"It's a really great read. It has sociological heft, but it's also a very readable memoir."
"Down the Up Staircase (cowritten by Syma Solovitch) documents the lives of three families who seem to have felt every tumultuous shift and been present, in some form, in every major milestone in black American life."
[A] moving memoir.
Georgia Rowe, The East Bay Times
The newspapers at the time largely overlooked the massive movement of African Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the North. The Great Migration, as it would come to be known, began in the early 1900s and lasted decades as more than 6 million blacks left their homes for the seeming promised land of big cities.
Among them were the ancestors of Bruce D. Haynes, who explores the social and cultural implications of the exodus in “Down the Up Staircase,” a family memoir and social history written with his wife and co-author, Syma Solovitch.
Haynes traces his roots from the farming South to bustling Harlem, where his paternal grandparents settled and played important roles in the civil rights movement and broader efforts to uplift their race.
Haynes takes great pride in his family’s story, rifling through old papers to fill in the biography of his grandfather, George Edmund Haynes, a man of significant achievement whom history has nearly forgotten.
George Haynes was mentored and befriended by famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, helped found the National Urban League and was an adviser on race to President Woodrow Wilson. “If W.E.B. DuBois was the great agitator and visionary of the New Negro movement, George Haynes — his protege — was its architect, forging critical partnerships and building the infrastructure to support these new artists,” the authors write.
George died in 1960, 10 months before Bruce Haynes was born, but he remains the pride of the family. More than once, the authors note that George was one of the African Americans included in a series painted by Laura Wheeler Waring called “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin,” which highlighted important figures in the Harlem Renaissance and was later exhibited at the Smithsonian.
As Isabel Wilkerson did expertly in “The Warmth of Other Suns” — the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic tale of the Great Migration — Haynes and Solovitch follow their relatives through decades, revealing the impact of public policy and social change on the family from generation to generation.
The family memoir serves to underscore the still-tenuous position of black families in the middle class. As a whole, the wealth of African Americans is less solidly established than that of white families and can be swiftly washed away, as seen through the family’s story.
George Haynes — who migrated to New York from Pine Bluff, Ark., and bought a stately home in Harlem — represents an upward leap in class and education, but the family struggles to keep climbing. Bruce Haynes’s father, George Edmund Jr. (known as Edmund), lived in the shadow of his prominent father. Edmund was also college educated and trained as a social worker. He and Bruce’s mother, Daisy, raised three sons in Harlem in the large family home purchased by George Haynes.
The home is a potent symbol of the Haynes family’s social status. While living there, Edmund and Daisy sent their sons to the best schools the city had to offer, including Horace Mann, the Ivy League preparatory school. But while the family’s public face seemed to continue to reflect middle-class respectability, life inside began to fray. Edmund and Daisy’s marriage hit a rocky patch and never quite recovered. She took out her unhappiness by an excessive use of her husband’s credit cards.
Grief and emotional challenges took their toll. Despite excelling at elite private schools, Bruce’s eldest brother, George Haynes, became a drug addict and confronted mental health challenges. The second Haynes son, Alan, was a promising artist before he was shot on the street the outside a bike shop in the Bronx. The murder went unsolved.
The family’s grand home slowly deteriorated. The roof needed patching, old appliances stacked up, the plumbing stopped working and was left unrepaired. Like the house, the neighborhood declined and became rife with crime.
The author and youngest son, Bruce, was caught between his complicated home life and his privileged schooling. The dissonance between the two left him feeling like a man without a community. He graduated from Manhattanville College, then earned a doctorate from the City University of New York and became an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Yale University. The Haynes family migration then took another turn when Bruce moved to what he had always considered the promised land: California, where he is now a sociology professor at the University of California at Davis. Through his studies, Bruce has uncovered more of his family’s story and discovered his own link to his grandfather: His pioneering ancestor George Haynes, like Bruce himself, was trained as a sociologist.
