Kristin (Eggleston) Hunter Lattany (1931-)
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature
Born 1931, in Philadelphia, PA; Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.S., 1951.
Agent—Jane Pystel Literary Management, One Union Square West, New York, NY 10003.
Writer. Pittsburgh Courier, Philadelphia, PA, columnist and feature writer, 1946-52; Lavenson Bureau of Advertising, Philadelphia, PA, copywriter, 1952-59; Werman & Schorr, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, information officer, 1962-63; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, research assistant, 1961-62, 1963-64, 1965-66; Emory University, writer-in-residence, 1979; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, lecturer in English, 1972-79, adjunct associate professor of English, 1981-83, senior lecturer in English, 1983-95.
Fund for the Republic Prize, 1955, for television documentary, Minority of One; John Hay Whitney fellowship, 1959-60; Philadelphia Athenaeum Award, 1964; National Council on Interracial Books for Children award, 1968, Mass Media Brotherhood Award from National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1969, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1971, all for The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou; Sigma Delta Chi reporting award, 1968; Spring Book Festival Award, 1973, Christopher Award, and National Book Award finalist, both 1974, all for Guests in the Promised Land; Drexel Children's Literature Citation, 1981; New Jersey State Council on the Arts prose fellowship, 1981-82, 1985-86; Pennsylvania State Council on the Arts literature fellowship, 1983-84; Moonstone Black Writing Celebration Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996.
YOUNG ADULT NOVELS; UNDER NAME KRISTIN HUNTER
The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, Scribner (New York, NY), 1968.
Boss Cat, illustrated by Harold Franklin, Scribner (New York, NY), 1971.
The Pool Table War, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1972.
Uncle Daniel and the Raccoon, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1972.
Guests in the Promised Land (story collection), Scribner (New York, NY), 1973.
Lou in the Limelight, Scribner (New York, NY), 1981.
UNDER NAME KRISTIN HUNTER, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED
Minority of One (documentary), Columbia Broadcasting System, 1956.
God Bless the Child, Scribner (New York, NY), 1964, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1986.
The Double Edge (play), first produced in Philadelphia, PA, 1965.
The Landlord, Scribner (New York, NY), 1966.
The Survivors, Scribner (New York, NY), 1975.
The Lakestown Rebellion, Scribner (New York, NY), 1978.
Kinfolks, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1996.
(Under the name Kristin Lattany) Do unto Others, One World (New York, NY), 2000.
(Under the name Kristin Lattany) Breaking Away, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2003.
(Contributor) Langston Hughes, editor, The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1967. Contributor to Nation, Essence, Black World, and other periodicals.
The Landlord (motion picture), United Artists, 1970.
Kristin Hunter Lattany has produced a series of novels and a collection of short stories that explore the experiences of modern black teenagers. Her works are variations on the theme of growing up black—and often poor—in America, a country still struggling with racism and inequality. While Lattany's adult novels are often grim or darkly humorous, her books for teens offer a more optimistic picture. The author told Publishers Weekly: "I have tried to show some of the positive values existing in the so-called ghetto—the closeness and warmth of family life, the willingness to extend help to strangers in trouble, … the natural acceptance of life's problems and joys—and there is a great deal of joy in the ghetto—and the strong tradition of religious faith. All of these attitudes have combined to create the quality called 'soul.'"
In Black World, Huel D. Perkins called Lattany "an excellent storyteller [who] does it with such an economy of words that she makes the form seem easy. But more important, she uses her terse style to speak to younger children and teenagers of limited attention spans with a directness and freshness which makes her a joy to read." Perkins added that Lattany "never fails to drive home the thesis that humanity is the only consideration that matters in this topsy-turvy world—a deep abiding concern for one's fellowman and ultimately the human condition."
Lattany did not grow up in the ghetto, but rather in a middle-class neighborhood near Camden, New Jersey. Her father was a school principal and her mother was a teacher who was reluctantly forced into early retirement when Lattany was born. The youngster grew up in an extended family, including her stern father and the "tigresses"—her mother, her grandmother, and two aunts, one of whom lived with her parents. "I never got to finish a sentence around these loud, vocal women, while my father's stern silences were even more intimidating than their speech," Lattany once recalled.
Lattany was an only child who discovered her two passions, reading and swimming, early. By four she was reading adult books smuggled from her parents' library. In an interview with Jean W. Ross, she said: "I really cannot say when I didn't want to be a writer. It probably started shortly after I became a reader, which was when I was four. I found books very exciting, and it was my biggest ambition to produce something myself that would be in books."
Lattany always felt that she had somehow ruined her mother's life. "In that place and that time (New Jersey in the 1930s and 1940s), women with children were forbidden by law to teach …," the author once noted. "My mother was unable to teach because of me. She never explained it to me that clearly, however. Instead she spoke often and vehemently, if vaguely, of the 'sacrifices' she had made (for me, I thought), and at least once said that I had ruined her life. I reacted, of course, with mingled guilt and resentment, coupled with the determination never to have a child."
Both of Lattany's parents pushed her to become a teacher herself, so she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in nearby Philadelphia as an education major. She finished the degree but lasted only four months in a classroom. She simply wasn't suited for the work, and she knew without doubt that she wanted to be a writer.
In fact, she had been writing a column for the Philadelphia edition of the Pittsburgh Courier since her early teens, and that experience brought her into contact with other black writers and journalists in Philadelphia. As a young woman, she herself moved to Philadelphia—to a neighborhood dominated by a busy avenue called South Street—and set about achieving her real goals. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s she held a series of jobs as an advertising copywriter, and she even worked for the city of Philadelphia as an information officer. Somehow she found the time and energy to write fiction in her spare time, and by 1964 she had finished and published her first novel, God Bless the Child.
Both God Bless the Child and Lattany's next novel, The Landlord, are adult novels with mature themes. Both are set in a community similar to the one Lattany encountered on South Street. The idea of writing for children came to Lattany when she heard an a cappella singing group practicing through long summer evenings in her neighborhood. Her imagination brought to life Louretta Hawkins, a fourteen-year-old growing up poor but proud in a big city.
The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou—perhaps Lattany's best-known book—appeared in 1968. Louretta, better known as Sister Lou, persuades her brother to let a group meet and rehearse in his printing shop. Not surprisingly, some of Lou's friends are militant, anti-white extremists. Others have different philosophies, however, and Lou must choose the path that feels right to her. When white policemen harass the gang and kill one of its members in an unprovoked attack, Lou leans toward militancy. Then she discovers that she is not a hater, and that more can be achieved by positive forces than negative ones. At story's end, she and her friends are offered a recording contract on the basis of the eulogy they sing for their slain friend at his funeral.
The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou won a number of important awards, including the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award. It was cited as a novel that could serve to introduce young white readers to the black culture, with all its joys and frustrations. Lattany once commented that the work brought her more children than she ever could have had by natural means—"thousands … who have formed intense personal bonds with my characters, and then with me through their letters. This responsive audience, the fans and the critics alike, is one of the greatest rewards I have gained from writing for children."
So many of her fans asked for further news of Lou that Lattany wrote Lou in the Limelight, a no-holds-barred portrait of the teens as exploited and abused singing stars. As Lou and her friends cross the country to perform, they fall prey to drug use and gambling and are taken advantage of by a dishonest manager. The group is finally saved by the aunt of their murdered comrade, who brings them back to cleaner habits and a sane lifestyle.
Lattany received further awards for her short story collection Guests in the Promised Land. Once again realistic in both setting and character, the stories explore the special problems of black adolescents as they try to make their way in a white-dominated world. The work was a finalist for the National Book Award and won a Christopher Award. Horn Book reviewer Paul Heins found the stories "superb" for their depiction of black experience "as well as for their art." The critic added that the pieces "present various facets of lives that have been warped by a frustrating racial milieu and—at the same time—have gone beyond it into universal humanity."
