Black and Blue

An anthology of African-American writing on St. Louis paints a bleak portrait of the city

Turn the page past editor Gerald Early's introduction to "Ain't But a Place": An Anthology of African American Writings about St. Louis, and you will find trouble: A black man is getting cut, slashed and burned, things that usually happen to trees, but when trees appear in the narrative, the man is escaping into them, then climbing to the top of one as he hears the baying of bloodhounds. The runaway slave descends at gunpoint and is marched to jail; when he is released, it is back into the arms of slavery. All of this happens on the first page of text by William Wells Brown.

There is probably no other way to honestly begin an anthology of African-Americans writing about a river city in a former slave state, and if the slave experience was brutal, it bred in Brown an equally brutal honesty; he writes that "no part of our slaveholding country is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants than St. Louis." My, my, we must be in the hands of the Missouri Historical Society (the book's publisher) and not the chamber of commerce, though as the anthology moves from history to current events the portrait of the city hardly gets any cheerier. Barbaric slaveholders give way to white race-rioters, who give way to black Uncle Toms who, in the words of East St. Louis poet laureate Eugene B. Redmond, "perform abortions/On a ghetto pregnant with blackness." We meet rich black aristocrats, heart-stirring music blares from clubs, baseball stars shine in ballparks, civil-rights activists picket the wicked and lots of people go to work and love their mothers, but throughout the anthology, the image of the runaway never goes away. "I shall stay here awhile," says one man who came to East St. Louis only to be terrorized by a white mob, "then I shall go farther north." Ironically, the first writer in this volume who doesn't want to leave St. Louis -- Cardinal center fielder Curt Flood, who tried to oppose his trade to the Phillies in 1969 -- is forced to go.

Editor Gerald Early, Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University, first came here expecting not to stay. He arrived on Jan. 1, 1982, fresh from Cornell's graduate school, still struggling to finish his dissertation. He came to accept a job offer at Washington University, not motivated by the virtues of our city or even particularly those of the university; his wife, Ida, had just given birth to their second child, the family needed money, and the job in St. Louis started in January, not the fall. Born in Philadelphia and schooled in upstate New York, Early knew very little about St. Louis and expected the city to be "a wide-open sort of place," like New Orleans. "So," he adds with a chuckle, "you can imagine my disappointment." He came expecting the warm Southern birthplace of ragtime and found himself in a divided Midwestern city that, he noticed, "does retain some Southern qualitites, maybe not the best ones."

In his introduction to "Ain't But a Place," Early's prose spirals and sprawls when he writes about "three other locations" -- the South, Chicago and New York --- that "serve as the main geographies of African American letters and culture." He rightly addresses this trio's importance to help explain the relative invisibility of black St. Louis, but the reader can't help but notice how much more he has to say about them than about his subject. In fact, when writing about St. Louis, Early hits his stride analyzing what the city lacks, from a black perspective: It has "no major levers of popular culture," is "not the headquarters of any major civil rights organization, any major black service organization, or any major black church denomination," is anything but "a center of intellectual or political radicalism." When he moves to praise the city through black eyes, he does so in the damning tones of faint praise, using locutions such as "a great deal more than is usually acknowledged."

Early recognizes this problem. He says that when the Missouri Historical Society asked him to edit a section of black writing for an anthology about St. Louis, this city "was a kind of absence" for him. Even after he had unearthed so much material that his section mushroomed into its own volume, he admits, "I still wasn't sure how to bring it all together. I finally defined St. Louis as a negative capability; I defined it by what it isn't." In his eyes, this is appropriate: "I don't think it's unfair, because it does capture a lot of black people's view of the city. A lot of black people have seen St. Louis for what it isn't; they have thought that blacks with anything on the ball should get out of here. That's what the book substantiates: St. Louis as a kind of way station." The image of the way station has the direst historical roots in the autobiography of William Wells Brown, who worked for a slave trader on the Mississippi, because St. Louis was a market city in that grisly trade, a way station of the most hideous kind.

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