Krissah Thompson, The Washington post
“Take the A Train to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem,” runs Duke Ellington’s signature song. That prestigious neighborhood in Harlem, its moniker evoking the sweet life, was home to Ellington and other prominent artists, intellectuals and politicos of the Harlem Renaissance. Among them was the sociologist George Edmund Haynes, who in the early 1930s purchased a spacious townhouse at 411 Convent Avenue, where his mentor and close friend, W. E. B. Du Bois, was a frequent guest. George Haynes contributed mightily to African-American advancement as co-founder and first executive secretary of the National Urban League, but his achievements have been conspicuously absent from the history books.
Not even Haynes’s grandson Bruce D. Haynes knew the extent of these accomplishments when his father, George Jr. (known as Edmund), presented him with the patriarch’s oil portrait that had been included in a 1944 Smithsonian exhibition, “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin,” and stored in the attic ever since. In “Down the Up Staircase,” a memoir co-written with his wife, Syma Solovitch, a writer and former Harlem public school teacher, Haynes excavates his family’s past, tracing the changes wrought by the vicissitudes of time on three generations of his family as well as on their neighborhood.
The chapters detailing the marriage of Haynes’s parents, Edmund and Daisy, are the most fascinating for pure voyeurism. The authors pull back heavy curtains to reveal the repercussions of a dead marriage, and the writing is sharp and vivid. When their youngest son, the author, was 6, Daisy discovered that her husband had kept a secret: He had been married before (he had actually been married twice before but she never learned of the other marriage). The couple never worked through the betrayal. Instead, they allowed their home to become a physical manifestation of their crumbling union. The well-appointed townhouse that had earlier welcomed members of the “talented tenth” fell victim to calculated neglect. Edmund, Daisy and their sons lived “like squatters in their own house. The pipes were frozen and busted, the roof was beyond repair.… Nothing had been dusted, cleared, discarded or repaired in more than two decades.”
Notwithstanding the utter disarray of their home, Edmund and Daisy spared no expense to school and clothe their three boys. Glamorous Daisy, who lavished a mink coat on herself, outfitted her 4-year-old son in a cashmere suit. But by the late 1960s, Harlem was plagued by crime and urban decay. Sugar Hill was not exempt. It became too dangerous to play outside. One of Haynes’s brothers was killed in an act of senseless gun violence, while the other struggled with manic depression and looked for relief in religion and drugs.
Yet Haynes himself rose. He earned a Ph.D. at the City University of New York, and landed a teaching position at Yale and then the University of California at Davis.
One might wonder if the book’s title, “Down the Up Staircase,” best describes its flow. The motion of waves seems more apt, the oscillations all families experience over generations, often without understanding how the same wave can pull one swimmer under while allowing another to ride above. In this thoughtfully conceived and crafted memoir, the authors offer evocative, relentlessly honest portrayals without judgment. In doing so, they encourage the reader to ponder the variables in her own life, the tides and forces that help or hinder her pursuit of the sweet life.
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor is the author of “The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era” and “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES
In this fascinating new book, husband and wife co-authors Bruce D. Haynes and Syma Solovitch examine the history of Harlem as seen by three generations of one family: Haynes’ own. Haynes’ family history is fascinating. His great grandfather worked with W.E.B. Du Bois, and his grandmother was a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Down the Up Staircase combines elements of memoir and sociology, culminating in an incredibly rich story. This book is ideal for readers who loved Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, which similarly examined the intersection of issues of race and class.
An utterly captivating work that shows off Haynes's brilliant sociological imagination on every page. He and Solovitch are masterful at linking the small personal details of everyday family and community life to social structure and history. Like Dalton Conley's Honky, this book will be seen as a significant contribution to the emerging literary form of sociological memoir.
Mitchell Duneier, author of Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Princeton University
Haynes channels W. E. B. Du Bois to provide a rich sociological portrait of his "talented tenth" family. The lively writing conveys both universal family dramas of social mobility (up and down) as well as the particular context of Harlem across the twentieth century. A great read.
