Picks and Pans Review: The Last Radio Baby
02/25/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
by Raymond Andrews
Don't touch that dial. In this vivid, bittersweet memoir, novelist Andrews (Appalachee Red; Baby Sweet's) tunes in to an experience that has never been so clearly heard: growing up black in the rural South in the 1930s and '40s. From his birth in Morgan I County, Ga., in 1934 until the age of 15, I Andrews, fourth of 10 children, recalls misogyny, segregation, farming, religion, small-town scandals and family gatherings around the radio with the earthy generosity I of a born storyteller. You can smell the coffee boiling in these pages and hear the blues twanging on a battered guitar.
More than anything, Radio Baby is family history, a cross between Roots and A Prairie Home Companion. Andrews's older sibling, Sister, for instance, was the strongest challenger of a bully who called herself Minnie Pearl; his brother Johnny solved the problem of being a sharecropper's child by developing a pathological fear of cotton.
Uncle Toodney drove a taxi in Madison, the county seat, and Aunt Lula sent boxes of used clothes from New Jersey. Andrews's father, Fred, accepted the black-male code that led him to "drink too much, fight too much, sire too many children and get too deep in debt with the boss man."
In the custom of the time, the author's half-black, half-Indian grandmother, Jessie Rose Lee Wildcat Tennessee, had a lifelong affair with Mister Jim, a kindly white farmer with whom she had seven children. But Mr. Jim violated the code by living with his "colored" family, which outraged the Klan. Jim always wore his hat indoors, ready to run if he heard horses approach.
Andrews's childhood was filled with simple pleasures, complex mischief and bittersweet awakenings. He would peer into the back of the family's first radio, wondering where the voices came from. Despite being told that "going too near to white folks was worse than going to hell when you died." he led his siblings to play with white children down the road.
Whether behind a mule plowing the red clay or chopping firewood, young Andrews was a dreamer—fighter pilot, detective, soldier. His real vistas grew wider when he went to the all-black school in Madison, while most of his peers were already working in the fields and sawmills. And radio brought a world of imagery—Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Fats Waller as well as the Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon.
Andrews, who now lives in Athens, Ga., left Morgan County in 1949 with a cardboard suitcase full of worn clothing and a head full of priceless memories. He is presently working on the second volume of his memoirs, Once upon a Time in Atlanta. Stay tuned. (Peachtree, $15.95)