Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own

Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 272 pages; $24.

FROM THE DUST JACKET:

Open House gathers observations, reminiscences, anecdotes, and commentaries by columnist Patricia Williams. Written with wit and insight, she relates stories about her life as a lawyer, scholar, writer, African-American, descendant of slaves, mother, and single, fifty-something woman. She tells us of her Great Aunt Mary, who crossed the color line one day, while boarding a train; about her Best White Friend, who believes that the only thing standing between the author and an eligible husband is a makeover; about the day she and her family learned how to eat watermelon without fear of racial judgment; and about why she worships Oprah. She also tackles serious subjects, such as cloning and the legacy of slavery and privacy issues in the cyber-age, all with humor and originality.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

From Publishers Weekly: With a résumé that includes degrees from Wellesley and Harvard Law School, a law professorship at Columbia, a column in the Nation and a trio of books, Williams would seem to have enough material to fill several volumes of memoirs. In this thought-provoking, unconventional one, she combines family history with discourses on everything from race, class, and slavery's legacy to why she likes O magazine. One chapter, "The Kitchen," begins with an account of buying herself a cappuccino maker, moves to a consideration of homelessness in New York City, continues on to detail her father's heritage, segues to thoughts on why African-Americans give their children unusual names, returns to cappuccino and her sophisticated godmother, makes its way around to trying to cook a turkey and on from there to other food anecdotes and a description of sharing cinnamon toast and steamed milk with her young son.... The book's most affecting parts are the rich, loving stories about Williams's family, from those born into slavery to a grandfather who graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1907.

From Booklist: Williams recalls a vivacious great-aunt who was indentured as a young girl, later passed for white and married a wealthy white man, and eventually reclaimed her racial identity and settled into a life as the family's grande dame. Williams's participation in Anna Deveare Smith's Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue provokes her to recognize her hidden talents and longings. The trend toward minorities, most notably Michael Jackson, using plastic surgery prompts observations about standards of beauty. She reveals her experience as the mother of an adolescent adopted son....

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Patricia J. Williams, born in 1951 in Boston, is a recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" award, a columnist ("Diary of a Mad Lawyer," The Nation), and a professor of law at Columbia University. Her previous books are Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, Alchemy of Race and Rights, and The Roosters Egg. She contributes regularly to Ms. and The Village Voice. She lives in Manhattan and Martha's Vineyard.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

Professor Williams and I spoke late one afternoon. Her son was home from his Manhattan school and busy with a friend. Occasionally, I heard -- here in warm, still day-lit California -- the noise of two boys whooping in Williams's twilit Manhattan apartment.

I said that I was fascinated by Ms. Williams's recounting of African-Americans' lives in 19th- and early-20th-century Boston, the city where Ms. Williams was reared. "Few people," I said, "have so much documentation of their family as do you."

"It's partly," Ms. Williams said, "because my godmother died and left me an apartment full of letters and documents. I couldn't even put it all in the book, but it got me musing. This book is the musing upon how fortunate I was to have this older generation's influence. I could move from where I am to where my mother was, to where my grandmother was, to where my great-grandmother was. I could figure out a rationale for the paths that led back forward in time to where I am."

The professor writes about her family and her family's friends' educations.

"Every major challenge on behalf of constitutional rights," she said, "every civil rights advance -- not just for blacks, but all people in this country, of the 20th Century -- has been around education, has been access to education. It has been begging, screaming, suing, chewing, clawing our way into grammar schools, high schools, graduate schools, colleges, universities.

"So the theme of education goes through this book. And since I wrote the book, Bill Cosby expressed his concern about black youth becoming too anti-intellectual. But I think actually his critique was one of American culture at large being genuinely anti-intellectual. Blacks become the scapegoat for that, but this is a genuinely anti-intellectual moment in our history."

I said, "I do think that there's an unconscious way in which pathologies are rushed by the majority culture into the black community and dropped there."

Professor Williams added, "I also think [these pathologies are] internalized in the black community."

I suggested that media carries more news about black violence than about more commonplace black lives.

