The story of this man’s life is simply amazing. That came through in his honest and heart-felt reflection of the hardships he had to overcome growing up. This intriguing memoir allows the reader to see what life was like for the author whose early life was defined by issues of race and color. Williams, dean of the Ohio State University College of Law, tells the touching and captivating account of his most unusual youth.
The author had spent his early years in Virginia, where his white mother and his dark-skinned “Italian” father operated a roadside tavern. Growing up in the South, where issues of race and color were so important, the author had always thought that he was white, as he had been raised as such. When his parents’ business came to a halt, his mother left, forcing his father to return home to his roots in Muncie, Indiana. It was then that the author and his younger brother, Mike, discover two sides of the then great color divide: black and white. The lesson would be a difficult one.
Much to their surprise and horror, their father, a light-skinned Negro “passing” as Italian, had survived most of his adulthood playing as both black and white as a way of life. He did so successfully until divorced and alcohol overtook him and struck him back down into “his place” in the slums of Muncie, Indiana. In those times, however, you were considered to be either White or Black. In Indiana, he was Black, even though, ironically, in the South he had passed for White. Greg and Mike, learn that, notwithstanding their appearance, they are considered to be Black, and forced to live in a segregated world on the wrong side of the race and color divide. They quickly learn how it feels to be the second class citizens. This was the nineteen fifties, during the zenith of the Klu Klux Klan, and well before the Civil Rights Movement had taken hold, so views ran very high on issues of race and color.
The boys found themselves in the midpoint, rejected by both races. They had to learn how to maneuver in this crazy patchwork quilt of absurd and confusing racial notions that would marginalize their existence and make them the target for every scoundrel on either side of the race and color divide. This had a great impact on the brothers, as they find their own personal coping mechanism for the deprivation, poverty, hostility and prejudice that restricted their life.
Unfortunately, Greg and mike took ultimately different paths. After more than a decade of poverty, degradation and loneliness later, straddling the racial and ultimately rescued by the humanity of a single, poor, Church going Black woman, named Miss Dora, Greg was able to overcome the handicap of his ‘Niggerhood’ and in the end attained both his and his father’s dream of becoming a lawyer.
Mike on the other hand had no such luck. He seeks solace in the lure of easy money, easy women, and life in the fast lane, a choice that would end in personal tragedy for him. After a life on the edge, he was blinded in a barroom brawl that was the signature of such environments. Today he remains without means or hope in the care of a state supported nursing home.
The book clearly outlines the fact that, in the nineteen fifties, the whites are the privileged and the blacks are the repressed and inopportune. The author focuses on his early life, the part that evidently caused him so much pain. Those early experiences shape the man he is today.
One argument, however, is that the author curses the town for its treatment of them. I always kept in mind the time frame and the reaction could have happened in any other town in the country – such was the prevailing attitude, in general, in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Racism exists – everywhere and on all sides.
Blacks of today, regardless of where they may live can draw inspiration from his story. We all still face a huge amount of inequality and injustice in our society today. With such divergence along political, gender and religious lines in our national conscience, it is critical to remember that race still matters.
In the world of the 50s and 60s where the only meaningful value seems to have been that of “being white,” Mike and Gregory Williams, possessing all the outward characteristics of whiteness, nevertheless experienced the vital fall from grace: they found themselves on the wrong side of the racial divide and thus forced (as their father put it) “to learn how to become Niggers.”
There are many deeply touching morality tales in this book, but an inescapable one is not its most flattering one: It is that in a racist society nothing is more meaningful or valuable than “being white.” Whatever you do in life, do not become a Nigger; and if by an accident of fate you should become one, then you should do whatever you can to overcome it in any way possible as long as it is within the rules of racism.
That is to say, do not try to eliminate the cause of this moral discontinuity, racism, or change its immoral and corrupt rules and imperatives; just try as best you can to overcome it. After all, overcoming ‘Niggerhood’ is a goal worthy of quest while ending racism is not even one that is attainable.
Another morality tale of this book is that no matter how inhumane and corrupt white values are, they nevertheless remain okay because they are after all the standard and norm of society and there is just nothing one can do about them. They remain unbreakable. If you are white, being a racist is okay because racism is society’s norm. White humanity is always better than black humanity because it is self-defined in that way. However, if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that immorality and corruption no matter how normal, feeds on itself.
This book is highly recommended to help possibly alleviate issues on color and race. This will inspire many people to strive and be a better person regardless of color.
Williams, Gregory Howard. (1995). Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black. New York: Penguin Books.