A Memoir Should Be More Than A History Lesson

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The memoir, in African-American history, dates back to slave journals. But memoirs can also move us and make us laugh out loud. Tell Me More marks Black History Month with a series of discussions about the impact of memoirs, including today's conversation between host Michel Martin and a roundtable of writers and scholars.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's Black History Month, and this year, we decided to acknowledge it by talking about a type of literature that has expanded our understanding of the experience of African-Americans.

We're talking about the memoir. Just about every day, it seems a new memoir shows up on the book store shelf or in your eReader penned by the famous and not so famous. It's a phenomenon, as far as African-Americans, anyway, that dates as far back as the journals sent down by former slaves.

Now, though, there seems to be a new zeal to log family history or tell a compelling personal story. Every week this month, we will be digging into a new memoir or two. But to get us started, we wanted to talk more about what a memoir is and what they're all about.

We have called upon three distinguished writers and scholars of English and African-American studies. They are professor Dana Williams. She is chair of the department of English and professor of African-American literature at Howard University. Lorene Cary is senior lecturer in the department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also author of a memoir, "Black Ice." And Professor Elizabeth Alexander. She is chair of the African-American studies department at Yale University. She is also a poet who composed and read the poem "Praise Song for the Day" at President Barack Obama's inauguration.

I welcome all of you. Thank you all so much for joining us.

DANA WILLIAMS: Thank you. Hello.

LORENE CARY: Thank you for inviting us.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Professor Williams, I'm going to start with you. It may be a silly question, but is there a difference between memoir and autobiography? I think people are used to thinking of them interchangeably. Is there a difference?

WILLIAMS: I think it's actually a very good question. There is a slight distinction and, typically, the autobiography is seen as the kind of leader overarching genre and then the memoir is a sub-genre of the autobiography. I would say that the smallest distinction is probably that the memoir tends to focus on a small aspect of a person's life or the public figure or the public aspect of an institution or an organization. So it's still a life story, but it's probably a more abbreviated version.

MARTIN: Like a slice?

WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: A bit of a slice. Professor Alexander, I think we talked about the slave journals. Can you just tell us a little bit about what we know about why these folks were motivated to start telling their stories at a time when it could almost be dangerous to do so?

ALEXANDER: Well, if you think, for example, about Frederick Douglass, he was an astonishing orator and part of his abolitionist mission was to go around the country and the world telling the story of his journey to freedom. Eventually, what his audiences and his sponsors realized is that, if the book were written, if it were published, if it could be distributed, then it would reach far more people and thus serve the abolitionist cause even better.

Well, as it turns out, Douglass was also an astonishing writer, a brilliant writer, someone who couldn't just tell a story, but also could tell it compellingly and beautifully. And so his 1845 narrative stands now as a work of literature that probably all of us have taught and also a book that literally helped to end slavery. No small thing.

MARTIN: Lorene Cary, one of the reasons we're so glad to talk with you is that you have penned one and you wrote one at a pretty young age. It was about your experience as a student at a New England boarding school, the first group of girls to attend this school and you and I share that experience, oddly enough. So I wanted to ask what made you want to write one?

CARY: I wanted to out that experience. You're talking to me, by the way, just a few months after I've been appointed to the School Reform Commission here in Philadelphia and for me, going from public school to a boarding school in New England was an experience of going from an education where, basically, many of my teachers as I was growing up looked at us and tried to figure out what was wrong with us in order to try to fix us and get us better to an experience where all of these people looked at us as if to try very hard to figure out what was special and exquisite about us.

CARY: I felt the difference in those expectations and it made me furious that we weren't talking honestly about them and I wanted to out the experience.

MARTIN: Do you think you wrote it mainly for yourself, in a way, to kind of put it down and understand it for yourself or - I'm wondering who you had in mind as you were writing that work, which was a best seller, by the way.

CARY: I'll tell you, Michel. The first draft is always for myself. The first draft, I think, needs to be for one's self. The first draft is about mapping the landscape, your own internal landscape, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically. It's therapy. It's getting honest. It's getting the tone. Typically, I have to write 200 pages until I write my way to the door of the book. So a lot of it is throwaway. It's getting good enough. It's running laps. And then after that, the truth is I didn't expect anybody to read the book, to be honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: I just hoped that it would get enough readers - they published 7,500 the first edition - I just hoped for enough readers so that I could get a contract for the next one.

