In this debut memoir, a white Southerner uses his own life experiences to explore race and racism in the United States.
In mid-20th-century Orlando, Florida, Mullen had virtually no personal relationships with African-American people. Although he was uncomfortable with the casual racism that he observed in some friends and family members, he rarely spoke out about it. Indeed, he says that he was frequently confounded by the contradictions of his fellow Southerners. His friend’s father, for instance, claimed to have committed a heinous act of racist violence, but he also supportively mentored a black employee; Mullen’s grandmother was a Christian woman who greeted the news of the shooting of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by saying, “Good, I hope he dies.” The author’s understanding of race, he says, was largely based in the world of sports, where his admiration for such heroes as Hank Aaron was mixed with confusion: Aaron’s “life was perfect,” the author thought, “so why was he complaining about racism?” By the time Mullen graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, he’d only conversed with one African-American person, but his entry into the Army changed that. During his basic training and later service in Germany, he was in close contact with black contemporaries, and he found their exchanges enlightening; the “Room” of the title is his German quarters, which he shared with five other soldiers—four black and one white. Mullen voices common misapprehensions and insecurities of white people who have little contact with people of color, such as why some black people use the N-word but abhor its use by others. (Indeed, this word seems to appear in the text more often than absolutely necessary.) Readers may think that some statements, such as “I could sense the black person size me up and…give me a passing grade on their personal bigotry scale,” seem naïve and self-aggrandizing. However, Mullen does capture some truths about the fear and guilt that prevents many white people from easily confronting the topic of racism. It’s disappointing, though, when he notes that his later life included few real friendships with African-Americans.
A thought-provoking, if somewhat limited, exploration of race relations.