Thanks to the University Press of Virginia, author Robert Deane Pharr will not be forgotten.
Today, Robert Deane Pharr is not a name to conjure with in Richmond. But it once was, and may be again in June when the University Press of Virginia republishes his novel "The Book of Numbers" as one of its series the Virginia Bookshelf ($18.95). University Press selected Pharr's book because, its says, it fits perfectly into the series that reprints Virginia classics
The story in "Numbers" is clearly set in Richmond on Second Street a street that should live in Richmond's memory as having once been the center of the city's black life. And a lively life this was. It included not only the upper strata of African-American social life (with Slaughter's restaurant welcoming only well-dressed customers and including in its customers Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Louis) but also characters of lesser reputation.
It is here that Pharr's heroes Dave and Blueboy, two ingenious black men, arrive in 1935 in search of a business they can call their own. They set up a "policy or numbers business," and sell chances on the likelihood of a number coming up on an agreed-upon count such as the last three digits of the number of shares sold on the New York Stock Exchange. They find more than enough willing customers and helpers.
Richmond's black society is described unsparingly, but Dave and Blueboy's fight for dignity and independence is the centerpiece.
Along the way, according to Washington Post senior book editor Jabari Asim, who wrote the Afterword to this new edition, Pharr describes the wonderful dialogue that permeated black life at that time
"Pharr's people are mostly the loquacious sort," Asim writes. "As Blueboy points out, habitués of the Block are but one lifetime (seventy years) from slavery. Free of the enforced babble and underground codes of plantation life that hampered their forebears, they have taken it upon themselves to turn loose their tongues. Hence, we bear witness to an emerging class of raconteurs, pundits, and freelance philosophers who raise both high and low talk to an art form, gleefully engaging in a process Albert Murray has identified as the vernacular imperative. The entertaining mix of educated speech and gutter lingo is vividly displayed whenever Pharr takes us to the Square Table, the Block's loud and lively debate society."
Deane was born in Richmond in 1916 but was raised in Connecticut. He returned to Richmond to attend Virginia Union University, from which he graduated in 1939, then left the South to do graduate work at Fisk University, Columbia University and New York University.
While he was at Virginia Union he lived at his aunt Ruth Deane Poindexter's home. She had successfully overcome polio and provided a home for any of her out-of-town nieces and nephews who came to Richmond to attend Virginia Union. According to Dr. Francis Foster, Pharr's friend and a chronicler of Richmond African-American history, when Pharr received the first check for his book ($5,000) he sent it to her even though he was almost always in need of money.
The legend is that Pharr was working as a waiter in the Columbia University Faculty Club where he asked the head of the English department to read "The Book of Numbers." The professor gave the manuscript to a friend at Doubleday, and after a delay of three years, it was published.
Deane wrote other books none so admirable or so well received as "Numbers." But always, he was struggling to picture black life as he had experienced it. The truth was important to him.
Pharr spent much of his life as a travelling waiter. According to an article published in the Hollins Critic in 1976, while Pharr was still living, he was "a nomad following the racing season from town to town in pursuit of the high-rollers and the big tips He wrote 'The Book of Numbers' while living on welfare in one of Harlem's 'single room occupancy' hotels The first completed manuscript was destroyed by a madwoman. Pharr had no copy; after a brief nervous breakdown, he sat down and rewrote the book from memory."
Dr. Foster who knew both Pharr and Second Street, says that the models for many of the characters in "The Book of Numbers" are clearly recognizable. One, Clemenceau McAdoo Givings, was a Tuskegee airman killed in action in World War II.
It would be nice to report that Pharr after "Numbers" wrote books that deserve to be considered equally good. But, alas, he struggled with alcoholism and died too early. Luckily, he left us "The Book of
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