‘Ordinary Light: A Memoir,’ by Tracy K. Smith

Darryl Pinckney in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_1182 May. 06 19.31In “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois defined the double consciousness of the African-American, the peculiar sensation “of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape” of an alien world. The African-American ever feels his or her two-ness, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” Segregation placed a veil between the black observer and that other world, the white one. Du Bois’s description of the black individual who is yet American remained apt into the era of increased integration, as shown in various autobiographies that began to appear in the 1990s by young black people who had entered the middle class. The experience of an elite school or a profession was understood as a leaving of the black world. Now we are hearing from the children of those black parents who rent the veil. For them, the Huxtable generation, whiteness may no longer be synonymous with what it is to be American or “normal,” but to be black still means knowing how to survive on what Du Bois elsewhere identified as the “island within.”

The United States remains a very segregated place. Access to the country’s resources is largely determined by where we live, starting with the schools we attend. After Tracy K. Smith’s father found his way out of the South by enlisting in the military, Smith was raised in the 1970s and ’80s in Fairfield, a Northern California town near Travis Air Force Base, where her father was stationed. The youngest of five children, Smith — who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her third volume of poetry, “Life on Mars” — grew up like an only child, her siblings already away at college by the time she began to think about her place in the world. In “Ordinary Light,” she offers her painstaking reflections on what went into the making of her, from year to year, grade level to grade level, from the chapters of “Little Visits With God” she used to read with her mother to Seamus Heaney’s great sonnet sequence “Clearances,” which Smith returned to again and again as a student at Harvard: “I heard the hatchet’s differentiated / Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh.”

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