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December 02, 1970 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 1970-12-02

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Wednesday! December 2, 1970


Page Five

Wednesday, December 2, 1970 THE MICHIGAN DAILY Page Five

Growing up

in Harlem:



Louise Meriwether, D A D D Y
Prentice-Hall, $5.95.
Once upon a time there liv-
ed a little girl named Francie
Coffin, who lived in the Black
Valley. One day a handsome
cowboy named Ken Maynard
came charging down the Har-
lem s reets on a white horse,
swooped Francis up from the
cracked concrete steps and
spirited her away forever from
her tenement home. Now
Francis would see what life
was like beyond the confines
of the Black Valley.
All little girls dream and
Francie Coffin, Black, aged
twelve, in Louise Meriwether's
Daddy Was a Number Runner,
is no different. Except that she
is Black. She, like Bigger
Thomas in Richard Wright's
Native Son, is an avid movie-
goer, hoping to find on t h e
screen a temporary, if false,
substitute for the monotonous,
bare existence of her life. But,
unlike Bigger, Francis is s t i 11
rooting for the cowboys instead
of the Indians. Naive? Yes. After
all, Francie is only twelve years
old. It takes experience - hard,

bitter, disillusioning experience
- to realize that no white cow-
boy will ever rescue a dark-skin-
ned "lady in distress" from t h e
ghetto: By the close of Daddy
Was a Number Runner, Francie,
now thirteen years old, has come
to this awareness. Present her
with the above dream, in which
she used to delight for hours,
and Francie will give an evil
stare, saying emphatically,
"Shit!" If she goes to the movies
any more, her cheers will be for
the Apaches.
Francie is introduced as a
skinny, underdeveloped c hii 1 d
who happily plays on the streets
of Harlem. Although her fam-
ily is poor, Francie feels a sense
of security because of the 1 o v e
shown to her. Francie cannot
understand why her girlfriend,
Sukie is always so "evil," start-
ing fights for no apparent rea-
son. She will be clever and get
what she wants without "paying
her dues." Francie has not yet
learned the art of grabbing and
running. Thus, she reluctantly
"earns" her nickel by submit-
ting to the fumbling hands of
Max, the baker, Mr. Morristein,
the fat butcher, and the white
stranger who haunts the ten-
ement roofs and movie house.
Francie is naive but she is
somehow intuitively aware of

the existence of unknown forces
shaping her life. She cannot
name them nor understand why
they are there; yet, she realizes
that her life is changing. Before'
moving to Harlem from Brook-
lyn, her family had been poor
but stable: Adam Coffin, her
father, had had a job; her
mother had stayed home to care
for the house; and her two old-
er brothers, James Junior a n d
Sterling had gone to school as
regularly as Francie. Despite
the oppressiveness of poverty,
Adam Coffin has his dreams.
primarily regarding the future of
his children. He realizes that as a
number runner, he - as a Black
man - has the best job that he
can get during post-Depression
years. His future is set. For his
two sons and daughter he envis-
ions better things: college, a
profession, security. Out of his
meagre unsteady earnings, he
pays on esdowment policies, to
insure this dream. Adam is
proud of his heritage, w h i c h
boasts of martyrdom and brav-
ery. Whenever his family ap-
pears on the verge of collapse
from the pressures of poverty,
he reminds them that they are
the descendents of Yoruba, an
African princess who w a s
brought to America by her white
husband. After her husband,

died, Yoruba reared her f o u r
children by herself, her spirit
uncrushed by the cruelty of her
"in-laws." After so many years
of discouraging hardship, Adam
can now only listlessly repeat
his narrative, at times "forget-
ting his lines."
It doesn't matter, however; for
his family no longer believes the
story. Or, if they do, they can
find no comfort in knowing
about their brave ancestors.

able to summon the note of ver-
ity in his own heart. In despera-
tion, the family goes on relief
and Adam must sell the endow-
ment policies. His wife takes a
job to supplement the income.
All of the events that Adam has
secretly feared have come to
pass. Defeated, no longer feeling
like a man, he drifts away from
Ironically, it is Francie who
confirms Adam's desertion of

