Eric Jerome Dickey- Milk in My Coffee

Milk in my Coffee is a complex novel, which focuses mostly on interracial relationships between women and men. The main couple in the novel is that of Jordan Greene, a business African American man living in New York and, and Kimberley Chavers, a white woman and a painter by profession.

Their relationship and the way they evolve as human beings are the main point that the book makes. Also, the author deftly changes the point of view from Jordan to Kimberley, giving them separate parts of the novel. The first and the last parts of the novel are related by Jordan, while Kimberly speaks through most of the middle part. Although the narrative voice changes, the action of the book continues with few interruptions, as the two characters seem to take their turn in talking while the events are developing.

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The language of the novel gives it a special flavor, since the author manages to shift very convincingly from the black and essentially male jargon used by Jordan, to the feminine account given by Kimberley.Both voices are very well adapted to the characters they belong to, and bring their special style into the narrative. While the main focus of the book is on the beautiful and eventually happy-ending relationship between Jordan and Kimberley, there are many other characters, some of that having been or being involved in parallel love affairs with either Jordan or Kimberley. Persons coming from the past come between the two many times, such as Eric, Kimberley’s ex-boyfriend, Peter her husband or Janette, Jordan’s lover.

The accent of the story is, of course, on the obstacles that the couple has to face because of their different racial backgrounds. Significantly, Jordan who is black is much more aware of his color and inclined to be race-conscious all through the relationship, while Kimberley is seemingly more detached and free in her attitude. The couple has to surmount an almost infinite number of problems and to fight against as many prejudices during the course of the relation. The relationship evolves and complicates all through the novel, and so does the background of events, and all of these contribute to the ultimate message that the author is trying to deliver.

The message is obviously related to the color-problem that the novel tackles, and could be briefly resumed by Kimberley’s words as she spoke them during her first conversation about race with Jordan: “White’s a color, I’m a person, a human being, not painted.” (Dickey, 87)The painting profession that Kimberley is dedicated to, becomes symbolic and has a metaphor value for the novel. Black and white can be considered almost as a paint that is applied to the skin, but they do not or should not affect the identity of the individual.After Kimberley tries to convince Jordan that color does not matter, Jordan emphasizes that he does feel “black” nevertheless, and that he is proud of it.

Although both of the main characters are open-minded about race, Jordan is the one who actually learns, by the end of the book, to feel comfortable about the white people and not merely ignore them. His evolution is closely monitored by the author, who uses his character to reveal the race consciousness and the resistance towards the other races that many people still feel even in the modern society. Other elements are equally important in shaping the message of the novel: first of all, the course if events and the setting are very important. The action takes place in New York, therefore in the North of the United States, and Jordan is a Southerner coming from Brownsville, a town in Memphis.

With this, Dickey almost reinstates the context of the Civil War between North and South. Jordan feels many times an inadequacy in New York and its tough rules, due to his Southern origins. The characters’ past relationships are also important because, at the time they meet, they come from relationships only with people of their own color, as they confess later in the novel. Eric and Janette will, in their turn play a part in the present action.

However, the most important set of events comes in the second part of the novel, when Kimberley begins her own narrative and discloses an unexpected detail: she is still married to Peter, a man who abused and battered her. The action complicates as she calls him and asks him for a divorce, so that she might be with Jordan, and Peter comes up in New York. There is an assault and many other problems that complicate and almost shatter definitely the relationship for Jordan and Kimberley.However, the most important revelation comes towards the end of the novel, as we find out with Jordan that Kimberley is herself of a mixed racial descending: her father was half-black.

All the discussions in the novel about racism and intolerance come now in a different light, since the relationship is no longer that between a black and a ‘plain’ white woman. However, the message stays the same. Kimberley had talked to Jordan many times about her unsatisfying relationship with her father, so the new revelation throws a positive light on the comforting relationship that she has with Jordan, in spite of the fact that he might remind her of her father. The mixed relationship out of which she was conceived is continued by another mixed relationship between her and Jordan.

The novel is indeed about these mixed relationships between people of different races, more than it is about mere tolerance or acceptance. It tries to make a point about the possibility of a harmonious communion between the races, in spite of the many differences of culture. Jordan and Kimberley actually share an intellectual union even from their first meetings and are able to communicate better than they do with other people of the same race. The book thus not only unmasks racism in its many silent or active voices but invites the audience to envisage a true dialogue between the white and the black cultures.

Also, the message of the book is underlined by the title. “Milk in My Coffee” suggests at once the mixed black and white relationship between Jordan and Kimberley, as well as the mixed descending of Kimberley. It is very significant as it speaks of a blend between colors: the coffee and milk mixture suggests at once the mulatto descendent of a relationship between two persons of a different color, and the possibility of forgetting about color altogether, at least in the absolute and separatist way.The book aims thus at transmitting its message to the common audience, both black or white or of any other race, and this is why it specifically deals with problems of the daily life and describes the real, common life of the New Yorkers that live in mixed racial communities.

