A MAN'S LIFE: An Autobiography by Roger Wilkins
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A MAN'S LIFE: An Autobiography

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The life, perhaps, of a disappointed man--but no longer, he wants it known, a tortured Negro or a token black. Roger Wilkins (yes, the nephew of the late Roy Wilkins) was born--in Kansas City, MO, in 1931--in the double bind of being exceptional and black. His parents were both graduates of the University of Minnesota. His father, who died when Roger was not quite nine, was business manager of a black weekly newspaper. His mother, Phi Beta Kappa in college, became the national YWCA desegregation-agent and later the first black chairman of the Y National Board. In New York, aged nine to twelve, Roger lived in one of the two black-elite apartment houses on Sugar Hill; his uncle Roy (already a high NAACP official, ""distant, dignified"")--and an accomplished maternal aunt--lived in the other. ""We all believed that there was no limit to the capacity of society to improve itself. The family also talked a lot about how smart I was. . . ."" He was terrified of Harlem streetlife. His mother married a successful, light-skinned Grand Rapids doctor; Roger cowered when a black friend, from the South Side of town, came up the sidewalk with his family for a visit. He went to the University of Michigan, then to Michigan Law school, married pretty, well-brought-up Eve--from genteel-Negro Cleveland; joined a mid-Manhattan law firm; and in 1961, through a professional contact, became special assistant to JFK's new director of the Agency for International Development. Like other overnight New Frontiersmen, Wilkins was dazzled--but not so as to miss the Administration's unresponsiveness to the burgeoning civil-rights movement. As a white-living Negro, he was wary of ""Southern"" Washington--and deathly afraid on his first, flame-quenching trips into the South. Those tensions--between ""nigger""-phobia and growing black consciousness, between faith in social perfectibility and evidence of immutable racism--would lead to prolonged depressions, a drinking problem, the break-up of his marriage to Eve (amid liaisons with glamorous, once-forbidden white women), and a broken-hatched career: as the top black in the Justice Dept. (during, saliently, the Detroit and Watts riots) and at the Ford Foundation, as the black editorial writer at the Washington Post and the New York Times. In flailing others, high and low, Wilkins does not spare himself: ""Daddy is a fuck-up,"" he records his daughter Amy as saying, at 22. One connection that he does not overtly make stands out harrowingly: on the evening before his mother's installation as chairman of the Y Board, Wilkins got ragingly, abusively drunk at a semi-official D.C. party, had an altercation with a (white) woman, and wound up in jail. (Then, as planned, he and Amy flew to Boston for lunch at Lock Ober's and the installation: ""an elegant day for my beautiful seven-year-old daughter."") In some respects (especially as regards women), the book is stilted and self-conscious. Wilkins, mooting his relationship with his uncle (more than once: we ""were not especially close""), never addresses the manifold implications of being known as ""Roy Wilkins' nephew."" On the other hand, he was often called ""Andy"" (Young) or ""Julian"" (Bond): even without distinction in the telling, it's a scarifying tale for our time.

Pub Date: June 7th, 1982
Publisher: Simon & Schuster