It's true, I thought, Lord, it's
true. I wanted to rush into his
face and scatch it bloody. I
wanted to hear him cry and
turn his face to the wall. But
I just stood there like I was
turned to stone.
In fear and anger, Francie
screams after her departing
father the one accusation that
will touch him most deeply:
You forgot about Yoruba,
Daddy. You forgot you was
one of Yoruba's children.
No longer does she look for
Adam on the Harlem streets.
Daddy Was a Number Runner
is the story of a little girl who
cannot afford to remain a child.
The very nature of her life in
the ghetto will not allow her to
have illusions. But the matura-
tion of Francie Coffin is too
sudden; it produces only on un-
defined anger and an undirected
bitterness. It produces the Sukies,
of Harlem. Harlem is a world
where family ties cannot hold;
economic pressures become psy-
chological barriers to the feel-
ing of love and attachment. Thee
meaning of sex is learned in
the most accidental ways. For
some time Francie has known
that she "shouldn't mess w i t h
boys." It is only when she is
physically excited - by t h e
white stranger - that Francie
becomes conscious of the fright-
ening aspects of sex. The know-
ledge of her womanhood makes
her feel evil:
I left the theater and walked
slowly home feeling evil. I
slipped on a banana peel and
angrily kicked it off the curb
where it found a home with
a pile of garbage a storekeep-
er had Just swept into the gut-
ter. Seemed like Harlem was
nothing but one big garbage
heap. And how crowded t h e
streets were, people practically
falling off the sidewalks, kids
scrambling between your legs
almost knocking you down.
There was something black
and evil in these streets and
that something was in me,
Now Francie can kick Max, the
baker, in his loins when he at-
tempts to bribe her around the
counter; she may use the curse
words that her father used to
forbid; and she is able to con-

front Sukie, who was always
beating her up. Francie sits
on the cracked concrete steps
of her tenement home, looking
up Fifth Avenue. However, she
expects the appearance of nei-
ther her ex-hero nor her father.
Francie, not Harlem, has chang-
I tried to get again that nice
feeling I had for all of Harlem
a few weeks ago, but I could-
n't. We was all poor and black
and apt to stay that way, and
that was that.
To all suggestions of dreams,
Francie answers. "Shit!"
In an age of Black Power and
social protest, Louise M e r1-
wether has not written a "pro-
test" novel. She makes no pleas
or indictments, offers no sugges-
tions regarding possible change.
Through the eyes of twelve-
year-old Francie Coffin, Harlem
is examined, evaluated and
found lacking; there is no room
for- the American Dream. Vio-
lence and the degrading aspects
of ghetto life are vividly, com-
pellingly narrated by Francie,
whose youthful innocence and
gradual experience does more to
emphasize the spiritual pover-
ty of Harlem life than could any
explicit indictment. If Louise
Meriwether is voicing any kind
of protest, it is that a; happy,
endearing child such as Francie
must be forced to maturity by
being exposed to evil. With a
sympathy that strongly rejects
all elements of the maudlin or
melodramatic, Miss Meriwether
explores this theme.
Daddy Was a Number Runner
takes place in the 1930's; but, as
Ossie Davis has noted in his re-
view of the book, the Harlem
described is ". . . uncomfortably
like the Harlem of today." As
long as there is a Harlem - a
Black ghetto - there will be
Francie Coffins to write about,
trapped, bewildered, whose nai-
vete is gradually replaced by a
resilient, cynical toughness. The
childish delight in the familiar
sounds and odors of Harlem -
betokening love and security -
seems to vanish with approch-
ing maturity. Instead, the Fran-
cie Coffins become aware of the
fact that Harlem is not the land
of plenty and promise but "one
big garbage heap."

