Julie Lythcott-Haims. Real American: a memoir. Henry Holt and Company, 2017. (272 pages)
My journey of understanding identity through the lens of race in the context of American culture continues with this read, and I am deeply thankful for this memoir, a personal exposé that hits quite close to my heart. Lythcott-Haims is brutally honest, with her awareness, her children, her marriage, her body, and her citizenship. They are thoughts that are perhaps not appropriate for “polite company,” but then again, to hell with polite company as we’ve got more important matters at hand.
This is not only “real,” it is “raw,” and there really is no other way to go about these things.
Below are some of my highlights and underlines. They betray what was happening more in me in the time and place that I read this book, and what may have drawn me to these particular portions. They do not reflect the whole of the book, which I recommend you simply go and read for yourself.
It Begins Like This
Their need to make sense of me–to make something of sense out of nonsensical me–was pressing. My existence was a ripple in an otherwise smooth sheet. They needed to iron it down. (3)
[The truth is, I’m not really from here.]
[The truth is, that’s not what they were asking.] (3)
An American Childhood
Becoming the Other
Later I’d learn it’s what parents of mixed kids did in the 1970s; there was then no widespread use of the concept “multiracial” or “biracial,” and the ill-fated term “mulatto” going back to slave days, denoting the half-and-half mixture of slaves and whites, was considered in poor taste. “Call mixed kids Black,” the thinking went, “because the world will see and treat them as Black. They’d better claim it and be proud of it. They’d better know how to defend it. How to hold their heads high. Be Black and proud.” (21)
| I was not privy to the sociopolitical agenda. I was just bewildered. (21)
And given the choice between white and Black, why were my parents adamant about labeling me the race that so many people seemed to find problematic? In forcing this “Black” label on me and even bringing it on herself, why was my white mother choosing to lower herself into this pit instead of using her whiteness to lift me and Daddy up and out of it? (21)
“I don’t think of you as Black. I think of you as normal.” (40)
Desperate to Belong
Many years later I would learn that Blackness was less about skin color or hair or language and more, far more, about a lived, conscious committedness to issues that impact Black people, and I would accept my light-colored skin, the sound of my voice, the biracial kink of my hair. (83)
This is the starting line of my efforts to be better than whites expect a Black person can be. A race i’ll run–and try to win–for the next twenty years. (91)
As loathsome as it was to learn that the engine of the American Dream itself–capitalism–was the invisible hand guiding me away from a people, a community, a tradition, at least now I understood the source of much of my dislocation and unbelonging. That being upper middle class had given me more in common with upper-middle-class whites than with middle-class or working-class or poor Blacks. I graduated from college knowing I was not some freak of nature but an easily predicted data point in our macroeconomic system. (116)
I would find that standing on the edge of Blackness where it bleeds lighter and lighter and ultimately starts to look like white came with both privilege and pain. (123)
They’d treated me like a stowaway. Like a freed Black with no papers. Being some white man’s property is what actually spared me from whatever might have happened. Escape and a cage all at once. (130)
It is wild. Like taking a high-power microscope to racism and seeing it writhe and wriggle under the glaring light. And it is depressing. (138)
I know from experience and academic study of these issues that one’s life–my life–as a light-skinned biracial Black person is one of relative racial privilege. My skin that in winter wanes from brown paper bag to high yellow and my so-called white way of talking assuages whites who might otherwise have been fearful of me. Seven hours spent getting braids in a Black salon somehow overrides this, and catapults me onto a higher level on the Blackness spectrum. At least in the eyes of some whites in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (139)
My braids actively do away with the ambiguity I’d struggled with for most of my conscious life. They look white people in the eye and say, “Yes I’m Black” in ways my own vocal cords and life experience have never articulated. Until sporting the braids, I’d been drawn in pencil. Smudge-able. erasable. With the braids I am redrawn in ink. (139)
Having grown up lonely as the only child of my parents, the only young child in an extended family of much older half siblings, the only child on this strange interracial island, witnessing an unyielding bond between my children gives me such hope that if all else fails they will have each other. (153)
- Never take a brush to it.
- Don’t shampoo too often.
- Condition condition condition.
- Wet it, and rake through it with fingers or a wide-toothed comb.
- use leave-in conditioner to bring out smooth ringlets.
