We gave it a B
As titles go, Black Ice does nicely for Lorene Cary’s coolly affecting memoir of her two years as an African-American preppie at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. Ostensibly a description of the smoothest of natural ice-skating surfaces, the phrase also conveys the carefully controlled, almost brittle literary persona Cary reveals in her first book.
Offered a scholarship to the previously all-male, predominantly WASP institution, Cary felt guilty about taking it. Why her, after all, and not any of her equally qualified friends from their high school in the predominantly black Philadelphia suburb of Yeadon? She was also fearful. On her first visit to St. Paul’s campus, she felt the emotional chill of northern New England. ”My music would not fit here. Neither would my God,” she writes. ”I could not conjure my God in this place, and it seemed His failure.” To her hardworking, ambitious parents, however, the honor was something they had been striving for all their lives. ”Hadn’t they said all along, that each of us had work to do? Wasn’t it time for me to play my part in that mammoth enterprise — the integration, the moral transformation, no less, of America?”
Cary’s adjustment was complicated by mixed emotions about her parents. Like many teenagers, she was alternately devoted to and repelled by them. She felt saddened to be separated from her mother, ”for whom being a mother was everything. I was desperate to leave her, a desperation that filled me up with shame.”
No sooner was she enrolled than the burdens of race and class settled upon her shoulders. The majority of her classmates weren’t, after all, your average white folks, but those who expected to run the country more or less as a birthright. ”I had no idea that wealth and privilege could confer real advantages beyond the obvious ones sprawled before us. Instead, I believed that rich white people were like poodles: overbred, inbred, degenerate.” Uncertain of her ability to measure up, and feeling much of the time that others treated her like a ”sociological curiosity,” Cary appears to have fallen into a crisis of authenticity, which she devotes most of Black Ice to resolving.
The effort is only partially successful, probably because Cary, who graduated from St. Paul’s in 1974, is far too bookish and introspective to deal persuasively with the problems of group identity and ethnic loyalty. Her portraits of her classmates and teachers are too sketchy to carry much conviction. Ironic and essentially humorless at the same time, Cary can tell us about an intense late-night conversation with a white classmate that represented her ”first triumph of love over race,” but despite her many virtues as a writer, she can’t make us see it or feel it. B