R. D. La ing: Mind- boggling knots

R. D. Laing, KNOTS, Pan-
theon, $3.95.
Many psychologists today are
engaged in recording all kinds
of data about an individual's be-
havior. It is much harder to
measure a person's experience,
and for this reason only a hand-
ful o phychologists have got-
ten nto the field. Eminent
among them is R. D. Laing, a
British psychiatrist and psycho-
analyst. Laing is concerned with
inter-experience: How do I ex-
perience you? How do you ex-
perience me? How do I exper-
*' ience your experience of me?
Laing has written several books
which explain the troubles that
can develop from our socially
patterned interpersonal percep-
tions. Knots is a collection of
descriptions of some interper-
sonal experience patterns.rAl-
most all the patterns (called
"knots") are rather complex,
and it takes much concentration
to get to understand them. The
knots are in a form somewhere
between concrete poetry a n d
brain teasers. The style of the
book is very unique, but not al-
ways pleasant to read. It could
be a good method of succinctly
outlining detailed interpersonal
perceptions if it were supple-
mented by specific examples.
Laing does not do that. A typi-
cal knot:
Jack doesn't know he knows
and he doesn't know
Jill does not know.
Jill doesn't know she doesn't
and doesn't know
that Jack doesn't know he
and that he does not know
Jill does not know.
They have no problem.
One must immediately a s k
what purpose Laing had in mind
when assembling this book of
knots. His explanation is:
"The patterns delineated here
have not yet' been classified
by a Linnaeus of human
bondage. They are all, per-
haps, strangely familiar. Al-
though I have thought up
others , . . I have confined
myself to laying out o n I y
some of those I actually have
seen ... I could have remain-
ed closer to the 'raw' data
in which these patterns ap-
peared. I could have distilled
them further to a completely
abstract logico-mathematical
calculus. I hope they are not
so schematized, that one may
not refer back to the very spe-
cifie experiences from which
they derive, and yet suffic-
iently independent of 'con-
tent' that one may divine the
formal elegance in these webs
of maya."'
It is true that one important
value of the book lies in the fact
that, after we have read it and
contemplated our relationships
with those we are close to, we
For the student body

can 'see patterns similar to cer-
tain knots in our own relations.
Some knots bare the structures
in our own dealings with others.
But some of the knots are so
complex, if Laing actually ob-
served them occurring, he is a
most observant man. I doubt
most people could observe pro-
cesses that intricate and invol-
ved even in themselves.
The book is too mind-boggling
and iterative to be read as good
poetry. It is not a typical psy-
chological work becouse all it
does jis outline; there isn't a
single explanation. It shows sev-
eral interpersonal patterns, and
once we unravel them, some-
times we identify with them.
Beyond this, Knots is inter-
esting in light of Laing's prev-
ious works. In Interpersonal
Perception, a book Laing co-
authored with H. Phillipson and
A. R. Lee, it is brought out that
two people can agree or disagree
about an issue; they can then
either understand or misunder-
stand that there is agreement or
disagreement; and they can
either realize or fail to realize
that there is understanding or
Knots shows the perceptions,
reasoning and issues that lie be-
hind disagreements and misun-
derstandings. In Sanity, Mad-
ness and the Family Laing and
A. Esterson show how these per-
ceptions and issues, when oc-
curring within a family c a n
double-bind a member of t h e
family - put him in a damned
if you do damned if you don't,,
no-win situation. Laing
states that schizophrenia is
without exception a special stra-
tegy that a person invents to
get out of an unlivable situation.
Many of the scenarios in Knots
are schematic diagrams of
schizogenic unlivable situations.
It is unfortunate Dr. Laing
doesn't supplement these parti-
cular knots with case histories
of his patients from which he
derived the knots.
Some knots we can identify
with; we have seen similar sit-
uations which could drive a per-
son mad. It is in this latter
variety that Laing would have
done well to show us the raw
data so we could better under-
stand the import of the knots:
we cannot give an example of
such knots from our own per-
sonal experience. Also, s o m e
knots are mind-twisting to an
extent that doesn'ttseem ppssi-
ble. Some specific real life ex-
pefiences of an individual would
be useful to the reader, just
so he could follow the knot. The
lack of any raw data or explica-
tory notes flaws Laing's latest