Lattany's work for adults explores many of the same themes as her juvenile fiction. After a fifteen-year hiatus from publishing novels, Lattany returned to the longer fictional form with her 1996 Kinfolks, the story of Cherry and Patrice, two former political radicals in the 1960s who have maintained a lifelong friendship. In their forties, the two women have weathered storms from their days in the Black Panther party to single-parenting, and now their kids are in love and about to marry. "The impending marriage sends the mothers on a mission to untangle some family skeletons," wrote Lillian Lewis in a Booklist review of the novel. These searches turn up the surprising fact that both children have the same father, a poet with little regard for life's conventions. Cherry's and Patrice's children adjust themselves to the fact that they are half-siblings, but the mothers go on a mission to save other children from the same mistake, searching out former lovers of the poet. "[Lattany] has woven an incredible story about the complexities and frailties of love and relationships," concluded Lewis. A contributor for Publishers Weekly found Patrice and Cherry to be "some of [Lattany's] most mature creations," further noting that the author uses these characters "to demonstrate that true kinship resides in the heart rather than in the bloodline."
In the year 2000 novel, Do unto Others, Lattany deals with the gap between Africans and African Americans, at the same time acknowledging linkages between the two cultures. Zena is an African American struggling with her own ancestry, while at the same time taking in a young, homeless Nigerian woman, Ifa. The owner-operator of a beauty salon, Zena is proud of her African heritage, promoting African culture to her customers. She is a survivor, having worked her way up the economic ladder from cleaning lady to small business owner, but when she takes in the homeless African, cultures clash and received knowledge is challenged. Rebecca A. Stuhr, reviewing Do unto Others in Library Journal, felt that "the reader is in for both education and entertainment" in Zena's tale.
Lattany lives with her second husband, John Lattany, in the home she grew up in. Through the marriage she has a number of stepchildren and grandchildren, not to mention a far-flung family of nephews, nieces, cousins, and friends who help to enliven her environment. The author once noted: "I have said, even recently, that I must be in a dreadful rut because I live in the house I grew up in, and teach at the same university I attended.… But at some unconscious level, I knew that a life of exile was not for me. And so I am still here, still experiencing life and still writing about it, which may mean that the faithful guardian angel who sits on my shoulder has deliberately kept me close to home. And I see that the rut may be a reason for gratitude and even celebration, not complaining and self-criticism, and that it may not even be a rut at all."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 21, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 3, Beacham Publishing (Osprey, FL), 1990, pp. 1258-1264.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1978.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 35, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990, pp. 119-133.
Tate, Claudia, Black Women Writers at Work, Crossroad Publishing, 1983.
Varlejs, Jana, editor, Young Adult Literature in the Seventies: A Selection of Readings, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1978.
Black World, September, 1974, Huel D. Perkins.
Booklist, October 15, 1996, Lillian Lewis, review of Kin-folks, p. 405.
English Journal, March, 1977.
Horn Book, August, 1973, Paul Heins, review of Guests in the Promised Land, p. 386.
Library Journal, January, 2000, Rebecca A. Stuhr, review of Do unto Others, p. 160.
Publishers Weekly, October 19, 1968, Kristin Lattany, "'The Soul Brothers': Background of a Juvenile," p. 37; September 30, 1996, review of Kinfolks, p. 60; November 29, 1999, p. 54; December 13, 1999, p. 44.
School Library Journal, November, 1981.
Kristin Hunter Lattany
Kristin Hunter Lattany contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
I believe in Ralph (Waldo) Ellison's theory of names influencing destiny; with a name like that, he had to be an intellectual and a philosopher. I was named for the heroine of Sigrid Undset's trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, so I, too, had to be a writer—either that, or a tragic heroine, which was never an attractive option.
My earliest complete memory is of my fourth birthday. I have flashes and fragments of moments before that, but September 12, 1935, is the first full day in my life that I can recall in vivid detail—perhaps because my formal photograph was taken that day. I think many women tend to recall occasions by remembering what they wore. I know that I wore a white silk dress with a pattern of small red stars, sewn and smocked in red with exquisite care by my maternal grandmother, Lena Anderson Manigault. Affixed somehow to my bobbed, natural hair, which was not allowed to be natural again for thirty-six years, was a huge, floppy bow of red and white striped ribbon that made my head resemble a clumsily wrapped Christmas package. The photographer delighted me with a Mickey Mouse puppet, eliciting the obligatory grin; the shutter clicked, and there I was, posed for eternity with one long leg dangling and the other tucked under me.
Even in small, faded group photographs I can always distinguish myself from others by my extraordinarily long legs, which, like most of my physical assets, were viewed by my family, and therefore by me, as liabilities. I learned early that only brains and goodness were of value, and that my looks were negligible in fact as well as in importance. Our parents, not the reflecting surfaces on our walls, are our mirrors. So I thought for half of my life that I was ungainly and ugly, that love equaled approval, and that I could gain love only by being good and by achieving.
My birthday climaxed with an exciting surprise. We went, mother and I, to the home of one of her friends, a breeder of pedigreed cocker spaniels, to pick up my first puppy, a pure black female we christened "Joy." And a joy she was for the next eight years—docile, affectionate, and faithful. Cockers do not seem to be a popular breed these days; the fashion is for mean, vicious dogs or miniature ones, the uglier, the better. I can't understand why cockers have gone out of style. They are spirited, intelligent, and beautiful—and, like me, they love water. Of course, there was the miserable Thanksgiving years later when my cocker and my parents' both landed in the backyard fish pond. Sometimes even cockers can get too much water. But I never can.
As a child, I had an extensive "Collection of Pretty Things" that was important enough to me to be capitalized. Of all my treasures, my favorite was a lump of turquoise glass fused by fire into a miniature ocean, with wavelike formations and pearly flecks of foam in its depths. I spent hours staring into this magical rock, imagining myself underwater. I believe I had found it on the city dump, where constant slow-burning fires melted glass into interesting shapes I found irresistible. The dump was across the street from my first school, where my father was principal. The only spanking I remember was incurred by my refusal to stop foraging there after school.
When I was not staring into the glass, I was looking at my bedroom aquarium, a miniature fantasy world with archways and castles, ferns and fronds, and fish whose movements were backlit by a blue bulb. It was my favorite escape until my mother bought snails and added them to the tank because, she said, they would keep it clean. Maybe so, but I had not minded cleaning the aquarium myself, and I could no longer stand to look at it now that it contained those slimy, practical snail feet and their ugly tracks. "Snails in the aquarium" is, for me, the perfect metaphor for unpleasant intrusions. I hated those snails the way I hated the noise of the vacuum cleaner interrupting my reading and fantasizing.
I read constantly and unselectively as a child, but all my early favorites seemed to deal with water. Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies was my favorite fantasy—much more exhilarating than all those grim tunnelings and burrowings in Alice in Wonderland—and the parts of Richard Halliburton's travel books I still remember are his swims in the Blue Grotto at Naples and through the locks of the Panama Canal. Dana's Two Years Before the Mast was another childhood favorite. Though I read anything and everything, scenes on or near water were my favorites and have been retained most vividly in my memory.
As I write this, I find myself startled by the thought that my obsession with water may have even had something to do with my choice of a mate. Though he has now given up the sea for such land-based activities as health care, photography, and politics, my husband, John Lattany, spent most of his youth at sea, and in the course of his career as a mariner visited every country with a seaport except the U.S.S.R. The vicarious experience of his seagoing past is surely one of his attractions for me.
In good weather, I seek ponds and creeks for almost daily refreshment. I call this time of gazing at water, which always calms me, "going to watch the ducks." If there really are ducks in the water, fine, and a mother duck with ducklings is even better, but the main objective is to get as close to a body of water as possible and stare at it until whatever inner discord is scraping at taut strings gives up and relaxes into silence.
