This post contains offensive language.
Julie Lythcott-Haim‘s memoir Real American came to my attention via a friend’s facebook post. She’s black and her husband is white, and she asked “Any other parents of biracial or multiracial kids wanna read this book with [friend] and I? Discussion and beverages when we’re all finished.” Now, I don’t fit that category, but this whole race-in-America thing is something I’ve been trying to learn more about and so I asked if I could read along. (I’m also an admitted sucker for discussion and beverages. )
Lythcott-Haims is the child of a white English mother and a black American father; although she was born in Nigeria, her only citizenship is American and she has lived in the United States since she was a toddler. Her father George Lythcott (obituary) was a prominent physician whose work took them to the white suburbs of Wisconsin, where Lythcott-Haims spent her teenage years struggling to find her place as a biracial woman: simultaneously not white enough for the white community, and too white for the black.
… I can’t remember what we were laughing about, but I remember feeling in that instant on that shiny cement floor that I was falling in love. Jenny had the film developed at the local drugstore and ordered prints for all three of us.
I pinned the photo to the corkboard on my bedroom wall. One day Daddy noticed it, looked over at me with a loving smile, then shook his head.
“White boys will be your friend,” he said with his booming bass voice, “but they’ll never date you.”
I trembled. Neither then nor ever did I challenge Daddy’s authority. His decision to move to this remote area. I never knew how to ask, Why’d you move me to this all-white town? (35)
The culminating incident of Lythcott-Haim’s adolescence is perhaps her seventeenth birthday, when her locker was first decorated by her best friend, and then anonymously vandalized — thrice — with a racial slur. The force of that written assault stayed with her for decades, and she closes the first section of her book with these words:
I’d told no one about my locker sign, and I’d go on to tell no one for decades. Not my parents, not the school administration, not my boyfriend Mark, not my best friend, Diana. For more than twenty years, though, the truth of that day hunkered down inside of me and metastasized.
I was the Nigger of my town. (75)
(I had to stop and think about whether I would actually write out that word on my blog, even though it’s part of something I’m quoting directly. It’s not something I would ever, ever write or say myself. But it is an integral part of Lythcott-Haims’s story, and I want to honour her powerful words and her honesty. She didn’t have the choice to avoid the N-word when it was scribbled across her locker in permanent marker. Nor did she ask to have that word scribbled across her psyche in the way that it was. But if there’s anything that Real American makes clear, it’s that we need to look the ugliness of racism in the face, to not shy away because it’s painful and uncomfortable and hard. There is no hope for reconciliation unless we are willing to deal in reality.)
Lythcott-Haims traces her journey through college at Stanford, through getting her JD at Harvard Law School, to her work at Stanford as Dean of Freshman. Throughout she skips backwards and forwards in time, telling her parents’ stories and touching on major milestones in politics and the civil rights movement. A major turning-point in her own story comes after the birth of her daughter Avery, her second child, who is three-quarters white, with smooth wavy hair and light olive skin. She writes,
Professionally, I appeared to have taken all the right steps. I had degrees from elite schools. I’d landed prestigious work. I’d done all of this schooling, all of this work, in part so as never to be called Nigger again. But I walked tentatively through my life, unstable, feeling a hollowness inside, as if the very construct of my self was liable to fracture into pieces and fall apart. At any moment I felt I might step on a crack, break my own back. […]
I knew the infection of self-loathing was bad and deep, likely to spread to my precious girl child if I didn’t find a way to get it out of me. I gave myself permission to tell myself that the birthday locker incident had in fact happened. I dared to tell the truth of it inside my head, dared to put it on the page, dared to write it down. Dared to stare at the word some anonymous white American had called me. And to take a deep breath and see that I still lived.
And why the challenge with Avery? I felt her lightness lessened my Blackness among Blacks; I could never pass as white and now, because of her, I couldn’t pass as Black either. This tiny child kicked me deep into a racial crevice, with no ledge to hold on to. I want to drag a Black cloak over my white-looking daughter. To build Black consciousness in a child the world would see as white, by un-hiding her Blackness, by trying to hide her whiteness. […]
By the end of the exercise — and essay of some length I revised and revised for months, I’d finally reached an essential truth.
I wasn’t ashamed about Avery. I was ashamed to be me. (171-2)
Real American is not an easy read — nor should it be. Lythcott-Haims’s writing is beautiful but pulls no punches, especially as her chronology moves her to names and deaths and incidents we know from recent news: to Trayvon Martin, to Freddie Gray, to Darius Simmons, to Jonathan Ferrell, to Tamir Rice, to others. To her own fears for her dark-skinned American son. To the fact that for some white people, black skin is seen as inherently other, inherently threatening:
We the people cannot continue to abide the stories of police and civilians on witness stands telling us that in just seeing our Black bodies they were terrified.
You have to be terrified for a justifiable reason.
God gave us this Black and brown skin. The skin God gave us is not a reason for you to be justifiably terrified.
We are terrified.
Of you. (202-3)
I’ll go to the promised discussion and beverages, and I will listen hard. I’m reading this book as a white woman, whose children are white, who isn’t even American. To me, Real American carries the weight of an indictment. But I can’t imagine what it is to read it as a black woman, or as the parent of a black or biracial or multiracial child. I haven’t had to live these things; not even close. But Lythcott-Haims has invited me in anyway. And that is a gift.
Yes my white friend cry your tears. I know your pain is real as you feel the weight of this history this present lodge in your stomach like a stone.
Go there. Feel it. Hold it. Seek to understand it. Come to me with an open heart and I will show you my own. (258)
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