A writer and editor considers how the places he’s called home have ultimately defined him as an African-American man.
In the latest entry in the publisher’s American Lives series, McCrary writes of becoming aware of his black heritage early in life but also about the impression his skin color had on others in small-town Normal, Illinois, in the 1980s and '90s. Spending his childhood on the campus of Illinois State University, “a place engineered for surface-level equality,” where his parents met and began a family, the author was greatly influenced by the wisdom of James Baldwin. McCrary traverses some rich territory in his lifetime so far, delivering insightful essays on racial and identity issues, class assumptions, family pride, and his own sexuality. He admits to a youthful reluctance to embrace his black heritage and that this type of self-segregation still endures: “Outside of my family I’ve managed to remain close to no other black people,” he concedes, adding that it is not “a real excuse; more a reason spurred by my discomfort with the subtleties of race in my hometown.” This kind of refreshing honesty and frank self-examination permeates the pages of the memoir, in which McCrary also contemplates the inherent queerness that emerged during childhood but didn’t solidify due to “fear and convenience” until his college years. He was waiting, he writes, for “something more dramatic than schoolboy crushes to shake me into myself.” Spending his 20s in Chicago matured and freed him from the restraints of suburban life but not enough to allow him to come to true terms with his sexuality. Through self-admitted “muddy but invaluable” experiences, McCrary’s authentic identity and self-confidence eventually emerged after years of self-loathing behaviors. He reflects fondly on his time studying abroad in Prague, a city he courts an active obsession with, a “geographic flirtation” fortified by Czech history, heritage, food and drink, and cabaret adventures.
A slim yet potent and intimately ruminative debut memoir on travel, maturity, and culture.