Dont Let Race Stop You
In the late 1990s, reading Maggie’s American Dream is an exercise akin to taking a social Rorschach test, with the results revealing readers’ views on a whole range of issues related to race and class in American society, past and present. Indeed, different readers can ascribe radically divergent interpretations to this deceptively simple story of Maggie Comer’s life, though the facts of that life seem straightforward enough: Bolstered by traditional values (hard work and education) and by traditional institutions (family, church, and community), she rose from an impoverished girlhood in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century to a solid (and ultimately triumphant) middle-class respectability in Indiana 30 years later.
Together with her husband, Hugh, Maggie Comer raised five children who among them earned 13 college degrees. Their oldest son, James, now a renowned professor of child psychiatry at Yale and a noted author (Beyond Black and White), records his mother’s story in Part I of the book, entitled “Mom,” and then adds his own recollections in Part II (“My Turn”).
Born in Woodland, Mississippi, in 1904, Maggie Comer endured a hard life with her abusive stepfather and defeated mother before moving north at the tender age of 16. She settled in with her married sister in East Chicago, Indiana, and within a few months met her future husband, Hugh, at church. He too had left the rural South, as a young man fleeing the small town of Comer, Alabama (named after the white people who had once owned his own forebears as slaves).
Maggie’s American Dream provides an abundance of evidence related to the redemptive nature of work and a commitment to education, a strong family life, religious values, and community support systems. Maggie worked hard all of her life; in East Chicago she took domestic-service jobs and toiled from seven in the morning until seven in the evening six days a week (with half a day off on Sunday). After she married she continued to earn money for the family, by taking in boarders and operating a small grocery store out of her home, and by working part-time for a caterer and for the city of East Chicago. Hugh worked for Hubbard Steel, where he won the praise of his supervisors for a near-flawless attendance record over many years of employment. The children helped out with the money they earned from jobs after school and during the summer.
Maggie and Hugh Comer had strong views on child-rearing; she admitted to her son, “Some people accused me of treating you all like little soldiers – too strict, keeping everything too perfect.” She abided by the philosophy, “My life was you children,” and seized every opportunity to make certain the children learned about the wider world. In contrast to the “parents [who] get on a bus and flop down and just sit and stare,” Maggie Comer took advantage of an everyday ride on the streetcar to offer her children impromptu lessons on civics and local geography: “Now that is where Mazola Oil Company’s plant is; that’s Inland Steel; this is the fire department right here; what do they do at the fire department?”
Convinced that education was the chief means by which their children would grow to become productive members of the community, the Comers closely monitored their progress in the public schools. Maggie frequently did battle with white teachers who seemed to be shortchanging the Comer offspring by not recognizing their potential, and she and Hugh endured the slights of white parents who resented the fact that the Comer children were leaders and high achievers in the schools they attended. Forced to consider the possibility that their children might be better off in all-black schools with black teachers, Maggie and Hugh rejected the idea, because they understood that white schools would always have more resources – music and art lessons, better science equipment – than all-black institutions. Likewise, while the children were little the family moved to a white neighborhood not because they wanted to live near white people but because the housing stock was superior to that in their old community.
The Comers were pillars of the local church and lived a self-consciously upright life. Maggie recalled, that, as a family, and in the company of friends, “We talked about church and what was going on in church – christenings, weddings, and so on. We enjoyed it no matter what it was.”
And finally, Maggie Comer attributed at least part of her family’s success to the goal that she and Hugh set for themselves right after they were married: That they would own their own home as soon as they could afford to do so. Indeed, the Comers early put down roots in East Chicago, in contrast to some of their neighbors, fellow migrants “who would work three months and run home [to the South], work three months and run home.”
When the Depression hit in the 1930s, the family was relatively well off; by that time they owned two duplexes that included the apartment they lived in, plus two rental units that provided extra income. Noted Maggie, “And we helped many, many people during the Depression because we was a little ahead.” That generosity extended to white neighbors, and the Comers counted among their circle of friends Jews and Catholics, middle-class whites and poor whites.
In the second half of the book, James P. Comer recounts this story from his own point of view, providing proof of the fruits of his parents’, and his own, labors. He tells of growing up in East Chicago, attending public school, and working at a local steel foundry in the summer. He chronicles his years as a college student at Indiana University (“It was as if there were two states of being: Negroes as a group- not good; Negroes you knew as individuals- okay.”); and his decision to transfer from Indiana’s medical school to Howard University, an all-black college. Of his years at Indiana, years that drained him emotionally, Comer writes, “I had been trying to carry the race. I had tried to disprove the myths and stereotypes – blacks are poor in math, they are overly emotional, they are inarticulate. Too much of my motivation for learning had been negative: ‘I’ll show them.'” Later, as Associate Dean of the Yale School of Medicine, he worked with African-American schoolchildren in New Haven, his emphasis on the interconnectedness of family and community life a tribute to his own upbringing.
Now, some readers of Maggie’s American Dream will be inclined to stop here, and join in the chorus of reviewers of the book who, in 1988, praised it as “genuinely inspiring” and “filled with understated eloquence and wisdom.”
Yet there is more to the book than this. Indeed, the reader who persists can find ample evidence that Maggie Comer offers her own (if at times indirect) argument highlighting the limits of the values which she championed, and suggesting the structural political-economic forces that have hindered so many African-American people from prospering and securing for their children a decent education. Simply put, not all whites appreciated the efforts of African Americans who worked hard.
