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American Journalism Review
What Accounts for Success?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   July/August 1995

What Accounts for Success?   

Woodholme: A Black Man's Story of Growing Up Alone
By DeWayne Wickham
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Book review by Deborah Baldwin
Deborah Baldwin, the former editor of Common Cause Magazine, is now a freelancer in Paris.      



Woodholme: A Black Man's Story of Growing Up Alone
By DeWayne Wickham
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
276 pages; $20

When DeWayne Wickham was eight years old, his father pulled out a gun, shot Wickham's mother and then shot himself. It was 1954, a time of peace and prosperity, when postwar America was busy building its suburbs and stocking them with white, middle- class families. But Wickham's father, who had served in World War II, had no reason to believe that boom times would trickle down to the all-black neighborhood in Baltimore where he was eking out a living. The miserable tragedy that upended Wickham's life may have been the simple result of one man's financial frustrations and fears.

Many of us think of the '50s as a halcyon time, far removed from the social upheavals of the '60s and '70s. But as Wickham gently reminds us in his straightforward memoir "Woodholme," the '50s were something short of paradise for African Americans. Segregation was entrenched. Jobs, when they were available, were menial. Inner-city families were stretched thin. Neighbors, siblings and other relatives stepped in sporadically to help Wickham, but during the mid-'50s — a time when a bright, inquisitive kid ought to have had every opportunity in the world — he suddenly found himself very much on his own.

Today Wickham is a syndicated columnist for USA Today and the Gannett News Service. His third-grade school photo graces the jacket of his book; on the inside flap there's a publicity shot of Wickham today, and I found myself repeatedly turning to both in an effort to connect the muted image of a lonely, drifting child with this handsome, grown-up man. What accounts for one individual's success, when so many others try and fail? How did Wickham find his way out of a series of public schools, where sports often took precedence over academics, onto the path that brought him where he is today?

But as its subtitle suggests, "Woodholme" isn't really about that. The story stops abruptly when Wickham is 17. His school career has been spotty, and his high school sweetheart has just given birth to a baby girl. The making of a journalist? There's nothing in Wickham's sharply recalled, often poignant autobiography that gives a hint of a how-to.

Wickham keeps us focused on the past, specifically on the curious haven that helped him escape both his oppressive personal life and Baltimore's insulated Cherry Hill neighborhood: Woodholme, an all-white Jewish country club where a quick, hardworking kid could earn some money as a caddie.

Throughout, Wickham captures a young boy's restricted vision, resisting the temptation to offer, for example, an overview of the long and complicated history of black-Jewish relations. This is a heartfelt, personal story, and while hardly transcendent it is blissfully free of stereotypes. A Jewish shopkeeper takes slight advantage of 15-year-old Wickham in selling him a wardrobe on layaway, but you don't feel the pain until Wickham is ripped off by his cousin, who walks off with his new clothes shortly *efore the beginning of school. Another Jewish shopkeeper emerges as one of the few adults in Wickham's life who tried to make a difference.

With exquisite precision, Wickham recalls what it was like to walk the greens, to connect momentarily with various individuals, some of whom took the time to see past the color of their caddie's skin, and others who embodied the monstrously racist tenor of the times. Seen in one light, Woodholme was a symbol of segregated America. In another, it broadened Wickham's horizons, thrusting him amid white achievers on the greens and among older, career caddies in the all-black caddie shack.

The power of "Woodholme" stems from its emphasis on getting things right; its limitations relate to its pace, which can be as slow as an 18-hole game. But by recreating a world that no longer exists, down to the minute physical details in Wickham's childhood world and the exact emotional ripples as he experienced them, "Woodholme" tacitly addresses the tragedy of a society in which countless inner-city kids continue to live circumscribed lives. Of course there are those who get away. Wickham did. But what about the rest? Wickham doesn't get into that, and his silence speaks volumes about the loneliness of countless other children 30 years later. l

Baldwin, former editor of Common Cause Magazine, is a freelancer in Paris.

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