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PT Armstrong Writes with Unsparing Realism in Looking Back and Dreaming Forward Memoir
The same reasons that convinced me to give PT Armstrong's Looking Back and Dreaming Forward a four-star rating might prompt others to give it five. Some might settle for three. But here's the way I see it: the first three stars are for the rarity of the book's content. This isn't just another memoir. It's more like a flesh and blood time capsule filled with reports from America's past about issues the country (and the world) is dealing with in 2019, like the challenges of adjusting to increasing diverse populations and managing the awkwardness of inter-generational interactions in various venues.
The fourth star is for the fact that Mr. Armstrong was 91 years young when he released this book at the end of 2018 and is currently looking forward to turning 92 years old on St. Patrick's Day, 2019. What the age factor means in this case is that as an African-American man born in rural Texas in 1927, the military veteran had to survive quite a bit before he could even think about publishing a book, his third, at the age of 91. A lot of the memories through which he had to navigate to tell his stories are the kind many Black men his age, he tells us, do not enjoy recalling or discussing.
One of the most fascinating things about the five stories in Armstrong's volume is his authorial voice. The author realizes he is addressing a digital-age audience which might not immediately, necessarily, understand him as someone whose worldview and mindset were forged during a very different era. Bearing that in mind, he kicks off this unusual collection with the controversially-titled essay, "When I Was A Negro." In it, he explains, "I hope it will be clear that I am not writing out of anger but sharing the truth as I have lived it." He further acknowledges, "There are a lot of books out now about what people are calling 'the New Jim Crow.' Well I grew up during the old Jim Crow in a segregated society that was very strict so I have some perspectives and insights people might find useful." In other words, as the title of his book indicates, he is more interested in learning from past mistakes in order to help fellow citizens move forward than he is in dwelling on past injustices for the sake of wallowing in self-pity or stirring up feelings of guilt.
Moreover, his meditations are surprisingly much more inclusive than many might assume. As with classic autobiographies and memoirs by such authors as Maya Angelou and James Weldon Johnson, Armstrong does make some hard unflinching observations when it comes to topics like the history of slavery, racial segregation in Texas and his adopted home of Savannah, Georgia, and the historic bias against interracial relationships. However, he goes a big step further in "Bloodlines: Interview with Miss Pilgrim Cottonwood."
An actual interview, "Bloodlines" tells the story of a Native American Hopi woman whose tri-racial ancestry included Natives, Whites, and Blacks. It is a rare authentic document of its kind. Constructed from an interview which Armstrong conducted in 1966 when his subject was 66 years old, the author presents her dialect as she spoke it. Cottonwood is candid about both her struggles to survive and the heartbreak over losing the love of her life. Particularly significant is her account of relationships between African Americans and members of her tribe during and after slavery.
In "A Place for Old Black Men" Armstrong writes with moving poignancy about the paradoxes of aging in a society that continues to advance technologically but appears to regress when it comes to issues of social justice. At the same time, in "Back to My Roots" and "My Trip to Africa" he rejoices in the discovery of his cultural inheritance and celebrates the potential which he believes the future holds for everyone.