In a memoir that is gripping, funny, and ultimately unforgettable, New York Times bestselling author Walter Dean Myers travels back to his roots in the magical world of Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. Here is the story of one of the most distinguished writers of young people's literature today.
As a boy, Myers was quick-tempered and physically strong, always ready for a fight. He also read voraciously—he would check out books from the library and carry them home, hidden in brown paper bags in order to avoid other boys' teasing. He aspired to be a writer.
But while growing up in a poor family in Harlem, his hope for a successful future diminished as he came to realize fully the class and racial struggles that surrounded him. He began to doubt himself and the values that he had always relied on, attending high school less and less, turning to the streets and to his books for comfort.
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Each of us is born with a history already in place. There are physical aspects that make us brown-eyed or blue-eyed, that make us tall or not so tall, or give us curly or straight hair. Our parents might be rich or poor. We could be born in a crowded, bustling city or in a rural area. While we live our own individual lives, what has gone before us, our history, often has some effect on us. In thinking about what influenced my own life, I began by considering the events and people who came before me. I learned about most of the people who had some effect on my life through family stories, census records, old photographs, and, in the case of Lucas D. Dennis, the records of the Works Progress Administration at the University of West Virginia.
The Works Progress Administration was a government program formed to create jobs during the Depression years. It did this by starting a number of projects, including state histories. Among the notes of the interviewers putting together a history of West Virginia, I came across this entry.
Lucas D. Dennis was one of the one hundred and fifty slaves that Steve Dandridge owned before the Civil War. This slave is ninetyfour years old. He was born in Jefferson County. His mind is very bright, he still has two of his own teeth, his hair is gray and he wears a heavy beard which is also gray.
After the Civil War he came to Harpers Ferry and built himself a house, which is on one of the camping grounds used during the war. This house is on Filmore Ave. and the corner of a lane leading to where many soldiers were buried and later taken up and carried to their burial ground in Winchester.
He lives with his wife, she is eighty-four. He saw John Brown and remembers well the day he was hanged.
Lucas D. Dennis was my great-great uncle. Prior to the Civil War, when West Virginia was still part of the state of Virginia, these ancestors of mine were slaves on a plantation called The Bower in Leetown, Virginia. The 1870 census still listed had Lucas D. Dennis as living on the plantation, but I knew, from family stories, that he did indeed move to Harpers Ferry and that part of the Dennis family moved to Martinsburg, West Virginia, less than ten miles from 'Me Bower. At the time of the interview with Lucas D. Dennis, the Dennis family in Martinsburg had merged with the Green family. One of the women of the Green family, Mary Dolly Green, later became my mother.
I have no memory of Mary Dolly Green. I know that she gave birth to me on a Thursday, the twelfth of August, 1937. 1 have been told that she was tall, with a fair complexion. Mary had five children: Gertrude, Ethel, George, me, and Imogene. Shortly after the birth of my sister Imogene my mother died, leaving my father, George Myers, with seven children, two of them, Geraldine and Vida, from a previous marriage. When I imagine her, I think of an attractive young woman with the same wide smile my sisters had. I wish I could have known her. However, today, when I think of mother, I think of another woman, my father's first wife, Florence Dean.
Florence Dean's mother emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s. A cook by profession, Mary Gearhart settled outside Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in New Franklin, Pennsylvania. There she met and married a Native American by the name of Brown. The couple had one daughter, Florence. Mary Gearhart, a small, pleasant woman, worked at a number of restaurants before finding a job in a German hotel in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
When Florence was old enough to work, she also came to Martinsburg. It was while working at the hotel that she met a young black man, George Myers. The two young people began to see each other socially and were married when Florence was seventeen. From this marriage came two children, Geraldine and Viola. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in divorce, and Florence returned to Pennsylvania. The fact that Florence had married a black man did not sit well with her German relatives, and she was made to feel unwelcome. She decided to move to Baltimore, Maryland, where she met Herbert Dean.
Herbert Dean lived in Baltimore with his father, stepmother, two sisters, Nancy and Hazel, and his brother, Leroy. His father, William Dean, was a tall, handsome, and opinionated man who had little use for formal education aside from reading the Bible, and even less use for women.
He ran a small hauling business in Baltimore that consisted of several wagons and teams of horses. He expected his sons to enter the business when they were of age. When trucks began to replace horses and wagons, he scoffed at the idea, labeling the trucks as a mere fad that would never last. Even as his business declined, he stubbornly stuck to his beliefs. By the time he was nine, Herbert Dean was already working, pulling a wagon through the streets of the city, collecting scraps of wood, cutting it for kindling, and selling it door to door to light the fires in the old coal stoves that most people had at the time. Herbert had left school after the third grade, realizing that he was needed to help support the family.
By the time Herbert reached manhood, his father's hauling business was no more than a way of making a few dollars on occasion, and when William Dean still declined to invest in trucks, both of the boys struck out on their own. Leroy decided to remain in the Baltimore area, and Herbert decided to try his luck in New York City . . .