Martha Southgate is the author of the award-winning young adult title Another Way to Dance, as well as the 2002 adult novel The Fall of Rome, which, with its prep-school setting, has attracted readers young and old. Both Southgate’s novels deal with the topic of race, of belonging, of fitting in, and of remaining true to oneself. In Another Way to Dance, a young black dancer confronts racism when she wins a scholarship to a prestigious, almost all-white dance company, while in The Fall of Rome the only black faculty member at an exclusive prep school is forced to examine his own denial of his race by a young black student.
Southgate herself grew up in a world much like that of her protagonists, and she detailed that upbringing in a 1987 Essence magazine piece titled “Between Two Worlds.” Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, she attended the Hawken school in that city as a scholarship student. As Southgate noted on her author Web site, “Hawken, though it is a day school, not a boarding school, differs from New York City private schools greatly in the lavishness of its grounds. It’s on about 150 rolling-green acres of someone’s former estate in an exurb of Cleveland called Gates Mills. It was a boys’ school until 1978 when 20 other girls and I attended.” As a teenager, Southgate was also deeply involved in dance.
Southgate thereafter attended prestigious Smith College, graduating in 1982 with a major in anthropology and a minor in English. After working for a time in publishing and in magazines, she took a summer course at Radcliffe College in publishing procedures, then worked for Essence as the arts and entertainments editor. From there she went to the New York Daily News and was later a senior writer at Premiere magazine for several years. Still, she had not yet written fiction. “‘I had this whole belief that since I hadn’t been making up short stories since age five with a pencil in my hand, that I wasn’t a real writer,'” she told Ellen Creager in a Publishers Weekly profile. Taking a creative writing course in 1986, she churned out six pages of a story about a young girl studying ballet. However, once the class was over, Southgate stuck the story back in her desk drawer.
Only when enrolled in the M.F.A. writing program at Vermont’s Goddard College from 1992 to 1994 did Southgate again pull out her story of a dancer and begin to turn it into a novel, with the help of her writing instructor in the program, Jacqueline Woodson. Southgate told Publishers Weekly interviewer Creager that the book is not autobiographical, although some of the issues of her fourteen-year-old protagonist “‘are my issues.'” The novel was sold during the same period Southgate graduated and had her baby son, the autumn of 1994.
Vicki, the protagonist of Another Way to Dance, is the young dancer who has received a scholarship to study ballet in New York City in the summer program of the School of American Ballet. She is uncomfortable with the fact that she is one of only two black students in the class where “visual harmony” is emphasized, even though her parents have successfully instilled in her an appreciation of her heritage. The other black student is Stacy, with whom Vicki becomes best friends. While in New York, her first-hand experiences of racism undermine her self-confidence as well as a budding first love with Michael, a boy from Harlem. Vicki, whose parents have gone through a recent divorce, lives temporarily with her Aunt Hannah, who provides a strong role model for the young girl.
Vicki, like novelist Southgate, idolizes Soviet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and in the novel, the fictional dancer actually meets her idol at an autograph signing, during which he spells her name incorrectly. In the end, Vicki reexamines her feeling about race and accepts the fact that she is a good, but not great, dancer. “Vicki’s problems are resolved a bit too neatly,” said Karen Simonetti in Booklist, “but there are depth and beauty in her compelling first-person narrative.” School Library Journal‘s Judy R. Johnston wrote that Southgate gives readers “a portrait of a young woman striving for perfection and, ultimately, feeling good about herself.” “Vicki is very believable as a young person aspiring to be a dancer,” commented Mary Jo Peltier in Voice of Youth Advocates. In Another Way to Dance “Southgate offers a poignant account of self-discovery, convincingly hopeful and steadfast in its refusal to settle for easy solutions,” observed a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Southgate waited another six years before the publication of her next novel. This time, she turned her hand to an adult novel with real crossover potential to the young-adult market with its setting in an elite prep school and its teenage co-protagonist. Told through the voices of black classics teacher Jerome Washington, new African-American student Rashid Bryson, and Jana Hansen, a new white teacher at the school, The Fall of Rome delves “deeply into issues of race and class,” according to Library Journal reviewer Faye A. Chadwell. Drawing again on her own experiences, Southgate mines her student days at the Hawken school. “My experience there definitely laid the groundwork for me to come up with a story like The Fall of Rome,” she noted on her author Web site. “Obviously, the novel . . . came out of some of my own experiences at this prep school. I strongly identify with both Jerome and Rashid’s feelings of discomfort with themselves. While at Hawken, I went through the final stages of a real sort of transition in terms of race and class. I really came face-to-face with race issues there. My family was educated, largely through their own efforts, but my father was a teacher and then a public-school librarian and didn’t make that much money. I lived in an all-black neighborhood. Hawken was composed of mostly white, mostly wealthier families in the Cleveland area. I came to it from the gifted program at my inner-city middle school and it was just quite a change.”
