There are a number of ways to approach and understand Lynda Smith Hoggan’s Our Song: A Memoir of Love and Race and all of them are valid and interesting. Her book is the memoir of a romance that she began as a young person in the early 1970s. Hoggan had gone to college away from her conservative town and family and was trying to understand herself and the country as the Vietnam War was being fought, and Richard Nixon was being impeached. She was a young white woman dating an African-American man who was studying abroad in England as she was carrying on an affair with another African-American man in a nearby college. She felt that she couldn’t end the relationship with her boyfriend while he was out of the country, but she was deeply in love with Jon Thomas, the man she was having an affair with. It’s a fascinating look at the values that shaped the time, and the way that we have tried to break away from them even if we haven’t been completely successful; beyond that, it is a tremendously moving description of a love that was difficult but was no less powerful because of those difficulties.
One of the ways that Hoggan draws us back into the reality of the 1970s is that this is a long distance romance, so while there are moments of sensual physicality, most of the affair happens through letters. She and Jon Thomas write back and forth to one another, and we get the heat and energy of their love as they do so. Different forms of media infuse this narrative from the letters they write to each other to the music of the 1970s that moved and changed them. We are drawn through this romance through the groundbreaking and rebellious energy of artists like Gil Scott Heron, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, and Funkadelic. She captures the romantic and revolutionary spirit of the age. This is not just a memoir of romance and sexual exploration. It is her and America’s growing understanding that the world needs to change and that new modes of being need to be explored. She looks for a way to understand who she is and what new approaches to life are open to her, and sexuality is just one dimension of that.
However, sexuality is a vitally important dimension of who she is and how she is changing. It also helps us to understand how the country is changing. This new sexual freedom is shown starkly through the contrast of her life at college and her life with her family who live in a small, conservative Pennsylvanian town. The family has an uncomfortable relationship with her sexuality and race. They do not banish her from the family unit, but they demand that she not let anyone in their town know that she is dating outside her race. When her father loses his job as the college’s basketball coach, he claims that it was a reaction to her relationships. However, because no one will talk directly about sex or race, she’s never sure whether he is telling a lie to save face for the real reason he has been fired or even if he is using this moment as a kind of emotional blackmail for having the audacity to follow her own sexual desires. Nothing is spoken directly, so there are only guesses and vague meanings.
Lynda Smith Hoggan’s Our Song: A Memoir of Love and Race is a profoundly moving memoir that helps us to see the difficulty of breaking through sexual and racial norms that do not make any sense and invade what should be an intimate and private space. The problems of sexism and racism of course continue, which Hoggan highlights toward the end of her book as she brings it into our current time. There is still miscommunication. People still have a nearly impossible time saying what they mean and explaining what they want. In this kind of world, a world where no one fully understands each other or wants others to understand them, true intimacy seems doomed. But that does not make this affair less interesting or powerful. It is simply complex, and Hoggan navigates the complexity of human emotion beautifully.
Purchase Our Song: a Memoir of Love and Race by Lynda Smith Hoggan
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