Even better than looking at water is getting into it. I will always be grateful to the University of Pennsylvania for making a feared and hated swimming test a requirement for graduation. I had to pass it, and so I can swim. Swimming is my only regular form of exercise, but for me it is more than that—it is true recreation. The self that emerges from the pool is reborn: lighter, languid, and yet more energetic, ready to focus on important things and able to let trifling ones go. The lightness and buoyancy one achieves effortlessly in the water are, to me, nothing short of miraculous. But then, all births are miraculous, and our first birth is, after all, an emergence from water. It baffles me that most people can sit or stand around a pool without immersing themselves in it. I cannot, and I always carry a swimsuit with me in case the opportunity for immersion arises. I would like to go around the world the way John Cheever's character went through his neighborhood in "The Swimmer"—swimming from pool to pool, touching earth and feeling the pull of gravity only when necessary. Wherever I have gone, I have always sought a swimming pool and a way to gain admission to it, while fully aware that I have been risking rebuff, because swimming has been one of the last activities in our society to yield to integration.
My teenage anger at a for-whites-only swimming pool operating in plain sight of our black community spilled over into the columns I wrote for the Philadelphia edition of the Pittsburgh Courier and, later, into my novel, The Lakestown Rebellion. I had acquired the weekly "youth column" through the good offices of my aunt Myrtle, who was married to my mother's brother Bill and wrote a column for the paper about adult social life. I was supposed to write about teen social life, and, most of the time, I did. But there were times when, dizzy with freedom, I would fill a column with poetry or rantings about whatever issue had fired up my emotions—and these columns would be printed as routinely as the ones I wrote about parties and dances. I remember writing, and seeing in print, my suggestion that the residents of black Lawnside, New Jersey, should blow up the segregated pool. There were no repercussions. I suspect that in those days the FBI did not take the trouble to scrutinize the black press.
I am not a confrontational person, but I have an instantaneous, full-frontal-attack response to racial prejudice that I must have learned from my mother. To behave otherwise would be to disobey her, and that I would never do. Whenever racial discrimination blocked her path, Mabel Manigault Eggleston refused to tiptoe around it. Instead she pulled it up by the roots, like Al Capp's "Hairless Joe" character when a redwood tree got in his way, and knocked it out with one punch like Joe Louis, whose victory over Max Schmeling was celebrated with torchlight parades when I was a child in Camden, New Jersey.
I was a child who liked peace, but lunching or dining out with my mother and her sister, Aunt Edna, was never a peaceful experience. If the table to which we were shown was too near the kitchen, or if the service was not fast enough—especially if whites who arrived after us were served before us—my mother and my aunt would raise a disturbance loud enough to bring the trembling manager out of his sanctum to give those dangerously angry women whatever they wanted before they wrecked his premises. Then, I thought they were mistaken, and wanted to hide under the table. Now I think they were right, and I act the same way.
There is a restaurant in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that may never recover from my only visit. My husband's children were enrolled in school nearby, and it was my idea to take them there for lunch; though once I saw its dingy interior, I should have known we would not be welcomed, since the meanest spirits dwell in the drab-best places. After we had sat for twenty minutes and watched others arrive and get service ahead of us, an alien but familiar monster took over my personality. "It's time to leave," I told my husband and the children in my usual soft voice. They started for the door. I then stood up, yanked the tablecloth and all the condiments off the table, and kicked over all six chairs.
I am sure that my mother's example was responsible for my solitary crusade to integrate Washington, D.C., in the mid-1940s, when it was a thoroughly segregated city. I knew about the segregation in an abstract way, but was nevertheless appalled to hear a pair of teen girls my age describe the limitations under which they lived. They could not eat and drink at restaurants and soda fountains; they could not try on hats in department stores.… I queried them closely—"What else can't you do?"—and made a written list of all the prohibitions. I then dressed with quiet determination, went downtown and, trembling inwardly, proceeded to do all of the forbidden things. I never told my family where I had been or what I had done, but I did make a triumphant report to my friends.
The ironies and complexities of race in the U.S.A. are endless, and so are the possibilities of pain. The girls did not believe me. What they said was, "They probably didn't know what you were." I can laugh about the incident now, but at a deeper level, I still feel the hurt. My mother, the youngest and fairest-skinned of four children, knew exactly who she was, and always assumed that the world did, too, and that her efforts to change it counted. And so, in spite of appearances, do I.
Washington was where my paternal grandmother, Gillie Tyree Eggleston Burgess, lived in a dark, old three-story house on Ontario Road, N.W., filled with heavy Victorian furniture and dainty bric-a-brac, Tiffany lamps with crystal pendants and dim little light bulbs, genteel roomers and a huge, gentle Saint Bernard. Grandma, who was from Albemarle County, Virginia, was above all else a lady. Whatever part of my makeup meets that description, whatever it is in me that shrinks from confrontations and is squeamish at breaches of good taste, I can like better when I remember that I inherited it from her along with my build and my facial features.
I need that reminder whenever I compare myself with those tigresses, the Manigault women. Grandma Manigault and all three of her daughters—my mother, Mabel; Aunt Edna, who lived with us; and Aunt Bertha—were remarkable for their blunt, straightforward speech (which my father termed "crude"), their braininess, their fearlessness, their eccentricity, and their often brutal honesty. One reason I turned to writing was that I never got to finish a sentence around these loud, vocal women, while my father's stern silences were even more intimidating than their speech.
I thought Grandma Manigault beautiful and interesting, and enjoyed being in her company, though her tongue was as rough as her sewing was delicate. I have learned since that many people did not find her lovable, and after coming across some letters of hers that were full of complaints and calumny, I can understand why. But I could sense her love for me beneath her rough speech, and happily obeyed commands like "Take that bread and sop up all the grease from your plate" and "Go outside and let the air blow the stink off you." Since at home plates were never sopped, the possibility of stinking was never acknowledged, and sentences were always parsed to perfection, I reveled in the freedom from rigid etiquette and grammar that prevailed at Grandma Manigault's house. She lived alone long before she was a widow, because my grandpa Benjamin Manigault was a long-term hospital patient for years before he died. Alone, that is, except for her beautiful brown shepherd, BeeGee (Brown Girl). She supported herself with fine sewing for fastidious women, and never seemed to get old. But then, she died, still beautiful, before she reached seventy. I named Miss Lena, the youthful, fiercely independent seamstress in The Survivors, after her, but I honestly believed, until this writing, that I borrowed her personality from another source.
I am told that the mothers in my novels incline to tough love, but that, with one exception, was the only kind of love I knew from mother figures. The exception was Grandma Burgess, in Washington. Grandma Burgess and I loved one another with a tenderness that had in it elements of pathos and fantasy, for we knew we were doomed to be repeatedly separated, yet pretended otherwise. Having buried two husbands resigned her early, I think, to losses and to a sadness that was present even in her brightest smiles. Her gentility was kind, not harsh or restrictive, but whenever I got bored with the hymnal that was the only music on her piano, I could always go around the corner to her sister's. Aunt Mamie Brown's house was filled with seductive secular music and card-playing and a gang of noisy children who, with their descendants, are my only remaining relatives in the District of Columbia. And whenever I get impatient with my hopelessly ladylike self and wish I could challenge the world bare-handed like those she-bears, the Manigault women, I must remember that Grandma Burgess had her own quietly commanding presence, her own way of gaining respect—and that she lived to age eighty-five, longer than any of them.
On my joyous fourth birthday, I do not think I sensed that my birth had been anything less than a welcome event. But I became aware of that fact not too long afterward. Recently I found the letter appointing my mother to a position as a public school teacher in New Jersey. It was dated two months before I was born. Studying it, I finally fully understood why my birth had been a disaster for her.
One of the oddities of my formative years was that I did not realize that most married couples had children. To me, most adults appeared to be married but childless, and the arrival of children to other couples was met by them with an attitude of disapproval tinged with fear. Childless couples appeared to be the norm; couples with more than one child were pitied, and existed beyond the pale of acceptable society.
I found out much later in life that this was an odd set of circumstances. It existed because, in that place and that time (New Jersey in the 1930s and 1940s), women with children were forbidden by law to teach. My father was an elementary school principal, my mother a qualified but unemployed teacher, and all of their female friends, and some of their husbands too, taught. Their unions were barren because it was the only way the wives could keep their jobs. Later, when the cruel law was repealed, a single child would arrive to a woman by then well into her thirties. All this made a deep impression on me; I continued to believe that childless couples were the norm until I was in my late twenties and my own seven-year-old marriage was failing.
