Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Black History Month Profile: "I hung in there. I didn't say 'I can't'."


Dorothy West (1907-1998)
Journalist, author

Daughter of a former slave-turned-Boston businessman and a mother who installed many of her 18 siblings and their families in their home, West grew up an iconoclast. It ranin her family.

Family members ''ranged in color from the blond child to me,'' Miss West wrote in ''The Richer, the Poorer,'' a collection of short stories and essays published in 1995. ''We were always stared at. . . . My mother prepared us. As she marched us down our front stairs, she would say what our smiles were on tiptoe to hear, 'Come on, children, let's go out and drive the white folks crazy.'

She took up writing as a child, and tied for first place in a fiction contest with another African-American woman writer, Zora Neale Hurston, in 1926. Moving to Harlem, she fell in with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and published two magazines pioneering African-American fiction during the 1930s.

Dubbed “the Kid” by Langston Hughes for her youth, West outlived all of her storied peers, as The New York Times reported:

''We thought we were going to be the greatest writers in the world,'' she told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. 'We were all young and we fell in love with each other. We all had the same ambitions: writers and painters and so forth. We were free. . . .We had an innocence that nobody can have now.''

Langston Hughes gave Miss West the nickname ''the Kid'' and took her to Russia in 1932. She asked him to marry her but he declined. Soon she received a proposal from Countee Cullen, the poet who received one of the first Guggenheim Fellowships given to an African-American. She turned him down. She shared an apartment with Zora Neale Hurston, the writer and folklorist, and when guests came to the loft of Wallace Thurman, the novelist and editor, she was always there, sitting on the floor. She had a bit part in the original stage production of ''Porgy and Bess.'' Claude McKay, already established as a poet and novelist, scolded her for not writing more.

''We were a beautiful, young group,'' she told a Boston Globe interviewer in 1989. 'We drank too much, though. We drank too much.''

She was ambivalent about marriage- she said that most men turned into children once they wed- but she’d have liked to have had children. A white doctor broke the news that she was unable to with the comment, “There’s enough black people in the world already.”

In the 1940s, West worked for the WPA Writers Project while working on a novel, The Living Is Easy. Published in 1948, it enjoyed middling sales. West mostly lived as a newspaper writer, contributing two short stories a month to The New York Daily News for twenty years. She moved to her family's summer hours on Martha’s Vineyard in 1947 and remained there for the next fifty years.

Late in life, the “rediscovery” of her novel- after a small publisher reprinted it- brought her fame and sales. At 85, after three years of weekly visits by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then a book editor in New York, West completed and published a second novel, The Wedding. It became a bestseller and brought fame and honors to West’s last years.

Andrew Yarrow wrote of her work,

Miss West's stories and novels used brisk narratives, an eye for detail and wit to explore the aspirations of well-to-do blacks and the interplay of race, class and intraracial tensions in America. Her work was not overtly political, tending to more lyrical depictions of vanity, longing, love and misunderstanding.

''Color is important, but class is more important,'' Miss West often said in the dozens of interviews she gave after ''The Wedding'' was published by Doubleday and made into a miniseries by Oprah Winfrey.

Critics praised her storytelling and her pioneering descriptions of conflict within the black middle class. ''There is an abundance of psychological and historic richness to her characters,'' Elizabeth Benedict wrote in The Washington Post in 1995, ''and she can be wickedly eloquent about the costs of living in a world where the shadings in the color of one's skin are more important than the bonds between blood relatives.''

West was one of the first African-American women to make a living as a writer, as much as anything, because she never stopped. When one avenue closed, she simply pursued another. Asked what she wanted her legacy to be, she responded, "That I hung in there. That I didn't say I can't."

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