Dalton Conley, author of Honky, Princeton University
This masterful account begins as a portrait of a house that was a living, breathing extension of the family that lived in it both in hopeful times and in darker ones. But it soon reaches out into the larger social landscape of Harlem and then into the changing history and culture of an entire land. In doing so, it shifts seamlessly from a sensitive biography to a thoughtful ethnographic sketch of an important place in an important time, and then into a wise and compelling essay on the social history of our time. What we encounter on the printed page, of course, is written narrative, but it is conveyed to us in what might best be described as a rich and perceptive voice. In every way, a remarkable work.
Kai Erikson, Yale University
This thoughtful and sobering memoir weaves the beauty and tragedy of Haynes’s family story into the complex history of Harlem. Haynes (Red Lines, Black Space) employs the book as a record, a way to secure the knowledge of his family’s contributions to African-American history. His grandfather, George Edmund Haynes, largely forgotten to history, was a scholar, researcher of the Great Migration, and cofounder of the National Urban League. His grandmother was noted children’s book author Elizabeth Ross Haynes. They resided in a resplendent home on Harlem’s posh Convent Avenue. Despite these bourgeois roots, the Hayneses’ fortunes rose and fell. Haynes lays bare their triumphs and blemishes. The relationship between his mother, Daisy Haynes, a respected program analyst, and father, George Haynes Jr., a parole officer, was replete with deception and infidelity. Over the marriage’s course, the two watched their Harlem home decay. Haynes found success, like his grandfather, as a scholar, but tragedy befell his two brothers: Alan was murdered, and George struggled with drug use and mental illness. Like Harlem’s story, the memoir is bittersweet, painting a full and complicated picture of black upper-class life over generations.
Down the Up Staircase is a riveting narrative about three generations of a black family and their struggle to maintain inherited privilege. Written with elegance and penetrating insight, the book shines light on the precarity that all blacks confront, regardless of their social class and personal ambitions.
Stephen Steinberg, author of Race Relations: A Critique, professor of urban sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
Combining memoir and astute cultural history, Haynes (Sociology/Univ. of California, Davis; Red Lines, Black Spaces: The Politics of Race and Space in a Black Middle-Class Suburb, 2001, etc.) and his wife and co-author, Solovitch, analyze the Haynes family as exemplary of African-American experiences throughout the 20th century. Haynes grew up in Harlem, privileged enough to attend elite private schools and Manhattanville College, which “seemed like a country club.” After earning a doctorate in sociology, he taught at Yale, where he focused his research on race. Without strong religious or cultural ties to the African-American community, his research interest struck some as odd. “I became the black scholar who studies community while forever being in search of community,” he admits. But Haynes had strong ancestral roots in sociology: his grandfather, the “first person of African descent to receive a doctorate from Columbia University,” had been a noted social scientist, founder of the National Urban League, colleague of W.E.B. Du Bois, and adviser on race to President Woodrow Wilson; his grandmother was a social scientist as well; and Haynes’ parents both were social workers. These intellectual and professional achievements did not prevent the family from suffering from the social blight, beginning in the 1970s, that changed Harlem from a thriving, proud neighborhood into a fearsome area rife with homelessness, drug wars, murder. One of his brothers was shot dead outside of the store where he worked; the other, whose bipolar illness was long misdiagnosed, succumbed to crack addiction. Along with sharp social analysis, Haynes chronicles his parents’ bizarre relationship, which deteriorated precipitously when his mother found out that her husband had been married before. The once-elegant house in which the family lived crumbled into disrepair, concrete evidence of the state of his parents’ marriage. The author’s compassionate portraits of his brothers contrast with his unsentimental, even incredulous, view of his parents’ personalities and choices, underscoring the impressive distance he has traveled in carving out his own successful life. A candid and profoundly personal contribution to America’s racial history.
Bruce D. Haynes's story is a classic American tale―which combines the big themes of history with the gritty reality of a single family's extraordinary story.
Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer at The New Yorker and senior legal analyst at CNN
Down the Up Staircase is a beautifully written, captivating, and absorbing book that connects seemingly private concerns with public policies and structures in clear and convincing fashion. It delineates vividly how poverty and downward mobility do not make people noble, resilient, and resourceful, but instead shatter social ties and self-esteem. This fast-paced book will likely be consumed by readers in one sitting, but its powerful and poignant stories will linger in the mind long afterwards.