But none of this was talked about; we were a Puritanical family. Or, rather, my father was Puritanical, and he was the family's head. But the fact is that my mother was unable to teach because of me. She never explained it to me that clearly, however. Instead she spoke often and vehemently, if vaguely, of the "sacrifices" she had made (for me, I thought), and at least once said that I had ruined her life. I reacted, of course, with mingled guilt and resentment, coupled with a determination never to have a child. I never wavered about that. But it was not until long after my own potential childbearing years that I actually held that letter in my hand, understood the exact nature of her "sacrifices," and realized how frustrated she must have been.
I wonder now if I would have reacted less extremely if she had simply told me, "They wouldn't let me teach after you were born. It was against the law in those days for women with children to teach." Would I then have reasoned that motherhood might not be as disastrous for me as it had been for her, and might I have allowed myself to have a child? It seems quite possible, since each new generation thinks the world is created anew for it, with no old rules that are applicable. And, since I didn't want to teach anyway, motherhood as a barrier to that particular occupation would have seemed far less forbidding than motherhood as the cause of vast, vague "sacrifices" and permanently ruined lives.
If this part of my personal history has any point at all, it is that children are better off being told specific facts than hearing cloudy, ominous generalizations. They are strong enough to take the facts; they will cheerfully and sturdily accept and even, one hopes, abide by the warning against the axe-murderer lurking in the woods; it's the much scarier "Something out there might get you" that lingers and paralyzes. At any rate, I am an only child, and I am the last of my line.
The law of compensation, however, has operated very decisively in this area of my life. As I have said often to intimates—and not really in jest, because black people do not joke about God—"God got me for refusing to have children." It has often seemed to me that I have hundreds of children—thousands, if I count the young readers of my books, especially The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, who have formed intense personal bonds with my characters, and then with me through their letters. This responsive audience, the fans and the critics alike, is one of the greatest rewards I have gained from writing for children.
Then, there have been my students in writing and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, many of them gifted, a few brilliantly, and all, because we have one-to-one conferences, known to me as individuals. Many of them have visited us at home, some often enough to be considered surrogate children, and many have kept in contact over the years.
But "God got me" most intimately and inescapably when, in 1968, I married a man who is not only the caring father of four children, but a Pied Piper who attracts other children the way blue serge attracts lint. Life with John Lattany has been rich with many wonderful experiences, but at times it has taught me to identify with The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. And that, too, has been a fine compensation and education for this only child who thought she could not tolerate children and had no room for them in her life.
I once tried to list all of the young people who have sought bed and board, or solace and support, or something they needed under our roof, and gave up when I had covered both sides of a newsprint-sized piece of paper: my husband's children (we raised sons John, Jr., and Andrew) and their friends; his cousins from Georgia (his father's side of the family) and from Philadelphia (his mother's side); friends' children; neighbors' children; students; strays, fatherless ones and runaways—the list was endless. And I pray it always will be. Today I am thankfully certain of one thing—my mother's wish to prevent me from experiencing motherhood has not been fulfilled.
My mother is still described, usually with tragic sighs, as "a woman ahead of her time." That means liberated, I guess—liberated and very capable, without adequate outlets for her gifts. She had me reading at the age of four, and once I was started, there was no stopping me. I read the books in my parents' bedroom (Havelock Ellis and Boccaccio's Decameron) as soon as I knew that I was forbidden to read them, which makes me think that prohibiting books might be an excellent way of getting youngsters to read. I read children's books, adult books, and crossover books like Don Quixote, which I pronounced "Don Quick-sote"—and why not, if Byron could write Don Jew-an? My
mother was never idle. She sewed, knitted, kept an immaculate house, was a superb driver (how I wish she had taught me!), grew flowers and vegetables, cooked and canned. She did not try very hard to teach me her domestic skills—she would begin to teach me, as I remember, then chase me off, saying that she could manage much better by herself. For many years I blamed her for my general sense of household incompetence, but now I think she was deliberately grooming me for some life other than housewifery.
I think I only saw her happy during World War II, when she was able to get full-time administrative work at the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. She blossomed with this responsibility, yet was an extremely careful mother. I was ten and then eleven and then twelve, but a trusted neighbor gave me breakfast and combed my hair every morning, and when I arrived home after school, a high school student was there to straighten up the house and keep an eye on me. I am ashamed of having had my hair combed for me at twelve, and even more ashamed that I never washed my own hair until I was forty. My mother and the kind neighbor dealt with the massive problem that covers my head until I was fourteen, when I was delivered into the ungentle hands of a series of hairdressers. Volumes have been written, and more could be, about the effect on the psyches of black females of torturing our hair to look like others'. I will simply say that the short Afro hairstyle has been a blessing for me and has done much for my self-esteem and confidence. I like my hair now, and at last I can wash it myself.
My father did not seem to like my hair—which is kinky like his, not straight like my mother's—or anything else about me. But then, he did not seem to like anyone or anything very much. I think the happiest time of his life, too, was World War II. It is sad that I believe my parents to have been happiest when they were apart, though I attribute their happiness to career fulfillment, not separation.
The army was always central to my father's life. He graduated with an ROTC commission from Howard University and was always active in the State (New Jersey) and then the National Guard. Rapidly promoted on active duty from captain to lieutenant colonel, commanding officer of his battalion (First Battalion, 372nd Infantry), and once of an entire base (Fort Campbell, Kentucky: due to one of those fortuitous lapses in white folks' vigilance, the army had failed to station a higher-ranking white officer there), George L. Eggleston, during World War II, was a man among men and a leader of men who did not have to put up with the wills and emotions and confining concerns of women. When he came home to visit us, a sergeant drove him in a jeep. I was impressed. I was also terrified, having seen too many newsreels of combat and fearing he might be killed or injured. I need not have worried. The 372nd went to the South Pacific, but the war ended for my father in Palm Springs, California, where he underwent long-postponed surgery and then received a medical discharge.
Military images dominate my memories of my father from first to last. When I was a toddler, he sang to me for a lullaby, "Two Grenadiers," a long, doleful ballad about a pair of Napoleon's soldiers stranded and dying somewhere "on the German frontier." I remember every word of the song, which I heard nightly and liked except for one verse: "What matters wife or child to me? / A far greater claim has risen / They can beg their bread if they hungry be / My Emperor, my Emperor in prison!" That verse made me wonder for many years whether my father's military ties were stronger than those to his family. Now, at long last, I realize that the timing of his surgery proves that Mother and I came first, and that the song was just some of my father's poker-faced teasing.
During his last illness in 1976, my father slept, my husband tells me—for I was not permitted in the inner sanctum of Daddy's bedroom—on an army cot, with his M-1 rifle slung in military preparedness beneath it. I do not know whether he planned to shoot the Angel of Death, or what, but he died that year, as they say out West, with his boots on, and, as they say down South, had to be buried standing up.
My father was an aloof, unapproachable man who advised, and lived by, the British slogan, "Keep a stiff upper lip," and everyone except my mother was terrified of him. He had piercing brown eyes that were often squeezed into angry slits, thin lips that rarely smiled, and a beak of a nose with a hump in it. As my husband John Lattany once put it, "If someone put feathers on your father's head, Custer would spin in his grave."
My paternal cousins tell me we have Native American lineage, which I have verified by finding an ancestor, Ann Lewis, on the Dawes rolls (the Indian census). The only visible trace of Daddy's African heritage was his wiry hair, which he kept close-cut. Except for the obvious gender differences, I look exactly like him—long limbs, thin bones, and the same eyes and hair but, thank God (and my mother), a nose that is less imposing. I know that when I am very annoyed I wear the same scowl that used to frighten me when I saw it on his face. So, for all my complaints about him, and for all my efforts to be a different sort of person—warmer, less rigid, and less judgmental—I am my father's child, and he is in me.
