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Quirky storyteller mixes tales of African-Americans with raw insights

By Tonya Bolden
John Wiley Sons, 320 pages, $25.95


As a constant reader I’m wedded to books. You know, something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. New at the moment is this entertaining treat -- entertaining in the same sense “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was entertaining -- raw life well told.

Bolden is a quirky writer but not a boring one. How often in a biography when the subject suffers a downturn does the author comment, “Bummer”?

But don’t, from that one remark, underestimate what Ms. Bolden’s doing here. Strong Men Keep Coming is a collection of 110 biographies delivered by a storyteller who editorializes along the way -- as good storytellers can without offense. What she has delivered are accounts of men worth admiring for an audience that can range from white readers who like to dip into biographical short takes, to African-Americans who want more on the men in their past and present (the book is divided into “Forefathers” and “Sons of the Dawn”).

And it’s relevant to drop this book into the mix of what else I’m currently reading, for I usually have four books going.

The something old is Christopher Sykes’ slightly defensive 1975 official biography of Evelyn Waugh, the borrowed (from the library), is the quasi-Marxist C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, and the blue is invariably a pulp mystery or spy thriller (two a week, just tossed Elmore’s Leonard’s Rum Punch into the bag for the friends of the library.)

So Bolden’s in tough company. She doesn’t write down to anyone, yet here’s a volume that can work both sides of the aisle, as an informative read and a textbook, as at home on the adult bedside table as in the classroom or confirmation class.

And for the smarties well read in their African-American history, there’ll be a few comeuppances. Those we know well are here, Nat Turner and Dred Scott among the forefathers; W.E.B. DuBois to Jesse Jackson and the Million Man March among the Sons of the Dawn.

But Dave Dinwiddie? Dinwiddie (1891-1957) kept a grocery store in Taft, Okla. I mean that’s all he did. But bear with me as I focus on Dinwiddie at the expense of some of the others, as an example of what Tonya Bolden’s about. (And if her writing doesn’t match Waugh’s, whose does?)

Dinwiddie’s mother, Thursda, was half Cherokee and half African. She walked -- walked -- the 400 miles from Alabama to Indian Territory in the late 1870s. It wasn’t Oklahoma yet. She met and married Smith Dinwiddie.

He has adventures enough hinted at in this under 2,000-word account. But finally, in one of those two-dozen black towns on the Oklahoma border relatively safe for African-Americans, land vacated by Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks and Chickasaws forced on to the Trail of Tears in the 1820s, Smith Dinwiddie sets himself up as farmer and grocer.

Dave grows up, goes to Wiley University in Marshall, Texas, but returns home, in time buys out half his dad’s interest in the store, and runs it for the rest of his life.

Dave Dinwiddie is a good man. He helps people, provides for family, raises good, hardworking children. “All his children would go to college -- Dave Dinwiddie had been determined about that before they were born. So it was that Lorene became a special education teacher; Odell, a schoolteacher and later a supervisor in a Chrysler plant in Detroit; Lily Jean a social worker, and the baby girl a teacher and writer.

“The only Dinwiddie child who did not go to college was the firstborn, Merrill -- because he died when he was 15 on a late August day in 1936. Bright and all-a-beam over the bicycle he had bought with his earnings from his paper route and other odd jobs, Merrill was going to ride down and around to Daddy’s store to help Daddy out. But there was a drunk driver between Merrill and the store.

“The driver was a white doctor, who was never ever charged with manslaughter. Dave Dinwiddie lost a little of his dance after that, but Dave Dinwiddie held up, stayed the rock.”

Bolden’s mood changes with the pieces. But there’s always the sting. Always, within the joys and triumphs -- and there are plenty -- the pain of the black experience.

Whoever at Wiley publishing laid out this book, did an attractive job on the reader’s behalf. Between the bios are snippets of historical or sideline interests, or titles of books to read allied to the theme.

There is also an epitaph of such concision I can’t resist:

to the memory of
Amos Fortune.
who was born free in
Africa, a slave in America
he purchased liberty,
professed Christianity
lived reputably,
died hopefully.
Nov. 17, 1801

Writer Bolden is new to me. But then many of her previous titles aren’t exactly aimed in my direction, such as 33 Things Every Girl Should Know (though I must say I’m curious.)

What I do know is that Bolden provided me with insights I didn’t have, introduced me to people I didn’t know, and the book ended all too soon.


Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000