Just when you’re ready to pack up the House of Representatives and ship them to Bazookastan, along comes a reminder that some among them actually strive for social justice—such as that rare bird Eleanor Holmes Norton.
In a gratifying autobiography/biography, journalist Lester (The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas, not reviewed) tells the story with the help of significant patches of quotations from Norton. Readers will get a strong taste of Norton’s forceful personality and the constancy and vigor of her convictions, which are sometimes expressed with a passion that can make her seem overbearing (“. . . her biggest asset. And her biggest problem,” says Virginia Democrat James Moran). The roots of Norton’s activism are easy to discern in the proud and loving portrayal here of her ancestors, fugitive slaves who fashioned a life in Washington, D.C. The importance of family—a theme Norton will return to again and again in her career—is seen as she describes the importance of her mother and father: “He brought home his insistence upon being treated with respect . . . a black man insisting in every way you could find upon your dignity.” She details her years at Antioch and Yale and with SNCC, her radicalism and grassroots participatory philosophy, then her distancing from the Black Power movement, for “once Black Power became black racism, hey, they left me too. . . . The great unifying philosophies are what keep hold.” That sense of unity is what allowed her to operate so effectively within the public sphere, in New York City’s Human Rights Commission, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and as congresswoman from Washington, tackling a swath of issues ranging from D.C. statehood through discriminatory practices wherever they might be and on to the Clarence Thomas appointment.
A well-framed memoir, satisfyingly candid while also abrim with political theory: a filigreed work that maps Norton’s evolution as an advocate for human rights.