Sometimes I wish I had come to terms with this early enough to revert to my maiden name when I was divorced in 1962, rather than continuing to use Hunter, which is my first husband's surname. But at the time I did not like my maiden name, Eggleston, because I thought it sounded awkward, ugly, and slightly ridiculous, and also because (though I did not admit it to myself) I did not like my father. I thought of "Hunter" not as my ex-husband's name but as my own. And by the time of my second marriage, to John Lattany in June 1968, I had established a solid professional identity ("adult identity," I called it, as distinct from childhood identity, I suppose) as Kristin Hunter, through two published books (my third, The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, was on the presses at the time of our marriage) and my work in advertising. I'd had to fight hard for all of that.
To my parents, the only possible career for a black female was public school teaching. I deferred to their wishes and majored in elementary education at the University of Pennsylvania—which was, I think now, a terrible waste of four years at a first-rate institution of higher learning. I compensated in my subversive way by spending as little time as possible at the despised School of Education and taking all the English electives I could. And I endured only four ghastly months of teaching in a third grade where I was literally terrorized by thirty-eight undisciplined children. Arriving early, I would fill the blackboards with busywork, then listen, trembling, to the roar of the youngsters in the schoolyard. They sounded like hungry lions, and I felt like an early Christian martyr.
At the end of four months of this, I had lost forty pounds, and my pupils had learned absolutely nothing. Their failure to progress under my tutelage was the main reason I resigned. In my contract-breaking letter, I told the Camden school board that I was unsuited to teaching. The truth is, I was both resistant to it and totally unable to enforce discipline. I went into advertising without a backward look.
At the time, I was very angry at being forced into teaching. I still believe that parents should not push young people into careers, but I hope I no longer blame my parents for insisting that I prepare for the only career that was open to African-American women of their generation. They had learned to value security during the Depression, when my father's salary was cut and they made ends meet by working as waiter and waitress during summers at the Jersey seashore. A principalship in Camden was a hard-won triumph for my father who, like most black men of his time, had been forced to begin his teaching in the poorly paid, segregated schools of the rural South. And I can hardly blame my mother for wanting me to have the career she had been denied.
I was convinced that I could earn my living as a writer—though not as a writer of fiction; that was beyond my wildest dreams—and I was determined to prove it to my family. I tried several interviews with publishing and advertising companies on my own, only to be flattened each time by what I called the "double whammy"—initial enthusiasm over me and my portfolio of newspaper writing, followed by sudden embarrassment and total rejection when the interviewer got a better look at me in a brighter light. Finally I availed myself of one of the many fine resources black people no longer have, an agency called the Armstrong Association whose purpose was to place black people in "non-traditional" positions. I told its director, Mr. Lewis Carter, that I wanted to be an advertising copywriter. He telephoned Jim Lavenson, the liberal president of Lavenson Bureau of Advertising, who had left a standing order with Carter to send him any likely employee prospects, and I was hired the same day.
My first job in advertising lasted seven years, which seems to me to be the duration of most phases and activities in life. It was often fun and exciting, but it was not by any means all roses. On my very first day, Lavenson expressed concern that I was not more obviously black, so as to advertise his liberalism. I settled this issue by pleasantly offering to wear a sign. Later that week, Lavenson's regular employment agency warned him that I might sue him for discriminatory practices if he ever had to fire me. He asked my opinion of this comment. I did not reassure him—I have never understood why, along with all our other burdens, black people are expected to assume the task of assuaging whites' racist fears—but I did suggest that he consider the source of the warning and the possibility that they were reacting to having been bypassed when I was hired. He listened, and I believe he never used that particular agency again.
My initial job title, "Girl Friday," covered a multitude of duties, for many of which I was poorly equipped. Relief switchboard operator was outstanding among these. I never managed to spend an hour at the switchboard without disconnecting at least one important call. I imagine that Lavenson's account executives were as happy as I was when I was promoted to copywriter after six months of probation, during which I turned in trial copy assignments done at home.
As a copywriter, I was always overworked—I don't think I ever completed a week without putting in over-time—but I enjoyed my job and the democratic, convivial atmosphere of the place. Many of our accounts were toy manufacturers, which contributed to the fun of the job; a lot of time was spent playing with dolls and doll accessories and developing pull toys and testing them by dragging them up the aisles. The agency had also created a number of external house organs, magazines mailed to customers and prospects, for its clients, and I was required to produce six of them. My favorite, "The Finishing Touch," was a thirty-two-page bimonthly mailed by a fabric finishing company to textile mills. Most of the issues were culled from reading and the client's suggestions, but one was developed after a trip to the dye works' headquarters in Rhode Island, where I enjoyed my first taste of lobster. Another publication was mailed to department store traffic managers, at least one of whom was amazed that a woman could understand and describe his operation so well.
My least favorite accounts were food manufacturers. A pickle jingle I recorded with a co-worker was rejected by a radio station as not "air-worthy," and I loathed the chore of writing a twice-weekly recipe column for the same company's mayonnaise. After I had exhausted the recipes in a small booklet produced by an earlier writer, the columns continued to fall due. I finally reasoned—or rationalized—that since mayonnaise has very little taste, I could safely add it to any sound recipe. I began with my own meagre stock of recipes, for barbecued pork chops and chocolate cake, then went on to plagiarize recipes from popular cookbooks, adding only a dollop of mayonnaise to each one. There was no kitchen on our premises for testing these formulas, nor did I have time for such testing. I dreaded hearing from people who had been made ill by my recipes, but over the years the ads appeared, there was never any such reaction.
I think that my years in advertising had two effects on my writing: one good, one bad. I acquired, because of the necessity for speed, a glib facility bordering at times on slickness, which disturbs me greatly when I detect it in my serious work. The good effect was an ease in cutting my work and an appreciation of the improvement effected by economy, acquired because my boss was an art director, who frequently demanded that my words be cut to make more room for his illustrations.
At the end of seven years, new management with a harsh new dictatorial style took over the company, and I was among the many employees who resigned. A month later came news of one of the many strokes of good fortune that have blessed my life: I was to receive a year's support for my writing from the John Hay Whitney Foundation, which then provided support for minority artists as well as scholars. I was to have several other jobs in ensuing years, among them Information Officer (news and speech writer) for the city of Philadelphia and Research Assistant (glorified secretary) for two social work professors at the University of Pennsylvania. But, with the exception of the teaching in which I am now engaged at the same school, none of them felt permanent or had the solid importance of a real career. My real work from then on was writing, to which earning a living, as my frequent resignations show, would now take second place. And to my utter amazement, in the 1960s and 1970s, the writing itself began to support me and continued to do so for almost ten years.
How I wish my mother had lived to see my published books! She did live long enough to see some of the ads I had written, and seemed very proud of them. She had just begun to enjoy life—she had lost weight, had some becoming new clothes made, and taken a vacation trip with my father to Canada—when she collapsed one evening while talking on the telephone and died instantly of a coronary blockage. She was only forty-nine. After the numbness, and the neurotic fears about my own heart, I experienced massive guilt. I was sure that the torments of raising such a difficult and rebellious daughter had weakened her heart and killed her. I now know that that was nonsense, but I still wish that Mother had been allowed more years of enjoyment, and believe that it was only possible for her to enjoy life after she was freed of the burden of me. (I had married and moved away from home in February 1952; she died in October 1953.)
Though they approached it from different angles, my parents' main effect on me was a drive to succeed, first at school, and then in the world. I had considerable support in that effort: that childless circle of surrogate aunts and uncles, and especially my aunt Myrtle Manigault (later Stratton) who, true to pedagogical prudence, did not have a child until she was in her thirties (a daughter, my first cousin Billee, now a physician in West Germany). Aunt Myrtle loaned me books from her extensive library, took me to the theater, taught me to dance, encouraged me to sing, and, of course, to write. It was she who arranged for me to write that teen column, which not only gave me my first experience of publication, but also brought me into contact with the area from which most of my fiction sprang—Philadelphia's South Street.
