Black, white, and sepia

Troubling pages in the old family photo album


by Neil Henry (University of California Press, $24.95) "Denny Who? An Unconventional View of Seattle's History" with Neil Henry, Walt Crowley, Kate Duncan, Robert Sadamu Shimabukuro, and James Warren Maclean Stage, 3:45-4:45 p.m. Sun., Oct. 21

HAVING GROWN UP in what he calls "the hopelessly white Pacific Northwest," reporter-turned-journalism professor Neil Henry enjoys a good position to make some observations about both race and history—if only he had something to say. Certainly in the saga of his own immediate family, who fled the South for Seattle in 1956, he's got an affecting, inspirational story of upwardly mobile black strivers. Yet from his own privileged perspective (Princeton, Columbia, The Washington Post, Berkeley), the view backward isn't so crystal clear. Things, it turns out, aren't exactly black and white.

That's because his eponymous great-grandmother Pearl (1877-1944) is the child of a freed slave and a white man, a fact that profoundly colors Henry's perception of the past. An open family secret within the author's clan, this heritage lies dormant until he decides to apply his journalistic skills to finding his white relatives—if they're still living.

Since he's no longer a deadline reporter when he begins his investigation in 1997, it's worth considering what Henry's old editor at the Post, Bob Woodward, would've asked him—namely, where's the story? As Pearl's Secret alternates among Henry's dogged search, loving family portraits, and conflicted ruminations on race, it's apparent that the writer is hedging. His book is padded with anecdotes and ephemera rather than presenting any coherent thesis. (In a slim volume, do we need to know about the dead ends to his archival and library sessions?) Unlike William Julius Wilson or Henry Louis Gates Jr., the author can't extrapolate penetrating social criticism from personal experience.

With the white English immigrant A.J. Beaumont, we learn, Pearl's mother enjoyed "a long affair described as respectful and loving," or so Henry wishfully infers from family folklore. (It's hard to reconcile such idealism with jarringly anachronistic terms like mulatto and quadroon.) More problematic is his notion that "Beaumont became a key to a locked portal to my psyche." Oh, really? Again we might ask what the book's about—the author's neuroses or his relations? He frets about having benefited from affirmative action and wonders how his hypothetical white kin will compare to his haute bourgeois status.

AN OVERACHIEVER in his youth, Henry writes, "I was the quintessential poster child of the era of racial integration." A straightforward memoir of his Seward Park childhood and beyond would've been more fruitful in this regard, dealing with his candid worries about being too white—the result of growing up in such a homogenous, sheltered, "happily unsophisticated place" during the '60s. Being called an Oreo or Uncle Tom surely wasn't the worst he had to face as part of a proto-Buppie clan. When he admits, "There was a part of me too that had secretly hoped that my white kin had faired [sic] more poorly than my black kin over the past century," that, too, suggests far richer grounds for personal—and racial—exploration.

Then again, memoirs are only as good as their memoirists. Lacking both big-picture sophistication and small-picture subtlety, Pearl's Secret suffers from an abundance of dreadfully dull journalese. The book is riddled with gratuitous clauses and 'graphs telling us things we already know. Huck Finn, Rosa Parks, and Davis, Calif.—all must be tediously explained anew. (Anyone who employs the needle-within-a-haystack and ship-without-a-rudder similes has learned the lessons of journalism school too well.)

After rather anticlimactically discovering and embracing his less fortunate white cousins, Henry concludes, "In some ways, race and racism in America remained as profoundly complex . . . as they had when I began my search for the white family years earlier." So the big story is . . . no story, no insight, no compelling rationale for a book published by Henry's own employer. Pearl's Secret ends with hugs, which leaves the author feeling good about his own immediate family but leaves the reader awaiting a better personal account of social mobility, black migration, and affirmative action.

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