ONE OF THE MANY indelible scenes in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man involves a discussion of “home” and what it means to be at home, to be comfortable with home, and to go home again. The narrator, a Southerner wandering the streets of Harlem after being expelled from college and embittered by his college experience, is drawn to an old man selling yams, the odor “bringing a stab of swift nostalgia.” He takes a bite and is overcome by a homesickness so aching that he has to turn away from the old man. But he also feels a freedom in being able to walk down the street and eat a yam — something that could be seen as “country,” or improper. He thinks what a pleasure it would be if someone who had known him “at school or at home” were to be shocked by the sight of him eating his yam on the street without compunction. After imagining pushing such witnesses onto a side street and smearing their faces with the peel of the yam, he wonders:

What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do? What a waste, what a senseless waste! But what of those things that you actually didn’t like, not because you were not supposed to like them, not because to dislike them was considered a mark of refinement and education but because you actually found them distasteful? The very idea annoyed me. How could you know? It involved a problem of choice. I would have to weigh many things carefully before deciding and there would be some things that would cause quite a bit of trouble, simply because I had never formed a personal attitude toward so much. I had accepted the accepted attitudes and it had made life seem simple …

The narrator decides that from now on he will continue life on the “yam level.” But his next bite, from a frostbitten yam, is foul-tasting, and he has to throw it away. In these scenes, even as Ellison confirms that we can’t go home again, he is asking us to redefine home for ourselves, and speaking to the struggle to do so.

Tracy K. Smith, in her memoir Ordinary Light, explores similar territory — race, class, identity, spirituality, and literature — through the death of her mother. In this memoir, Smith, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Life on Mars, comes to terms with her mother’s death; but perhaps more urgently, Ordinary Light insists on the nuances of African-American identity. In the author’s quest to find a place to be, small and big moments are observed in elegant prose and in epiphanies that seem both surprising and inevitable.

The youngest of five siblings, Smith was raised in the 1970s and ’80s by a religious mother and conservative father (he voted for Ronald Reagan twice) who migrated from the South to northern California. In a chapter called “My Book House,” Smith writes of the family home:

[it] would tell us, and the world, if it cared to notice, that we bothered with ourselves, that we understood dignity, that we were worthy of everything that mattered […] the house we returned to each night assured us that, no matter who was setting the bar, we could remain certain we measured up.

Her father is a black man of the Jim Crow era, who experienced and carries around the trauma of racial prejudice. His response is to cultivate excellence,

showing the world we were just as good, as smart, as adept, as brave, as necessary as anyone else. If the image we blacks projected got too nuanced, became threatening, began to make aggressive demands, then the message of excellence was lost, and he believed we went back to being the problem.

Her mother, meanwhile, routinely reads to her from a religious primer called Little Visits with God, in which the world is easily grasped and clearly defined. For example: when a father in the story tells his daughter to stand perfectly still — a command delivered out of the blue — she complies and narrowly misses being bitten by a snake in the grass. This is the sort of lesson Smith’s parents want her to learn, and it strikes her as logical that her mother would want her to obey the voice of her father, to “equate it with the voice of God,” and to live, for as long as time permits, in a world with clear Dos and Don’ts, with binaries and absolutes.

Smith is enviably cared for and adored. The growing-up she describes is an idyll of comfort and safety, with a father who seems larger than life and a mother against whose body she feels calm and safe and “right at home.” But Smith, like Ellison, is asking readers to reconsider how home shapes our identity, and, in her case, how ideas about home underscore the painful but necessary bursting of the bubble. Even and especially in this lovely and warm childhood, there are signs of Smith’s struggles to come — questions about blackness, class, as well as obedience to her mother, her father, and God. There will be problems ahead: namely the problem, as identified by Ellison, of choice.

