Book Review: Traveling Without Moving: Essays from a Black Woman Trying to Survive in America By Taiyon J. Coleman

Poet, writer, and educator Taiyon J. Coleman has given us a slim volume holding a mere eleven essays, but oh what a troubled world she manages to pack in between the front and back covers. Titled Traveling Without Moving: Essays from a Black Woman Trying to Survive in America, the book is a feat of literary abracadabra, transforming itself from a series of recursive essays into a memoir, in condensed form, right before the reader’s eyes. As a miniaturized biography it succeeds in eliciting empathy and admiration. As an examination of Black experience it evokes outrage. We witness a “poor Black girl” from the South Side of Chicago, full of curiosity and aspiration (in a world where she has to arm herself with Mace and a stun gun), fight to survive though the odds are deliberately stacked against her and the system was designed to shoulder her to the margins. She emerges as a strong Black woman, a stout-hearted writer making a life for herself in (really white) Minnesota.

One is immediately tempted to compare Coleman’s work to Sarah Broom’s National Book Award winner The Yellow House, or to Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth, books whose writers mirror Coleman in using their rich family histories to illuminate larger issues of race, place, and class. But, in these essays, Coleman lacks the elegance of Broom and Gordon-Reed – due largely to Coleman’s juxtaposition of academia’s abstract and Greco-Latinate vocabulary with her own direct and engaging way of writing a scene. Thus we are momentarily sidetracked by phrases like “constructed identity paradigms” and “identity intersections.” Consider this example: “… Auntie became confined within the domestic intersections of the constructed identities of gender, race, place, and class weighted down by larger and cumulative historical and institutional structures.” So many syllables, so little time. Of course, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be nettled by such forays into donnish abstraction; one of Coleman’s writerly virtues is that she says what she means, and in these essays she means to say a lot about institutions largely built by whites for whites, and perhaps any high-concept critique of that reality requires knotty verbalism. Still, it’s a shame. One wants everybody to read a book like this, a captivating account that illustrates what Black Americans still have to endure and overcome, but we know there are those who dismiss such thickets of language as leftist pedantry or, worse, “woke” propaganda. This book will do nothing to change their minds, and so be it.

Coleman begins Traveling without Moving with a short essay that introduces us to her family and to her eight-year-old self and to the very moment she announces that she wants to be a writer. “You’re too stupid to ever write about anything,” her aunt responds. That quote actually opens the essay, and the torments Coleman endures at the hands of her family members continue on from there. Coleman is big for her age, dark-skinned, and far too inquisitive for some of those around her.There is the aunt, six years older than Coleman but already convinced the younger girl is her nemesis; and so she makes sure the neighborhood knows of Coleman’s bedwetting. There is her grandfather, a coal miner given to bouts of drunkenness. And there is the grandmother, an older woman with a salty tongue and little encouragement to offer. Coleman spent her summers with her grandparents in rural Sparta, Illinois, but the time away from Chicago was far from idyllic. Coleman: “Grandma didn’t know anything about genetics back then and neither did I; to her, I had fucked up my skin color (too dark), my weight (too heavy), my hair (too nappy), my height (too tall), my mouth (too loud), and my feet (too large).” Coleman’s father, “one generation removed from Mississippi and Arkansas,” wanders in and out of the pages of these essays, the quintessentially absent dad, eventually abandoning Coleman’s mother to raise five kids on her own in poverty. As an unemployed, dark-skinned Black, he is embarrassed by the young Coleman’s loudness and “spirited inquisitiveness,” his whippings motivated in part by a fear that her outspokenness will not serve her well in the “de facto apartheid” world. As for the mother, Momma, she’s portrayed as a hardworking woman whose only luxuries are seemingly the moments she can sit quietly at the kitchen table and rest her feet (in blue flip-flops), smoke a Winston cigarette and sip a bottle of Coca-Cola. She is Coleman’s rock and guide, her lighthouse, and Coleman wants to be exactly like her, strong and resilient. But others in her family are not so benign, and Coleman confesses that she still fights, through her writing, to overcome the self-doubt her early years left her with. Here is Coleman’s desolate take on her childhood:

Before the divorce, I remember school mornings filled with hugs and kisses. When we left for school, Momma always licked her thumb to wipe dried breakfast cereal from the creased edges of our mouths. Late in the afternoon, we ran to the bus stop at the end of the block to greet Momma and walk her home. But when Daddy left, we, like most single-parent families, were instantly thrown into poverty; we lived one paycheck away from starvation and being homeless. Momma’s communications became primarily fierce directions of survival: “Take care of your brother and sisters.” “Keep the house clean.” “Leave me alone, because you always want something.” And, “I can’t never have nothing because of you!” I learned early on not to want anything or at least not to show I wanted anything, but I could never stop wanting to know why my parents divorced, and why my father left us and never came back.

