nonfiction

Book Review: Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes

One of the many benefits of having bookish friends is when they make you aware of a book that you likely wouldn’t have picked up on your own. My friend Jennifer, who is a librarian extraordinaire at a university in Alabama, told my longtime parenting group’s book forum about an author visit she was hosting a while back: one Ms. Jennifer Berry Hawes, author of Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). I remembered this tragedy well; the title of this book, however, made me a little nervous. I had avoided the book about the gunman who shot up an Amish school simply because of the religious pressure to forgive, which isn’t the way my religion works, and the very idea of being required to forgive even when you’re not ready for it made me uncomfortable. But my friend assured me it wasn’t that kind of book; that not everyone forgave the killer, and that it was a really incredibly story all around, so onto my list it went.

In 2015, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a traditionally Black church, hosted a Bible study one Wednesday evening in June. A young white man joined the Black churchgoers; this wasn’t unusual, and they welcomed him with open arms. And as the Bible study concluded, the young man pulled out a gun and murdered nine people.

The manhunt that followed was successful fairly quickly, but the mess he left behind at Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, stretched on and on. Almost the entire pastoral leadership had been murdered; husbands had lost wives, wives had lost husbands, parents had lost children. Grief amplifies what is already there, and some family relationships, already struggling, fractured further. The leadership that took over in the wake of the massacre seemed to have the wrong motivations, and financial hijinks made everyone suspicious. Longtime church members, include some who were present and survived the massacre, began to fall away from the church. Some of the survivors immediately forgave the gunman; others struggled with the concept, while still others were unsure how to ever move on with their lives without their loved ones.

This isn’t a pretty, wrapped-up-in-a-bow, everyone-holds-hands-and-sings story of a mass shooting. This is raw pain and anger, desperation, and grief. The survivors grapple with a lot of painful emotions surrounding the massacre- not only the losses of the their friends and family, but the losses of their trusted clergy, the loss of their perceived safety, the loss of trust in the team that stepped in to lead afterwards, the loss of love between family members, the anger they felt at the entire situation. Their pain and, at times, desperation, is palpable. Ms. Hawes conveys that excellently while still allowing the survivors the respect and dignity they deserve.

There is quite a lot of coverage of and about the killer in this book (I’m not using his name here); the depths of his soullessness are disturbing, so be prepared for that if you pick this book up. And there are plenty of parts that will bring you to tears, for many different reasons- depth of strength, grief, suffering, the community coming together, the senselessness of it all. There’s hope as well, but mostly, there’s pain, and a community that suffers deeply because of hatred. Grace Will Lead Us Home is an amazingly well-written book, one that I wish hadn’t had to be written at all.

Visit Jennifer Berry Hawes’s author page here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

The United States may call itself a country of immigrants, but it’s not a country that’s known to be kind to immigrants. Not in the past, and not now; not by our government, nor by our citizens. Obviously there are major exceptions; there are a ton of organizations out there fighting really hard to make this country a safe and welcoming place for our newcomers (I’ve volunteered teaching English as a second or other language in the past with one of these great organizations!), and I don’t want to discount their hard work and amazing contributions. But as a whole, the crazies tend to shout incredibly loud and drown out the voices of the helpers; we make it as difficult as possible to come here legally (unless you’ve got plenty of money, and then the rules don’t count); and it’s difficult to start a new life here when you have nothing, because we offer so little in terms of help. One of the people speaking up about how difficult it is for immigrants is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented writer (she’s on DACA) of undocumented parents. Her book, The Undocumented Americans (One World, 2020), is an eye-opening gut-punch that examines the difficulties of living in the United States without legal status.

