SELF-PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Kirkus Star


Unlearning Race
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A standout memoir that digs into vital contemporary questions of race and self-image—among the most relevant, “What is proximity to the idea of whiteness worth and what does color cost? And the reverse?”

Williams (Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, 2010), a 2019 New America Fellow and contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, moves away from the “Black Man” label to offer a chronicle of why he is aiming to think of himself as “an ex–Black Man.” Raised in the 1980s in New Jersey by a “black” father and a “white” mother, the author grew up thinking of himself as black. The trigger for writing this lyrical, incisive memoir was the birth of his daughter in 2013, followed by a son. They are also mixed-race given the author’s marriage to Valentine, a Frenchwoman. (The family resides in Paris.) Though Williams is determined to move beyond categorizations of “black” and “white,” in order to communicate clearly in this memoir, he knows he must rely heavily “on our language’s descriptive conventions,” which he explains in the opening author’s note. We see the author’s psychological struggle as he thinks through the conundrums, including what the confusion might mean for his white-looking children. In the hands of a lesser writer, the back and forth of his pondering could have sunk the memoir. However, it succeeds spectacularly for three main reasons: the author’s relentlessly investigative thought process, consistent candor, and superb writing style. Almost every page contains at least one sentence so resonant that it bears rereading for its impact. The lengthy prologue is grounded heavily in discussions of race as a social construct. Part 1 takes readers through Williams’ adolescence, Part 2 through his marriage, and Part 3 through dealing with his family on both sides. In the epilogue, the author speculates on “the shape of things to come.” Shelve this one alongside Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math, and Imani Perry’s Breathe.

An insightful, indispensable memoir.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-60886-1
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2019