By Leslie Lindsay
‘Where are you from? No, where are you from, from?’ Julie Lythcott-Haims tackles race, self-love, how poetry helped unleash her voice, the unique structure of REAL AMERICAN–how the formatting was intentional, and so much more
Searingly honest, raw memoir about what it’s like to be biracial in 1970s-today’s America.
I tore through Lythcott-Haims’s memoir, REAL AMERICAN; this is such an important read, one everyone ought to take the time to read and reflect upon. In fact, after I finished, a barrage of emotions hit me and also, I began cataloging all my interactions with those of a race other than my own.
In first grade, a gangly Black* girl with a head full colorful clips that rattled and clanged as she peered at me through the cracks in the bathroom stall caused me alarm. I told my mother, who was convinced the ‘bussing program’ was a problem. She wanted to have words with my teacher, but I assured her it wasn’t a problem.
Also, in first grade, I was made math partners with an Eastern Indian boy. We worked with plastic stacking cubes while learning our 10s, 5s, etc. The cubes were brown, like candy caramels. I told him, proudly, ‘Hey–your skin is the same color [as those cubes].’ I thought my observation was astute, but was quickly embarrassed when he shrugged and went back to the task at hand.
At some point, in my elementary years, I inspected the freckles on my legs quite regularly. One was particularly dark and a little larger than the others. “Mom,” I said, “Is this what I would look like if I were Black?” I pointed to the freckle. The skin around the freckle started getting pink from all of my poking. My mother nodded and said, “Yes, probably.”
And there was one girl who, like Julie Lythcott-Haims, *was* biracial. Her mother was white, her father black. Just like Julie. She had golden-brown ringlets her mother fastened in two ropy braids alongside her face. She had a gap between her teeth and full lips. Her skin was a beautiful tawny and she was well-liked. She may have been the only biracial girl in my entire elementary school.
There are more stories and tid-bits throughout my years, but this, too is much like Julie’s story. She recounts her life as a Black girl, mostly and not what it’s like to be ‘white,’ at all. The writing is raw, uncensored, powerful, brave, and bare. It stirred me and made me think of conscious and unconscious racism. And in some instances, I was quite embarrassed with my assessments of others.
“Courageous, achingly honest.”
The narrative in REAL AMERICAN is slightly experimental, almost as though Lythcott-Haims is sending a series of emails about her race, her self-esteem, her identity to the big wide world. Pieces of it are quite poetic, but all of it is seriously enlightening.
You may remember Julie from her bestselling book, HOW TO RAISE AN ADULT, which I featured in 2015. She holds a BA from Stanford, a JD from Harvard Law School, and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. She also served as undergraduate dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford.
Today, I am so, so honored to sit down with Julie Lythcott-Haims and chat about REAL AMERICAN, which may be more important than ever given our social and political climate. Please join us.
[*Black is capitalized throughout REAL AMERICAN, I will keep it that way here, too]
Leslie Lindsay: Julie, oh wow. Just wow. You had me hooked with the first line of REAL AMERICAN:
“Where are you from?”
“No, I mean, where are you from from?”
I’ve been guilty of asking this very question. I was in 9th grade and it was directed toward a boy I had a major crush on. He was dark and gorgeous and a little exotic. His response, “I’m from the same place as you: Earth.” I don’t think I ever asked that question again. What was the driving force behind your desire to write REAL AMERICAN?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Haha. I guess partly it was from being sick of that question, which I’ve gotten for the better part of 50 years (along with its twin, “What ARE you?”), which connotes, “You are confusing to me, perhaps problematic; I need these answers so I know where to put you in my schema of how humans are valued.”
The driving force behind it was to try to tell a story many of us experience but often don’t talk about, which is the self-loathing we feel when we discover our place in a nation that is built in large part on racist attitudes and practices. The narrative arc of the book goes like this: I am a Black and biracial child with a Black daddy and white momma and I am discovering something is wrong with brown skin. Over time, your racism makes me loathe myself and my Blackness and makes me dislike and distrust Black people. Shame on you for heaping your racism on me. I’ve now done the work to lift your racism off of me. THIS is what I sound like now that I am unrestrained, free.
L.L.: REAL AMERICAN must tackle the race question because that’s what it’s all about, really. Let’s start with your parents. Your father is Black; a direct descendant of slaves. He was also the assistant surgeon general under President Carter. He met your white mother while living and working in Africa raising his four children from a previous marriage as a single father. Your mother came from Yorkshire, England. They fell in love. They married. You were born in Africa. But you are not African. Your father is American. Your mother is British. You hold American citizenship. Why does this matter? Because, it does.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: I’m proud of have been born in a S***hole country – Nigerians were the first humans I knew outside of my own family. But I am not Nigerian, or African, no. At least, not recently.
The vile movement known as Birtherism made our birth stories matter. I’ve spent over ten years wondering, wait, even if Obama was born in Kenya (which he wasn’t), he’s still an American because he was born to an American, right? This mattered to me because of the circumstances of my birth. I felt like my own American-ness was tarnished whenever the racist birthers slung their mud about Obama.
