A Parallel Life, By Bonnie Greer, book review: A rebel’s life, from urban Waltons to drag queens

 

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The Independent Culture

In this, Bonnie Greer’s memoir, she recalls hearing DJ Herb Kent “the Cool Gent” on the radio as a young woman in Chicago in the 1960s, and he did something she had not heard before: he talked over the records to analyse the black community’s predicament with Sam Cooke playing in the background. It was the first beats of rap.

Greer’s account of her early life – this book only takes us up to her arrival in New York in the 1980s where she goes on to study playwriting at the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan – is pegged to the culture that shaped her into adulthood. This memoir is her rap, and behind her is the soundtrack that seeped into her as she was growing up in Chicago, from the hopeful days of the civil rights movement before the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, through to the radicalisation of the late 1960s, in which she rebelled.

The early teenage years belong to the chanteuse Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach’s muse Dionne Warwick. By the time Greer is in the full bloom of her politics, it is Grace Slick singing the line “Feed your head” in “White Rabbit” as her friends smoke pot and replace their hope with anger.

The playwright and critic, who eventually settled in London and became deputy chair of the British Museum, sets the scene with her own parents’ romance. Her father is a Second World War black vet who danced her mother, a young woman fascinated by the British Royal Family, into marriage. In almost comic detail Greer recounts the parallels in timing between their courtship and that of Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth, and the birth of Bonnie, their first child, on almost the same day as the first royal baby. She is named Bonnie after Prince Charlie.

So begins the hard grind towards respectability. Her father takes up a second job as a TV repair man. Her mother, the great beauty of the family, performs the endless rotation of chores required to keep a family of seven children in food and clean clothing. And, up until her teens, Bonnie is a picture of a good Catholic girl in starched uniform and white socks. It is an urban Waltons, and though by no means easy for a black family in Chicago, it was at least preferable to the South where violence against blacks was still common. The greatest scandal in her early life is when a female neighbour, who Greer’s mother disapproves of for being a little loose, has a regular gentleman caller pull up in a pink truck in the afternoons and practise his blues. “And what kind of name is that – Muddy Waters?” she sneers.

It’s near enough apple pie, but underneath it is a teenage angst that not only grips Bonnie as she approaches that age, but also the post-war civil rights movement that has grown impatient with Martin Luther King’s passivity. Greer struggles her way out of a regime of hair-straightening and propriety. Her younger sister Leila is heading towards marriage and a happy family life, while Bonnie’s hair has gone wild. By the time she gets to university, she is leading an increasingly erratic life working in a topless bar and sleeping in strangers’ houses. Her old school friends have melted away, and she dons short, military-style jackets and finds herself a role in the black power movement.

By this point she’s sleeping with white men – her black male colleagues have become brothers in the political struggle and so de-sexualised. But there is also a creeping contempt for the benevolent white community who espouse the black cause. Greer casually recounts stealing money from a white girl working within the movement, a history of racial repression being repaid to her in small change. Her friends become drag queens, her own life is always pushing back  one frontier or another.

Interspersed are awkward visits to a home from which she has become distant, for which she has little nostalgia. Years later, her mother admits to Bonnie that she was trying to keep her quiet and tamed “or the forces that crushed all free, wild black women would crush her eldest child”. Her mother did not succeed.

Greer opens the book having traced her genetic roots, an incomplete lineage with threads lost somewhere over the Atlantic as her ancestors were moved here and there as slaves. This memoir vibrantly tells of another breach, this time from the 1960s and not a genetic breach but a cultural one. It is messy, drug-fuelled – though she doesn’t take more than one puff of a joint – and inconsistent, but it turns out to be liberation from the deadlock of her parents’ generation.

It is the story of a journey deliberately and bravely taken against all expectations.

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