South Street has always been vividly alive and a nurturing matrix for artists in many media. During my teen years, it was a center of black culture and publishing. Four black newspapers—the Independent, the Afro-American, the Tribune, and the Philadelphia edition of the Pittsburgh Courier—had their offices at or near Broad and South Streets. Fine food and live music were offered at places like Catherine's, the Postal Card, the Sahara Hotel, and, later, Pep's, the Show Boat, and Gert's. Soul food was to be had at Del's, the Lincoln House, and the Lawnside Barbecue. Copy for the next edition of the Courier had to be loaded on the midnight Saturday train to Pittsburgh, and I would usually be in the office typing my column right up until the deadline. Then I was free to roam South Street and sample the night life. I was under drinking age, of course, but I was tall and looked grown, so I often went to night clubs with Nat Middleton, the Courier's entertainment reporter; and another Courier reporter, William Gardner Smith, who became a fine novelist and emigrated to France; and Smith's future wife, Mary Sewell; and my future husband, Joseph Hunter, who worked across the street at the Afro-American.
My South Street Saturday nights brightened the bleakness of my high school and college years like a necklace of diamonds on a stark black dress. The columns ran straight through those years, from age fourteen to nineteen. The social awkwardness of being three years younger than my high school classmates (I graduated at fifteen) and the aridity of being only one of a handful of black students at Penn were tempered and sweetened by those warm, rich Saturday nights on "Soul Street."
South Street is The Avenue of my novels God Bless the Child and The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. Many years after my teen experiences there, I returned to an apartment just below South Street with my present husband, John Lattany, and found the same warm welcome from congenial people that had greeted me as a green teenager from New Jersey. From the rooftop sundeck of that apartment I heard, on long summer nights, the magnificent a cappella group singing by young people that inspired The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou.
I am proud to say that I played a decisive part in saving South Street from obliteration by a planned expressway. An article protesting the expressway and extolling South Street's virtues—its warmth, courtesy, and neighborliness, its essentially Southern values—was the first piece I ever submitted to Philadelphia Magazine. Until I wrote it the community organization, which we had joined, was willing to accept the express-way if granted a few parks and other concessions. But after my article appeared, the group changed its position to a flat, uncompromising "Stop the Expressway." And it was stopped. That was the first time I realized that writing can actually change things.
A belief that people can change things, and that they ought to try, is one of the exciting differences John Lattany has made in my life. Like many (perhaps most) writers, I had always been detached from my society, content to observe and record its problems and its progress. John, however, has always been an activist, from his early work organizing the National Maritime Union with Harry Bridges to his recent successful bid to win the Democratic nomination for a council seat in our small New Jersey town. He brings tremendous energy and enthusiasm to his causes, and they are usually won.
When I met him, he was among the marchers demanding the integration of Girard College, a boarding school then restricted to "poor, white, male orphans" by the will of Stephen Girard, who had, ironically, stolen much of his fortune from Toussaint L'Ouverture during the Haitian revolution. The effort was successful. John's enthusiasm is contagious, and has drawn me into community efforts like the need for a traffic light at a dangerous intersection, as well as national ones like the extension of Vietnam-era veterans' educational benefits.
My husband, a Georgia native, has also taught me to know and appreciate the American South, especially its African-American culture, which has more strength and integrity than the North's. Though I still dislike being called a "Yankee," I must admit that the South was never mentioned in my family, probably because it might lead to the topic of slavery, which was totally taboo in our household. I was led to believe that all of my ancestors were somehow born free, like Elsa the lioness, which was about as absurd as claiming that they were all the products of virgin births, but this was the impression I received from my family, and I accepted it unquestioningly for many years.
My husband's South is nothing like the bleak, ignorance-ridden, terror-infested place black Northerners were taught as youngsters to fear, scorn, and avoid. Oh, there are problems in towns nearby; in fact, he once witnessed a lynch mob in a place called Nahunta. But there are problems in nearby New Jersey towns, too—he was once shot at by Klansmen in Washington Township, New Jersey. On their home turf near Waynesville, Georgia, Lattanys walk with the pride, nobility, and freedom of kings and queens. My husband's kin still live on the thousand-acre tract of family land that was once a bustling, independent kingdom. When my husband was a child, his family produced everything they needed except salt and coffee—clothing, meat, dairy products, bedding, etc. Most impressively to me, they built their own schoolhouse and trained their own teachers (my husband's aunts), built their own church, hired their own preacher, and housed him in their homes.
Many have blamed the war (World War II, of course) for the decline of my in-laws' family enterprise. But John's grandmother was midwife and doctor to the commune as well as manager, and she knew medical ways of keeping her sons at home. Neither his father nor any of his Lattany uncles saw military service. No, the culprit there, as in the breakups of so many American families and ways of life, was probably the automobile. I think I know why his grandmother cried when she sold a pair of oxen to buy one of her sons the family's first car. I think she knew that that was the beginning of the end, and that once her sons started rolling down those roads, it would be impossible to get them all to return. But vegetables and some livestock are still raised there, and services are still held in the church, and my husband's family village, called Red Cap, still stands. I hope it will remain standing as long as there are Lattanys, because the world shows no signs of running out of them.
It is through association with John that I learned to appreciate Black folklore and to read Zora Neale Hurston, who had been my dad's classmate at Howard, but whose dialect I had been hitherto unwilling to penetrate. Her written and his verbal folktales inspired several of my literature courses and passages in my later novels and children's books. His values—the preciousness of children, the importance of family, even the need for domestic animals to be useful, not mere pets—also permeate my later work. Because my husband grew up in another place—an African-style village in the Okefenokee—and in another time—a time of ox carts and quilting looms and butter churns—he has greatly enriched my world. Because he has traveled nearly everywhere on this globe, he has greatly enlarged it. John's high school in Brunswick, Georgia, was the equivalent of a junior college because it was segregated and therefore superior—staffed by the brightest and most committed of our race, who in those days had no occupational choice but teaching. Yet Northern prejudice against Southern schools forced him to repeat part of his high school education in Philadelphia before going into a four-year program in health science that qualified him for a number of jobs in hospitals. I consider, therefore, that he has the equivalent of two college educations. Both of them are evident when he gets started on a serious conversation!
I have had more trips to my husband's home than I can count, and the place never ceases to impress me. I can probably explain its appeal best by contrasting it with other places I have visited and lived in. Atlanta, where I lived for half a year while teaching at Emory, seems to be a small town straining to be considered a city. Monterey in Southern California is just one of the all too many places in the U.S. that have become self-consciously cute to appeal to tourists. But Georgia below Savannah does not strain to be anything other than what it is, nor is it self-conscious about its differences. It has an ancient feeling, a flavor of being much older than the rest of the country; a lavish natural beauty, and a calm, self-contained sense of itself. The live oaks with their mossy beards are gorgeous, but no one oohs and ahs at or brags about them; my in-laws, some of them almost as ancient as the oaks, are just as deeply rooted in their rural setting, and just as serene. Through television, radio, and reading, they are aware of every shift in the world's prevailing winds, but they refuse to be swayed by any of them.
One year, shortly after Philadelphia's dreadful MOVE inferno, in which a dozen people and a block of homes were destroyed by fire in the city's attempt to rid itself of a houseful of nonconformists, John and I visited the woods. We were both overweight that year. In the country, a field is often burned off to allow vegetation to grow more lushly for the fattening of cattle. All this as well as his eternally unflappable attitude was conveyed in my father-in-law's greeting: "You two look like you just came off of a good burn!"
We have traveled an average amount, I suppose, though not extensively—I am hard to uproot, and my husband had already seen it all before I met him. Our travels have been even more limited by our tendency, once we discover a place we really like, to return to that place again and again. Thus, we visited Haiti four times, returning each time with arms full of the art that fills our home. Last year we went to Barbados, and it is definitely earmarked for a return trip. I think both of us have lived long enough now to know what we like, and to be secure enough to go only where we want to go. Our most recent trips South have been to the historic black resort of American Beach, Florida, which is near my husband's Georgia home. For me that means places that are warm, where the population is of color, and the arrangements allow me to live among them, not as a tourist, but as a visitor, friend, or even family member.