How much do you know about undocumented immigrants? You’ve probably read the stories of people smuggled in on trucks or making dangerous journeys across the desert with coyotes (people paid to smuggle others into the US), and seen the tragic photos of families drowned in the Rio Grande. What happens to the people who make it here? They pick your fruits and vegetables. They clean your office buildings. They build your houses. They package your food. They cook the food you eat in restaurants, they clean up after natural disasters, they rushed in after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001 to sift through the debris that gave them cancer in order to get New York up and running again. They serve and give. They do all of this without health care, often at massive personal expense, with zero protection- if their boss doesn’t pay them that week, there’s nothing they can do. And so they suffer. And Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wants you to understand exactly how much, and what that does to not only them, but to their families. Their children. Their communities.

There are other books that will illuminate the reasons people come here illegally- desperate for safety after their lives have been threatened, searching for a way to make more than $50 per week at a full-time job, etc.- but Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio is more interested in explaining the emotional and physical damage her people have suffered. Are suffering. Will suffer. She’s angry- rightfully so, because for all that a large faction of our country likes to talk about respecting life, we certainly have no problem using the lives of these people- taking what we need when we want restaurant food, clean offices, help after natural disasters- and then throwing them away once they’ve served their purpose. Their pain is fresh and raw, and what they suffer is passed down the line to their children. The Undocumented Americans is heavy proof that we as a society are shirking our responsibilities to humanity.

This is a sad, heavy book about a group of people who have suffered a lot even before arriving here, and who continue to suffer after they arrive. Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio floods each page with raw emotion, anger, desperation. She’s a Harvard graduate and a current PhD candidate at Yale, but she makes the case that so often, when we hear of undocumented immigrants, we hear of stories like hers, the brilliant kid who climbed higher than anyone could have possibly imagined, and don’t they deserve citizenship for their brilliance? But what about the other people- the ones who came here out of desperation, seeking safety, the opportunity for their kids to simply go to school, who work two or three jobs (or more) at a time in order to make sure their children would have paper and pencils and whose services and lives and abilities we Americans take advantage of every day of our lives? Are people only worth it to us when they contribute massively to capitalism? Are human lives only worth as much as their financial potential?

We’re so willing to dismiss this group of people, and this book will show you exactly what we’re looking past every day. I can hear the arguments now- “Well, they came here illegally, so it’s their own fault that-” and I want to scream. They’re human beings. They’re people. Why are we so hell-bent on making people suffer for such stupid, arbitrary rules? Why can’t we take care of people in a way that makes them more able to participate in society? Why are we so willing to throw so many people away, simply because they had the audacity to be born somewhere else?

This is a book that will make you cry, if you’re at all a decent person. I’ll continue to vote for people who want to be part of a compassionate solution, and to do what I can so that the people Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes about have better, safer, healthier lives and more opportunities than just breaking their bodies down piece by piece and dying young because of it. Because they’re people, and they deserve so much better than the cast-off scraps we deign enough for them. This book was truly amazing and heartfelt.

nonfiction

Book Review: Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin

I wanted to read Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin (Legacy Lit, 2020) from the moment I first heard about it. Homegrown terrorism, nationalism, and white supremacy has been a huge and growing problem in recent years, as witnessed by constant news reports of attacks, bomb threats, shootings, mass shootings, synagogue and mosque threats and attacks, and plots against various political organizations. It’s been terrible watching all of this, and I knew I needed to learn more about who these people are.

Talia Lavin is an outspoken feminist Jewish journalist. All that would have made her a target online as it is, but she began investigating the far right and its online activities, and that made her even more of a target (to the point where she’s had to hire security to protect her family, because these people are so disgusting). Her investigations led her to visit some incredibly dark places on the web, where alt-right reading materials are passed around, groups develop new slurs for the people they hate (if you’re not straight, white, Christian, male, and deeply conservative in your political beliefs, they hate you and would rather see you dead), and plots to murder are planned out. These aren’t just people living in tin-can shacks far out in the woods. These are your neighbors, the people you pass by in the city every day. Biotech employees, working professionals, educated people. People who appear to be normal, but who are hellbent on the destruction of everyone not like them.

