Monday, January 18, 2010

Open House

Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own
Patricia J. Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)

Patricia Williams contains multitudes. She's the author of three books on American race relations; she is a columnist for The Nation, and a professor of law at Columbia University. She's the great-grand-daughter of a house slave, and the unmarried mother of an adopted son. She's a piano student distinguished more by determination than skill, and she possesses one of New York City's better collections of take-out menus. And what a story-teller!
Many of the stories are tales of Williams's family, a remarkable collection of (mainly) aunts who rode education as far as it could take them in their day, and encouraged her to push farther. "They always insisted that I work hard, but not that I be perfect. They worked hard with me, on me, for me." Any family has complications, of course, including some that are peculiar to black families: she had an aunt who married into a prestigious white Boston family, who wound up reinventing her white son-in-law as her own son, in effect disinheriting her daughter.
The essays in Open House are relatively personal, compared with the political bent of Williams's earlier collections.; but Williams here shows us that such a clean distinction would be a luxury in her life. From the time she was one of nine black women in her class at Harvard Law School, she has had a sort of evil twin, who exists in the opinions and prejudices of others. She has, as it happens, an actual public voice, a record of speech and writing about race, gender, and various legal issues; and then she has the straw man--the liberal feminazi of Rush Limbaugh's dreams, as pictured by some of her students, for polemical purposes of their own. She even had the dubious distinction of the full Lani Guinier treatment: when she was scheduled to give some talks on the BBC, she found herself reading about her supposed self in the British press, as a supporter of "favoritism, tribalism, liberalism, literalism, and the degradation of civilization as we know it."
Williams's view of the contradictions of African-American life is both entertaining and enlightening. On compulsive striving to overcome stereotypes: "...when huge amounts of energy go into jumping through those hoops for the sole sake of performance rather than personal satisfaction, a kind of bitterness settles over the enterprise. We risk a deep disappointment, an existential fatigue that can poison the entire enterprise." Ain't it the truth?

April 2005

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