Maggie Comer adored the father she lost when she was a young girl (he was killed when he was struck by lightning). As a sharecropper, Jim Nichols had weighed the cotton and taken care of accounting because the white man who owned the land and employed him was illiterate. Maggie’s father did a good job “but the white fellow got the money.” When he managed to accumulate a little cash so he could buy a piece of land on his own, the landlord refused to sell it to him because he wanted Nichols to remain a sharecropper. Jim Nichols’s inability to climb the ladder rung from cropper to landowner mirrored the frustrations of thousands of African-American sharecroppers in the rural South. These men too “worked hard” but whites blocked their ambitions at every turn: White creditors refused to lend black people money; white employers defrauded their workers at “reckoning time” at the end of each year; white landholders refused to sell land to black buyers. And even the families who enjoyed a modest degree of material comfort put themselves at risk; as Maggie Comer noted, “You know, black folks who had money had to be kind of careful back then.”
Therefore it would seem reasonable to qualify “hard work” as a key to upward mobility by taking into account the time and place; the rural South of the early 20th century was hardly a meritocracy.
James Comer writes, “By the late 1940s Mom and Dad had come a long way. The steel mill had given us a small piece of the American dream that the cotton fields could not.” Yet Hugh Comer’s employment history was exceptional, for even in the urban North many black people found themselves limited to ill-paid, dangerous jobs regardless of their intelligence, talents, or ambition. The steel industry was notorious for segregating black men in the foundry work, and factories in general barred blacks from working with machines.
On Sunday the leaders of the Comers’ church–the “deacons, usher board members, trustees, choir members”–wore “white shirts and ties, robes and roles of dignity.” But as the young James Comer learned one summer while working at Continental Steel, these were men who labored day in and day out without the hope of a raise or a promotion, men who spent their time at work “covered in soot, grime, and grease from head to toe.” Employers assigned black men new to the job the most physically arduous tasks, and the white unions refused to accept black men as members. As James Comer points out, “No matter how hard they worked [black men] could not move up from bricklayer helper to brick layer.” In this simple fact was encapsulated the history of black urban workers during the first three-quarters of the 20th century.
Hugh Comer managed to rise as far as a black man could go in the mills–he supervised a group of black custodians – and he was rewarded with employment that was both steady and full-time, in contrast to most of his co-workers who endured frequent layoffs. Yet Comer paid a terrible price for his loyalty to his job. In 1949, when he was in his mid-50s, he developed “severe emphysema as a result of the heat, smoke, and dust he had worked in over the years.” By virtue of his high status relative to other black workers, Comer received a generous settlement from his employer; but for many black families, the fact that whites got the clean jobs and blacks got the dirty jobs had devastating consequences for their well-being. The year of his diagnosis, Hugh Comer was forced to relocate, apart from his family, to Arizona, in an effort to cure his emphysema, but five years later he died, his illness and death a direct result of his employer’s discriminatory policies.
Maggie Comer would probably disagree with the bland assertion that church attendance was by definition one stop on the path to a better life. James Comer in fact was quite critical of the preaching and the behavior of some of the ministers he encountered in his lifetime, events that “shook my commitment to formal religion.” He objected to clergymen who failed to demonstrate Christian charity toward all people, who enriched themselves with the hard-earned money of their congregants, who engaged in sexual immorality–in other words, “people who talked a Christian game and played an unchristian game.”
In addition, he noted that his mother “used to fuss about those better-day-in-heaven” sermons: She maintained, “We ought to be talking about getting together to do something about life on these cement streets we live on now rather than golden streets in heaven we don’t know nothing about.” In response to one preacher who urged her to “do as I say, not as I do,” she retorted, “He must think I am a fool.”
It is clear from this book that not every black person benefited from the good fortune and personal fortitude that Maggie and Hugh Comer possessed in abundance. In fact, Maggie’s American Dream contains an insightful psychological profile of one black man whose considerable intelligence and enterprise, twisted by white racism, found expression only through mean-spiritedness and violence. Maggie Comer remembered her stepfather as a predator, a man who took advantage of her mother and routinely abused his children and stepchildren, a man who disdained religion, formal education, and steady employment. A skilled furniture maker, he hated to work for white people. Maggie acknowledged that he “could have made good,” and she recounted the time when, together with his brothers, her stepfather had rigged up telephone lines and brought paid phone service (in the form of a little booth) to the black neighborhood outside of Memphis where they lived. Yet he shunned job offers from whites–“No, I don’t work for anybody.”–preferring to avoid contact with racist employers in favor of drifting from place to place and lording over his cowed wife and children. Maggie’s stepfather (she never identified him by name) was Hugh Comer’s counterpoint, and the outlines of his troubled life yield a cautionary tale about the tremendous price that some blacks paid for their thwarted dreams and ambitions.The story of Maggie and Hugh Comer is the story of the heroic efforts of two people to overcome the institutional constraints imposed upon them by a racist white society. But the key word here is “heroic”; not every person possessed the emotional and physical wherewithal to soldier on past the roadblocks thrown in their way by white employers, creditors, real estate agents, and law enforcement officials. Most Americans in possession of a white skin did not have to engage in heroism to climb into, and remain in, the middle class; that the Comers succeeded is a testament to their own determination, and that so many other black folks did not reminds us of the pervasiveness of racial prejudice, in the North no less than in the South, throughout the 20th century.
Jacqueline Jones teaches American history at Brandeis University. She is the author of American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor (1998).