The secret history of black people

Law professor and commentator Patricia Williams talks about passing, choosing her adopted son from a racial menu, and the myth of Condoleezza Rice.

Published December 15, 2004 7:44PM (EST)

Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, isn't afraid to take on controversial subjects -- even if they lead to death threats, insults (a student once said that she "epitomized liberal bias") or hysterical labels like this one from London's Daily Mail: "She's a militant black feminist who hates all white people." One of America's foremost commentators on race, rights and gender, she writes a regular column for the Nation ("Diary of a Mad Law Professor"), and is the author of three books about race. To Williams, the personal is always political, and vice versa; most of her writing is rooted in personal experience. However, Williams' latest book, "Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own," is her most inner-directed and autobiographical yet.

"Open House" is organized into metaphorical "rooms" in which Williams moves gracefully from personal anecdotes to discussions of social issues. In "The Outhouse," she uses the story of her great-aunt Mary to discuss racial "passing." The daughter of a light-skinned black mother and the descendant of a wealthy white landowner, Mary spent her childhood as a servant to distant white relatives in St. Louis, then moved home to her family's house in Tennessee. As an adolescent, she desperately wanted to be educated. Inspired by an advertisement on the toilet sheets in her family's outhouse, Mary hatched a plan to pass as a Native American in order to receive a scholarship to an elite Boston finishing school.

In "The Music Room," Williams talks about her decision to take piano lessons at age 50 as an antidote to a midlife crisis (she finds it "a wonderful form of meditation"), and ends with a conversation she had with some of her friends about the discrimination they face as outspoken black women. And in "The Crystal Stair," Williams weaves together the history of the black middle class, the irony of African-American cliques and secret societies, and her pet issue, affirmative action.

Salon met with Williams in her office at Columbia, where she looked nothing like the way she describes herself in the chapter titled "The Boudoir." ("I dress down instead of up, and my hair is a complete disaster.") Draped in an elegant black shawl, her bob held back by clips, Williams, 53, talked about public intellectualism, Bill Cosby and her uncomfortable relationship with the "myth" of Condoleezza Rice.

You received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2000. What's it like being considered a "genius"?

It makes me laugh every time somebody says I'm a genius. In fact, after I got it, some friends of mine made me a little ankle bracelet with the word "Genius" on it, but the letters never stayed in the right place. So people would look at it and say, "Eniusg?"

The MacArthur lends you legitimacy and credibility. People think you're much smarter than you are. It has been instructive because I think you ratchet yourself up because of it.

In your opinion, what's the current state of American intellectualism?

American intellectuals are busy writing their hearts out and conversing away, but the real function of intellectualism is to be a broader conversation with the public and particularly with political life. That's clearly where we as Americans seem to be diverging from an intellectual tradition. Intellectualism is disparaged as elitist. I'm thinking particularly of the slashing of the budget of the National Science Foundation, or the stacking of scientific review committees with industry people so that you manipulate the facts to come out the way you want, or the failure to collect data in any number of realms -- that worries me a lot. I don't think this is just a matter of religious fundamentalism, to which it's frequently attributed. I think it's a broader way in which believing something because you want it to be so has replaced research, reservation, caution and critique.

What did you think about Bill Cosby's inflammatory comments on the anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education? Among other things, he said, "In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on ... They're buying things for the kid. $500 sneakers, for what? They won't buy or spend $250 on 'Hooked on Phonics.'"

There was such a brouhaha about what Bill Cosby said about anti-intellectualism in the black community. I disagreed with the way in which he presented that. I actually thought that the more interesting point was that we Americans are undergoing the very anti-intellectualism that he seemed to limit only to the black community. Then again, maybe he wanted to make a point to one community, but I think it let too many people off the hook to say, "See? You black people just don't study hard enough!" This was against a backdrop of a political discussion in which people were saying that one of the presidential candidates speaks in paragraphs that are too long, and that the other is a populist -- not because he supports populist programs but because [of his] malapropisms and because he speaks in split infinitives!

From your family history, we learn about the educated black upper-middle class of the early 1900s. However, this segment of society is not often mentioned as part of America's demography -- as you put it, they're "hidden pockets of history."

There is an ambivalence about that generation. The beneficent gift of education to that class came about because of the generosity of the people who formerly owned them. It's the same situation as Strom Thurmond paying for his black daughter's education. Educating the mistresses' children is always a complicated phenomenon. In the wake of slavery there were missionary schools, schools set up for African-Americans, and the historically black colleges were set up, but it was by and large for the children of a certain -- not class. It's complicated to call it upper class, because often it was not accompanied by a great amount of money; you were upper class in the black community, but the actual salary you earned was way below that of working-class whites. That was part of an invisible dual structure of class; it overlapped with skin color. When you start talking about that it scratches the surface of this deep, horrible history of "colorism," as it's called in the black community, and it overlaps with people like my great-aunt Mary, who really couldn't be bear being black and who disdained her blackness.

A lot of black history gets lost. It's just uninteresting to a larger audience. I was thinking as I was going through books that my godmother left me that there are cycles of literature: There was the Frederick Douglass generation, the W.E.B. Du Bois generation, the Harlem Renaissance, the Richard Wright era, the black-power writers, then the public intellectuals. Now there's a new crop of hip, young artists coming up. But it is as though people forget about that history, that literature, the intellectual voice of African-American culture. It goes in cycles of almost every 20 years, then it gets disparaged, and it's terrible and nobody talks about it and you become this cipher for all things stupid. But then somebody "discovers" that there's a Toni Morrison.

I think that the device by which this is consistently buried and not a permanent part of our history has to do with the fact that African-American contributions to American society -- African-American brainpower, intellectualism, science, math ability as well as literary and art ability -- are always figured as exceptional. The notion of exceptionalism buries us cyclically.

