A father’s hard-earned struggle to unlearn race.
Until his daughter Marlow was born, Thomas Chatterton Williams had never questioned that his children would be Black like him. Marlow’s blue eyes, blond hair, and fair skin forced him to reconsider almost everything he thought he believed about race.
Review by Brian Tanguay
When Thomas Chatterton Williams’s first child was born with blue eyes, the New York Times Magazine contributor and author of Losing My Cool felt the sincerest love and something close to the fear of death. Williams, the offspring of a white mother and an African-American father, and the husband of a white French woman, had always believed the “fundamentally American dictum” that one drop of Black blood made a person Black. Until his daughter Marlow was born in Paris, Williams had never questioned the idea that his children would be Black like him. Marlow’s blue eyes, blond hair, and fair skin shocked Williams and forced him to reconsider almost everything he thought he believed about race.
“But what does it say about us,” Williams asks in his thought-provoking new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White, “that the most common means we have to describe ourselves rely on categories that do not and cannot manifest on human flesh?” Williams examines the sheer absurdity of racial categories and the porousness of racial boundaries, and comes to the realization that “genuine liberty, inner, mental freedom, is never something another person can give to you but rather something hard-won.”
Williams isn’t blind to the racial polarization currently convulsing the United States any more than he is blind to our country’s history of racism and bigotry. “We have a responsibility to remember,” Williams writes, “but we also have the right and I believe even the duty to continuously remake ourselves anew.” Such remaking of the self — regardless of one’s race — requires moral courage and intellectual rigor, two qualities that run through Self-Portrait in Black and White.