And yet, in the very chapter that underscores the burden of parental expectations — of being the proverbial “credit to her race” — Smith complicates the portrayal of her parents who, far from being clichés of black conservatism, are in fact the source of her burgeoning individuality, skepticism, and artistic breadth. They are nuanced and contradictory human beings, in spite of the hard-and-fast absolutes they have taught her to accept. The family library illustrates how layered and various the Smith family’s interests are, from the books that her father pushed her to read (Gulliver’s Travels, Ivanhoe, and Kidnapped), to the books she discovered on her own (Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography Yes I Can, Shakespeare, Emerson, Be My Guest by hotelier Conrad Hilton, Manchild in the Promised Land), to her mother’s books (the Bible and an array of theological publications), to assorted miscellany — including science fiction, Reader’s Digest Abridged Classics, joke books, and cookbooks. Her father, having traveled to Europe and Asia as an engineer in the military, is especially the cosmopolitan of the family:

Most every far away thing we knew of or possessed had been filtered to us through our father, and I, for one, came to think of him as a character from the books he collected — someone out of Dickens or Thackeray who had fled a humble past and made himself anew, led off by his curiosity and the wish for adventure and kept aloft by his wits, his innumerable gifts. The fact that he spent most of his days just a few miles away at the air force base … didn’t deter my sense of him as a citizen of the world.

To be a citizen of the world naturally requires an openness and adaptability that precludes the nostalgic Dick-and-Jane portrait of her childhood, as comfortable as it may have been. And, in the beginnings of Smith’s crises of faith, it is, in fact, her father who allows for debate and possibility, encouraging his daughter not to always accept information blindly, and giving her a space “where contradictions … might coexist.”

At times, Smith’s mother also shows herself to be of two minds, which intrigues as well as confuses the observant young Smith. In the chapter called “Kin,” we see an innocent Tracy nearly apoplectic because her fast cousin, Nina, visiting from Manhattan, has written “motherfucker” in the dust on her mother’s car window. Having never been exposed to such antics, Smith is not so much worried about God or her mother as about the fact that Cousin Nina represents an understanding of the world that is “incontrovertible.” How can she square her cousin’s point of view with her own? But, in the same chapter, the reader is treated to a wonderfully comic luncheon attended by Maggie, a rough-around-the-edges woman in military fatigues who is nothing at all like the church ladies who usually lunch at the Smith home. When Maggie arrives, Smith writes, “[S]he looked quizzical, as if she had been looking for a nightclub and had been led to a chapel instead.” Maggie’s ain’t-laden conversation motivates the not-yet-teenage Smith to correct the woman, telling her not to say “ain’t” but “isn’t.” Her mother sends her on a errand for napkins to get her out of their hair, and Smith wonders if Maggie wasn’t invited to their home at the time, at least in part, because her mother is bored with the “self-control” of church women in floral dresses. Maggie asks Smith’s mother, “Well, do you drank?” and the answer, of course, is no, save for the coffee and water served with lunch. But Smith knows that, however poised and religious, her mother also has a spirited side; she can cross a line or two when she wants to — for instance, there are allusions, if subtle, to sexual talk, at some of her dainty military wife luncheons, and she hears the occasional ungrammatical indulgence of “Ain’t that a blip.” Smith wonders why her mother does not let her guard down for Maggie, since she knows that, in this way, however rarely, she does for others. Even at such a tender stage in her life, Smith is already troubled by the fact that the strictures handed down to her are not quite the absolutes she thought they were. Home, and by extension, identity — certainly African-American identity — is not a concrete, tangible thing that one returns to but is, rather, complex and mutable, with a slippery definition. Maggie and cousin Nina are not only kin, but the people she would like the freedom to be like, without rebuke and shame.

The honesty with which Smith approaches these conflicting desires, and the search to find out where she will land, fill the reader with anticipation. The pages seem to flame and flicker, illuminating and referring to each other, reading like SOS signals that Smith is receiving from all over: from God, from her mother, and from her own consciousness as a black woman coming of age. In one moment of penetrating honesty, as a teenager, she feels shame for calling out her brother on his decision to have sex before marriage — to go against what their devout mother has taught them — because she realizes that she herself only wants the freedom to live her life as she wants to, without blame, shame, and hypocrisy. Even now, years later, she wonders why she has not apologized to her brother for judging him; this ongoing search for truth and reason, for who she is and what she wants, is compelling.