This disturbing exposé is tempered by Ms. Lavin’s self-deprecating humor and bolstered by her strong writing skills and quick-witted intellect. Oftentimes, I reread a particularly well-crafted sentence twice, just to admire it. But the content is difficult to consume; she’s reporting on the true dregs of society here, dregs that span the globe and show up in multiple countries and on multiple continents. The hatred of the people she writes about runs deep: Muslims and Jews feature heavily (being Jewish herself, Ms. Lavin brings personal history and expertise to the narrative), but women are also a major target, especially when she delves into the incel movement (short for involuntary celibate, this is an internet movement of men that has turned their inability to develop a decent and attractive personality into a rage-filled hatefest of women, because of course they’re owed women’s time and attention simply because they exist. *eyeroll* Men affiliated with this movement have engaged in assault, murder, and mass shootings).

Culture Warlords is an emotionally taxing book to read, but it’s an important one. If you’ve never heard of any of the content Ms. Lavin covers here, you’ve likely been in a coma for a very long time, or you’re not one of the groups targeted by the people she infiltrated (and in that case, you very much need to read this book and understand what life is like when you become a target). White supremacist groups are a major problem; I truly hope that this book shines some light on the danger they present and help us as a society take the necessary steps to stamp out such disgusting hatred.

Jewish Women’s Archive hosted a great talk with Talia Lavin about this book in February of 2020; you can view that video here. It’s worth the watch.

Follow Talia Lavin on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Equal America by Carol Anderson

This review will look a little different than my usual reviews.

A few years ago, I read White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. It’s American history with a spotlight on how deeply and violently racist this country has always been to Black people, and while I knew of many of the stories Ms. Anderson recounted, the details she included and the stories I hadn’t known about were shocking. I was appalled, and this has since become one of the books I recommend the most, because it’s history that everyone needs to know about and understand. Because of that well-written, beautifully researched, and eye-opening book, everything Carol Anderson has ever written is on my TBR- though I’m spacing them out; they’re a lot to handle, but they’re such important books- and next up was The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

The Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to bear arms, has never been applied equally. We’ve seen that play out time and time again, when Black people (usually men, though not always) who are legally in possession of a weapon and are acting in a responsible manner with it are shot and killed (whereas white men who have murdered people as part of an active shooter situation are taken into custody alive and unharmed). Think of Philando Castile or Tamir Rice, both now dead- one had a legally registered gun, which he had informed the police about; the other had a toy gun. Both are now dead. Compare that with all the perpetrators of mass shootings we’ve seen in the US that have been taken into custody alive, even after murdering people. There is a history to all of this, unfair rules that were harshly applied to the Black community, who were never allowed to defend themselves against anything or anyone, and Ms. Anderson meticulously documents it all in the pages of this book.

The Second isn’t a long book (there are a lot of footnotes; her research is meticulous, and I ended up flipping to the back quite often out of curiosity as to what sources she was using, and also because I wrote down a few quotes and wanted the original sources), but there’s a lot to digest here, a lot to wrap your brain around, and I had to keep stopping and rereading passages to make sure I understood them. American history as we’re taught in school is usually about brave patriots who stood up to tyrants; they leave out how often we were the tyrants ourselves. We leave out how racist our founding fathers were; we leave out most of the laws and court rulings that told Black people in no uncertain terms that they weren’t human beings, that their lives were worthless, that they weren’t entitled to self-defense or the rights of citizenship. Carol Anderson doesn’t leave these things out; she’s the education you should have gotten before, but likely didn’t. I was actually lucky and had a few grade school teachers that didn’t hold back when it came to speaking truth about American history; even so, there have still been many things I missed, and I’m grateful to Ms. Anderson and other writers like her to help fill in the gaps and help me understand exactly how deep the injustice in this country runs.

