More Decency, Please

M

arvin V. Arnett’s memoir, Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt, is built of small pieces—vignettes from her childhood in 1930s Detroit. Yes, Marvin is a girl. She is also African American in a city where Negroes are relegated to the poor side of town and second class status. And she is a bright little pitcher with bigPieces_from_life_1 ears, who can’t resist the human dramas playing out around her. The cast of characters include her magnificent parents, William and Grace, her older brother, and sister (who dies suddenly when Marvin is five), the congregation of the Church of the True Believers, her Aunt Bessie and Uncle Smitty, good Mrs. Eubanks who adores Franklin Roosevelt, and the small community of neighbors on her street.

Arnett makes me feel nostalgic for a world I’ve never known. It couldn’t be more different from my childhood growing up white in the desert of the atomic west in the 60s and 70s—and yet I recognize that precious sense of belonging. After adopting her life for several summer evenings in a row, I miss Marvin’s difficult, sometimes harrowing, but abundantly loving and decent childhood. Most of all I miss the decency.

The adults who people Marvin’s life treat each other with loyalty, courtesy, and respect. Arnett explains it this way: "Among people who were considered as little better than animals by the white world, the importance of maintaining a strict regimen of courtesy and respect within the black community could not be overemphasized. Any adult who refused to use the title of Mr. or Mrs. reduced themselves to the level of children and weakened the grip of all authority." As it happens, authority was slipping away as Detroit stumbled through the Depression. By the end of the decade nearly every family on the block had succumbed to welfare, even Marvin’s resourceful and proud father. In June 1943, the city broke out in race riots—although Marvin still managed to sneak downtown and purchase her green graduation shoes.

Arnett is a wise story teller and captures the fullness of her characters. Her mother is godly, patient, beautiful—a near saint who happens to win the cha-cha relish competition year in and year out. When Mother decides to let her unfortunate neighbor win the title of best cha-cha relish (in order to "take from no bird her song"), she makes certain that family tastes her own stellar batch before she spoils it with extra spices.

There are harsh realities in Marvin’s young life—the early death of her sister, a neighbor boy shot by police, racism as standard fare. Marvin learns of just about every human weakness—sometimes by listening into doorways, huddling under porches or pressing her ear to the wall. All the same, the book is suffused with sweetness, and makes me wish William and Grace were here to offer some advice on living in America now.