Patricia Smith pieces together a beautiful essay that depicts the socioeconomic attributes of the American dream. “Pearl, Upward” focuses on the author’s mother, Annie Pearl—a woman of color native to rural Alabama—and endeavors to re-create Annie Pearl’s northern migration to a trademark mid-western metropolis, Chicago. Effectively succinct, the essay embodies the bread-and-butter of storytelling, the universally recited adage “show, don’t tell.” Smith uses notably unique descriptions throughout, with subtle implications about race and “the Great Migration” offering a greater sense of purpose to an otherwise private expedition.
The title opens the piece with a literal and figurative notion that we understand the further we read: Annie Pearl relocates to the north, a direction many people visualize as “upward,” and by moving she tries to elevate her social status by climbing “up” the opportunity ladder. In other words, the title has a double meaning which adds a synchronous, arguably poetic element to the essay.
Ultimately, Smith succeeds in telling a heavily told tale—big-fish-in-a-small-pond stories are numerous—in a unique way thanks largely to word choice and fresh description. Many examples illustrate this. For instance, the second paragraph begins, “[Annie Pearl] wants to find a factory where she can work boredom into her fingers.” (p. 218). Compare that to a less creative sentence carrying the same message, such as, “She looks for factory work while unemployed.” Both convey Annie Pearl’s employment situation, yet the first offers more incentive for the reader to pay attention. In the next paragraph, Smith reveals her mother’s wardrobe, specifically describing “a homemade skirt that wrestles with her curves.” (p. 218). Applying the same treatment to this sentence, we could say something like, “Annie Pearl’s dress is skin-tight” and provide the reader with a similar visual. The problem with the latter is that it fails to stimulate the reader the same way as the original sentence. In an additional example, Smith reveals that her mother, having secured a factory job as planned, finds the factory routine to be mindless and boring. Rather than literally and blandly saying so, Smith instead remarks: “In the daytime, she works in a straight line with other women, her hands moving without her. Repeat. Repeat.” (p. 218). These examples support the idea that it’s not what you say but how you say it.
Contrast is a powerful element throughout this essay. In the beginning of the essay, Smith imagines her mother’s mindset during the bus ride from Alabama to Illinois. Writes Smith, “[Annie Pearl] tries not to see the brown folks—the whipcloth shoe shiners, the bag carriers—staring at her…” (p. 218). Although she doesn’t explicitly describe Caucasians in this example, the essay nears its conclusion with a powerful, racially-focused sentiment designed to contrast: “…[Annie Pearl] must claim her place in the north with a child touting her blood. Hot at the thought of creation, she is driven by that American dream of birthing a colorless colored child with no memories whatsoever of the Delta.” (p. 221). Again, this gives a greater sense of meaning to the essay, providing more to the reader than merely a piece of private reflection.
Contrast beckons further as Smith examines her mother as a child versus an adult. In childhood, Annie Pearl walked barefoot while “stones asked her to limp and she didn’t.” (p. 219). Smith later alludes to her mother’s sense of awareness during and following puberty, remarking that “stones asked her to limp and she did.” (p. 220). This subtle comparison, connected by wording, completes the piece as we digest Annie Pearl Smith’s—once Annie Pearl Connor—plight to leave behind a damned south in search of opportunity.
Smith, Patricia. “Pearl, Upward.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 217-221. Print.