"Yes, the commonplace. That's why I kept talking about Oprah, because she really did, in some ways, open up the notion that, yeah, you can be a little overweight and you can be a little of this and you can be a little of that -- and it's okay. You're just normal. This is life. You don't have to be spectacularly beautiful -- you just go. I keep thinking of her as significant in her protection of a space to be banal."

We talked, then, about the professor's essay on African-American naming. "Within the black community, it's a little bit like playing the dozens, or the 'signifying' that Skip Gates first made famous when he testified in a trial about the early versions of rap -- that you turn a meaning upside down. This was a very literal, rather than playful act, this business of naming. We went through a period in our history when you didn't call blacks by their last name. Because they didn't deserve it and because they were owned by somebody else.

"You were permanently nicknamed. The honorifics of Mr. or Ms. or 'Your Honor,' or Doctor, are so absent from that community that people actually ended up making them part of their first name and insisting upon it by baptizing their children with the honorifics. As a way of subverting the disrespect.

"The acquisition of last names, after the Civil War, was a process, in many cases, of ditching last names, which were the names of owners. Malcolm X is understood to be the first person to examine the question of one's 'slave name.' But after the Civil War, people were very aware of slave names. They buried them and took on new names and moved across the country where they couldn't be found. They acquired new names, naming themselves after the liberator, Lincoln, and after Jefferson and Washington, or other iconic figures in American history. Those names didn't actually reflect relationship. That's why there are so many black 'Washingtons' and black 'Jeffersons,' and for that matter, black 'Jacksons.'

"I think every frightened refugee does some version of that renaming. It was interesting when The Boston Globe described John Kerry's forefathers who changed their names, or when you think of the days prior to the Holocaust when life in certain parts of Europe was dangerous for Jews and Jews changed their names to Christianize them in some way.

"I think that people do that; it's a human thing to do. We don't have an historic perspective on it. It's not part of written history. It is, I think, much more part of the oral history that I fear is being lost, which is another reason I started writing this down."

"What are your students at Columbia like?"

"Columbia is so expensive that they are largely very privileged. It's an urban campus; it's a very international campus; it's also very, very diverse. I think Columbia is one of the most diverse schools in the Ivy League because of its location. So I have students from all over the world, all over the country, all races, nationalities, and certainly probably a greater cross-section of a religious mix than most universities."

"When African-Americans talk among one another, do you all ever talk about this business about the 'one drop of blood?' -- 'A single drop of black blood is sufficient to assure membership in the black race.' "

"No. No. I think white people and Dinesh D'Souza [author, among other titles that are favored by conservative thinkers, of Letters to a Young Conservative, must be talking about it full-time, but black people, generally, don't talk about it. It's interesting to me to read ways in which it's represented, and again I think that this is so much an issue of the 'think tank' mentality, where they said, 'But you're not really black.' Anybody who does think of himself as black, 'Well, then, you're just following the one drop of blood.' But that really has not been in vogue since perhaps my grandmother's day or even before.

"In another book I wrote about a woman of my great-aunt's age, who was older than my mother, who is almost 90 at this point. I wrote about an encounter she had with a white Southern woman, who'd come up from Mississippi and moved to Boston. Her summary of racism in the North was that it was just so much worse because in the North, they're just racist against everybody. Whereas in the South, she said, 'They don't even give you any credit for your white blood.' I think that's the dark underside; I shouldn't use the word 'dark,' but you know what I mean. I think that's what I find so offensive about people who keep saying, 'Oh, well, you're just insisting about the one drop rule -- you're really white and nobody would consider you black.'

"Race has never been about color per se; it's not about genealogy. It's about social strictures, and it's always been malleable. We've been through 100 configurations of what's black or what's not. Or what's African-American or what's not, or what's segregation -- who is to be segregated and who's not. Is it hair? I mean, at one instance hair distinguished between South Asians and African-Americans. It is a kind of invisible caste system which has the complexity of this caste built into it, but the complexities of lots of other things built into it too."

I suggested, "Like celebrity. For instance, I think that almost any white racist would be pleased to drink a cup of coffee with Bill Cosby."

"Right, right, right. All isms, I think, employ exceptionalism as part of what really patrols the boundary between who's in or not. There's always an exception because that helps the designated superior caste feel better about themselves -- allows them to feel that they are being nice people. That doctrine of exceptionalism is what allows for a Cosby and maybe for me."

