In They Raised Me Up, Carolyn Marie Wilkins juxtaposes her personal story as an up-and-coming musician and single mother in the 1980s with the histories of influential women from her family's past. This poignant and telling narrative not only offers insights on the travails of a musician and single mother but also humanises the struggles of black and biracial women from the early twentieth century into the 1980s.
In moving prose, Wilkins relates her struggles as a single mother and a jazz pianist dealing with the drug culture surrounding jam sessions and clubs. To survive, she has to find a way to pay the bills, overcome a crippling case of stage fright, fend off a series of unsuitable men, and most important, find a reliable babysitter. Alternating with Wilkins's story are the stories of her ancestors and mentors:
Lilly Pruett (1881-1930), Carolyn's great-grandmother, a survivor who used her physical beauty and musical talent to escape from the Jim Crow South.
Alberta King Sweeney (1897-1965), Carolyn's "Grandmother Alberta," who in the face of disappointment and personal tragedy taught her children to celebrate the beautiful, no matter the cost.
Elizabeth Sweeney Wilkins (1928- ), Carolyn's mother, a Harlem sophisticate who has jitterbugged in the Savoy Ballroom, seen Ella Fitzgerald at the Apollo, and studied piano in the home of Bela Bartok.
Ruth Avery Lipscomb (1906-1967), the aunt of Carolyn's best friend, a critically acclaimed concert pianist at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance.
Philippa Schuyler (1931-1967), Carolyn's role model, a biracial child prodigy designated the "Shirley Temple of American Negroes" by Look Magazine whose prodigious pianistic talents have not been fully recognised in the world of classical music.
Juanita Marjory Jackson (1906-1995), Carolyn's great aunt, a teacher, composer, musician, social activist, and single mother who is the griot and center of gravity for the entire Wilkins family.
The interweaving of memoir with family history creates a cohesive, entertaining, informative, and engrossing read that will appeal to anyone with an interest in African American Studies, Women's History, Ethnomusicology, or simply looking for an intriguing story about music and family.