At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family’s Journey Toward Civil Rights

| Cadenza Reporter

As a new resident of St. Louis, it was a pleasure to read up on some of its history in Gail Milissa Grant’s “At the Elbows of My Elders.” This former professor, U.S. Foreign Service officer and Wash. U. alumna, describes her life as the daughter of the late, illustrious civil rights lawyer David W. Grant in segregated 1950s St. Louis.

Grant mentions in the introduction that her “highlight came when [her parents] began, spontaneously, talking about their pasts: retelling luscious stories of their youth and coming-of-age tale about college and drawing portraits of their social circle. Yet each account was tainted, almost invariably, by the racism they confronted as African Americans.” The book highlights many of these instances, some of them hilarious, others regretfully painful.

The book’s characterization as a civil rights text should not put off readers; it as much a tale of the struggle as it is the people, particularly Mr. Grant, and how he managed to neither suffer nor struggle but thrive during the mid-1900s.

Grant’s language is wonderfully down to earth, with well-placed artistic flourishes. There is a lot of information covered, including details of the life of both Grant’s grandparents, her parent’s incredible circle of friends and associates (including Cab Calloway and Thurgood Marshall) and her upbringing in a “white” neighborhood.

The plethora of information, however, is not necessarily organized well. The subjects stay within the context of the chapter but she tends to change subjects from paragraph to paragraph. This causes the flow of the history to feel patched and unchronological.

The story also contains confusing transitions, where the author draws upon outside source quotes from people who witnessed events. Otherwise, it is still navigable, and one should not shun this impressive recounting of a noble family in a difficult time.

Although the book is described as a biography of Grant’s father, the volume reads more like a memoir. Not to underestimate his fascinating legal career, but the book begins with his parents and ends with his children, as if his life began before him and will continue on with his children: The book was more about Grant’s own heritage than a simple story of her father.

Readers have the opportunity to pick up a copy of the book and meet Gail Milissa Grant for a lecture and book signing this Sunday, Oct. 19, at the Missouri History Museum at 1 p.m.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.