Larry I. Palmer
Paul Dry Books, 300 pages
Reviewed by Sterling Morse
“Scholarship Boy: Meditations on Family and Race” is an emotional tour de force about an African American boy’s venture from the Black world he knew to embark on a heroic journey of self-discovery in the incubator of white power and privilege in 1950s racially-inflamed America.
Despite being extraordinarily gifted, he was born into a large, complex family where he struggled to find his place and voice in the order of things. Forces known and unknown conspired to lift him from the steady state of his family and direct him to the social and educational path of the American elite, armed with a dimly mirrored view of himself and the relationship with his family.
The account deftly describes how childhood trauma and psychic wounding informs our decision-making throughout life. The old recordings of being shunned, ignored and teased and the feeling of being insignificant all cast a pall over the joy of accomplishment. During childhood, two instances with his parents sent Larry Palmer on a lifelong quest for parental acknowledgment and filling of the emotional void, without which he felt unsafe.
In pursuit, he ran the gauntlet of segregated America in the throes of racial integration, balancing the pressures of conformity to the Ivy League educational environment with the historical struggle for equality and inclusion of the Black community. During this journey, he was impacted by social giants including James H. Robinson (founder of Operation Crossroads Africa), John Hope Franklin, William Sloane-Coffin and Frederick Buechner. The voices of the latter inspired young Palmer: “Your big challenge is to find what it means to be human in this particular time in history.”
A subtext of this story is how we travel through life empowered by our version of the truth, only to come full circle to discover how the roots of the experience of other actors are entangled. Palmer’s account dramatizes the gooey messiness of human development. His story shows how we learn and are advanced through life by the energy – even the quiet sacrifices – of others.
In the spirit of the Apostle Paul, as children we think like children and behave like children, but in adulthood we set those ways aside. On the journey to wholeness there is no way we can see everything or person that contributed. But, when we pause to reflect, what will emerge in the garment of our identity is an organic patchwork of integrated interaction and learning caused by the decisions and actions of everyone and everything we encountered along the way.
I recommend this book for its historical and social landscape. It is a courageous tale of persistent faith. Despite the writer’s attempt to be reconciled with the impact of suppressive parenting, one is left to wonder about where his true resentment nested. The readers are left to ponder if Palmer met the Sloane-Coffin/Buechner challenge to be human.
Sterling Morse is transitional pastor at Church of the Redeemer Presbyterian in Washington, D.C.