This review is more to make readers aware that this book exists- I’m not a historian and can’t review it as such, but the history she relates is heartbreaking and infuriating- and that Ms. Anderson’s writings are important and deserve your attention and consideration. The US has a lot of work to do to clean up the messes it’s made. To be honest, I’m not sure we have the willpower to do it; there are a frightening number of people out there who seem to revel in being as cruel as possible to as many groups as possible. But the decent people among us know that it’s a fight worth fighting, no matter what the odds, and the first step is being aware of exactly how much work there is to be done. Books like The Second and White Rage are excellent places to start.

Visit Carol Anderson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

I don’t remember how Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (Bloomsbury, 2017) ended up on my TBR. Likely, it was from another book blogger (thanks, whoever you are!), because I had three of her books on there- one down, two to go! The other two are available at my library; I’m pretty sure at least one of them is available only in ebook form- which is totally fine, but I just don’t get to the ebooks as quickly as I do the paper copies. Which is odd; I love ebooks and reading on my kindle, but I guess I enjoy the trip to the library and being able to see that new stack of books even more. 😉

Jade is a Black student at a nearly-all-white private school, a situation that has provided her with a great education, but which has made for some uncomfortable situations, and about which she often feels guilty when she’s hanging out with her neighborhood friends. So often, the opportunities she’s offered at this school feel…demeaning. Like they’re not seeing Jade for who she is, but just someone to help so that someone else can feel good about themselves. It’s not great.

The new program Jade’s been invited to be part of, Woman to Woman, fits into this category. Her new mentor, Maxine, is Black, but she’s privileged in ways that Jade has never been, and that makes it hard to relate to her. The program, if completed, comes with a promise of a college scholarship, but at times, Jade’s not sure it’s worth suffering the microaggressions, the assertions that girls like her need to be different, that who they are isn’t enough already. But Jade comes to understand that there are lessons to be learned in every situation, that her voice is powerful and ready to be used, and that by using it, she can make changes for herself and for other girls that stretch far into the future.

I really enjoyed this. Jade knows herself well, which is always great in a YA character (I sure didn’t have that kind of confidence when I was young, but I was also wracked with anxiety and depression, sooooooo). She just needs a gentle nudge here and there and to be pointed in the right direction. A little encouragement goes a long, long way, and this story is a good reminder not only of that, but of what teenagers are capable of. I really wish our society weren’t so willing to write them off as ridiculous and unformed, because honestly, teenagers are pretty darn awesome.

Something I really enjoyed about this book was Jade as an artist. Her medium is collage, something I’ve come to enjoy after noticing how often it pops up in the children’s books I’ve read with my daughter (Victoria Kann of the Pinkalicious books and Eric Carle, may his memory be a blessing, are some popular ones, but I even noticed it in a nonfiction book we read yesterday). Jade used items like newspapers, with their painful headlines, and turned ugly things into beauty. This kept my brain working, trying to figure out what her pieces might look like. I draw from time to time, but collage is beyond my ability, but I really like the idea of a teenager viewing the world like this and expressing herself through this medium. I’m going to have to keep an eye on the local high school’s art shows when those start happening again, because I’d really enjoy seeing more of how kids like Jade see the world.

This is a quick read, but it leaves the reader with a lot to consider: how are you treating the disadvantaged kids in your life? As full people who have their own ideas and connections to the world, or as empty vessels to pour your own points of view into? What kind of microaggressions have you been responsible for, and how will you work to remedy that? I’m looking forward to reading the other books from Ms. Watson on my list, because, as always, I know I have a lot to learn, and she’s an excellent teacher.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland- Jonathan M. Metzl

Anything about politics these days, I have to wait until I’m mentally strong enough to handle it. Self-care and all that; there’s only so much negativity I can take at one time. I had placed Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl (Basic Books, 2019) on my TBR on the recommendation of a friend, and on a recent trip to the library, I took out my updated list and grabbed this book.