I have been, and still am, hard on myself about many things. One of my harshest self-indictments has been the judgement that I lacked the courage to go anywhere; that I was unwilling to relocate far from this Delaware Valley area in which I was born. After my books began to appear, people frequently made remarks like "When are you moving to New York?" or "Why aren't you in Paris?" which I could only answer with vague, shamed mumblings. Yet when my friend, the novelist William Gardner Smith, died an untimely death in Paris, I cursed the shade of Ernest Hemingway, who had an enormous and pernicious influence on writers of my generation. He convinced far too many of us that a writer should move to the Left Bank, keep late hours dissipating time, health, and energy in cafes, and take excursions to Spain to chase bulls—or bullfighters, depending on one's gender.
It seems preposterous now that Black Consciousness has changed our self-concepts and our role models, but I know that a great many black talents were squandered in the 1950s on hard-boiled posturing and silly, self-destructive attempts to behave like members of the Lost Generation. I visited Bill and his second wife, Solange, in Paris, and saw the dank condemned apartment in which they lived, with its balcony propped up by timbers to keep it from falling into the rue des Ecoles. I will always wonder whether Bill would have lived longer, and if others I knew would have produced more, had they resisted the Hemingway myth and remained closer to the familial support of their people and the nourishing sources of their inspiration.
I have said, even recently, that I must be in a dreadful rut because I live in the house I grew up in, and teach at the same university I attended. I now see this self-recrimination as proof that I, too, bought the Hemingway-propagated myth that to be a true artist one must be an expatriate. But I never bought it enough to act on it, perhaps because I was too fearful or conservative, perhaps because I never idolized Hemingway as my contemporaries did, or perhaps because, at some unconscious level, I knew that a life of exile was not for me. And so I am still here, still experiencing life and still writing about it, which may mean that the faithful guardian angel who sits on my shoulder has deliberately kept me close to home. And I see that the rut may be a reason for gratitude and even celebration, not complaining and self-criticism, and that it may not even be a rut at all.
Kristin Hunter Lattany contributed the following update to SATA in 2004:
We moved from our small, romantic cottage in Camden, NJ, to a much bigger house in Magnolia, NJ, in 1984, after my stepmother died and left it to us.
My last published book before our move was Lou in the Limelight (1981), the sequel to The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou that so many young readers had asked for. It had a disappointing sale and went out of print quickly, probably because so many years had elapsed between books that Lou's readers were all grown up by the time the sequel appeared. I did not finish another book for fourteen years. I do not blame my failure to write on teaching. After all, I had long, free summers, and I had used them to write The Survivors and The Lakestown Rebellion while we still lived in Camden. No, I blame my halted output on this house, which resisted accommodating itself to my needs.
At first the house was bleak and depressing, but over the years it has become cozy and filled with cheerful clutter—no longer my parents' house, but ours. Hardest to overcome were the gloomy olive-green walls in several rooms, a color probably chosen because it reminded my father of his Army days. My husband swears that, as he was painting the guest bedroom, he could hear my father's voice commanding, "Green!" But many coats of white paint and lots of bright paintings on the walls eventually won out, and it became a happier house. Of more relevance to my work, the upstairs area I used as a studio could be heated in winter, but not cooled in summer. This is because, as someone explained to me, our upstairs rooms are directly under the roof, with no insulating space between them and the sun. I felt that our downstairs rooms were too public for writing—so, with summers my only long period of uninterrupted time, I had to abandon writing for many years.
Finally we found that the enclosed sun porch could be cooled, after my husband renovated it for a project of his own. I put a desk at one end, stuck an air conditioner in the window, and I was in business. But I have to move my computer and printer twice a year, up and down stairs, along with the books and papers I need, and I am not happy about that. However, my husband just bought me a new, more efficient air conditioner that may allow me to work upstairs year round. Though, as I said, I do not blame my long publishing hiatus on teaching, writing came easily and quickly after I retired in 1995.
Kinfolks (1996) was an idea that I had been playing with for some time, about a group of women, former Sixties radicals, who deliberately had children out of wedlock, though not intentionally by the same man. It had apparently built up a momentum of its own while I was waiting to work on it, because, once I started, it was like the release of a pressure valve on a head of steam. The writing just flowed from me. I had a lot of fun with that story. So have readers, apparently. It has sold well and continues to sell.
Do Unto Others (2000), about the clashes and misunderstandings between an African-American woman and her female Nigerian houseguest, was funny too, I think, but perhaps did not go deep enough, and was occasionally unkind to at least one of the characters. It is out of print now and was the unfortunate result of having to come up with a novel quickly to fulfill a two-book contract—something I hope I will never commit to again. I actually had two books published in 2003: a reprint of The Lakestown Rebellion by Coffee House Press, and a new novel, Breaking Away. The reprint was especially pleasing to me because I always felt that Lakestown went out of print too soon. The original edition lasted only six months—killed by a vengeful editor who was angry because I wanted my original editor, the late, great Burroughs Mitchell, to work with me on the book instead of her. But the times, and conditions for writers, had already begun to change back in 1978.
I value continuity, and I think it is something that is now missing from the profit-hungry, volatile publishing industry. More than the other vanished perks—the rooms at the Pierre, the meals at the Plaza, the summers at the editor's house on Nantucket—I miss working with the same editor on many books over the years. Relationships of trust, respect, and friendship were allowed to develop that way. I had four editors on my last book, a series of women who were fired or quit in rapid succession, and while I don't think the book suffered, I never formed a relationship with any of them but the first, Cheryl Woodruff, who had founded the One World imprint at Ballantine. For one thing, I never met any of the last three face to face. E-mail and faxes have replaced personal connections in these high-tech times. I do not think that they represent progress.
But I also think that you only have to live long enough for good things to come around again. I am very happy, and know that I am very fortunate, to have a book revived while I am still alive.
I enjoyed the high point of my career in l996, when I was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by Larry Robin's Moonstone Foundation, which celebrated black writing annually for seventeen years. Larry Robin is the second in a line of family owners of an independent bookstore in Philadelphia. He may be unique—at least, I have never known anyone like him. Though he is a white man, he has been nourishing black writers and writers of social criticism for over twenty years.
The joy of that occasion was repeated this year when Art Sanctuary brought the lifetime award winners together for the twentieth anniversary of the Black Writing Celebration. Art Sanctuary, which is headquartered at Philadelphia's historically activist Episcopal Church of the Advocate, took over the celebration three years ago. It is an arts program founded by my wonderful former student and friend, Lorene Cary. I am proud of many of my students, but among all of those high achievers, Lorene stands out. She is a dedicated community worker, a fine wife and mother, a brilliant novelist, and my successor on the English faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. The party she held for the "lifers" (her term) before the public event was the first time that I felt truly validated and comfortably accepted by my peers.
Breaking Away, which fictionalized a racist incident that occurred at the University of Pennsylvania while I was teaching there, expresses the indignation I felt when some black female students I knew who were victims of racism were hurt by the politics of their situation. I did not fully understand those politics even while I was working on the novel. It is probably the most topical of my books and the least humorous, but I think it is a good story. The professor-heroine's increasingly unpleasant professional life is balanced by her supportive attachments to her lover, friends, and family.
And human attachments, especially connections to family, are what I have sought most in recent years. It has not always been easy. I am not naturally a social being—like most writers, I am an introvert—but I have struggled to overcome my isolation and social awkwardness by faking it until I made it. For instance, I once made phone calls only when I needed to get or convey information, and they were terse, efficient affairs. Now I am able to engage in the long, chatty telephone visits that most women enjoy as a matter of course. Unexpected visitors can still throw me off balance, and sometimes talkative guests who stay too long leave me nervously ill, and I have to take a day off from people, but I persevere in reaching out to them, and they seem drawn to us. It helps that my husband, John, is a very sociable person who is genuinely interested in people.
