A daughter’s journey to claim her identity.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Smith (Creative Writing/Princeton Univ.; Life on Mars, 2011, etc.) grew up in Fairfield, California, a solidly middle-class suburb, with four older siblings and doting, supportive parents. After a career as an Army engineer, her father worked in Silicon Valley; her mother, a former teacher, was a devoted member of the First Baptist Church. Sheltered by her community and family, Smith had little sense of her black identity until she spent two “sweltering and long” weeks visiting relatives in Alabama. Her grandmother, she learned, still cleaned for a white family; her own house smelled of “cooking gas, pork fat, tobacco juice, and cane syrup.” Suddenly, Smith was confronted with a new image of her parents’ Southern roots, and it frightened her. Back in California, though, that visit receded into memory as she excelled in school, had a chaste epistolary love affair with a teacher and racked up achievements for her college applications: various extracurricular activities, writing for the school paper and starting a Junior Statesman of America club. Teachers encouraged her, including one who remarked that as an African-American woman, she should “take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Smith resented the idea that her success would be based on anything other than her own talents, but when she was accepted at Harvard, the comment gnawed at her. Besides being a candid, gracefully written account of dawning black consciousness, Smith’s memoir probes her relationship with her mother, whose death from cancer brackets the narrative. The author’s drive to leave Fairfield was fueled by her “urgent, desperate” need to separate herself from her mother; in college, she became militantly black, “caught up in the conversation about Identity” and judgmental about her mother’s beliefs.
Guilt and regret pervade Smith’s recollection of her mother’s illness and death, darkening the edges of this light-filled memoir.