Nearing the top of my must-read book list for the past year was yet another work of nonfiction by UC's current president. Life on the Color Line: the True Story of a White Boy who Discovered He was Black was originally published in 1995 by Plume, a division of Penguin Books. The memoir chronicles Gregory Howard Williams' childhood journey from rural Virginia where he lived comfortably as a white tavern owner's son to the black neighborhoods of Muncie, Indiana during the racially charged 1950s and 60s. When Williams' parents divorce, his father suffers an economic reversal that sends Gregory and his younger brother Mike packing for their paternal grandmother's cramped home in Indiana. It is only then that Gregory Williams finds out that his dark-skinned father, Tony, is not Italian. He also learns that his mother has abandoned them, taking the two younger children with her.
In Muncie, the light-skinned Williams brothers quickly discover the limits of the color line. Their black grandmother reluctantly lets them live with her, giving them cots in a makeshift bathroom while their father--known as "Buster" in their new surroundings--drinks up any money he might earn for their food. On one of their first forays to a Muncie playground, they are pummeled by black kids for being white. Their white grandparents, who formerly welcomed them to visit in the past, do nothing to help them now. Unable to find a job, Buster Williams tells his sons that he might have to send them to an orphanage. When a kind widow, Dora Terry, intervenes to take the Williams brothers in, she becomes for Gregory a necessary mother figure who balances his father's inconsistent attempts at parenting.
Figuring prominently in this painful memoir is the intermittent voice of Williams' father. Buster Williams is a man who dreams of success for himself, quotes "Invictus," and insists that Gregory study law and not teaching, all the while fighting his own losing battle with alcohol. The author dedicates the book to his father,(along with Miss Dora Terry) crediting him with shaping his ability to envision and make a future for himself. His father's voice guides him to be sexually responsible in high school when he can't get the word "pragnant"--as his father pronounced it-- out of his head. At basketball games, football games and graduation, Williams searches for his father's face in the crowd, never being sure he can count on his presence, but knowing his words remain, taunting, advising, scolding and above all, loving. In fact, the author makes ironic use of his father's words to emphasize how indelible the effects of Muncie have become to him:
"Son, one day this will all pale into insignificance." The author argues that, on the contrary, Muncie will never pale into insignificance since it lives in him forever--a constant reminder of who he was and is.
Gregory Howard Williams survived high school in Muncie by embracing all of his heritage. In the early sixties, that meant choosing black. The black community accepted him even though he looked white, while his white teachers and coaches warned him about the dangers of crossing the color line to date white girls. After working his way through Ball State University with a full-time job as deputy sheriff, Williams went on to teach history and to study law, as his father advised. He was the Dean of Ohio State University Law School and the President of City College of New York before assuming the Presidency at University of Cincinnati in 2009. He married his high school sweetheart.
Life on the Color Line is a tribute to the unconquerable human spirit, daring us to build bridges over the boundaries that separate us from our dreams.
(This review aired on Around Cincinnati on February 20, 2011.)