In the nineties I joined a Unity church and developed a faith for the first time in my life. Thinking that I had no family, I prayed to find some, and was rewarded by the discovery of cousins all over the nearby map. I first rediscovered my Brown relatives in Washington, D.C., with the help of my amazing cousin Frances Brown Bagby, who is now ninety-six, and who induced me to come down to a family reunion. We spent many weekends with her at her jewel box of a house near the Capitol. During those visits I realized that I loved Washington—for its culture, for its architecture, and for its housing so many highly developed black people, including my relatives and my husband's. I hoped to move there, but we never managed it.
A few summers after our first visits to them in D.C., the Browns stopped by in Magnolia, picked me up and took me to a family picnic hosted by another elder cousin at her home near the ocean in Absecon, New Jersey. And there I was blessed to meet my Atlantic County clan, including a cousin who is like the sister I never had—Constance Quarterman Bridges of Egg Harbor Township, NJ. We call one another sister-cousins, so close is our relationship. Not only do we resemble one another physically, but she is a writer—an award-winning, widely published poet. Thus go the magic of prayer and the mystery of genetics.
Through Connie, my husband and I met a large extended family and began to participate in all the family rituals of holiday meals, picnics, weddings, births, graduations, and funerals. All of it was a brand-new experience and a revelation to me : So this is how most people live ! From Connie, also, we rented the house next door to hers that had belonged to her late aunt, and spent half a year there before we decided not to buy it and returned to Magnolia.
I have recently discovered other relatives, my mother's, in and near Burlington City, NJ. For years my husband and I have enjoyed visiting the riverfront promenade in that very old city as well as its coffee houses, art fairs, and restaurants. But I did not realize that I had maternal relatives there, or that Burlington's beautiful old riverfront A.M.E. church was my family's church. Sadly, I only met my Burlington family after the death of one relative, my cousin Wilbur Newsome, who lived in Philadelphia. I knew him and his immediate family from childhood, thanks to my Aunt Edna Manigault. The family repast after the funeral was held in Burlington City at the home of another relative, Eileen Hutton Haynes, who looks enough like my late Aunt Edna to be her sister. We had a wonderful time at Eileen's sixty-fifth birthday party last year and met her son and granddaughter, Wilbur's nieces, and many other cousins.
It might seem sad that I did not meet my closest cousins until we had all reached a certain age and were dealing with inevitable health issues. In fact, one of them, my wonderful D.C. cousin Norma Brown Claggett, passed away last year. She was brave and beautiful and generous, and I miss her. But I think, to paraphrase the well-worn saying about love, that it is better to have known them late in life than not to have known them at all.
My husband's relatives continue to play a large part in my life, too. His maternal first cousin, Diane Bailey Alexander, a divorcee, has declared herself our daughter and her three children our grandchildren. Last year they lived with us during a crisis, and we all got along just fine. I am especially fascinated by the way her eight-year-old twins, Cornell and Autumn, have developed naturally along gender lines—he, careless and boisterous, loving trucks and dirt and dinosaurs; she, quiet, neat and dainty, loving beauty and order. They are absolutely no trouble to have around, because they amuse each other endlessly.
I think that my prayers for family have been rewarded with incredible abundance and beautifully unreserved acceptance.
Yet, for all my efforts to get inside a family, and the generous welcome I have received from my new-found relatives, there is a bleak, chilly place inside me that will forever feel lonely and left out, a feeling that probably came with being an only child. School integration, beginning in seventh and eighth grade, did nothing to relieve that feeling. Blacks were a tiny minority at my second elementary school, my high school and my university, and I was also younger than my classmates at all three, which kept me from fitting in.
My professional life was even more isolating, since I was usually the only African American at the advertising agencies where I worked, one of two at the City Representative's Office in Philadelphia, and one of three in the Department of English at Penn when I taught there. I remember despairing, when I lived in Philadelphia in a mostly white neighborhood, of ever finding my way back to the black community.
My husband helped to lead me back, of course, and East Camden, NJ, where we lived for fourteen years, provided that community. Our next-door neighbors were a pair of great people named Fred and Leola Henderson whom I would trust with my life. Another black family across the street and the whites who had remained in the neighborhood—Swedes, Germans, Russians, Italians, Jews—were also friendly and helpful. I enjoyed their eccentricities, and I think they accepted ours.
The move here was a shock. Not only did this house seem cold and unfriendly, so did our suburban neighborhood. We are located barely inside the predominantly white town of Magnolia and just outside of the all-black town of Lawnside, and often I do not feel part of either. It occurs to me that, except for our time in Camden, I have always lived on the margins of places instead of inside them. I often feel that I also lived many years on the margin of life—outside, looking in.
I keep trying, though. For three years, I met incognito with a local writers' workshop, until the leader found me on the Internet and outed me. The entire group then showed up to support me at a reading I gave at Borders. I have acquired the courage to invite people to lunch or dinner, and have averaged one small gathering of friends or relatives a month. Three years ago, I joined a local youth organization that sponsored an essay contest and a drill team and worked with them until the group disbanded this year. One of our fund-raising efforts was an annual performance by the talented students of Camden's new Creative Arts High School, which just graduated its second class.
So many people who are grown now have told me how much The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou meant to them as children. It is one comment I never tire of hearing. One of the people who liked my book, a member of our organization, suggested that I dramatize it for our annual production. Another, the principal of the high school, declared that it is her favorite book. So I dramatized my story, and it is on the school's schedule for next year.
Unfortunately, my play is a musical, and though I did not find it difficult to compose the songs, I am not skilled at musical notation. Finding someone to write down, arrange, and orchestrate the songs has been the greatest obstacle to the production, and has already held it up for a year. I think that hurdle has been overcome now, and once the songs are ready, I will take part in workshops and rehearsals at the school as well as discussions of my book, which I hope will soon be reprinted. I can hardly wait!
We held onto the little house in East Camden long after it ceased to make economic sense, because I thought I wanted to go back there. But we had gotten used to the spaciousness of this house, and could not fit back into our small cottage. Besides, our old neighborhood is different now—shabbier, louder, and rougher. Some of our older neighbors are gone, and some of the new ones have bad habits. Because black neighborhoods go downhill so fast, owing mainly to a cruel, cynical decision in high places to flood them with drugs, I feel that home ownership is a losing investment for most African Americans. And though I have yet to feel fully comfortable here, I am comfortable in my own skin, which is what really matters, and I know that home is wherever my husband and I are together, sharing life and space.
We are now, incredibly, in our thirty-sixth year of marriage. It was much easier than I expected to start signing my married name to my work in 1995. I wish I had done it much sooner. Everyone seems to know that "Kristin Lattany" is the same person as "Kristin Hunter"; I was the only one who thought that readers would not connect the two.
I do not really have cause to complain, or time for regrets, at this stage of my life. I am mostly grateful for this large, comfortable house and its garden, beloved by children and birds, both of whom we spoil, and for my long, satisfying life. My lonely feelings come only rarely now. Small-town life has begun to open up to me, and I am enjoying it—the parades, the baseball games, the cook-outs, the casual encounters with neighbors. My husband is Papa John to all of the children we know. They call me Mom-Mom Kris or Nana Kris, titles I would rather have than Duchess, Countess, or Queen. My health is good, and I am young in mind and spirit if not in body.
My main problem these days is a tendency to have far more ambition than energy. Writing projects abound. Right now (summer, 2004), along with revising my play, I am working on a short story collection and a revision of my husband's book of village memories, which we wrote together. I am also planning to repot some dill around which last year's caladiums have emerged; to change or refresh my kitchen curtains; to call and check on my eldest cousin, Frances; to take the grandchildren to the park and for a ride on our new River Line rail; to start a book club devoted to the work of James Baldwin; and to learn to play chord piano. It's been a rich, fulfilling life—and it isn't over.
- Evan Hunter (1926–2005) Biography
- Kristin (Eggleston) Hunter Lattany Biography (1931-) - Autobiography Feature
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