on the Color Line, by Gregory Howard Williams
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
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.#
Gregory Howard Williams
Published by Plume/Penguin Books, 1995:285 pages
Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: email@example.com.
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consent of the publisher. © 2002.