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Eugene Weekly : Books : 6.9.11

 

This Lady Aint Kiddin

History mixes with unflinching memoir in Never In My Wildest Dreams

by Brit McGinnis

There is a rising trend in the world of memoir, and its simple to explain: The ladies are getting cynical. Perhaps as a backlash to the labeling of Eat Pray Love as Chick Lit, the women working in this genre have grown angrier, more stylistically ornate and less dependant on emotional transformation as a hook. These writers have stories to tell, damn it, and theyre not to be lumped into some arbitrary category because they possess two X chromosomes. The gloves are off. The historical references are frequent and spot-on. The character development has more details than ever. And girl, it makes for great reading.

The latest wave of this trend is Never In My Wildest Dreams, written by Belva Davis. The first female black news anchor to be seen on West Coast television, Davis describes a life where breaking social norms was necessary for survival, if not always intended.

The story of Davis life has all the elements of classically successful memoirs: a troubled childhood, rising above obstacles both personal and societal and an eventual reconciliation between past and future selves. Davis describes growing up as a young child in the Jim Crow-era South, flitting from home to home whenever work was scarce or a relative was threatened with tarring and feathering. She runs from an abusive husband, poverty and even journalistic trends with which she did not agree. Her nerve, and her unwillingness to be spoken for, earned her respect from the world.

But Davis role as a deliverer of news pervades the storytelling, with fantastic results. Historical references are peppered in with personal anecdotes. Davis first trip to Washington D.C. is complemented by a quote from a speech by the Truman Committee on Civil Rights. The gritty details of UC Berkeleys student protests and incidents of police brutality during 1969s "Bloody Thursday” goes hand in hand with Davis quest not to ever look like an oversensitive "girl” to her macho colleagues. Nothing is ever without context. The books title itself includes the subheading "A Black Womans Life In Journalism,” and it fulfills that classification to the end.

Davis nearly falls into some of the traps of womens memoirs ã mentioning weight, maternal or other insecurities at unnecessary moments ã but her shrewd timing prevents such blips from hurting the work. The only time body size is mentioned is when Davis describes sleeping on kitchen floors as a child or appearing on television next to white anchors. Insecurities regarding motherhood are analyzed in a quasi-Freudian manner, with no dramatic screaming. Sure, she mentions crying on the job because of pre-exclusive interviewing jitters, but none other than her interviewee, Fidel Castro, gives her comfort.

The picture on the cover of Dreams is undoubtedly that of Davis while on the air, with her hair in a perfectly flipped bob, her •70s-era rosy blouse loose but unwrinkled. Her face engages you, her eyes warm but also distant, mouth parted in what is either a laugh or a sob. And perhaps that is the point of this book: We arent supposed to know if Davis is laughing or crying. Thats not our place. We are the audience, and she is the journalist. The entire book has a cold, fourth-wall distance between author and audience. It doesnt carry a cozy, sweater-and-coffee vibe.

Dreams is ushering in a new era of autobiography: the historical memoir. You dont read a book of this type to get an emotional pick-me-up. After all, subjects like the Black Panthers and the Peoples Temple suicides are tucked into this slim hardback. Davis story shows that no person is an island, that huge social movements do indeed affect people all over a nation regardless of location.

Overall, Davis book is an unabashed lesson in the progress of the nation. It is a shrewd, intelligent story of a life in America during a period where people like Davis were not expected to succeed. She is black, female, a single mother at certain points in her career, and was economically disadvantaged and without a college education. But succeed she did, to an incredible degree. Her final words, however, are humble, and she happily states during her time spent reporting of the 2008 presidential election, "Dont ever let anyone tell you history doesnt have a sense of humor.”