One lesson that the ever-present trickster figure in African American folklore teaches is how to use signifying to protect one’s intimate self. A challenge of writing Dorothy West’s life is getting beyond the masks she presents before the ever-prying gaze. To get around the problem, the biographer must think in unconventional ways. In Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color (Rutgers University Press, 2012), Cherene Sherrard-Johnson abandons the old battle between fact versus fiction; instead, she focuses on Dorothy West’s masks and what they show. Sherrard-Johnson respectfully evades West’s tactics of elusion and reveals a black woman artist with an acute awareness of the performative nature of class, and a keen sense of the intricacies of intra-racial identity.
Dorothy West arrived to New York at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance. Although her first novel, The Living Is Easy (1948) was critically acclaimed it was not until the re-issue of her novel in 1982 that literary scholars and readers alike began to take a closer look at what she had to say. Publication of The Wedding (1995), as well as Oprah Winfrey’s TV miniseries based on the novel three years later, placed West in the limelight before she passed away in 1998.
Sherrard-Johnson, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Madison, offers readers more than the conventional biography that beginsand ends with the birth and death of the subject. As she maps West’smovement from Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard to Moscow, Russia and back again, Sherrard-Johnson treats readers to a myriad of responses to thequestion Dorothy West asks in the epigraph of her introduction: “Why wouldanybody write a book about me?” Should you desire to see one way to meet the challenge of catching anelusive figure while being mindful of the intrusive gaze, a good start is to read ChereneSherrard-Johnson’s fine book.
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