The title sums the book up nicely. Across many red states, white Americans are voting for policies that directly harm them, from gun laws that up their own death rates, to healthcare policies (or the rescinding of policies) that lead to increased suffering and deaths, to education cutbacks and policies that mean their own children’s schools are worse off- sometimes much worse off. And they’re doing this out of a misplaced sense of cultural pride, that lifting those whom they have ‘othered’ up means they’ll have no one to look down on, and so in order to maintain this false sense of superiority, they continually put their own lives on the line by voting for policies that bring harm upon themselves. To them, this tradeoff is worth it.

Dying of Whiteness is necessarily heavy on the statistics in order to prove its hypothesis, but Mr. Metzl has managed to wrangle what could have been a dry recounting into a sobering narrative of his research findings as he traveled through multiple states that went red in the 2016 election. The first section on how looser gun laws in Missouri led to a 25% increase in firearm homicides and a 47% higher homicide rate than the national average between 2008-2014 shocked me, as did the massive increase (the percentage which I somehow neglected to write down) in suicide-by-gun among white males. Prevention is key, but thanks to the Dickey Amendment, researchers haven’t been able to research what would be effective prevention for suicide carried out by a gun (as government contributes the most funding to research, since government funds cannot be used for funding research into gun deaths, the only thing to takeaway here is that the ability to own a gun is more important than saving lives, according to our government). Imagine if the flu, or the polio epidemic were treated like this, and where we would be as a nation if no research were allowed to be conducted on death or suffering caused by those. Yet here we are… It’s not exactly an uplifting book, but it’s not meant to be.

The healthcare section is similarly packed with statistics and numbers, with men on Medicaid, tethered to oxygen tanks and barely able to wheeze out answers complaining about immigrants and people of color and saying they’d rather die than have certain groups of people also able to access healthcare. It’s really that bad.

Same goes for the educational system, but at least Mr. Metzl is able to find plenty of citizens who seem to understand how the affects of austerity measures in Kansas harmed their own children (though they still voted en masse for people who promised to enact these same policies nationwide…), but only after their children’s schools went massively down the tubes.

‘You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,’ Booker T. Washington famously said, and Mr. Metzl does a fine job of exposing the Americans who are content to stay down with those they’re deadset on oppressing. It’s a gloomy look at the reality of America today. My sole complaint lies with what Mr. Metzl seemingly overlooks: while these people have no trouble living in reduced circumstances in order to maintain their place in this invisible hierarchy, even going so far as to give up their own lives for this misguided ideal (something at which he seems more than a little awed at, in a horrified way), what he doesn’t mention is that it’s not just themselves these people are sacrificing. It’s their children. It’s their neighbors. It’s people who desperately want change, who DON’T want to sacrifice themselves, who don’t want to watch their children or their parent die due to lack of decent medical care, or who need to know how to prevent gun suicides, or who want their kids to have technology classes and AP classes and college preparation in school. People who are literally dying for their allegiance to their own whiteness are also sentencing the rest of us to die alongside them, and I would have liked to have seen more written to that particularly terrifying reality.

Dying of Whiteness is daunting and more than a little disheartening, but it’s well-written, statistically sound, and an important read, if you can handle it. It’s also a call to action for white people. Free your mind. Get over whatever racial biases and prejudices you have. Do the work to ditch your racism, because your life, and the life of those you love, literally depends on it.

Visit Jonathan Metzl’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity- Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

At the end of last month, I started veering into reading slump territory. Nothing too bad, just…nothing sounded good. I browsed my own shelves, poked through my TBR, checked out a few book blogs…

Nothing. My brain just wasn’t having it.

So I decided to hit up the library in hopes of stumbling upon something that spoke to me, and on the New Books shelf, a hefty, bright yellow tome jumped out: Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi (Tarcherperigee, 2019). At first, I wondered if I were up to the task, but once I flipped through the book and noted its bright photographs and short interviews with people from all walks of life, I knew I had to read this.

