Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Parallel Time"

I've been reading Brent Staples' autobiography, Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White (1994).

I'm always a sucker for an amazing opening sentence, and Staples' text has one: "My brother's body lies dead and naked on a stainless steel slab."

Staples is a writer for The New York Times, and his articles often focus on race and American societyParallel Time describes Staples' childhood and teenage years in Chester, PA, a series of reflections sparked by the sight of the autopsy images of his brother Blake's body in the files of a Roanoke attorney. 

As Staples matter-of-factly relates, "Blake was a drug dealer; he was known for carrying guns and for using them.  His killer, Mark McGeorge, was a former customer and cocaine addict" (5).

Staples' reflections on time and memory are particularly compelling.  He notes that, "As a child I was never where I was" (9).  Staples claims, "Mine was a different childhood.  I paid endless dues for sorrows that were yet to come" (10).

This intermingling of past and future is an interesting commentary on--and undermining of--the ways in which, as Staples' autobiography unfolds, it becomes clear that the trajectory of his life is in many ways determined by race.  He isn't expected to advance and achieve--and yet he does.  In some cases, as he openly admits, he does so in spite of himself.

As Staples observes, "Time was sneaky and elastic, not at all what it was cracked up to be" (11).  And in a sense, the future that Staples carves out for himself transcends the constraints of the time and space in which he lives.

I think Parallel Time's strongest chapters are those that focus on Staples' childhood and teenage years; ideas and elements of later chapters, dealing with his graduate work at The University of Chicago have appeared elsewhere--most notably in his 1986 essay, "Black Men and Public Space."

Staples reflects on the way in which his identity is shaped by race--in particular, by others' perceptions of what it "means" to be black--and on the way in which his sense of self is also the product of his own upbringing and experiences, and his reactions to those experiences.

He also questions the extent to which family determines destiny.  The concluding sentence of Parallel Time muses on the family portrait taken shortly before his brother's death: "I stand apart from this portrait, studying my family from a distance.  This is the way it has always been" (274).

At a distance, however, Staples offers a particularly compelling image of his family and his relationship to them--one which leaves the reader to wonder whether such a perspective would be possible if he had found himself more enmeshed by these relationships.  He stands outside in order to better understand the interactions that both separate and connect.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."