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Can Anything Beat White?

Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family's Letters

Compiled and edited by Elisabeth Petry
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Can Anything Beat White?
    Book Description:

    Ann Petry (1908-1997) achieved prominence during a period in which few black women were published with regularity in America. Her novelsCountry Place(1947) andThe Narrows(1988), along with various short stories and nonfiction, poignantly described the struggles and triumphs of middle-class blacks living in primarily white communities.

    Petry's ancestors, the James family, served as in-spiration for much of her fiction. This collection of more than four hundred family letters, edited by the daughter of Ann Petry, is an engaging portrait of black family life from the 1890s to the early twentieth century, a period not often documented by African American voices.

    Ann Petry's maternal grandfather, Willis Samuel James, was a slave taught by his children to read and write. He believed "the best place for the negro is as near the white man as he can get." He followed that "truth," working as coachman for a Connecticut governor and buying a house in a white neighborhood in Hartford. Willis had sixteen children by three wives. The letters in this collection are from him and his second wife, Anna E. Houston James, and five of Anna's children, of whom novelist Ann Petry's mother, Bertha James Lane, was the oldest.

    History is made and remade by the availability of new documents, sources, and interpretations.Can Anything Beat White?contributes a great deal to this process. The experiences of the James family as documented in their letters challenge both representations of black people at the turn of the century as well as our contemporary sense of black Americans.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-068-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xx)
    Farah Jasmine Griffin

    Can Anything Beat White? A Black Family’s Lettersonly offered us a glimpse into the life of a nineteenth-century African American family that would more than warrant its publication. So rare are letters from African Americans, particularly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that their very existence signals a significant historical find. That the letters document relationships between a family that produced a critically acclaimed author, Ann Petry, warrants even more interest. That the members of the James family were in and of themselves exceptionally interesting individuals whose lives could fill the pages of a number of novels...

    (pp. xxi-xxii)
    (pp. xxiii-2)

    Willis H. James had seen more than his share of conflict and grief in his twenty-eight years. After leaving his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, he survived guerrilla warfare, near starvation, and forced marches barefoot through the mountains of the Philippines as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Upon his return from Southeast Asia, he had taken jobs, often in hostile environments, as a waiter and a barber. None of his battles in or out of uniform, however, prepared him for the horror he encountered in a southern town in the fall of 1905. When he reached the limits of his...

    (pp. 3-21)

    Willis S. James’s only legacy to his children and grandchildren from his years as a slave was a nursery rhyme that he sang as he bounced them on his knee, “Run, little baby, run. Or patterrollers goin’ come. Run, little baby, run.”

    He was born into a society that did not keep many vital records, particularly of its colored citizens. According to family lore, Willis grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and escaped the “patterrollers” in the early 1860s as war raged around the city. Before he made his final dash to freedom, he served as a water boy for the...

    (pp. 22-40)

    Willis and Anna Houston James may not have been in a position to give their children riches, but they gave them a sense of self-worth and faith in their own abilities that lasted them throughout their lives. That confidence began with their oldest, Bertha Ernestine James. Anna cherished Bertha, molding her into a loving woman who nurtured her brothers and sisters and later her own children and their friends.

    Bertha, “Bert” to her brothers, loved children. Her daughter Ann’s childhood friends said, “I wish your mother were my mother, too.” Bertha devoted her undivided attention to each person she met...

  8. Chapter 3 THE WANDERER
    (pp. 41-66)

    Willis H. James changed names, addresses, and jobs so often his family frequently lost track of him. He carried his father’s first name, but he was not a junior, nor was he the oldest son. Charles Howard James, son of Anna Webb, was thirteen years old when Willis was born. Based on the letters he left behind and his frequent disappearances, Willis chose to be elusive—a ladies man and a con man, one not predisposed to hard work if he could avoid it. In short, Willis was the black sheep in the James family. Photographs taken in his later...

  9. Chapter 4 CONSUMED BY LIFE
    (pp. 67-92)

    Harriet Georgiana James’s brief life was a study in youthful energy, joie de vivre, and pathos. Consumption took her before she turned twenty-three, but while she lived, lack of faith in herself caused her greater anguish. Not long before she died, she wrote to Bertha from school, “I wonder and wonder why it is these people are so kind and good to me?” The answers came in letters of condolence from the faculty, staff, and students, who adored her.

