Picks and Pans Review: Colored People

updated 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

When he applied to Yale in 1968, Skip Gates began his essay, "My grandfather was colored, my father was Negro, and I am black." A quarter-century later, as he observes in a preface to his funny and absorbing memoir of a West Virginia childhood spanning the civil rights years, the current preferred term is "African-American," and it in turn is giving way to the broader "people of color." During his daughters' lifetimes, Gates predicts that phrase will mutate back into the simpler "colored people."

But this apparent reversion to bygone ways is illusory, a trick of words. Gates's overarching theme is change from a segregated society to an integrated one, a social shift he views with gratitude for his own expanded opportunities yet with deep lament for the loss of separate and, in their way, equal institutions. His final chapter is an elegy for one such lost tradition in his hometown, the paper mill's annual colored picnic, a celebratory blacks-only event that is now forbidden by law. "We had all come back for it," he writes of the final corn boil and chicken try, "the diaspora reversing itself."

Gates certainly epitomizes that diaspora. He has been a professor of literature at Yale, Cornell, Duke and now Harvard, and is one of America's premier black intellectuals. Yet he continues to feel the tug of Piedmont, W.Va. He is blunt about his neighbors, his relatives, his family skeletons, his own fumbling search for black identity and his abiding romantic interest in white women. But the chief beneficiary of his elegantly simple prose is that place his heart still calls home. The reader can see, hear and even smell the rickety houses, the muddy streets, the jukebox bars. Better, the reader can see them with Gates's loving eyes and hear them with his keen ear for the distant music of so recent and so utterly vanished a time. (Knopf, $22)

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