meanwhile, are somewhere in between, well-intentioned sometimes, but fundamentally bewildered, trying to survive the vagaries of the South as it was. And then there are one or two who decide to fight back, to take their own fateful stands against the order of the day.

One is Dr. Walter Pinkney Tait, an enigmatic black physician who had a profitable practice, a position of prominence among Clayton City’s blacks, and who had even grown accustomed to a certain respect among whites. Still, he hated segregation and the slow death of the spirit it inevitably produced, and he decided one day that he had had enough.

His decision took the form of a simple act of defiance, the refusal to obey the desperate order of a white man–a prominent citizen who was addicted to drugs and who wanted the black doctor to give him a shot. Tait refused, not because what was being asked would violate his principles, but because he was simply tired of the way things were, including his own life.

“If the canvas is rotten to begin with,” he thought to himself, “no matter what you paint on it, the colors will run and the texture will blister.”

Tait knew his decision, at the least, would cost him his practice and may beget him killed. But he also knew that the time had come.

All his life he had tried to walk the thin, wavering line between what it took to live in the white man’s world and what it took to hold on to some semblance of self-respect, but he had never been so bl unt with a ny white ma n be fore. Often, when his dignity was cornered, he had resorted to professional jargon to say what he would never say in plain speech, but never before had he had the temerity to look a white man–not just some poor cracker, but The Man himself–squarely in the eye and tell him precisely what he wanted him to know. It was a good feeling a liberating feeling–and he felt no fear except for the fear of not being afraid…

He sat motionless in his swivel chair and watched the evening shadows blot the dying sunlight from the room.

Frye Gaillard is an editor at the Charlotte Observer, where this article previously appeared.