Thursday, March 30th, 2023

Black and gay in 1968 New England prep school

The Color of Trees

by Canaan Parker

Published by Alyson Books

Published October 1, 1992
Fiction (African-American)
221 pgs. • Find on Amazon.comWorldCat

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

February 12, 2018.

I thought Canaan Parker’s 1997 novel Sky Daddy somewhat contrived but sizzlingly erotic. I don’t know why it took me so long to take up his first novel, The Color of Trees (1992). I remain puzzled by the cover illustration and have little interest in prep school stories…and am disappointed that there has not been a third novel in the more than two decades since Sky Daddy.

Peter, the narrator of Color, is a bright, black scholarship student from Spanish Harlem. Most of the other boys are diffident about calling attention to his race. Pete knows he is different—not only black but gay, and surrounded by sons of wealth. He maneuvers without great pain around his three stigmas. Academically, he ranks second in his class (starting at Briarwood when he is 13, in 1968).

From his arrival at the sylvan school, he is fascinated by a hyperactive and bold white scion of wealth who lives across the hall, T.J. T.J. is the one with hair the color of trees and brown eyes to match. T.J. is attracted by Pete, perhaps even more than Pete is attracted to him, though it takes a long time for the boys to figure out that they have a sexual interest in each other. (T.J. eventually makes the first move.) And it takes Pete even longer to realize that he is in love with his best friend and that T.J. is in love with him.

For much of the time, Pete is enamored with T.J.’s even richer third-year roommate, Chris, a cocktease who turns on T.J. when T.J. makes a sexual move on him and tells others (including Pete) that T.J. is a faggot. There’s another erotic triangle with a very solid, very hung black student called “Moonshot.” Pete is convinced that T.J. is giving his ass to Moonshot and eventually goes down on Moonshot.

Eventually, everything is sorted out and there is a fairy tale coda.

I am not sure that so many kinds of young gay men would be gathered in one place A.D. 1968. T.J. was managing nonsexual relationships with the few other black students at Briarwood School, but his preference for the company (and music) of T.J. and Chris alienates the cofounder of the black student organization, Keith, who rejects the possibility of black men preferring sex/love with other men. I’d say (as T.J. does within the novel) that Pete has chosen his gay component over his black component.

I also note the lack of any mention of Vietnam, a central concern of the young in 1968–70, the years in which the book takes place. Nixon, the Soviet suppression of “the Prague Spring,” the failed French revolution, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the revelation of bombing of Cambodia impinge not at all on the prep school youths wracked with jealousies and homophobia.

In an author’s note before the novel begins, Parker wrote:

The question an arise about a man who is both black and gay identifies himself as “black first” or “gay first,” and argues that “racism and heterosexism are incestuous evils, breeding a twin-headed psychological monster…. My enemy remains the heterosexist, racist homophobic swine, and I dedicate this book to his ultimate demise.

I presume this was intended to preclude the “black first” or “gay first” question, but it doesn’t. Moonshot, who is not suspected of homosexual inclinations by most others (young or old), may be “black first.” Pete attempts to be be good student first but ultimately is perceived (by black and white boys) as “gay foremost.”

The course of true love ne’re runs smooth, but it runs through some intense eros and more than a little psychic pain in the direction of later wholeness and happiness. Is it a plot spoiler to note that there are no suicides? Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll (plus soul music) yes, but no murders, either.

I’m sorry there has not been a third novel from Canaan Parker since 1997 (if it were since 1992 I would guess a dire reason). There are some awkward insertions of information and backstory, but The Color of Trees is quite readable.

Like Pete, the author played guitar. He graduated from Williams College and Harvard according to the author note.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.