One of the country's top black scholars offers a tender memoir of his youth in a West Virginia paper mill town in the 1950s and '60s. Gates (African-American Studies/Harvard) trades the academic jargon of his literary criticism (as in Loose Canons, 1992) for a dead-on conversational voice threaded with black vernacular. ``I am not native to the great black metropolises,'' he declares at the outset, yet in Piedmont, a town of 2,100 (circa 1950) in northeastern West Virginia, race contoured existence. The civil rights era, pictured on television, arrived slowly, as ``school was virtually the only integrated arena'' after Brown v. Board of Education. But Gates's world was rich: He describes sex education in a talky barbershop, self-righteous teetotalers on his mother's side, and card-playing punsters on his father's. He battled with his sardonic father, a millworker; retreated to the church to cope with a depressive mother; grew enamored of Africa in current events class; and became a reader to bridge the gap with a white girl whose friendship he lost as puberty arrived. In church camp, at the time of the Watts riots, he first read James Baldwin, whose picture seemed ``so very Negro.'' Gates began battling with his relatives as he grew the first Afro in town, proclaimed himself black, and moved on to the local state college five miles away. But he knows enough now to wince at some of his rhetoric and to celebrate his mother's earlier civil rights protests. Gates ends the book with a warm portrait of the last segregated black mill picnic, which he convincingly depicts as a loss to the black community under integration. Gates left West Virginia for Yale and a meteoric career; the worlds he has seen since should someday make a terrific sequel.