MARTIN: But it did a lot better than that.

CARY: It did a lot better than that.

MARTIN: So what do you think people saw in it? Because it's still an experience that not a lot of people will have had.

CARY: I think that the first level is often sociological. People come to do is to find out what it was like to be a scholarship girl at a boarding school that had been all boys, all white, all male, all wealthy. But then I think when in order for people to stay with it the book has to reflect something true about the experience of learning and of growing up. That's what people get from it. So I get all these letters from people who say I was not a black girl in boarding school, comma, but - and then they tell all of their own experiences. It is the experience of learning or of figuring out how to give gifts that one didn't receive, or of how to overcome challenges, or of how to be in a situation where people do not expect the best of you, but figuring out how to exceed those expectations anyway.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're starting off Black History Month. This Black History Month we've decided to dig into memoirs that explore the African-American experience. But we wanted to start off with talking with three distinguished writers and scholars who have either penned a memoir or studied memoir to talk about what role memoir plays in the African-American experience.

We're speaking with Lorene Cary, senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. That's who was speaking just now. She's author of the memoir "Black Ice." Also with us, Professor Elizabeth Alexander, chair of the African-American Studies Department at Yale University, she is also a poet. And you remember that she composed the poem "Praise Song for the Day" at President Barack Obama's inauguration. And Professor Dana Williams, chair of the Department of English at Howard University.

Prof. Williams, what's your take on why, I'm wondering if you share my perception that more people, and a more, a really wide array of people seem to be sharing their memoirs is these days.

WILLIAMS: People I think are very interested not only in telling their stories for themselves but having people see and understand the same thing, this coming into awareness and this coming into consciousness that they experience themselves. You can't pretend to know absolutely everything but you can tell specifically the experience that you had and what you know and how it has impacted you but also how it was shaped by the environment that you come out of and how it also shapes the environments as well.

MARTIN: Prof. Alexander, have you seen - do memoirs seem to be make arguing a case or something or trying to - what have you seen over the course of all the hundreds of years that people have been writing these, particularly African-Americans?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think in moving from the slave narratives - and I think we should put them in the beginning of thinking about African-American autobiography and the kind of instrumentality of writing those books. You have other books moving forward that because the person is someone of note then in the literary world that's a book that gets contracted. And what we have in the contemporary era I think, is as black lives - more kinds of black lives - has made their way into the mainstream imagination, I think therefore more people - and I'm thinking Condoleezza Rice, do we talk about that as a literary memoir? Well, she came out with two books at about the same time and the one that she wrote that was more about the Birmingham of her childhood, more about her coming of age is a book that we read because she's someone who's name we know and we think that we're going to get to go behind the veil to use - to use DuBois' wonderful phrase.

So I think more black lives are publicly known now and so maybe that's why more black lives are making it into autobiographical form, even if these aren't the folks that we would necessarily think of as writers.

MARTIN: Well, you know, that brings me back to - I'll just call him memoirist-in-chief, President Barack Obama...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: People think of "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance" as something he wrote as he was preparing to run for president. But that's actually not true. He was initially offered the contract to chronicle being elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. So he wrote that right after law school so, or he started. And we happen to have a narration of him reading the book...

ALEXANDER: Oh, great.

MARTIN: ...for which he won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word. So let me just play a short clip from that. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MEMOIR, "DREAMS OF MY FATHER")

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know, I have seen the desperation and disorder of the powerless, how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago's South Side. How narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammeled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair. I know that the response of the powerful to this disorder - alternating as it does between a dull complacency and, when the disorder spills out of its proscribed confines, a steady, unthinking application of force, of longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware - is inadequate to the task.

MARTIN: How does each of you hear this? Prof. Alexander, I'll start with you. And as we mentioned, you did write the poem for President Obama's inauguration so you do have a relationship, friendship, you know. But how do you read it, how do you hear it?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think it's a great memoir. It's a memoir that I've taught. It's a memoir that my colleague, the literary scholar Robert Stepto has written about. And what I think is so interesting about it is that it is an American coming-of-age story, with literary ties to the "Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," to "The Confessions of St. Augustine," to the "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," even in a way to the sentimental women's novels of the 19th century, which end with "Reader, I Married Him." And here we see that marriage is what ends or almost ends the book. So he's coming of age, but he's also in the book narrating a coming of and into a complex black identity. And that's what I particularly love about it too. And what the recording of it let's us listen to when he goes in and out of all of the different voices of the characters who peopled his life growing up, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, finding himself also as he reads African-American literature, thinking about who the self is with a literary education to guide the formation of that self. I think it's a fascinating book.