It encourages color blindness and carefully unmasks the different forms of racism that still plague society, and the absurd reasons that underlie it.The book’s happy ending, with the proposal of marriage that the bold Kimberley makes to Jordan is very significant as well. It shows that there is an open way for normal relationships between people of different color, and that, in the end, the way in which people relate to one another depends mostly on their characters and affinities.Both Jordan’s and Kimberley’s characters are very important for the story, as they introduce the main line of meaning.

Jordan is the one who evolves and whose speech in the first part of the novel is full of racial consciousness. He feels instantly attracted to Kimberly when he meets her on the cab, but her openness instead of encouraging him, makes him wince away at first. He does not feel natural with her at first, and is permanently thinking about color. His comments regarding color that fill the text observe the way in which he constantly thinks about race.

Thus, while he is at Kimberley’s place for the first time, he finds he cannot relate directly to Kimberley, but always thinks about the things his own culture had told him about the white people, and their domineering nature:“SmmoVe. I’ll have to use that. My momma used to say white people would steal everything down to your last breath.” (Dickey, 11)

Jordan feels all the pressure of the historical conflict between the whites and the blacks, and about the oppression that his own race has suffered. Thus, when he sees a book he had read in Kimberley’s apartment, he instantly meditates about the strained relationships that have existed between races, even after the conflict had ceased:“[…] he’s drawn a picture of a little black girl being led to a newly integrated school; being safeguarded at the school’s front doors by the National Guard, back in the civil rights era. I remember that it was on the cover of Life. Yep. We had to be escorted during integration.

Another one of my people’s liberties that had been taken for granted.” (Dickey, 13)His confession about the strong attraction he has for women of his own race, which can be seen almost as a prejudice against the white ones, is outwitted in the novel as he becomes slowly attracted to Kimberley, who makes him forget about Janette:“I loved her strong black woman look, her got-quite-a- few- octaves voice, her full lips, the arousing way her mouth moved when she hit all those sexy notes as she crooned. Part of the reason I was attracted to J’nette was because she had the same look. Ain’t nothing like a strong black woman Nothing.” (Dickey, 14)

The failure of the other relationships, his with Janette and Kimberley’s with Eric and Peter were obviously due to the fact that their characters did not match. This is why, even if Jordan and Kimberley are of a different race they feel much more alike in other ways, and this proves that there is always a possibility for a beautiful relationship between races and it all depends on the individual character of the ones involved.While at Kimberley’s apartment, Jordan gets the chance to listen to the voice telephone messages that were left for her, and to his surprise realizes that she had both white and black girlfriends.

He again becomes race conscious, even as he listens and identifies the voices as black or white:“The voice sounded as white as Wonder bread. The next message was from a woman named Kinniki. She sounded like a sister with a strong Caribbean accent and left a chatty girl- to-girl message. Nothing personal, nothing scandalous, just enough to let me know they were as tight as Solomon and me. So I guess Kimberley had friends on both sides of the color bar. ”(Dickey, 15)

Although the audience cannot guess it yet, the hints in the first part of the novel indicate that Kimberley has a strong connection to the black people. Jordan first puts it only to her liberalism, and even suspects that she wants a relationship with him precisely because of his color.When he finds many traces in her apartment of her interest in black culture, Jordan is surprised, but also observes that, in some cases, the white people understood black culture just as well or even better than the blacks:“I was about to be impressed that she liked jazz, but most of the jazz concerts I’d gone to were packed with white folks who knew more about jazz than all the hip-hop and gangster-rap’n brothers I knew combined.

Made me wonder that if it weren’t for Europeans, some classic black music would be extinct.” (Dickey, 16)The first moments between Jordan and Kimberley are awkward, as he cannot stop thinking about color and about the way she sees him. The relationship is definitely slowed down because the two have to learn how put away the idea of race when they are together, and to see each other as mere individuals:“We sat on her futon, me in my corporate America costume, and I wondered how she saw me. In this room whit closed doors and walls, where, for a moment, this was the world, we were just two people kicking back and having fun, enjoying each other’s company.

The closest I’d been to it was the rerun of Roots. She’d eaten there, slept there, touched the people.” (Dickey, 17)He is also bothered by the fact that Kimberley is not indifferent to him, and therefore he does not feel free to deny the other race and pretend it does not exist:“She was a fine woman. I couldn’t make her invisible, not the way I did a lot of people I worked with or the way I did the strangers I passed in the street.”(Dickey, 17)

The novel thus intelligently tackles not only prejudice, racism and intolerance but also the modern separatism between the two races that resembles the historical one between North and South.Jordan feels the entire load of the ideas that he was born with because of his culture. He thus observes that white people are used to take everything they have for granted, since they haven’t been threatened as the black people:“White people always had it made, then complained about it. I yawned at what she was taking for granted, then looked at my watch.