A Kirkus Reviews writer reviewed The Fall of Rome, saying that “the carefully organized tale has three protagonists, each representing different points of view as they negotiate the minefield of race relations.” Harvard-educated Washington has been at Chelsea, a prep school in New England, for twenty years, teaching Latin and leading a reserved life. “Stoic and consummately self-restrained, Washington lives according to a credo based on honor, professional accomplishment, and supreme rationality,” wrote Elizabeth Judd in the New York Times Book Review. “He sees Chelsea as racially egalitarian despite all evidence to the contrary, but cannot make sense of the indignities and contradictions that this view entails.”
Hansen, divorced and white, arrives at Chelsea, burnt out from teaching in the inner city schools of Cleveland. The third character, Bryson, is a talented black student from New York City who has recently lost his brother, a scholarship student, to a random shooting and who hopes to find an ally in the black, male teacher. He is eager, but an undereducated student, who has been offered a place at the school attempts to create a more diverse student body, a requirement that accompanied the large gift of an alumnus. “The characters sometimes seem like caricatures,” wrote Booklist‘s John Green, “but the story is gripping.” Green also felt that “teens will enjoy the boarding-school setting and the indomitable teenage protagonist” in The Fall of Rome.
Washington, nicknamed “Wooden Washington” by his students, is uninterested in mentoring the young man with the African-sounding name and dreadlocks, and it is Hansen who has more in common with Rashid Bryson than does Washington, who tries to create a bond between the two without success. Hansen also becomes attracted to Washington, but his emotional baggage becomes a roadblock to a relationship. Bryson is graded and treated unfairly by Washington, whose own life contains some parallels to that of the young man. “This is a deeply thoughtful, literate novel,” commented a Publishers Weekly writer, “and Southgate’s ability to explore the social and emotional elements that unite and divide us establishes her as a serious talent.” Essence contributor Patrik Henry Bass called The Fall of Rome “a bracingly honest look at race, class, and self-acceptance.” However, a critic for Kirkus Reviews noted that Southgate’s “elegantly written story with serious concerns is lamentably undermined by much too often showing more than it tells.”
Writing in Black Issues Book Review, Jacklyn Monk was more positive in her evaluation of the novel, calling it a “bittersweet coming-of-age story about cultural alienation and resentment,” and Christine C. Menefee, writing in School Library Journal, had similar praise, noting the book is written “in a simple, elegant, and graceful style.” Though “easy to read,” Menefee continued, The Fall of Rome “resonates with many insights and issues that most readers should readily recognize and relate to.” Jonathan Yardley, reviewing the novel in the Washington Post Book World, concluded that The Fall of Rome “may strike some readers as a trifle programmatic, but the characters are so real and their situation so believable that one soon forgets this. In Jerome Washington, Martha Southgate has given us a genuinely tragic figure: not, perhaps, of classical dimensions, but a man brought down by his own tragic flaw, and thus a man who has much to teach us that far transcends race.” According to Lincoln Cho, writing in an online review for January, “Southgate is an elegant, economical writer and The Fall of Rome is a testimony to a growing talent well worth watching.”