WHEN I WAS WHITE

A valuable contribution to the literature of race and its problematics.

“You’re the blackest white girl I’ve ever seen”: Writer and translator Valentine explores a past that had been carefully hidden from her.

There are phenotypes, and then there are culture, nature and nurture, and all that comes between. Born in 1977, the author, whose biological father was African American, grew up thinking she was Irish and Italian, the fact of her parentage deliberately hidden. “I didn’t know much about race,” she writes of a childhood friendship with a child who looked like her, “but I knew it existed; I thought some people were black, but most people were normal.” That learned sense of “normalcy” comes under close examination in this deftly written book, marked by all kinds of telling milestones: Her classmates called her “Slash,” the nickname of the mixed-race Guns N’ Roses guitarist, while a Nigerian guest speaker in a middle school social studies class called on her to model a fabric used in traditional clothing, yielding a dawning awareness that she, and not someone else, was “the other.” The point was driven home when a guidance counselor encouraged her to apply for minority scholarships, to which her adoptive father responded that she would be depriving someone who needed them; he added, “don’t tell your mother about this." Her family’s denial of the obvious seems puzzling, but Valentine has much to say about the intersection of the personal, the biological, and the cultural. She writes, for instance, that she became a fluent speaker of Russian, with the ability to think and write at a highly accomplished level about Russian literature and with plenty of time on the ground in Russia, but all that near-native ability “didn’t make me Russian.” In a nice turn, she later writes of discovering the existence of a diasporic group that moved into the Caucasus in the 17th century, “making them literal African Caucasians.” Valentine’s journey of self-discovery is affecting, a hard-won quest to arrive at an origin story that suits the facts rather than turns away from them.

A valuable contribution to the literature of race and its problematics.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-14675-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

NIGHT

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS

FROM MEAN STREETS TO WALL STREET

Well-told and admonitory.

Young-rags-to-mature-riches memoir by broker and motivational speaker Gardner.

Born and raised in the Milwaukee ghetto, the author pulled himself up from considerable disadvantage. He was fatherless, and his adored mother wasn’t always around; once, as a child, he spied her at a family funeral accompanied by a prison guard. When beautiful, evanescent Moms was there, Chris also had to deal with Freddie “I ain’t your goddamn daddy!” Triplett, one of the meanest stepfathers in recent literature. Chris did “the dozens” with the homies, boosted a bit and in the course of youthful adventure was raped. His heroes were Miles Davis, James Brown and Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, at the behest of Moms, he developed a fondness for reading. He joined the Navy and became a medic (preparing badass Marines for proctology), and a proficient lab technician. Moving up in San Francisco, married and then divorced, he sold medical supplies. He was recruited as a trainee at Dean Witter just around the time he became a homeless single father. All his belongings in a shopping cart, Gardner sometimes slept with his young son at the office (apparently undiscovered by the night cleaning crew). The two also frequently bedded down in a public restroom. After Gardner’s talents were finally appreciated by the firm of Bear Stearns, his American Dream became real. He got the cool duds, hot car and fine ladies so coveted from afar back in the day. He even had a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Through it all, he remained a prideful parent. His own no-daddy blues are gone now.

Well-told and admonitory.

Pub Date: June 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-074486-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006

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