Robert Stepto and his family used to spend summer vacations in Michigan at their pink-and-white cottage in the all-black resort town of Idlewild. Not that there were many choices for African-American families on holiday. “Today people wouldn’t think twice about taking the kids to Disney World or whatnot,” he says. “I grew up in an era in which the whole idea of going to Florida for vacation was the furthest thing from our minds.”
In Stepto’s new book, Blue as the Lake, he writes, “Simple matters–where to stay? where to eat?–never were really that simple, unless you stopped with relatives, as people still do. I remember an occasion in the 1950s when the whole family had to sleep in the car because the motels we had tried all were mysteriously full.”
Blue as the Lake, a history of his family, focuses on the relationship between place and identity, and indignities are part of the story–in the early 1940s his mother commuted two hours to Northwestern University because African-Americans were not allowed to stay in the dorms.
The earliest stories are about his great-great-great-grandparents, two Virginia slaves who bought their freedom and settled in northwestern Missouri. Much to everyone’s chagrin, his great-great-great-grandmother never stopped pining for her home state. Stepto learned about her from his great-aunt Inabel, who bucked family pressure to stay in Missouri and teach and instead became a professor and head of the school of social work at Howard University.
“Part of the great geographic story is that her great-grandparents had been slaves in the Washington, D.C., area in the 1860s,” says Stepto. “Here Ina comes along and she is a professor in the Washington, D.C., area, with a building named after her.”
Blue as the Lake developed out of a series of essays Stepto wrote about his family and growing up in Chicago in Washington Park and Woodlawn. The title comes from his account of an awkward visit with his widowed father in 1994, which was cut short when his father announced he was leaving to visit a “lady friend” in Saint Louis: “Then the blue doors of the elevator–blue as the lake–shut, and my father was gone.”
“If I had known and my father had known that was the last time we would see each other, we would have behaved a little better,” he says now. “That’s life. That’s what I had to confront.”
Although Stepto, who’s a professor of English, American studies, and African-American studies at Yale, stuck mainly to the family’s hoard of “stories, facts, and lies,” he admits he took some artistic liberties. “When I was going through the old census records and things like that, what I kept seeing were stories. They list whoever else was in the household, and if you scroll up and down you can see who the neighbors were and what kind of work they did. You begin to put together a picture–you begin to let a story unfold.”
“Lester Leaps In” tells the story of an aunt’s brief marriage to a white man, which remained a family secret until after her death. Even then, Stepto had to beg his mother for the details. “She couldn’t or didn’t want to remember. So I just kind of had to take the ball and run with it.”
So far the response from the rest of the family has been positive. But, says Stepto, “sometimes I think the reactions would be the same if I had scored a basket in an NBA game. ‘Oh, that’s nice, Bobby. That’s nice.'”
Stepto will read from his book Friday at 7 at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th (773-684-1300), and on Monday at 6 in the Chicago Authors Room at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State (312-747-4050). Both events are free. –Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stepto current photo by David Siedzik; Stepto outside his family’s garage in Woodlawn, circa 1955 photo by Charles J. Runner.