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U.S. is a country bisected by the color line

In 1954, when I was 10 years old, my world was turned upside down. Almost overnight my family disintegrated. I lost my mother, my sister, a brother, our home and every vestige of the unexamined good life because I lost my membership in white America and all of the taken-for-granted possibilities that entailed.

My father, James "Buster" Williams, was a light-skinned black man who had chosen to pass for white. He married a white woman and escaped the projects of Muncie, Ind., to become a prosperous small-business owner in Virginia, where he was thought to be Greek or Italian.

I spent the first decade of my life there, carefree and oblivious in the security of our ordinary, white, middle-class life.

But my father wrestled with many demons, and he ultimately succumbed to the alcoholism that destroyed first his family and then his business.

My brother and I were separated from our younger siblings, who fled with my mother. Defeated, my father boarded a bus back to an Indiana housing project with his two remaining children. There was nothing left for us in Virginia.

At that moment, I thought life had to get better _ it could not get any harder.

It was on that old Greyhound that I learned my father's deepest secret: The black woman who had been our cook as we passed for white was in fact my grandmother. I got on that bus a white boy and got off a black boy. I crossed the color line.

My father was about a decade older than the fictional Coleman Silk, the flawed hero of the new Miramax film The Human Stain. Silk, a scholar at the end of a stellar career, is a black man who had been passing for white for a half-century.

Silk's story is really the story of my father, a man who lied about his race, denied his family and in the end paid a terrible price.

In the rapid disintegration of Coleman Silk's life, as in the decline of my father from a charismatic college student into a bankrupt alcoholic, our most cherished national myth _ the idea that here in the "new world" we are freed from the constraints and circumstances of birth to invent and reinvent ourselves freely through what we accomplish _ slams full force into the reality of race as it is lived in the United States. For what more defining, confining "circumstance of birth" than which side of the color line you happen to be born on is there in this country? And what more outrageous and more harrowing choice in 1950s' America than to cross it?

I believe my father saw his choice to pass as white as a courageous one: the affirmation of possibility, the choice to claim the American birthright.

At the time, it was no secret that the American myth of self-invention did not include black men.

Now, I am often asked _ as are many who have overcome difficult circumstances _ how I managed to rise above the poverty and racism of my childhood. The answer to that question is a long and complicated one. But I am increasingly convinced that part of it lies in the fact that, until I was 10 years old, that great American mythology of unlimited possibility and self-invention belonged to me.

Through his choice to live as white, my father gave me for those crucial early years what society surely would have withheld: a white boy's birthright, the assumption that with hard work I could do whatever I wanted with my life.

When I "became colored," I knew that it was not I who changed, but others' expectations and definitions of who I was and who I could be. Although I had many days of doubt and discouragement, I refused to accept the limits imposed on me because of my race.

Are these limits still there? At a time when the U.S. secretary of State and the CEO of American Express are black men, when identity politics delivers votes and wins elections, when powerful men and women of color take leadership positions in every imaginable profession and the great civil-rights marches form part of our most admired history, it is tempting to think that my father's story and Coleman Silk's are relics of a time now past and that the reasons for the choice that made, and then unmade, them both no longer exist.

I do not believe that is so _ although the Jim Crow era that shaped my youth is over. There is certainly less rigidity to the American color line today. The choices open to men and women of color are less harsh and forbidding.

Yet, however much real progress has been made in the way race is lived in this nation, we have only to visit the projects and the barrios and the prisons to find men and women whose life possibilities were stunted before they even got started.

My father's story gives us the chance to wonder about why someone might choose to turn his back on everything that was dear to him in order to invent a new life. That is a question we need to ask.

Gregory Williams, president of the City College of New York, is author of Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black (Dutton, 1995).

Special to the Los Angeles Times