MARTIN: Lorene, how about you? How do you read it, or hear it?

CARY: I hear it as a story. By the way, we - this is one of the few times I get to say this, that he and I shared an agent for this book. And I remember my agent saying this is amazing. You are going to hear more from this person. This is an amazing memoir. And what she said was it's a joy to read because, you know, she was thinking about selling a book. So I heard it first as a book that was needing to tell a story and needing to tell a story in a way that's beautiful. By the way, our conversation here is very serious and you, you know, everybody's being called professor, you know, so we're being very, you know, intellectual and smart about this, but they should be fun to read. I mean they should be...

ALEXANDER: Yes. Mm-hmm.

CARY: They should be sometimes they're funny. They should be laugh out loud. They should be, move you. They do all of these things.

MARTIN: I just want to tell you. I just wanted to you. We've got something for you. Next week we will be joined by Baratunde Thurston to talk about his memoir "How to Be Black."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And just to give you a sense of the tone of it, he says if you don't buy this book you're a racist. So I just want to you to know that we heard you. We hear you.

CARY: We're very enlightened.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We will comply. Prof. Williams, what do you - oh, Lorene, had you finished your thought?

CARY: Sure.

MARTIN: OK. Prof. Williams, how do you read President Obama's memoir? Or maybe you're ready to move on and tell us what your favorite memoir is, because that's how we were going to end up or asking each of you, what's your favorite memoir?

WILLIAMS: It's a really great book. I like it a lot. I think the thing that is most attractive to me is the effortlessness of the book. The prose flow so beautifully, so like we see, it's very easy to read. You're learning a lot at the same time but you're also able to move through the narrative in a way that allows you to feel comfortable and the language, the word choice, all beautiful.

MARTIN: And so what's your favorite? So this, in the couple of minutes that we have left - and thank you all so much for taking the time to share with us about this. So Prof. Williams, before we let you go, what's your favorite memoir? Do you have one?

WILLIAMS: Right now I'm reading Harry Belafonte's "My Song" and it's becoming my favorite. It's a beautiful book. It's well written but it's also a very true and poignant story.

MARTIN: Oh, OK.

WILLIAMS: So I like the way especially that he talks about how he moves through the world with the effort to be precise and dignified. And I think the book takes on those two characteristics as well.

MARTIN: OK. Lorene Cary, what about you? Do you have a favorite besides your own? Well, your own could be - you can pick your own. It's one of my favorites.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Well, I will tell you, it is, you know, at the end of the day when you write a book really, the only person who's been transformed is oneself. So it does impact you more. I love Frederick Douglass's narrative. I love it like I love my great-grandfather, it always stays with me.

MARTIN: Prof. Alexander, final thought from you?

ALEXANDER: I love Audre Lorde's "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name."

CARY: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: A beautiful memoir, which she calls a bio-mythography and she talks about, I mean it's, I think it's wonderful the way that it says that telling the story of the self isn't always about empirical and verifiable truth. We know ourselves and understand our true selves in myth as much as we do in empirical fact. And she's a gorgeous poet and a gorgeous writer and she plays around with the form and it's a beautiful book.

MARTIN: Professor Elizabeth Alexander is chair of the African-American Studies Department at Yale University. And as we mentioned, she's the poet who composed and read the poem "Praise Song for the Day," at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. And an illustrated children's version of poem is being released next month with illustrations by David Diaz. And she was kind enough to join us from the studios at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Also with us, Lorene Cary, she is senior lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She's the author of many books, including her memoir "Black Ice." And Lorene Carey joined us from Philadelphia. And also with us, Professor Dana Williams. She is chair of the Department of English and professor of African-American Literature at Howard University, and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Ladies, professors, all, thank you all do much.

CARY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Happy Black History Month to you. Thank you for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Thank, you so much.

CARY: Thanks. Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Next week, as we mentioned, we will be joined by Baratunde Thurston to review his memoir, "How to Be Black." And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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