“Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color” by Cherene Sherrard Johnson. Rutgers University Press, 2012. 229 ppg., $24.95. Available at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Edgartown Books, and Bunch of Grapes.
The passage of time often limits our understanding of of iconic people and eras, shrinking their dimension, defining them by a single achievement or aspect.
Teddy Roosevelt, for example, is a Rough Rider in our consciousness today, speaking softly and carrying a big stick. He is not a crusading New York City police commissioner or the naturalist champion of open space, accomplishments of greater impact, over the years, than his grandstanding invasion of tiny Cuba in the late 19th century.
Now, less than 15 years after the death of Island literary icon Dorothy West, comes a biography that illuminates the interior life of the author and examines African-American class and race consciousness. From the decades-long perch of her weekly column in The Vineyard Gazette, Ms. West is best known here as a doyenne of life and manners, particularly relating to the Island’s African-American community and specifically within the town of Oak Bluffs.
She was much more than that, an intriguing and conflicted human being, as we learn in “Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color.” The book is also a rich historical document of racial cultures and practices on and off the Island.
Author Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, professor of literature at the University of Wisconsin and Island habitué, has turned her considerable skills to understanding Ms. West, and by extension, the community of racial freedom we believe the Island to have been for more than a century.
Ms. Sherrard-Johnson’s focus is on the matter of intraracial class and color politics more than interracial relations here. She posits that Ms. West was engaged by both subjects. As an example, Ms. Sherrard-Johnson points out Ms. West’s penchant to lyricize specific beautiful people of color in the Island community in her column while satirizing middle-class African-American behaviors in her fiction.
The author will discuss Dorothy West’s life and the role of Oak Bluffs as an African-American enclave at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum today, June 21, at 5:30 pm.
Ms. Sherrard-Johnson carefully points out that the book title describes “a biography of class and color” and that is more the point of her work in this thoroughly researched, well-written book.
Ms. West is a lens through which we view efforts of an emerging African-American middle-class to codify status, not only relative to white middle-class values in America, but also within the black middle-class. She references close monitoring of black behavior by black social arbiters in single race and bi-racial communities with a goal to maintaining and enhancing status in both communities.
Ms. West was of the opinion, liberally shared in interviews (particularly with Island biographer Linsey Lee) and in her writing, that “New Yorkers,” (perhaps a euphemism for all non-Bostonian African-Americans, who spoke loudly, dressed extravagantly, and ate chicken publicly), “lost us” a bi-racial Oak Bluffs beach in the 1940s. Ms. West opined that their behavior was a betrayal of race and class that led to the privatization of the beach by the white old boy establishment and to the subsequent creation of the famous and much-heralded Inkwell beach. Hmm. Not a version I prefer, but I can believe it. The truth can be a pesky thing.
In a coda to the book, Ms. Sherrard-Johnson says, “… studying [Ms. West's] life and her work has helped me gain a greater understanding of how African-American culture performs and represents class.”
Ms. Sherrard-Johnson acknowledges that she has purposely written an unconventional biography, not chronological but in a series of descriptors of Ms. West’s public life and belief system, shaped by her background and experience, some of which the author believes may have been revisionist.
This is not a dishy, tell-all book. It is an important book, because it challenges all readers to look at their definition of personal authenticity, particularly with regard to our color and our sense of class-ism. One piece of advice: Do not skip the introduction. Read it. This is a book of learning and the background provided is important to understanding Ms. West’s saga.
Ms. West had a big life between her birth in 1907 and her death in 1998. Raised in Brookline as the only child of a freed slave become successful merchant, Ms. West had an upbringing of privilege, attended the prestigious Girls’ Latin (High) School in Boston, Boston University, and the Columbia School of Journalism.
Ms. West played in the original production of “Porgy” in London in 1927 and traveled to Russia as a filmmaker in the 1930s. A writing prodigy who completed her first short story at the age of seven, she was the youngest member of the Harlem Renaissance Movement, rubbing writing shoulders with Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and the young Ralph Ellison. She founded or co-founded two literary magazines during her New York period, worked in Depression-era public projects, and as a welfare fraud investigator. Ms. West moved the Island in 1947 and began contributing to the Gazette.
Her first novel, “The Living Is Easy” published in 1948, played satirically on attitudes and behaviors of upper-class black Bostonians and is regarded as seminal work by subsequent generations of writers. Oprah Winfrey returned Ms. West to the national spotlight by producing a two-part TV mini-series on her second novel, “The Wedding,” published in 1995, which also tweaks and probes African-American middle-class values.
This is not your garden variety “beach read” but an engrossing look at who we are and how we all behave in the world.
Author’s Talk with Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Thursday, June 21, 5:30 pm, M.V. Museum, Edgartown. $12; $8 members. 508-627-4441; mvmuseum.org.