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Paulette Childress White

(b. 1948)


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Gwendolyn Brooks (1917—2000)

Jean Toomer (1894—1967)

 

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(b. 1948), short fiction writer, and poet.

Paulette Childress White was born in Detroit, Michigan, on 1 December 1948, the third of thirteen children. After one year of art school, financial problems and the birth of the first of five sons interrupted her education. Her first published poem appeared in Deep Rivers in 1972, followed by a small collection, Love Poem to a Black Junkie (1975). Some of these poems reflect the black nationalism and rediscovery of Africa apparent in current literature while others introduce more original themes that continue into her later work.

One such theme, the impotent anger of many African American men, is demonstrated in the short story “Passing” and recurs in other short stories: in the street-corner argument overheard in “The Bird Cage” (Redbook, June 1978), and in the silent protagonist's daily distribution of old newspaper clippings in the neighborhood of a 1967 riot in “Paper Man” (Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 1986).

White also writes of women who eventually bond through reluctant realization of their painful commonality that cuts across artificial lines. The poem “Humbled Rocks” (Love Poem) and the short stories “Alice” (Essence, Jan. 1977), “Dear Akua” (Harbor Review, 1986), and “Getting the Facts of Life” (Rites of Passage, ed. Tonya Bolden, 1994) all testify to the spiritual sustenance derived from sisterhood. The recurrence of this theme, encouraged by the rise of feminism, is more directly related to personal experience.

White's writing is highly autobiographical with only minor details changed. “Getting the Facts of Life,” in which a girl, sharing with her cohesive family the financial and emotional consequences of her father's employment layoff, makes her first humiliating trip with her mother to the “welfare office” through a racially divided neighborhood, creatively interprets actual events. The Watermelon Dress: Portrait of a Woman (1984), a narrative poem, traces the author's development as a closet artist and unfulfilled woman from adolescence through the conflicting demands and needs of a difficult first marriage and child-rearing and a period of emotional unconsciousness to the eventual awareness and challenge of selfhood.

The streets of Detroit are as essential to White's writing as Chicago is to the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. The memorable and superbly drawn characters who inhabit her world and the hungers that drive them are insightful and authentic. The occasional interplay between the narrator's reflections and the characters' actions and dialogue is effective and original. White's lyricism, sometimes reminiscent of Jean Toomer's sentence fragments and poetic repetition, and her metaphorical and alliterative use of language make her fiction almost indistinguishable from her poetry.

Paulette White is now remarried, a PhD candidate at Wayne State University, and an instructor at Henry Ford Community College. When her schedule permits her more time for creativity, this unique voice may well encourage other writers to trust the validity of their own experiences as women emerging from the darkness of restriction and concealment into the sunlight of their own personhood and to express those realized selves with sensitivity, insight, and lyrical beauty.

Mary Helen Washington, introduction to Midnight Birds: Stories of Contemporary Black Women Writers, ed. Mary Helen Washington, 1982, pp. 3–7.

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Subjects: Literature.


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