WOMEN ARE NOT the subject of Hilton Als's meditative memoir, so much as the specter of women. In attempting to excavate the lives of black females from the cultural rubble that obscures them, this New Yorker staff writer is also trying to move his own life out from under the shadow of the women who haunt him.
Als maintains that the image of the "Negress"--poor, passionate, self-denying, dignified--has been a pervasive and perverted figure in both the American imagination and in American private and public life. Beginning with a portrait of his mother, he writes about the Negresses in his own world: his mother, who left a husband in Barbados to follow her lover to Manhattan, his alcoholic aunt and his gifted sister. Their stories so dominated his life that he became an "auntie man" (the Barbadian version of a faggot) in emulation of them. Als goes on to consider the Negress in American literature, and how she has influenced the lives of several remarkable men and women. He attempts to write into being Malcolm X's mother, Louisa Little. His mini-biography of the brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, "the black Dorothy Parker" who once proposed that Essence put Andy Warhol on the cover in blackface, and a memoir of his own romantic relationship with the poet and playwright Owen Dodson, both suggest the difficulty of giving up the image of the self-sacrificing Negress.
In a "climate of unbridled candor," as James Atlas put it in a recent New York Times Magazine feature on the literary memoir, Als' effort to blend autobiography with literary criticism and historical analysis is welcome. But at times his assertions seem facile, mere spectral projections, as when he writes: "The body alone does not make a woman, but a certain cast of mind does, that cast of mind that creates disaster even as it tries to withstand the disaster it has created." Ultimately, Als's memoir/essay is more about the absence of black masculinity than about The Women. "What most of us Negresses were looking for on the piers," he writes of his days cruising in New York, "was that construction known as male, necessary for shutting our Negress selves down." Try as he might to exorcise their spirits with words, the women continue to haunt him.