Reviewed by Amber Ogden
Drawing defining parallels between Normal, Illinois; Chicago; and Prague makes for an interesting journey for a young African-American queer male growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In Micah McCrary’s Island In the City: A Memoir (University of Nebraska Press, September 2018), the relevance of this memoir is timely as it takes a close look at not just racial and cultural differences, but the realities of sexual orientation and economic placement. McCrary deals with all of these head-on while defining what and where home is. He takes readers on an authentic voyage as if walking by his side through his transitional phases and locations, making readers feel every step of the way. In each chapter, the reader learns of all the layers of McCrary’s personality starting with sensitive subject matter as a middle class African-American male to finding himself halfway across the world.
McCrary undoubtedly dives into what it means to be an African-American male before society pins him with the title as if putting a kick me sign on his back. He writes unapologetically about the moment he knew he was an African-American male in America: Normal, Illinois to be exact. The memoir begins with his mother telling him how people may react to him in his everyday life. He even goes as far as quoting James Baldwin, explaining how he is not “writing from the or a Black experience” as he only represents himself.
In Normal, Illinois, McCrary pulls readers into his self-discovery phase. As an adolescent male, he knew he was queer, and he was also confident in his manhood, or at least he thought so. He talks about how he was scared to “peacock” so to speak. McCrary reminisces about what it was like being involved in sports and all he wanted to do was look “beautiful in play.” He took readers to a place of his upbringing specifically from his father. McCrary gets deep with how he learned to be a man from teachings passed down to his own father from his grandfather. He even goes as far as labeling himself as an “other,” due to not measuring up to societal standards of what a man should be.
In Chicago, McCrary comes face to face with his sexuality as he is transitioning through college. This is where he realizes that he is free and can spread his wings without as much judgement. He even gains confidence along the way. But he experiences a moment of reality when he discovers his level of immaturity and how outside forces molded his choices. He also takes readers to a place of self-reflection on how we look at others’ choices we may not like. Chicago is also where he defines the moment he feels comfortable, can breathe, and experience pure love. In Prague, where he studies abroad, he reflects on what he calls “his geographical flirtation;” he falls in love with the cultural, dining experiences and creates new adventures for himself.
McCrary takes readers down his memory lane. Some memories are loving and others are haunting. But the entire journey is transformative each step of the way. He lets us in on his point of view of culture and takes readers along on his travels as we watch him come into his true self.