Sunday, January 2, 2011

Mishna Wolff - I'm Down

This review has been a long time coming.  Law school gets in the way of fun things.  My apologies.  Of all the books of 2010 (which weren't nearly as many as I would have liked), I'd recommend I'm Down the most.  Well, I'm Down and God of the Animals

Mishna Wolff's childhood memoir is brilliant.  If you've ever felt like you didn't belong and were the black white sheep of your family, this memoir is for you.  Wolff is white, but she grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her father - a man who really believed he was black.

"I am white.  My parents, both white.  My sister had the same mother and father as me - all of us completely white.  White Americans of European ancestry.  White, white, white, white, white, white, white, white.  I think it's important to make this clear, because when I describe my childhood to people: the years of moving from one black Baptist church to the next, the all-black basketball teams, the hours having my hair painfully braided into cornrows, of their response is, 'So... who in your family was black?'  No one.  All white."

And so her memoir opens.  She then describes her father as "strutt[ing] around with a short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains, and a Kangol - telling jokes like Redd Foxx, and giving advice like Jesse Jackson.  He walked like a black man, he talked like a black man, and he played sports like a black man.  You couldn't tell my father he was white.  Believe me, I tried.  It wasn't an identity crisis; it's who he was."

Her childhood story will make you laugh out loud.  Seriously.  You will lol all over yourself - if you don't, you don't know what it's like to grow up with a family you don't understand and have difficulty relating to.  And that's what the memoir really is about - family.  It would be easy to sell it as a take on race, but it isn't.  It's a novel about a father and daughter and how they relate with each other and the bonds that hold them together and the moments that threaten to rip them apart.

But it is America and race always has been and unfortunately, at least for my lifetime, always will be an issue.  (People have difficulty with those that are "different" - black, white, rich, poor.)  And while the racial issues are quite poignant and very important in understanding some of the racial dynamics that still exist in the states, the memoir is not weighted with it.  For me, it's not a black/white story.  And that is what makes Wolff an amazing writer - that and her killer instinct when it comes to all things funny.

White... Black... Purple... Red...  I don't care what "color" you are - this book is one we all can relate to.  Her story is one that, while quite unique, has echoes of all our childhoods.  Pick it up.  Enjoy.  It's not all rainbows and unicorns - some moments are downright heartbreaking - but no one's childhood is all rainbows and unicorns.  If yours was, pull that horseshoe out of your ass let me have some of your luck.

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