I love a good memoir. I love hearing a person’s own life stories, what they experienced and lived through from the life-changing to the mundane, from tales of growing up in unusual families to recountings of world travels and religious experiences, I’m here for it all. That’s why When I Was White: A Memoir by Sarah Valentine (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) leaped out at me from the New Books shelf last week. ‘What a provocative title,’ I thought, and after reading the inside flap, the book went into my stack.
Sarah Valentine (née Dunn; she explains her name change later on in the book, and it’s not due to marriage) was born the oldest of three children in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Growing up, her darker skin and frizzy hair were often the subject of questions or half-kidding jokes about the milkman, but Sarah accepted her family’s insistence that she was white, no matter what that nagging feeling in her gut told her. It’s only in her late twenties that she learns that she’s not, in fact, entirely white, that her family has been lying to her all these years, and that in doing so, they’ve denied her a huge portion of her identity. Sarah must then learn to carve out a place for herself as a black woman after having thought of herself as white from birth and restructure her relationship with the family who withheld- and is still withholding- the truth from her for so long.
(Content warnings exist in this book for racism, including racist remarks, and multiple stories of rape and sexual assault.)
Whoa. What an entire bombshell to have dropped on you- even if it’s something you had maybe-sort-of-somewhat suspected, having your racial identity and sense of self upended like that is huge. Finding out that half of you, genetically, has a history and a story that you’ve been denied is obviously life-changing in so many ways, and reading how Ms. Valentine navigated this rupture in her life was deeply intriguing. While this isn’t as immediately shocking as Tara Westover’s Educated, it’s still in the same category of memoirs whose central stories include abrupt realizations about one’s family of origin. Yet despite the book centering on racial issues, readers of every race need only to have undergone major life changes or a betrayal by a loved one in order to be able to relate to her family’s- in particular, her mother’s- duplicity. How deeply painful this must have been; my heart broke over and over for Sarah and what she missed out on as a child: the celebration of who she was in her entirety. Instead, her family, even her extended family, was complicit in suppressing a huge part of her, insisting that she was something else completely, and that what she- and others- were seeing was wrong. A famiy gaslighting, if you will.
Her mother’s outright racism, on display multiple times through the book, was stomach-turning to read, especially her casual dismissal of racism as “something that affects so few people,” so thus it’s not really a problem. (This is basically the theme song of casual racists everywhere, isn’t it? *sigh*) I’m not unaware of racism as a major, major problem- I’ve encountered it in my own family of origin and do my best to counter it when I do- but there’s something so very stark seeing it right there on the page and knowing that this came from the mouth of a parent who knew exactly what made up half of their child. I’m by no means a perfect parent (FAR, FAAAAAAAAAAR from it!), but we owe it to our children to move past our own crap attitudes and personal problems in order to bring them our best, instead of weighing them down with everything we refuse to deal with, and Ms. Dunn’s mother very obviously hadn’t done that, which may have been a product of her time (she may have had other issues; the phrase ‘personality disorder’ is tossed around multiple times, although there’s never a formal diagnosis). Her parents were mostly decent, however, and gave her and her brothers a good (for the most part) childhood, giving her a strong foundation on which to build her adult life.
Despite the trauma she’s been through, Ms. Dunn has emerged a compelling, interesting person with an incredible drive and dedication. She graduated with a PhD in Russian literature (yes, she speaks Russian, along with multiple other Slavic languages; she mentions she gets asked this all the time, although no one asks this from her white colleagues. I’d be the nerd asking anyone who mentioned studying Russian literature, because I’m so fascinated by foreign-to-me languages and so deeply impressed by those who speak them, especially those who didn’t grow up speaking them. I KNOW exactly how much work that is!), translates poetry, teaches language classes, she’s a writer, she’s lived multiple places and traveled widely. How lucky her students are, to learn from such an impressive woman!
If you’re looking for a memoir in which everything is tied up nicely with a pretty bow at the end, this isn’t the book for you. While Ms. Dunn does write of the journey of attempting to discover her biological father, When I Was White is more about her discovering her sense of self as a woman of mixed race, when the knowledge of being both black and white- instead of just white- had been denied to her her entire life. If you’re interested in books of self-discovery and growth, however, you’ll find satisfaction in these pages.