a bookclique pick by Jessica Flaxman
Julie Lythcott-Haims’ new memoir, Real American, lays bare the unique experience of being both black and white in America. Lythcott-Haims is the distinguished daughter of an African-American doctor and a British teacher who met and fell in love in Ghana in 1966. She attended Stanford and Harvard before becoming a Dean at Stanford, the renowned author of How to Raise an Adult, and one of the best public speakers I have ever heard.
Real American offers a riveting, loosely constructed narrative of growing up in the United States, a country that is so highly attuned to appearances in general and race in particular. In the American mid-west where she was raised, people simply could not fathom that Julie’s mother was white, or that her father, riding his own lawn mower at his own home, was not the hired gardener.
Messages about who she was and wasn’t were reinforced constantly by those she barely knew and those she knew well, including her parents who “raised her black” in predominantly white communities. “White boys will be your friend,” her father told her, “but they’ll never date you.”
What Julie internalized was that in the eyes of the world, she could not possibly belong to her own mother and that both parts of her, her whiteness and her blackness, were at different times and in different contexts an affront to others. When she was accepted to Stanford in 1985, she was asked by the father of a boy in her class, “Do you think it’s fair that you got into Stanford over Harris when his scores were higher than yours?”
What he meant to say, she intuited, was that with her blackness, she had stolen the proper place of a white boy in the Ivy Leagues. If only this story from the 1980s were a skeleton in America’s collective closet, a true relic of the past. For readers who enjoyed Debby Irving’s powerful Waking up White, I highly recommend this brave memoir of the unique challenge of waking up both black and white.