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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Writings Illustrate Life Isn't Just Black and White

Growing up in a large working-class family in urban northern Indiana, money was a constant worry. We always had food on the table, but nothing was left over for non-essentials and there were a few holidays when we relied on the kindness of strangers.

My skin was white, however, and I never had to contend with the double whammy of poverty and mixed racial heritage faced by this year's One Book, One Community author, Dr. Gregory H. Williams. His story is simply amazing.

"Life on the Color Line: the True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black" (Dutton, 1995) is an autobiography. Williams was born into a chaotic household in the D.C. area headed by a alcoholic father, but it wasn't until he was 10 years old, after his mother left and he moved to Muncie, Indiana with his father and brother, that he realized that his father had passed for white. His newly discovered paternal relatives in Muncie were black.

Dropped into the lap of their impoverished grandmother, the two boys struggled before being taken into the home of an elderly black widow who raised them as her own. Both boys had white skin, but in the racially divided Muncie of the 1950s, they were now black. Their white maternal relatives, also in Muncie and just living blocks away, would have nothing to do with them. They constantly had to define and identify themselves.

Williams was smart and resourceful, and he graduated from Ball State University before earning both J.D. and Ph.D. degrees in law. He has been the President of the City College of New York since 2001.

This Tuesday, August 25 at 7 p.m. a roundtable discussion of this book, led by a panel of nine local community leaders, will take place at Barnes & Noble. It promises to be an engrossing evening. Williams himself will be speaking at Bosse High School on Thursday, October 1 at 7:30 p.m.
You might also consider reading these related titles.

"The Lie" by O. H. Bennett (Algonquin, 2009) is a new novel about racial tensions, set in 1970s Evansville. It is a beautifully written coming-of-age story involving a teen who must come to grips with the consequences when his older brother is shot dead on their front porch on East Gum Street.
The author, who is black, is a graduate in journalism from the University of Evansville who now lives in Virginia. His writing has received national attention.

"The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" by Annette Gordon-Reed (Norton, 2008) won both the Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Award. Gordon-Reed, a professor of Law at New York Law School and History at Rutgers University-Newark, co-wrote an earlier One Book choice, "Vernon Can Read," with Vernon Jordan.

I have been fascinated with the Jefferson-Hemings link since I read the 1979 novel "Sally Hemings" by Barbara Chase-Riboud. Gordon-Reed's thick tome covers all the Hemings and can be off-putting at first, but is worth tackling. By the way, four of the five children who grew to adulthood (and were freed in Jefferson's will) abandoned their black backgrounds and passed for white - one of the reasons that the family heritage was hidden so long.

"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett (Putnam's, 2009) is a captivating novel about rich white women and their black maids set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, Stockett's real hometown. Marvelously fleshed out characters, an intriguing story line, and historical detail have made this a blockbuster summer hit - after the white author's initial rejection by 45 different agents.