In the book, you attribute your accomplishments as "proceeding from intergenerational gifts of learning from progressively well-educated family members." You then go on to explain that your relatives were "beneficiaries of a world that did not then hoard learning like water in the desert." How is education being "hoarded" today? How do class and race factor into that?

People tend to separate the African-American crisis of access to education from the general American crisis of access to education. There has been a real decline in the quality of education for all of us, whites and blacks. There have been several cycles of destroying our public school education: One was pulling resources out of public schools in the wake of white flight (particularly in the urban North) after migration from the South in the '60s and '70s of blacks to the inner city. But the second was the sort of tax withdrawal, so that you have a system like California's. When I first graduated from law school and moved to California, California had the No. 1 public school system and university system in the country; but it is now at the bottom because they purposefully took money out of it. They destroyed it. Yes, home schooling is fine, and yes, there are private schools. But if that's what we rely on, we rely on something less than a notion of universal access and something other than a system that unsettles a class system. If private schools and home schooling are all we have, we have a much more static society, rooted in generational class stasis.

You write, "For black middle-class and upper-middle-class parents, schooling means segregation of a different sort -- children who almost never encounter another black child, who are always 'the' integration wherever they go."

For most of my son's academic career, he has been the only black kid in his class, though not in his school. For most of my black friends it's the same thing: Living in an integrated world means you're really living in a mostly white world, and you are the integration. As children take it in, it's sort of funny sometimes. For example, my son went to a birthday party once. This little kid invited lots of other kids from around his neighborhood, beyond the classmates who knew my son. So when we came in the door, I heard the kid saying about my son, "This is my friend; he's black!" He was just so excited.

In the book, I mentioned the conceptual artist damali ayo, who has this Web site called She has a book coming out about people who want to have a black person to impress their friends and to prove they're not racist. This little kid, of course, was not a racist, but it was clear that being the only black person means you are a perpetual novelty. And children don't censor their sense of that novelty. They tend to connect you to the only other black people they know.

For a long time that was Michael Jordan, but now that Michael Jordan has faded as a role model (unfortunately), he has been replaced by any variety of singers and rap stars. It's interesting because now that my son is just on the cusp of adolescence -- he's 12 -- you see all the kids, black and white, imitating these sportslike gestures. They expect my naive little boy to teach them "the secret handshake," and my son is making them up to be "race cool," so to speak. It's amusing, but it's also a little worrisome.

In the book, you say your son "knew about Martin Luther King Jr. and had read books about the necessity for black self-esteem and education and economic power and how beautiful we all were." And yet, he still asked if his light-skinned black grandmother was "white" because she was lighter than an Italian neighbor. Now that he's getting older, has there been a defining moment where he has been, like, "Mom, I get the 'black' thing now"?

Yes. It was when the father of one of his friends talked about "these black kids who are criminals." This man started talking about "black boys" like he had forgotten my son was there. He had categorized him differently, or exceptionalized him separately. But my son got it. He was 8 years old.

That moment comes for all of us. For me it was when one of my friends' fathers in Boston decided that when blacks moved into his neighborhood, he was going to move out. So for me, it was hearing what he thought through this little girl, my friend. It's often peers or parents of those peers who bring this realization.

There's a chapter in the book called "The Boudoir," where you briefly discuss dating with your "best white friend," but otherwise men, romance and sex are conspicuously absent from your book. Why?

[Loud sigh] I think my relationships were all good ones, and I'm sorry that some of them didn't work out. I used to be sorrier, but as I approach middle age, a large percentage of my friends are engaged in child custody battles or divorce, and my sister is a widow. I think that as you grow older, you take what life gives you, and I don't regret it as much as when I was younger, in my aspirational prime.

Can you tell me how you came to the decision to adopt your son? That, too, is absent from the book. You say you were working on adoption case law, but not much else.

My last major relationship had broken off, and I was 40, and I wanted a child. I am a very lucky person and I've had a very lucky life; I have a lot of resources at my disposal. I literally went down to an adoption agency on my 40th birthday. It was really odd, actually, because the adoption agency presented all the racial combinations that they had at the time: everything from Sino-Japanese to Afro-Celtic to Senegalese. It was like going to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The array of options felt almost as vulgar as choosing a leg or a wing. I really didn't care about any of this, gender or race. My son is black.

Toward the beginning of the book, you bring up a question asked by Anna Deavere Smith: "Who is the one person you could never be?" You say the whole book began as an effort to answer that question. Have you come to an answer yet?

I did a column for the Nation recently in which I was thinking about the complicated icon that Condoleezza Rice is. Now, I don't know Rice as a person -- she has been very effective at keeping her life private. But the myth of Condoleezza Rice's life is so akin to what so many of us at a certain age survived, lived, how we constructed ourselves, how we wanted to appear to the public, how we watched the borders of who we were. We were the same kind of achievers. When I hear about the lessons she went to, I think of all the Saturday lessons I went to --swimming, piano. We had to be really well scrubbed. The message you got from your parents was that you might be the first black person a white person had ever seen; you had this whole burden of race on your shoulders. She evokes that feeling in me more than any other public figure.

At the same time, here's someone who clearly represents the ideological opposite end of everything I believe in and stand for. So I think when the question "Who could I never be" gets asked, I'm confronted with the enormous paradox of being human. There is nobody I could say I'd never be. Once I've even asked the question, I am mired in a sense of identification. Because I think of someone who is so different from me, but then I think, "Oh really?" I am already engaged in this person.

By Corrie Pikul

Corrie Pikul writes about women's issues and pop culture. She lives in Brooklyn.

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