Book: Pressure Makes Diamonds: Becoming the Woman I pretended to be
Author: Valerie Graves
Critic: Dr Glenville Ashby
Valerie Graves tells a compelling account of growing up black in Pontiac, Detroit. It is in the
1960s and against the backdrop of riots, looting, burning stores, and the timbre of black frustration, she manages to blossom. Graves displays flashes of precocity and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. The script has long been prepared and Graves is ideal for the part.
The walls of the Projects – the inner city – are notoriously cold and unforgiving to black youth. Here, the scales of justice are stacked against the poor who are delivered to a prison industry that chews and spits them out with abandon. It is a reality driven home to every black family and young Graves is well aware of the hand she has been served.
She welcomes time spent with her grandfather in prison, a place that loses its darkness after repeated visits. Despite her lot, Graves is steady, overly ambitious. Moreover, she is a dreamer. “I began to feel deprived, a sensation that would be with me for many years.” In a sharply segregated town, she recalls, “When I learned that our side of the lake was called Mud Lake, I felt ashamed and wondered why God hadn’t put us on the Crystal Lake side. When I noticed that the people on that side of the lake were white, I wondered why God liked them better than us. I don’t remember blaming white people for anything; since they seemed to have much, I wanted to be like them.”
She is among an elite group that holds strong opinions on race and expectations. “We got into a long [and] rambling conversations about how our race was perceived. We tongue-lashed each other…If we wanted to be treated better…we would have to learn to conduct ourselves… instead of showing the ignorant side of ourselves that was so often on display.”
Not quite in her late teen she concludes that a mercurial approach to social change is counterproductive. “My own brothers and their friends seemed to sympathize with the anarchistic fervor of their Detroit counterparts. Like my parents I didn’t see the sense of black people running around throwing firebombs in our neighborhood.”
Her revolutionary spirit, though, was ever alive. She pens, “The transformative civil rights struggle of my childhood…had been grounded in the non-violent leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King. Even the black consciousness movement that was taking hold of my peers and me was rooted in the concept of inner growth [as] we nurtured our connection to the African motherland in an effort to cast off the lingering self-hatred of slavery…In my concept of black consciousness, there was no contradiction between defiant Afrocentrism and non-violence; there was evolution.”
“Suddenly, Graves’s script is unconscionably rewritten. Sagacious but no stoic, she falls prey to her fiery passions and becomes pregnant. Her mother cries for three days. It is a likely death knell to a brilliant future. But Graves bounces back delicately balancing maternal responsibility with educational ambitions.
She graduates from college and eventually lands a job in the high voltage, topsy-turvy, white dominated world of advertising where she excels, exceeding expectations, while never compromising her integrity. Anecdotes of cultural insensitivity and sexism add that much realism to this revealing offering. By mid-1970s Graves’ expertise is readily sought by Fortune 500 companies. She serves as the senior vice-president of corporate creative services at Motown Records, and vice president and chief creative officer at UniWorld Group. She wins Advertising Age’s 100 Best and Brightest, and Ebony magazine’s Outstanding Women in Marketing & Communications award. Equally impressive awards follow.
But this is a story that transcends personal accomplishments. It speaks to history, psychology, and fate. With tireless resolve, Graves removes the albatross of race, freeing herself from the mental chains that afflict so many around her. Steadfast, she shatters the glass ceiling that divides people and upholds the status quo. In the dog-eat-dog world of advertising she rises to the top, completing an inspiring script. She would have it no other way.
Graves’ success is a celebration of life. It validates the power of chasing dreams and speaks volumes of the therapeutic and curative power of love. Many are derailed because they were never emotionally sheltered. “Mama lavished affection on us kids,” Graves remembers. “[W]hen I was old enough to visit my neighborhood friends, it slowly dawned on me that everyone was not hugged and kissed daily as we were. Their parents might have been too stressed to indulge them in the little ways our mother did with us. If I bumped my knees on the couch and I cried my mother was likely to give the couch a whack…Even as a small child, I knew it was silly but I loved that my mother cared enough to attack inanimate objects on my behalf.” Graves’ autobiography advocates recognition and acknowledgement of the past and the advancement of a philosophy that empowers through education.
“Pressure makes Diamonds” is a living tale of survival and success. Decades after Graves’s rise from the ashes of the inner city, black America continues to be weighed down by fatherlessness, crime, and unemployment. More than anything else, Graves’ existential journey offers infinite hope.
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Pressure makes diamonds: Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be by Valerie Graves © 2016
Publisher: Akashic Books, Brooklyn, NY
Available at Amazon
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