The Colgate Scene
January 2000
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Out on a limb

In his latest book, author George Davis '61 takes a revolutionary approach in style and venue

by Walt Shepperd '62
George Davis faced a daunting challenge. He had already orbited outside the linear logic of an America trying to think of itself as white when his byline began to appear in The New York Times and The Washington Post. He had listened to the thoughts of the sons of the Eastern Establishment as a stu-dent at Colgate in the late 1950s. That was where his writing teacher insisted that, because of the color of his skin, he could not possibly have authored the excellent papers he submitted.

In 1972, Random House published Davis' novel about the Vietnam War, Coming Home, and his book on astrology for African Americans, Soul Vibrations (William Morrow, 1997), spawned a website of daily horoscopes. But the next step in telling the story of African-America after the success of Alex Haley's Roots required Davis to embark upon a 13-year odyssey sifting through 14,682 documents.

     The journey could not be navigated as a Western journalist nor as a traditional academic, even though he carried the title of associate professor at Rutgers University. The territory had to be traversed as a griot, as one traditionally charged with passing on the oral history of Western African tribes.

     The product of Davis's sojourn is Branches, an ebbing and flowing -- and sometimes circular -- story of eight black students on graduation day at Howard University in 1965. Davis creates space for each character, crafting separate stories within his multi-layered novel. A disclaimer notes that each character is actually a composite based on hundreds of interviews with real people.

     The story's axis turns on Friday, June 4, 1965, the day President Lyndon Johnson made a surprise appearance as Howard's graduation speaker. He told the students that they would be guaranteed an equal chance at realizing the American dream. Echoing the battle cry of the civil rights movement, the big Texan told the graduates, "We shall overcome." Johnson co-opted a phrase that was already being diluted by the call for "Black Power" while the movement's momentum shifted from the romance of street demonstrations to the cloying of federal bureaucracies.

     "This is the kind of story that a griot would tell about what happened," Davis writes. But the traditional African tribal historian would use the oral tradition to play the role of the guardian of the word. An American griot, Davis explains, has a more complex task. Using the written word, a griot must simultaneously represent a physical and temporary existence as well as one spiritual and eternal.

     The Howard graduates Davis portrays are the first to leave the institutional womb since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was a time of fading optimism as the two sides of the American spirit collided. Only determination could hold the line against tear gas and attack dogs.

     Davis shows where his characters have been, whether growing up in the rural South or in the urban North, functionally integrated in a small town or existing as a smugly segregated Negro elite. The characters know where they're going, anticipating life at Harvard Medical School, on Broadway or in the National Football League. There are landmark learning moments as the mainstream approaches.

     "I honestly thought back then that the white people wanted racial integration so they could come to watch me play football," one character admits. In a discussion of radical politics another maintains, "The most revolutionary thing that a black person could do was make a million dollars."

     As a book, Branches is revolutionary in its form. A product of online publisher Authorlink's print-on-demand policy, which allows individuals to special-order copies that are then printed at the end of the day, each paperback copy is much more costly to produce than those from a traditional press run. "But it saves the risk to publishers," Authorlink editor Doris Booth explains. "We don't have warehousing costs and we don't have any returns (of unsold books from stores), which generally average about 35 percent. So it's cheaper in the long run." The process also enables her company to take a risk on a title that could be overlooked by big publishing houses, Booth says, noting Branches as a prime example.

     Davis agrees that Branches would have been passed over by the big houses. "There's an unwritten covenant that black life can't be depicted in positive terms," he says of contemporary cultural images. "White supremacy depends on the premise that black people have terrible lives. At Colgate I experienced a great sense of spiritual isolation. My roommate was always wondering if his mother loved him. My upbringing had been so rooted in folk culture that that thought never crossed by mind. In Arnold Sio's course I read Native Son and Black Boy and wondered who those people were."

     Davis never visited his publisher's office, never took a lunch with his editor to discuss prospects for his book, never worked late into the night poring over page proofs and arguing to retain deleted phrases or points of view. "He had his manuscript listed on our website," Booth explains. "It's a showcase with a setup cost of $15 and a $12 monthly fee. The big publishers as well as agents surf the site and we've sold 50 books that way and signed 26 writers with agents."

     Having begun print-on-demand last September and now listing 12 titles, Authorlink offers no advances to authors but does pay royalties of eight to 15 percent on sales. "In five years, 75 percent of all books sold will be published this way," Booth insists. As the advance of The Man's technology enhances his control over consciousness and cash, however, new storytellers will affirm the people's spirit. For a griot, the story must be taken to the people and told in terms they comprehend.

     "So here on the southwestern flank of the Western world, America really never could have sat like just another European country," Davis concludes, noting that the North Atlantic slave trade imported a spiritualism creating a unique culture; a segregated society kept alive by the consciousness of dual existences. "But this would have made it seem that the griot was praising slavery and discriminatory segregation at this time when only white racial supremacists would do that . . . But we were not that evolved yet."

Branches: The Human Spirit in Search of the American Dream
By George Davis, Authorlink Press, Irving, Texas. 1999. 323 pp.

Walt Shepperd of the Syracuse New Times is a three-time New York State Press Association Writer of the Year and director of Media Unit, a teen performance and production troupe that won the 1998 NAACP Community Service Award.

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