High school friends Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi came to the realization while still in high school that they’d never been taught anything about race by their school. Understandably disturbed by this, they set out together to not only educate themselves, via mentors and a diverse reading list, but to educate others. They gave TED talks, they wrote a textbook, they founded the CHOOSE Org, and they set out during their gap year between high school and college to travel through all fifty states, interviewing people of all races and ages, about their experience with race- their own and others’- racial education, racism, and more.

Each section has a loose theme, beginning with a piece of writing from Guo and Vulchi, who are both inquisitive and wise beyond their years. They’re not afraid to admit when they don’t know or understand something; instead, they search boldly for answers in a way that gives me such hope for the future if these are the women who will one day take the reins of our country. In their travels, they interview people of all races and mixed races, straight people, gay people, transgender people, people from various religions and ethnic groups. Each interview is rife with information on racial literacy, defining terms the reader may not be familiar with in an effort to better educate their audience. If, like so many of us (myself included), you didn’t receive much or any education in racial matters when you were growing up, Tell Me Who You Are is an amazing place to start.

What a deeply fascinating book. I grew up in a very white town, settled mainly by Scandinavians and Germans, and far enough from the city and boring enough that it stayed that way until very recently, so I received very, very little education in the way of race when I was young. It’s because of books like this, and diverse fiction, and making friends with different racial and religious backgrounds, and following people of color online that I’ve been able to broaden my understanding when it comes to racial literacy. Guo and Vulchi’s interviews bring to light the many facets of race and racism; it’s a deeply educational book that still manages to entertain by presenting each interview in a conversational style, almost as though the reader is listening to a trusted friend divulge their deepest thoughts. What can so often be a heavy topic to read about is really brought to life here in a creative and thoughtful way. As I turned the pages, moving from an interview with a Native American man to a native Hawaiian to a Mexican woman to a white man to a black woman, I marveled over the beauty of our world and mourned that in 2019, we still struggle so hard to open our minds and understand each other. Tell Me Who You Are is a strong, bold step towards that better understanding.

At my library, Tell Me Who You Are is shelved in the Adult Nonfiction section, but I hope a copy makes its way to the teen nonfiction shelves as well. This is brilliant writing and a brilliant project undertaken by teenagers and should be readily available to teens in the space they most frequent. It introduced me to new concepts of racial literacy (I still feel like I don’t *quite* understand positionality), a deeper understanding of what counts as cultural appropriation, the struggles of the disabled to get around in New York City (you’d think that with a city that big and that diverse, they’d do a better job, and you would be wrong; 80% of subway stops are inaccessible to people with a disability), and the concept of secondary (or vicarious) trauma. I really appreciated their attention to Native people; I’m aware that my reading lacks indigenous voices and that’s something I’d like to focus on a little more in the future.

Tell Me Who You Are is a cornucopia of experiences by a gorgeous mosaic of people and voices, one that serves to expand the mind of the reader if you’re willing to shut up, silence your own voice for a moment, and let it. This would be an impressive and captivating book by any author, but the fact that it was put together by two young women just out of high school also puts it in the category of an incredible accomplishment and a work of art. The world definitely needs more young leaders like Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi, and I’d be thrilled if my daughter grew up with their intelligence, their curiosity, their drive, and their commitment to making the world a more racially literate and understanding place.

As a brief aside, there are a few negative reviews for this book on Goodreads that illustrate the deep need for this book’s existence. Don’t let those reviews color your opinion; instead, think of those opinions as what marginalized people are up against, and use Tell Me Who You Are to educate yourself in such a way that you’ll never sound like the people who wrote those reviews. (Criticism of the book is perfectly acceptable; whining, “WHAT ABOUT THE WHITE MEN???” in regards to a book on racial literacy is ludicrous. There are nine bazillion other books about white men published and readily available on store and library shelves every year; not everything is about white men, nor does it need to be.)

Visit Choose Org’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

When I Was White: A Memoir- Sarah Valentine

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.

Visit Sarah Valentine’s page at MacMillan Publishers.