Colored People a Memoir

WEEREAD: Colored People: A Memoir

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a man known by multiple titles and accolades but is perhaps best known as a literary critic and who rediscovered early African-American novels and pushed for their inclusion in the Western canon. Before teaching at Ivy League schools and penning multiple award-winning books, however, Gates was merely a boy coming-of-age in Piedmont, West Virginia under segregation.

In his 1994 memoir Colored People, Gates chronicles his childhood and adolescence in Piedmont. At the time of writing, Piedmont is just another declining mill town, but Gates remembers the town in the 1950s as a “sepia time” when it was in its prime. He opens with an anecdote about driving through Piedmont with his daughters, one of whom declares the town dead. Gates is inclined to agree, though he laments that his daughters will never “experience the magic I can still feel in the place where I learned how to be a colored boy.”

The Piedmont of Gates’ childhood is portrayed as a lively mill town, composed largely of Italian and Irish immigrants and the largest percentage of African-Americans in Mineral County, all brought in by the Westvaco paper mill. Like most people in Piedmont, Gates’ family is “completely bound up with the Westvaco paper mill: its prosperous past and its doubtful future.” All the men in Gates’ life work at the same job and in the same position: loading paper into trucks. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that African-American workers at the mill would have the opportunity to work anywhere but on the platform.

Despite the limitations imposed on his parents and a childhood spend largely under segregation, Gates’ memories are generally fond, especially regarding the location of Piedmont. The members of the Piedmont community, declared Gates, “knew God gave America no more beautiful location.” All members of the community, black and white, seemed to share an appreciation for the natural wonders that surrounded them; “I never knew colored people who were crazier about mountains and water, flowers and trees, fishing and hunting,” Gates recalls.

Though his life and the lives of those around him are grounded in Piedmont, news from elsewhere creep increasingly into Gates’ consciousness as he matures. News of the Civil Rights Movement, including its sit-ins, marches, and riots, cause Gates to consider his place in the world and how he is viewed by others based solely on his race. Running parallel to Gates’ own coming-of-age is the growth of the nation and, from the implementation of Brown v. Board in the 1950s to the Cold War panic of the 1960s, Gates and America share their growing pains.

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One of the defining events in Gates’ childhood is the landmark case of Brown v. Board. The order was enacted with swiftness in Piedmont and Gates “entered the Davis Free Elementary School in 1958, just one year after it was integrated.” But of course, long-held beliefs and institutions are not altered overnight and members of the Piedmont community, both black and white, chafed at the regulations. Gates learns to navigate the rules, both written and unspoken, as he goes through school, dating, and life. It is clear to Gates that, despite the fact the school has been integrated, students are still expected to socialize and date along the color lines.

Emboldened by the Black Power Movement and his own foray into young adulthood, Gates begins pushing boundaries in Piedmont. He claims to be the first in town to grow an Afro, thus creating a division between himself and older male relatives who dislike the new ‘do and its associated fashion. Though the narrative itself is grounded in a particular time and place, Gates’ tale of adolescent rebellion is nearly universal. In true teenager fashion, Gates is sure that his family simply “doesn’t get it,” and only he and his friends do. Frustrated by the sluggishness of progress, Gates and his friends challenge the status quo by crashing a bar that refuses to integrate, causing Gates to be identified for “possible custodial detention if and when the race riots started” by the West Virginia State Police. Increasingly feeling the constraints of Piedmont, Gates leaves for Potomac State.

The narrative ends shortly after Gates arrives at Potomac State, rounding out the book at a little over 200 pages depending on edition. In spite of its brevity, Colored People serves as an important story about forging an identity for oneself both in relation to and independent of kin and community. Descriptions of nature and life in a mill or company town are staples in Appalachian literature, but Gates’ memoir provides a fresh take by sharing the experiences of the African-American community within it. If you are looking to celebrate Black History Month with a West Virginian author of color, anything written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would be an excellent pick.

• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.