Many of the kinds of knots
readers will identify with are
particularly relevant to Laing's
earlier works, The Divided Self
and The Politics of Experience.
For example:
There must be something the
matter with him
because he would not be
acting as he does
unless there was
therefore he is acting as he is
because there is something the
matter with him
In his earlier works, Laing has
written that the process of soc-
ialization rewards a child for
acting according to society's
rules and punishes him for dis-
obeying, even if he is acting ac-
cording to his real self. In our
culture, babies must surrender
their innate imagination a n d
curiosity because they must
obey and conform. Socialization
means the individual must act in
a certain way, even though that
way may be inconsistent w i t h
what he experiences psychical
reality to be. The individual may
have to act in a way false to
his inner beliefs. His actions
must be those of a false self.
The inner self thinks one way
and the false- self acts another,
a way consistent with societal
demands. Otherwise, as the knot
says, someone will think there
is "something the matter with"
the individual. This, Laing
claims, is the cause of the state
of alienation in us called "nor-
Thus, several knots are most
meaningful to someone with a
knowledge of Laing's beliefs.
The scenarios in Knots illustrate
the points Laing made in other
The last set of knots in this
book is based on ideas of East-
ern philosophy. Laing stated in
The Divided Self that in the
schizoid individual, the real self
was apart from a false self. In
the embodied self, the individ-
ual has meaningful relations
with others because he is relat-
ing to them directly, with his
real inner self. Alan Watts has
a similar idea, that there is a
split between "I" and "me" in
many of us; a rift between our
minds and our actions. In The
Wisdom of Insecurity Watts
claims that an individual who
does not go through the "I-
maneuver" - setting up a
mask through which he will deal
with the outside - will feel at

one with his environment. Laing
seems to feel this way too:
I am doing it
the it I am doing is
the I that is doing it
the I that is doing it is
the it I am doing
it is doing that I that am doing
I am being done by the it I am
it is doing it
Laing is going one step fur-
ther than what he said in The
Divided Self; the embodied self
not only engages in meaningful
actions with the outside and re-
ceives real perceptions from it,
but also the embodied self feels
at one with the outside. T h e
false self, which we erect to
deal with unlivable circum-
stances and to meet the de-
mands of society, insulates us
from the environment. If we
could deal with our environment
directly through the real self,
we would feel at one with it.
Towards the end of the book
Laing includes several knots not
about interpersonal phenomena,
but about dharma, nirvana, and
the nature of words. The style of
knots does not work for t h e s e
things. Knots are a way of
neatly laying out what can go
on between people; they are not
good poetry. When Laing tries
to use the knot-form' as poetry,
what we get is bad poetry.
This book does show us the
stuff phenomenologists study. It
does not contribute much know-
ledge, its main task is to illus-
trate the ideas Laing has al-
ready put forth, and our own
interpersonal experiences. It
does this with some degree of
success. That job completed,
hopefully Dr. Laing will return
to his old prose style next time
and continue to tell us why we
treat each other as we do.
Staffed by Licensed Gynecologists
A.I.D. Referral Service,
of New York '
Call: 212-592-8335

-Photo by Declan Haun

Only Francie, who idolizes her
father, is ready to place im-
plicit faith in his hopes. S h e
innocently looks forward to the
day when her family will move
from Fifth Ave. But Francie, too,
must lose her illusions; it is the
price one pays for being Black
and poor. It takes a long time to
disturb Francie's faith because
her father is always there to re-
vitalize it. The tinned meat din-
ners, the hits that won't come,
the hand-me-down clothes, the
bedbugs that nightly feast on
Francie, are all bearable as long
as Adam is there. Francie is too
young, too naive, to see t h a t
Adam himself is struggling to
believe the words that he tells
his daughter. At last he is un-

his family. When she realizes
what it meant to see her father
lying across another woman's
bed, Francie loses faith in him
as well as his dreams. In the one
encounter with her father,
Francie feels the world crumb-
ling around her:

Today's Writers . .
Grace Collins is a teaching
assistant in the English Depart-
ment for a class in Afro-Ameri-
can literature.
Sid Schneider, a senior ma-
joring in Psychology, is cur-
rently engaged in phenomeno-
logival research.

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