In an essay titled “Disparate Impacts: Moving to Minnesota to Live Just Enough for the City,” we see Coleman moving into the larger world and encountering its inherent biases. The year is 1998, and she’s just been accepted into two prestigious creative writing programs, one in the Deep South, one in Minnesota (the Deep North?). To help her choose which program to attend, she drives to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to visit the college campus, making sure to heed her grandparents’ advice to fill her gas tank and empty her bladder before crossing into Missouri and motoring across the South. (White children, we should note here, don’t get this kind of advice.) Once in the city, she can’t help but notice all the Confederate flags. It is a jarring experience, one that builds emotional distance between her and the Black female graduate student who is showing her around. The graduate student has come to accept the flags as just another part of the landscape. No big deal. But Coleman knows she will not be attending graduate school in Alabama, where the emblem of white supremacy is openly celebrated. And so she goes north, to Minnesota, where the creative writing program has been “warm, welcoming, and inviting.” Once in the writing program, though, she finds canonized book lists that don’t contain any writers of color. She is told by some writing instructors that writing about race is “pat” and the theme has been exhausted so she should write about something else. She says she is told by some instructors that she is racist if she writes about race and is forbidden to approach the topic. She is advised to expect no favors – as if that’s how she has made her way through academia up to now. And she never seems to get the opportunities that her white classmates get to develop authentic mentor relationships with instructors. While acknowledging that she also had supportive instructors and currently has a great job in Minnesota (associate professor of English and women’s studies at St. Catherine University in St. Paul), she concludes, “there are Confederate flags everywhere, even in places where we can’t see them.”

Other essays flesh out the notion. In one titled “Making the Invisible Visible,” Coleman uses her own home-buying experience in Minneapolis to shine a light on discriminatory housing practices, such as racially restrictive language on deeds (that is, language that boils down to this: Thou shalt not sell to a Black person).  Some years ago, Coleman and her husband fell in love with a 1925 cottage bungalow in the city. They had been house hunting for months, had made offers but had always been rejected. The bungalow they wanted needed some work, but it was in a good neighborhood and retained its charm despite its worn roof and peeling stucco. They had inspected the house while the owners were away and wanted to buy the house. As Coleman writes, one day their real estate agent asked her to wait in the Nokomis Public Library around the corner while he met with the white homeowners. Fifteen minutes later, the agent returned to the library with a signed purchase agreement. “After moving in, I realized two things,” Coleman writes, “one, that my neighbors were the kindest people that anyone would ever have the pleasure of meeting; and two, that my husband and I were the only Black family on our block.” She concludes the essay: “After fourteen years, to my knowledge, after watching homes be bought and sold, sometimes on the market and many times not, we are still the only Black family on our block.” Racially restrictive covenants were outlawed in 1968, but the segregated neighborhoods we still see today are the result of those old policies. And, as Coleman deftly points out, their existence is all but invisible; they have been normalized so that each new generation of Americans is born into a world where this seems normal. It is not.

Another standout essay in the collection (“What’s Understood Don’t Need to Be Explained”) deals with a white security guard’s claim that he was shot and wounded by an unknown Black assailant while he patrolled a wooded area of the St. Catherine University grounds, where Coleman teaches. The security guard reported that a Black male with a short Afro hairstyle and wearing a navy-blue sweatshirt shot him in the shoulder, ran through the woods and jumped a six-foot fence. When she heard the news, Coleman writes, she wondered if it was the same security guard who mistook her and her husband for janitors as they moved her into her new office. After the local TV news and press publicized the shooting and a description of the Black assailant, Coleman did the “mental self-check” that many Black people do:

Am I Black? Yes.
Do I wear a short Afro? Yes.
Do I own a gun? No.
Was I in the campus woods on Tuesday? No.
Do I own a navy-blue sweatshirt? I wear a nice navy-blue top sometimes, but I’m sure it can’t be mistaken for a navy-blue sweatshirt. Right?
Can I scale and jump a six-foot-plus fence? Hell no!
Will they think it was me? Only time will tell.

You won’t be too surprised, if at all, to learn that there was no Black assailant. The security guard made up the story. And your lack of surprise should tell you something about race in this country and the gulf that lies between American ideals and Black experience. While 55 officers, a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter, and four K-9 units were out looking for a dangerous Black man, Coleman could only be grateful that her husband had not come to the university to pick her up that night. And here is the grim moral of the story that she draws from this and other incidents: “Black men can’t run and walk openly in neighborhoods, they can’t kneel during the national anthem, they can’t use a twenty-dollar bill at the neighborhood store, but they are always suspected felons who can be choked to death for holding a loose cigarette, incarcerated without trial for three years on suspicion of stealing a backpack before commiting suicide, and shot point-blank in the park for being a twelve-year-old boy and wanting to play with a plastic toy that looks like a gun. And if you can’t find an actual real Black person to kill, you can always just magically make one up.”

Coleman has given us a taste of Black reality in this collection of essays, written from experience and with clear eyes. One comes away from this slender book grateful that Coleman inherited her mother’s strength.

Rex Bowman

Born in Virginia and educated in small, public libraries across the United States, Rex is a translator and writer who now lives in St. Clair, Michigan, a temptingly short swim away from Canada. He has a sweet tooth for witty memoirs and wise essays and also loves to read literary nonfiction and travel yarns that emphasize people over landscape. As for fiction, his tastes are violently miscellaneous, but his favorite books have at least one of three things: unforgettable characters, fresh plots, or electric prose. He enjoys reading multiple translations of the same novel, and he relishes almost anything that isn’t ashamed to be fun (think Stella Gibbons, Richard Brautigan, Mario Vargas Llosa, Elif Batuman). Rex’s work has appeared in various literary journals, including Parhelion, Smart Set, Literary Heist, and Literary Yard. He is the author or co-author of several books, most recently Almost Hemingway: The Adventures of Negley Farson, Foreign Correspondent.