I’m finding that learning about essay writing is never ending. Probably that’s why I like it. This week, I finished The Best American Essays of the Century (Joyce Carol Oates ed) and found Gerald Early’s essay, “Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant.” Just another humbling and soaring moment in the learning curve for me, specifically on how to breach the cozy family wall of the personal essay into the wide cultural, political, and racial world we all stem from.
If you don’t know Gerald Early as a writer and cultural critic, you should. Not only is he the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the African and African American Studies Department at Washington University, exceptional scholar and essayist who has been a commentary for NPR and the executive editor of The Common Reader, but he has worked multiple times with Ken Burns on Burns’ documentary.
So, what’s to learn from Gerald Early’s essay?
Start with its deceptively simple title, which in no way prepares you for the complexity of Early’s moves between the seemingly pedestrian scenes of family life, like watching the Miss America Pageant, playing with dolls, and deciding on hair styles, and his searing polemics around the pageant as a vehicle of popular culture that represent for Early “a totemic occupation with and representation of a particularly stilted form of patriarchal white supremacy.”
At the risk of oversimplification, here are four techniques of craft I recognized for myself in moving the essay from the strictly personal to, as Miller and Paulo call it in their Tell It Slant, “Writing the Larger World”:
- Let family ritual and family members frame and serve as “touchstones” throughout the essay. Early’s essay begins with the family’s tradition of watching the Miss America Pageant and continuously circles back to that tradition. The Miss America Pageant serves as the frame of the essay, helping to keep the general reader centered in a wide-ranging and complex essay and emotionally connected to Early and his family. The “simple” family scenes— his wife straightening her hair, his daughters playing with black and white dolls, the family making jokes as they watch the pageant—are the touchstones that launch Early into staggering cultural, political, and historical analysis.
- Use Family history as an envoy into Cultural history. Family history in Early’s essay, such as an old photograph of his sister holding a white doll, doesn’t exist only to serve itself. It sets up the broader and deeper history of American culture. The white doll his sister holds serves as symbol for the “fetishization of young white feminine beauty, and the complexity of black girlhood.” His beautifully described walk as a boy through the streets of Philadelphia past a “large black beauty shop on Broad and South Streets” becomes an image for the “epistemology of race pride for black American women so paradoxically symbolized by their straightened hair.” (I told you this was a cool essay.)
- Write yourself as the complex, multi-dimensional narrator you are: Early is loving father and husband. Early is astute critic and academician. Early is an African American son/grandson/great grandson connected by family lineage and personal experience to the atrocities and subterfuges of a white culture. Early is the father of a new generation of daughters (in 1990) unbothered by the overt and subterranean racism that Early finds in even their black Ken and Barbie dolls. Early enjoys watching these beauty pageants with his wife and daughters even as he feels “shame-facedness” and “embarrassment” at this “spectacle of classlessness and tastelessness.” Early confesses that he still needs Miss Missouri, Debbye Turner, to be the third black woman, at the time, to win a pageant even as he damns the pageant’s complicity in the feeling that “race pride for the African American, finally, is something that can only be understand as existing on the edge of tragedy and history.” In short, Early is a man of the family and a man of the world.
- Do the Research, dummy. Of course. And bring in the experts from that research.
We are composites of the past, the present, and the future. The family of our house and the family of our planet. Perhaps knowing and understanding what that means matters most in the breaking down of any wall.