When he begins to display his relationship with Kimberley in front of his own people, he is even more impacted by feeling, as his says, “on this side of racism”, that is being looked at as if he had been white himself:“This was for the first time I had been on this side of racism. It hurt for a brotha to look at me like that. Felt like my character had been assassinated without cause. No due process or question of intent or purpose. But I couldn’t play off what he’d seen, me and a red-haired woman kissing like we’d been getting it on all night long.”(Dickey, 23)

The book thus presents both sides of racism, showing that prejudice is equally strong for both races.Jordan tries to surmount his feelings every time he approaches Kimberley, not out of racism, but out of the ideas about difference that had been inculcated to him:“If she was a black woman I wouldn’t question the sensuous feeling that was sneaking up on me.”(Dickey, 36)He feels not only black, but also a Southerner, and this emphasizes the age long conflict between the two parts of America and their separateness:“That speaking to strangers was a Southern crap I had to get rid of. I kept forgetting I was in New York.” (Dickey, 39)

The idea of division between races is what the novel attempt to solve, by blending the races into the same pot, so as there would no longer be a definite distinction between “them” and “us”:“I focused on the fool, glowered at the woman who was keeping me from dropping my foot smack dab in the middle of his face. Thought about who I was and where I came from. Them. Us. “(Dickey, 53)

Jordan’s friends are the ones who mostly reject the relationship. When he tell his best friend Solomon, about Kimberley the latter becomes truly concerned when he hears she is not merely of a more “minor” whiteness such as Puerto Rican or Jewish:“’She’s not a sista.’His voice dropped and a brow rose. ‘Puerto Rican’?I shook my head.He dipped his voice another octave. ’Italian?’I thought about it, then shook my head.‘Jewish?’I shook my head and let out a trite chuckle. He dropped his voice a lot more. ’Plain old white?’ I cringed, nodded.” (Dickey, 59)

The prejudice about mixing with the other race run very deep for both cultures, as Jordan observes:“His tone changed from a brotherly to a fatherly concerned. The bottom line was that we were from the South. Bad feelings about cultural mixing ran deep in our veins: was injected in our veins nine months before we were born.”(Dickey, 61)

He receives even a greater shock when he perceives the way in which one of the white colleagues at his work saw him, after they had been friends for a long time. Again he discovers that color matters, because the colleague implies she liked him precisely because he was not like “them”, that is the other people of his own race:Edna “My mind spiraled. When my head cleared, I sat back in my chair and picked up my freshly served reality check. I’d been eating lunch, hanging out with her for almost three years, and that was how she saw me. A potty-trained version of them. I leaned close to her face, ‘ I am them.’”(Dickey, 74)

All the time, the mixture between the two colors is perceived as wrong. The author deftly opposes the milk and coffee metaphor to the insult that the blacks usually use for the whites that try to get involved with them: “Whigger” , is a  negative term that also combines the two colors:“’The mulatto sista drifted into my comfort zone, then snapped loud enough for me to hear, ’He needs to check himself. All on that whigger. ‘Whigger meant white nigger, somebody white trying to act Negro. A fake, a fraud, a cultural thief. The same thing me and my friends used to do when we saw a Mandingo on the arms of a Miss Daisy. Only now it was different because all of it was bull’s eyed at me. I couldn’t duck or dodge any of the scowls.” (Dickey, 83)

Besides the social problems that affect the couple from the outside, there are also many problems coming from their having to face the color differences and even discuss them in their intimacy:“It felt weird sharing those kinds of feelings, maybe even popping the lid on a few cultural secrets with her.” (Dickey, 85)

The moments in which the two lovers look at each other’s skin are truly impressive and denote a touching communion between human beings:“Her eyes fell on our hands, on our skin. The only parts that were close to being the same hue were the palms.”In the first part that belongs to Kimberley, “Ghosts Hanging from My Trees”, she almost poetically describes their relationship and her feelings for Jordan.

The author uses this part to emphasize the way in which the relationship flowed on, in spite of the race difference:“Jordan makes me feel warm. Jordan’s part highlights the other part of the relationship, in which the race problem is almost absent:“But the magical moments kept going. I kept calling him, asking him out. The next thing I knew I had a drawer at his place.

The marriage proposal that concludes the novel is meant as a positive and optimist view that the author gives of the relationship between races, and the abolishment this time, not of slavery, but of racism and separatism between the black and white cultures:“’We’re going to have to make a life-changing decision. ‘‘My eyes darted from her to the box.She asked, ‘SmooVe, will you marry me?’I searched her face for a teasing smile, but it wasn’t there. She was so serious. I reached for the box, but she pulled it away from me, took it back to herself. She asked a stiff, ‘Well?’I smiled. ’Yeah.’”(Dickey, 309)

The optimistic ending provides enforces the author’s message for union and change of perception on difference and race. The cultures should be able to blend and know each other, and this is symbolized through the beautiful relationship between the two protagonists.

 Works Cited

  1. Bloom, Harold. “James Dickey: From ‘The Other’ through the ‘The Early Motion’.” Southern Review 21, 1(1985): 63-78.
  2. Dickey, Eric James. Milk in My Coffee. New York: Penguin, 1998.“Eric James Dickey”. Keppler Speakers.


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