An open-minded Jewish student at Howard University provides a guide to black America in the 1960s.
This timely meditation on race relations of the ’60s, written through the eyes of a young Jewish man who willingly immerses himself in a majority-black community, is both a debut memoir and a debut novel for psychologist Wolfe (Treatment of Panic Disorder: A Consensus Development Conference, 1994). Like his protagonist, Isadore White, Wolfe attended historically black Howard University in the ’60s. In this “novelized memoir,” Wolfe’s alter ego grows up in a Washington, D.C., even more segregated than it is today: “Social mixing just isn’t done.” Young Izzy’s reality is that of the lower-middle-class Jewish enclave he’s born into, and he only encounters his black contemporaries on Canteen Night at the Coolidge High Gymnasium, where he hones his basketball skills. Almost immediately, he finds himself liking them, wondering, “Why should these decent guys be the subject of such hatred and fear?” When he realizes that his family can’t afford George Washington University, he decides to enroll in Howard, to the horror of his father: “Izzy, don’t be such a meshuganah.” His dad rails against the “communists and queers” Izzy will encounter there. To the contrary, even though Izzy finds the hallways “dark and the laboratories dreary,” he can’t speak highly enough of his fellow students. He learns about the everyday horrors of segregated life and falls for a beautiful black student named Desirie Jackson, who initiates him into sexual mysteries and challenges him to have the courage of his convictions and work as a real activist instead of a well-wisher. Wolfe obviously knows whereof he writes, and his descriptions of the tense atmosphere that preceded the 1963 March on Washington and the pure pleasure of dancing “The Birdland, The Slop, the Snap, the Chicken, and the Mashed Potato” come alive on the page. Izzy, a dance contest winner, learns all his moves from watching black teenagers on TV: “I would study how black teenagers dance. It was so much smoother and more rhythmic than the white kids.” The book’s layout is curious: some paragraphs are broken with a space in between and some aren’t, and punctuation errors abound (many commas and periods appear outside the quotation marks). But this lack of polish proves to be surprisingly little trouble for the reader: the story that Wolfe tells is an important and rewarding one.
A lively evocation of black college life at a pivotal point in American history.