Picks and Pans Review: Mary, Wayfarer

updated 07/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Mary Mebane

"I am a truth teller," Mebane writes, "and I plan to go to my grave as such." In her first book, Mary, she told of growing up as a dirt-poor black in rural North Carolina and fighting to get a college degree despite the disapproval of her mother, who thought she should go to work in a tobacco factory. This volume of autobiography continues through years when Mebane was teaching and in graduate school—the '50s and '60s, the years of the civil rights movement. She understands what Southern whites had to lose. Her account of the killing of black students at Orangeburg, S.C., for instance, is vivid but fair-minded in its attempt to analyze the motives of the racist murderers. She also explains the debilitating struggle for status among blacks: light skin against dark, professional against laborer. Her encounters with James Baldwin and Malcolm X are extraordinary—she pushed herself on them and they responded, spending hours with her talking about writing. This is the story of a lonely, yearning woman, and Mebane deals with all facets of her life: poverty, religion, family, sex. She finally found a place for herself when she sent a piece to the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times in 1970 and it was published. Mebane's writing is like a primitive painting by the late distinguished black artist Horace Pippin-crude, painstaking and astonishingly clear. It is perfectly tuned to its subject matter—one of the best possible voices to convey the singular experience of being black, Southern and female in America. (Viking, $16.75)

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