"How did this 'one drop of blood' business get started? Did it start in America?"

"When I was teaching contracts, I asked, 'At what point do we have a kind of commercial reference around living things?' Always the rules for living things -- plants, animals, humans -- are also employment contracts. These contracts become more and more complicated when you have sentient beings.

"When you look at that history, you begin to see that it develops along with breeding. So, really, after Mendelian science took hold, you saw it applied to plants, then to animals, mostly to cattle. The British in particular were obsessive about breeding bigger cattle. They then applied that to slaves."

"You didn't write about that in the book."

"Oh, no, I would never write that. It's still much too controversial. People still take it as though, 'Oh, that's why you guys have big thighs and can run so fast.' Except that nobody then looks at the extent to which we have never been able to breed blacks in the same way you can breed a cow. And, in fact, whites have as much African-American genetic structure as do African-Americans. Any white and black person in the United States who has been here more than a generation is much more closely related than any white person in Europe. So the discourse of breeding is just too freighted to talk about that sort of stuff."

I said, "It's true, though. Blacks who were slaves were bred. And the breeders were open about it."

"Yet there were social categories for people. Cows and slaves, even to the extent that slaves were sold down the river, weren't penned in the same way. And masters were too busy breeding with the slaves. So our genetics are much more complicated than the cows that were bred."

"One section of your book that I thought particularly interesting was what I thought of as the 'France' section -- your annual vacations in rural France with friends."

"Well, there is something fascinating about being the only black American for miles in rural France. You tend to sift out your blackness and sift out your American-ness. It's like having a prism, and you break down the colors of your identity -- which part of you is this, and which part of you is that. It's very interesting."

"When you get to France in the book, you relax. The book relaxes."

"I'm exotic-fied there. In other contexts I have written about being in France where I write about the exoticism. I liked being in France precisely because I was romanticized. But that's a false identity, and I know that. The more you become part of the culture, the less exotic you become. I guess I really wasn't writing about France; I was writing about being in that house in rural France. I'm always on vacation there. I don't have to earn a living there. And it's so beautiful."

"In France," I said, "you don't have to be as conscious of blackness as you do here."

"Yes. It does feel that there are spaces like that. I suspect I could re-create that sense being in any foreign place -- you know, 'distant from one's self'? In Copenhagen I would feel the same way. I don't know if I'd feel the same way in China.

"A friend of mine, who is black, recalls being in Ireland before it became quite so much of the tourist attraction that it is now. This is 15, 20 years ago. Little children ran up to touch her skin. She felt it as in no way offensive. It was open curiosity. There was this sort of innocence, as opposed to what the first white colonials describe when black children came up to touch the white skin. There's a kind of openness to finding out who this person is before the realities of who this person really is -- before they start reminding you of your enemy or your cruel uncle. Or, before you start taking people for granted. I think that's always been a part of the travel and discovery and going to places you don't know -- a finding -- not just others, but finding yourself in this new way which is in a space in which you're not judged the same way.

"I have always felt that when I travel. As a result, I love traveling. When I have traveled in the last year or so, it's not as comfortable. People come up saying, 'What in the world is your president doing?' You know, 'What does this mean; what is America doing?' That feels uncomfortable. It trumps being black or anything else."

"It trumps everything."

"Yes, it trumps absolutely everything. I am a citizen of the Bush nation. I'm not African-American. I'm from where Bush is. That's very odd. This sense of hostile distrust is sad.

"Anybody can write about day-to-day things about household or family or having a child. But people say, 'You're so interesting because you write about being black and doing this.' Actually, there are times when I actually feel, 'What would it be like to exist in a race-free zone, and is it possible to even imagine that?' I think it's not possible really to experience that.

"Travel does make it possible to look at all the aspects, these prismatic aspects of identity and go in and out of the weight of being this one and only that one, which is what really is oppressive, that you can never escape. Traveling makes you say, 'Okay, it varies with location and human history and time, and there are better and worse things, and this is how you learn to be better as opposed to worse.' "

"Metaphorically, too, travel is freedom."

"It is."

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