- Once set, don’t you dare touch it until it dries. (154)
“She looks so unlike me, so unlike what I expected…” (171)
| Through writing I tried to stare straight into my heart, to examine it, to get closer, and even to hold my heart in my hands. When I did so, what I found was flesh partially covered with a scab still trying to form over a long-festering wound. I took a deep breath, then I poked the scab and picked at it, then pressed hard and watched what happened. The pus oozed out thick as toothpaste. And when it was done oozing, it had formed a word: Nigger. (171)
| I wrote that shit down. (171)
| I knew the infection of self-loathing was bad and deep, likely to spread to my precious girl child if I didn’t find a way to get it out of me. I gave myself permission to tell myself that the birthday locker incident had in fact happened. I dared to tell the truth of it inside my head, dared to put it on the page, dared to write it down. Dared to stare at the word some anonymous white American had called me. And to take a deep breath and see that I still lived. (172)
What began to sprout in me that night was a sense that a biracial person could belong within Blackness. The applause for an interracial couple and their kid, willingly, lovingly offered by more than a thousand Blacks, was unambiguous recognition of the existence of interracial families and light brown kids. Not just recognition but approval.
| They see me. I’m good enough as is. I don’t have to fear I’m not Black enough. I belong.
| It felt like the most religious of baptism.s (177)
To survive as a Black person in America, I have to assert that when micro-aggressions penetrate my skin like a parasite, I will not let them burrow deeper into me where they can eat me from the inside out.
| What is a micro-aggression?
- Getting to paw through a Black female colleague’s hair
- Commenting to others about how fascinating you find it
- Calling the Black woman “angry” or “oversensitive” for minding
- Not remembering this happened–or
- Telling us to get over it.
When you feel us like a piece of fabric, it summons a genetic reminder of standing there naked at auction, of being sized up and sold off according to the size of our birthing hips and ripeness of our breasts. (195)
Holding my shit together is a victory as America works me over. (199)
I have been ashamed of America. America should be ashamed. America leveraged a slaveholding disregard for Black and brown skin to power its first industries. America built itself on the back of Blackness as a way to elevate the status of those with lighter skin. America owes Black people a debt of contrition and recompense. A process of truth telling and reconciliation. (201)
We the people cannot continue to abide the stories of police and civilians on witness stands telling us that in just seeing our Black bodies they were terrified.
| You have to be terrified for a justifiable reason.
| God gave us this Black and brown skin. The skin God gave us is not a reason for you to be justifiably terrified. (202)
We are terrified.
| Of you. (203)
We know forgiveness is all there is in an America where we are not equal. (209)
Black Lives Matter
Yes, sometimes I regret the choice of a white husband.
| To have given my son a father who cannot teach him how to be a Black man in America. (227)
Sometimes I do wonder where is God in all of this? (236)
To be an American is to see God’s hand in the U.S. health care system, and in the experimental serum known as ZMapp, which Brantly was the first human every to try. To be an American is to believe God plays favorites, and that of all his children, he favors Americans most of the time. (236)
To be truly devout, though, is to be a family member of one of the nine Blacks murdered during Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by self-professed white supremacist Dylann Roof, and to forgive Mr. Roof for killing their loved ones in a house of God where presumably God was watching. (236)
Maybe God did give us the choice. Maybe he gathered a group of souls and asked for volunteers. “Now who wants to go down there and inhabit a Black or brown body? Who wants to take that on? Who wants to live a life in America where you may be treated like the scum of the earth? Who will walk among white people and be their opportunity to learn compassion?” And the bravest souls looked around at each other and raised their hands. (237)
What does it mean to belong in America? And What does it mean to be Black? And How do we live under the drainage pipe of white supremacy with its drip drip drip of poison into our hair, that oozes down into our eyes, into our nostrils, into our ears, into our mouths, our pores, our bones? How do we coexist with these white people fearing and hating us without fearing and hating ourselves? How do we laugh? How do we stop seeing their fear and their hatred as a mirror that shows us who we are? How do we look into a real mirror and love what we see? (239)
In the summer of 2016 I read a white Baltimore police officer’s confessional. But it’s not what I am expecting.
| He’s married to a Black woman, and she is pregnant with their first child. During the months of pregnancy, Freddie Gray is transported in the back of a Baltimore police van, handcuffed, but not tethered with a seat belt, and is unable to stop his body from flying around as the van bounces through the streets of Baltimore. Gray’s spinal cord snapped during this ride. Gray died. No one was held responsible.
| This Black woman wife of a white male Baltimore officer is pregnant, and neither she nor I nor God can predict the color of her unborn child’s skin. Or its gender. And when a son is born to them, a son of the color of brown, which equals Blackness, this white male police officer is quoted in the New York Times as realizing he is now raising a Black son in Baltimore.
| Then he confesses that until he had a Black son he saw the young Black kids hanging around on the street corners on his beat as juvenile-delinquents-in-the-making, and now he sees them just as kids. Just kids enjoying the last few days of summer. What one might call “normal.”
| And in the poignancy of this white man’s realization that Blacks deserve to be seen just as normal humans I am reduced to angry, helpless tears. Is this what it’s going to take? All the racists white folks need to get some Blacks in their family? Is this why gay marriage took hold so quickly–prejudiced straights had a family member or a close friend who was gay? If whites produce brown progeny, can we once and for all breed the racism, the white supremacy, out of them?
| Dear God, can we? (240)
Dear white people,
When you’re sad about racism please have the decency not to cry for yourselves. (243)
We need white allies.
I hate that we need white allies.
We need white allies. (250)