The first glimpse we get of Charlise Lyles in her recently updated memoir, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?: From the Projects to Prep School and Beyond, is that of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. She lives in a housing project in a poverty-stricken section of Cleveland, her father is largely absent from her life, and the memory of the Cuyahoga river catching fire is still relatively fresh in her memory. At the same time, however, the young Lyles is filled with hope and ambition; she has a loving, driven, practical-minded mother who will do anything to see her daughter succeed, she has teachers who recognize her potential, and, perhaps most importantly (as far as the narrative is concerned), Lyles has just earned a scholarship through a program called A Better Chance, which means that she will be attending a largely white high school in Cleveland’s suburbs starting the following Fall. Given the tension between the forces of hope and despair operating in Lyles’ life, it’s no wonder that her memoir amounts to a complex and compelling meditation on class, race, gender, and education.
Take, for example, Lyles’ complicated relationship with her father, Charles. Though absent for the most part from his daughter’s life, Charles is, nonetheless, a presence, a ghost who haunts his daughter’s every step. In his only sustained appearance in the memoir, Charles comes off as a man who yearns to be an intellectual and who, given vastly different circumstances, might have made something of his life. He reads voraciously and is, in his own fashion, an expert in history and astronomy. Yet poverty and alcoholism have weighed Charles down, so even as he inspires his daughter to pursue the intellectual interests he can only dream of following, it’s impossible to miss the fact that the man has no prospects. Subsequently, his complete disappearance from his daughter’s life serves as a catalyst: Charlise must pick up where Charles has fallen short, must become the intellectual that her father always dreamed of being.
Overall, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?, is an insightful and enjoyable book. Moving dramatically from a life filled with Black militants and violent, rat-infested housing projects to the more idyllic yet no less challenging setting of her suburban high school, Lyles paints a detailed, thoughtful picture of race relations in the 1970s and, in so doing, demands that we continue to examine these same important issues as we move into the future. Highly recommended.
Marc Schuster is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, which will be available in May from PS Books.