    When Harriet enrolled at Hampton Institute and Normal School, it had been open for thirty-two years, training freed slaves and their...

    (pp. 93-107)

    Harold Edward James, born February 3, 1884, enrolled at Hampton Institute as an energetic boy of fifteen. He found his life’s vocation working on the school’s eight-hundred-acre farm at Shellbanks, where students earned money to pay their tuition and produced food that the school sold to supplement its income. Shortly after he left Hampton, Harold bought and operated a farm in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Later he became the manager of a school in Hanover, Virginia.

    After Helen went to Hawaii, Harold and Harriet grew closer at school, and he was deeply affected by her death. Dr. Waldron worried about him. “I...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. Chapter 6 SETTING THE STAGE
    (pp. 108-128)

    Compared to her brothers and sisters, Helen Lou Evelyn James was barely five feet tall. What she lacked in stature, however, she compensated for with an indomitable spirit. Born September 1, 1876, Helen was the most prolific James correspondent and, except for Willis, the best traveled.

    She was the first member of the James family to attend Hampton Institute, a tradition that ended when her niece, Anna Houston Lane (Ann Petry), withdrew in the early 1930s. In 1901 Helen left Hampton, where she had been a teacher-trainee, and took work as a maid in a school in Honolulu on the...

    (pp. 129-155)

    Helen was not the first person to go to Hawaii from Hampton Institute. Samuel Chapman Armstrong grew up in Hawaii as the son of missionaries, and he modeled Hampton on the all-male Hilo Boarding School. Founded in 1836 to train missionaries, Hilo shifted its focus to preparing young Hawaiians to become carpenters, house painters, and shoemakers. Armstrong maintained his ties with the islands during and after his work at Hampton.

    Helen left Hampton with mixed feelings. “The people here feel badly at my going away and really make me feel badly by their frequent protestations. I did not know how...

    (pp. 156-164)

    Helen neglected her correspondence for several weeks upon her arrival in Atlanta in September 1904. “You know me well enough to know that I can not accomplish much when unsettled. For this reason I have not written ere this. The days have been a series of packings and unpackings. To-night I feel fairly comfortable as bureau, washstand, closet and desk are in fair working order.” On her way to Georgia, she broke up her journey with a visit to Uncle Charley and his family in New York before arriving at “glorious” Hampton. “The lightly flecked blue sky blossoming golden rod...

  15. Chapter 9 A LARK A FLYIN’
    (pp. 165-172)

    The Penn School began at the Oaks Plantation on the island of St. Helena in 1862, shortly after the Union Army landed on Hilton Head and swept north on its way to Beaufort, South Carolina. With the arrival of the federal troops, the plantation owners fled, torching their houses. They left behind the descendants of Africans who had lived in an isolation unknown elsewhere in the United States. They preserved many traditions from their native land that slave owners elsewhere had successfully suppressed.

    St. Helena and the other Sea Islands form a barrier reef from South Carolina to northern Florida....

  16. Chapter 10 ACHIEVING A DREAM
    (pp. 173-185)

    In early October 1906, Helen arrived at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee, where she taught school Tuesday through Saturday. Mondays she filled with sweeping, dusting, and scrubbing her residence, going into town, playing tennis, entertaining students, and preparing the next day’s lessons. She told Bertha that she found her fellow teachers “most congenial” and said she wished she had gone there three years before when the president, Nathan B. Young, first made the offer.

    She was assigned to teach Latin but substituted a class in first-year German, which “gives me some concern.” Her class in first-year technical...

    (pp. 186-190)

    By the time you wrote your letters, slave owners had obliterated traditions we brought from Africa, except for one. Through the ages we retained a love for each other that expressed itself by honoring the memory of those who had gone before. For us, ancestor veneration meant not blind worship but a living interaction, a conversation in which we question, challenge, and look for answers to questions that we feel are important to us.

    This work continues that tradition. In some ways you are as close to me as living relatives—in some ways closer. This book is my veneration...