Memoir, family stories, and American history intertwine in this debut book.
In 1883, the U.S. government gave Tyler’s great-grandfather a plot of land. As a white man, he worked the tract freely, and subsequent generations prospered from his successful wheat farm. In contrast, the author’s African-American husband, William, had enslaved ancestors. His family remained poor. Spanning 1865 to 2015, Tyler’s voluminous racial analysis alternates between American history tidbits and personal “privileged white versus poor black” family tales in an effort to link William’s drug addiction and incarceration to systematic racism. Offering black-and-white photos and referencing a wide variety of book and internet sources, the work presents slave narratives, quotes from African-American scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, and declarations about turn-of-the-century rural families (“White farming families in the South didn’t need their children to help in the fields, they had black people toiling on their behalf instead”). The book also covers such diverse topics as schooling, the Ku Klux Klan, the Great Migration, World War I draft registration in the South, the Depression, live-in domestics, black-owned businesses, the GI Bill, white mob violence, and 1950s youth culture (“Elvis crafted impersonations of black culture and was not ashamed to proclaim the roots of his persona”). In the work’s first part, Tyler smoothly presents compelling family accounts and illuminating portions of black history. But the narrative rambles in the second half when the author proceeds to dissect her own racist attitudes while sprinkling in some annoying anecdotes. For example, Tyler, a “good white person,” wanted to spend time suffering to learn more about race, so she entered a homeless shelter, thrilled that her roommate was a black woman. After 20 minutes, she “grabbed her Ann Taylor suit” and left to check into a hotel. Recalling episodes from her life as a privileged white woman—she moves into a black neighborhood; she has a black child with a felon; she feels uncomfortable talking to black moms—Tyler turns the spotlight away from African-Americans and shines it on herself.
A meandering exploration of racial attitudes and oppression.