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New York City
October 2002

Life on the Color Line, by Gregory Howard Williams 
by Merri Rosenberg

Someone should introduce Gregory Howard Williams to Frank McCourt.

Both describe almost unbearable childhoods and adolescences that make a sensitive reader wonder how either could have surmounted them to arrive at a productive adulthood. And while McCourt’s description of his miserable Irish Catholic childhood in Angela’s Ashes probably eclipses Williams’ evocation of his painful upbringing in racially segregated Muncie, Indiana during the 1950s in terms of humiliation and deprivation, Williams’ experiences would still put him in the running as a competitor for ‘survivor of terrible childhood.’

Now President of City College, and a graduate of Ball State University and George Washington University, Williams’ explores with brutal honesty the torturous path he had to pursue to attain his educational and professional goals.

The eldest of four children, whose father ran a beer joint for tourists and soldiers in Virginia, Williams grew up for the first 10 years of his life comfortably ensconced in the middle class life of a white Southerner. When his parents separated, after a tempestuous and violent relationship–fueled by infidelities and drinking–Williams and his next-oldest brother, Mike, were suddenly plunged into the hand-to-mouth society of the poor blacks who lived in Muncie, Indiana.

Although James “Buster” Williams, the boys’ father, had passed for white in Virginia, he couldn’t maintain that fiction in his native Muncie. What the author discovered only upon being brought back to Muncie (a community he had previously visited as the white grandson of a white family) was that his father, by marrying a white woman, had transgressed the social norms of that day. The children, despite white skin and features, were shunned by the white community as half-caste racial mongrels, and had no refuge except in the black community.

Williams describes a harsh and difficult childhood, where his black relatives–themselves eking out a precarious existence–had little to spare, and often begrudged him and his brother food. With a paternal grandmother whose indifference was almost as callous as that expressed by McCourt’s own grandmother; a father who was quick to put his young children to work, yet reluctant to earn a living himself, and white relatives who forgot their existence, Williams and his brother were spared the orphanage only when a compassionate family friend, Dora Weekly Smith took both boys to live with her.

It was her kindness, faith and encouragement that Williams largely credits with his determination to escape the ghetto, and fulfill his ambitions. “Though only ten years old, I faced one of the hardest choices of my life: to dream or to despair...I chose to dream.” In school, Williams studied hard and worked diligently, understanding both from his father’s explicit statements and his own perceptions, that education was his only escape.

Yet the racial inequalities of that time, and that place, intruded. Williams was told by a teacher that he would get an academic achievement award at his sixth grade graduation. He didn’t receive it because that kind of prize wasn’t going to be given to a black student. In middle and high school, Williams had to choose whether to associate with the white students–assuming he could ‘pass’–or with the black students. Because he looked white, when he opted to walk down the aisle during ninth grade graduation with a dark-skinned black girl, no one congratulated him.

Integration was a long way off. Williams had to daily negotiate the delicate color line that informed nearly all of his decisions and actions, realizing the grave consequences (Klan repercussions, violence from other students, etc.) of a misstep.

As Williams expresses it, “I hadn’t wanted to be colored, but too much had happened to me in Muncie to be a part of the white world that had rejected me so completely.” Paradoxically, his racial identity gave him the tools to become his own person: “I knew who I was and what I wanted to be.”

After a disappearance of more than 10 years, by the time the author’s white mother returned to invite Williams and his brother to move in with her and her new husband, it was clearly too late. Williams couldn’t forgive her for having been to Muncie without once stopping in to see him or his brother, or allowing the two of them to contact her. And the condition she offered for joining her family meant that “we were to forget we were ‘colored boys.’”

Williams wasn’t about to forget. The memories of living on the wrong side of the color line were won at too high a cost. This is a gripping, and important, story about what it meant to live during the pre-Civil Rights era, from the distinctive perspective of someone who knew what it was like to live in those vastly different worlds of black and white.#

Life on the Color Line

by Gregory Howard Williams

Published by Plume/Penguin Books, 1995:285 pages

City, State:

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All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.