Picks and Pans Review: Maggie's American Dream
by James P. Comer, M.D.
James Comer is a New Haven, Conn., psychiatrist who knows that hopes can be shared as well as analyzed. “My mother, Maggie, believed that education was the way to achieve her American Dream,” he writes. “When she was denied the opportunity herself, she declared that all her children would be educated. Mom and Dad together gave all five of us the support needed to acquire 13 college degrees.” Comer tells the story of all of them in this dual autobiography, subtitled The Life and Times of a Black Family. It opens with Maggie Comer’s oral history, which begins in Woodland, Miss., in 1904. One of nine children, Maggie recalls her family’s constant changes of dwelling, the neglect by her lazy stepfather and her own household responsibilities (cooking was her job). She speaks of arriving in East Chicago, Ind., in 1920 at 16, and the jobs she held while living with relatives there. She records her disappointment over never getting the education she wanted: “I had this gift from inside me to want something. And when I couldn’t go on, I said my children would do it…. Sure it was harder for black people, but I just wanted a chance.” When Comer picks up the tale in his own voice, it is 1941, and his mother and father, a steel-mill worker, are still in East Chicago. Comer’s story is also personal, and it speaks to the vitality of trying to fulfill Maggie’s dreams. Comer tells of his youth, his years at Indiana University and Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and his career as a child psychiatrist and consultant to inner-city schools. He relates personal triumphs and analyzes the strategies that made successes possible, but all these lessons are given in little, telling scenes and individual outlooks. Maggie describes her off-school education through the “day work” she was hired to do: “So many people would just work and pay no attention to what’s going on. I didn’t just cook and clean. I worked with my eyes and ears open. I watched and listened to them [her white employers] and the way they lived. For me it was like going to school.” Of her husband, Maggie says, “He was stern about the things that he believed in: religion and education and just plain being somebody…. He always felt that black people could get the better way of life just like everybody else, though it didn’t seem so.” Together, the recollections form the basis of a philosophy Comer has used in his work with students. “My siblings and I got along well in school because we had good social skills,” he writes. “We were carefully taught and strongly encouraged to develop the needed skills and personal controls. When we failed we were given sympathy and encouragement to try again.” By sharing his mother’s vision, Comer manages to inspire while keeping the moralizing—and psychoanalyzing—to a minimum, allowing a warm and seldom-told tale to unfold. (New American Library, $18.95)