MAXWELL:  Role models coded by color

1/21/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Jamaica Kincaid, the Antigua-born black author, caught my attention a few mornings ago when, on National Public Radio, she was a reluctant role model and expressed skepticism that role models are important for black people or that role models have any real value.

A role model, she said, does not have to be of a specific color or gender but simply has to be a good person. In other words, a black teenage girl’s role model need not be another sister-girl but could be, say, an elderly Chinese male long dead. This is tantalizing stuff. Listening to Kincaid’s lilting West Indian accent and the apparent wisdom of her words, I found myself agreeing, in part.

After all, my own role models _ people whom I have admired and emulated to some degree _ have come from both sexes and all backgrounds.

My first non-familial role models were my school teachers, all of them black. My English teacher, Gloria Bonaparte, for example, knew every rule in our grammar textbook. My classmates and I marveled as she effortlessly diagrammed sentences containing compound subjects, verbs, objects, modifiers and various long constructions. I wanted to be like her, and I did become an English teacher.

Away from school, in the privacy of my bedroom or in the cool shade of the front porch, I lived in another world and had another set of role models. I dreamed of being a writer and admired dead and living white men and women authors whom I brought home from the school and public library. In those days, the libraries available to me had very few African-American authors in their collections.

Routinely, I would stay up all night reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, John Steinbeck, Maxwell Anderson, Edgar Allen Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Joseph Conrad, James Thurber, Ambrose Bierce, Pearl Buck, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bret Harte, Washington Irving, Ring Lardner.

Ernest Hemingway and other “Lost Generation” expatriates captivated me more than any other writers at that time. I admired their hard living, their worldliness, their smart talk, their ability to love, their courage, their dedication to the craft of writing. How often did I pretend to be Hemingway, fishing, boxing, running with the bulls in Pamplona, standing up to write?

In college, I found new role models in Albert Camus and J. D. Salinger, an unlikely combination that crystalized in my psyche and made perfect sense to a teenager from rural Florida searching for his place in a 1960s world that was growing increasingly chaotic.

But the person who has had the most influence on me is the late poet May Sarton, the self-confessed lesbian loner who died last year at age 83.

Sarton is the first writer I met. That introduction, coming in 1964 during a reading when I was a sophomore at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, changed my life. What I admired about this tiny, frail-looking white woman was her independent thinking, her brilliance, her self-reliance and, most of all, her celebration of solitude.

Eleven years later, I bought a copy of her Journal of a Solitude, my most prized book, and I have read from it almost every day since.

As I thought of Sarton, Kincaid’s assessment of role models made sense. Passing a group of black youngsters in front of a convenience store in a black section of St. Petersburg, however, I realized that Kincaid’s role model definition was incomplete.

For her and for people like me _ who are able to recognize the essence of what we identify with in other people _ a role model, indeed, simply is a good person.

But the teens in front of the store, if they are like most others I know, are not like Kincaid and me. Because of peer pressure and for personal reasons, they are into black things: In and out of school, they hang out with other black teens, listen almost exclusively to black music, watch black sitcoms, talk black and “think” black. Thus, the overwhelming majority of their role models are black.

Given today’s racially charged political, social, cultural and economic climate, the blacks of this generation feel like enemies in their own nation. As such, they have little choice but to look to their own for exemplary models and strength. But, by looking only to other blacks, they are limiting, and perhaps crippling, themselves.

If they are to cope normally, these youngsters, like those of my generation, need to be well-rounded, compassionate, intuitive, informed. If they are to comprehend the world around them, they must have broad interests, exposing themselves to the mores of other ethnicities and races _ especially those of the dominant group.

No one, though, should discount the importance of black youngsters’ need for black role models. They need to see people of their race achieving. They need to know by the example of other blacks that, with hard work, fairness and no small amount of good luck, they also can succeed.

We must, as Kincaid apparently did not, guard against succumbing to the fashionable delusion that America is becoming “colorblind.” Who is kidding whom? A colorblind society, of course, means that a person’s race does not matter.

America is not colorblind. Until it is, black children must continue to find genuine role models among their black peers and adults.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.