The beauty of Ordinary Light lies in Smith’s deft negotiation of such questions, the scrutiny with which she examines herself, her family, and America. As she comes of age, so much that she has taken for granted about race, sexuality, and Christianity becomes harder to define. Her own blackness is a minefield: In her younger years, when white classmates insist, “Don’t you wish you were white?”, she feels the sting of the question, and knows instinctively that the answer is “no,” but is unable to form a more effective response. When she’s called Black Girl by the sister of a popular friend, “white girl” turns out to be an ineffective rejoinder, of course. Though the casual racism of being reduced to a color and a gender is irrefutable either way, the white girl is confident of her superiority, whereas Smith is unsure of herself, and unable to claim the beauty of her blackness at this point in her life. Her ambivalence, or, more specifically, the pain that accompanies her blackness, can be tracked back to home again — the home she grew up in and, also, to the place her parents and all migrated black folks call Home — the South.

One of the more resonant chapters, “A Home in the World,” is a breathtaking meditation, harkening to DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. This chapter looks backward, to the South, but it also looks forward, to an imagined time in which “the pain of Home” — the legacy of trauma and heartbreak — is no longer too much to bear. Smith comes of age avoiding, for the most part, any deep conversation about what her family — and many others — left behind when they left the South. Her father claims to have come to California simply for the weather. However, even though she is not a born Southerner, when Smith and her mother visit her mother’s hometown of Leroy, Alabama, Smith is afraid to play with her cousins in the woods. In the woods, she senses, animals are the least of black people’s problems. In the woods are the things “people did to people they didn’t view as people. Murders. Lynchings. Even just a few words spat out with the right kind of force.” Smith says she tries to “steer clear of whole regions of the past for fear of catching a passing glimpse.” And yet, this too is home, a world she knows her own mother deeply loves. “Home was,” Smith writes, “a place and time…generations like theirs had live in quite happily … Home was bliss but it was also a place they had to weather and withstand.”

But more important than Smith’s fears about the legacy of blackness in America is her understanding of what is necessary to move beyond the crippling shame and trauma of racism and history. By piecing together observations and reflections, Smith constructs her identity for both herself and the reader, and what is most exhilarating is the too-often ignored entreaty to understand this: blackness is ever-evolving, and yes, is inevitably informed by the past, but is defined by the individual. Her struggles, her revelations, and her insights elucidate and explode the label “Black Girl” into one of infinite possibility. Smith ruminates on Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, who did not hold up well under the scrutiny of her fellow Harvard classmates. They accused Wheatley of pandering to the white man for validation. But, Smith wonders, what if this is both true and untrue? What if the language Wheatley had adopted had gotten inside of her? What if she believed herself when she wrote about being grateful to have been brought to America, to be made to understand that there is a God and a Savior? Is that black girl less worthy, Smith wonders? Why can’t Wheatley, and by extension, any African American be allowed to embrace those kinds of contradictions? To whom are we obliged?

Ordinary Light opens with what Smith calls the miracle of her mother’s death — with images of her mother taking her final journey to a place we will never understand until we’re there. In the meanwhile, however, the movement toward freedom of choice, and the understanding of why we make the choices we do, are what Tracy K. Smith examines and explores. At Harvard, still trying to figure out who she is, long before she gives birth to her own daughter, she finds herself in the middle: scrutinized from here by the conservative family who thinks she, with dreadlocks and new understandings about race, is “going overboard,” and from there, by her Northern family, who, having arrived at their own ideas about their blackness, believes she is “late to the party.”

Smith, however, revels in the opportunity to continue to redefine home and self. “I treasured that feeling of drifting between places,” Smith writes,

It helped erase some anxiety about where, in the real scheme of things, I was supposed to be headed … I relaxed my grip around the confusion, the sorrow, the independence, the wanting, the shifting allegiances, the insatiable wondering that fueled so much of my life. I felt vacant, expansive, subjective, far away. Like a cloud pushed along by the wind.

¤

Dana Johnson is the author of Elsewhere, California, a novel, and the short story collection Break Any Woman Down. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Southern California.