Because what am I if not American? American is the only citizenship I have ever held (Britain wouldn’t recognize citizenship through the mother at the time of my birth, although they do now; Nigeria would let me claim their citizenship if I applied for it by age 18, which I saw no need to do although I wish I had dual-citizenship now). Who are these people to carve lines between which of us are real Americans and which of us aren’t?
Beyond the fact of my citizenship, is identity, and like any mixed-race parents, mine were told to “raise her as Black, so she’ll be Black and proud.” It was the prevailing wisdom in the 70s when I was coming up and biracial kids were an anomaly, and it is sound advice still today. But you can’t just tell a kid what their identity is. You have to give them cultural touchstones so they can feel it, hold onto it, make it real. My parents did the opposite by raising me in all white towns. I think this was a way for my father to thumb his nose at white society and demonstrate his status and success all at the same time. He’s been gone for over twenty years now, so I can’t talk to him about this, but Mom says he wanted me to be “comfortable in any room, with any people,” by which he meant he wanted me to make it with white folks. What he overlooked was the importance of being in community with Black folk, who could help me navigate the treacherous line of race, and who could help me back up to my feet when I racism’s blows came. If my father hadn’t passed away over twenty years ago, I think I’d be having this out with him right now.
L.L.: And then you were raised in some very ‘white’ places, Madison, Wisconsin for one. You felt not white-enough for the white people and not black-enough for the Black people. I can see how you’d feel in the middle. Can you talk more about that feeling? Also, I feel like Madison is now a very progressive city, but…you were there in the early 1980s. Do you think things have changed?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Madison was and is a huge college town with folks who hail from all over the world. But as with many college towns, go a few miles out of town and you can find yourself in whiteville where you get stupid comments, angry looks, or far, far worse. I went to high school in Middleton, a community on the outskirts of Madison, which was almost entirely white. There, I was subjected to stupid comments from friends, like, “I don’t think of you as Black, I think of you as normal,” and racist remarks from teachers such as: “Blacks have a higher infant mortality rate because Black parents don’t love their children as much as white parents do.” I left in 1985 and never looked back. I can’t speak to whether it has changed, although it has to have.
L.L.: Switching gears a bit to the structure of REAL AMERICAN; the pagination and font of the narrative is a bit like an email. It’s not written in chronological order, but more like a series of essays. Some points are reiterated throughout but the overall theme is about identity. Can you talk about how you structured your memoir?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Thanks for asking about this. This stuff goes over the heads of most readers but I love talking about it. The genre is creative non-fiction—I let the form support the narrative rather than stuffing the narrative into some pre-determined form. It’s in nine parts, with the first and last parts being summative and analytical, and with parts 2-8 being largely chronological with a few flashbacks here and there and one large piece of backstory on my family. The narrative voice is prose poetry, meaning there are places where the prose violates the rules of grammar and syntax in order to most effectively convey my intent. There is a large right margin on every page which is the omnipresence of whiteness in my life as a Black woman; that is, I’m not entitled to use the whole page but I try to make good use of the space I’ve got. The font is sans-serif as to my mind, serif conveyed a flourish, a flounce, a privilege that I believe betrayed the narrative. Each part consists of chapters demarcated with a roman numeral. Some of the nine parts have only five chapters, some have over thirty. Some of those chapters take up the full page or multiple pages, whereas other chapters are a paragraph long, or a few sentences, or one sentence followed by a completely blank page. By the way, I had to fight like hell with my publisher about all of these structural points; to my dismay they hadn’t realized all of these devices were “intentional” and “integral” to the text even though I sold them a manuscript that looked exactly this way.
L.L.: There’s a piece in the narrative where you talk about not liking or ‘getting’ poetry. Actually, your exact words were:
“I hated poetry for its confounding barriers […] obscurity […] wasn’t interested in trying to open that locked gate.” Yet there are pieces of REAL AMERICAN that read very poetically.
“These words. Like quicksand. A trap. Like a truth that swallows itself.”
Can you talk about how race and poetry both become ‘unlocked’ in REAL AMERICAN?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yep I hated poetry right up until I read Lucille Clifton’s poetry collection, Good Woman. My reaction to her poetry was, “If these words are possible, if she is possible, then maybe I am possible.” To me free verse is our natural state of expression; the notion that words have to be gathered in sentences or rhyme is a fiction, an imposition, designed by whomever was in charge at the time. Our words come to us as they will, and I think my job as a writer is to honor how they came.
I only knew this, believed this, felt this, as my own Black self was healing itself from the wounds racism had inflicted upon me. So as I heaved the cloak of racism off of me, my voice, too, became less constrained by rules, custom, the opinions of others. I became self loving as a Black woman and my voice became more poetic. I can’t say it was causal; on the other hand, I’m hardly surprised that it happened this way.
L.L.: And going back to identity, do you feel like yours is more cognizant, more actualized after writing REAL AMERICAN? Was the process in any way…cathartic? Did it show you other truths you didn’t expect to discover?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: I feel like I became cognizant and actualized before I wrote the book, which is what allowed me to write it. (Yes, I’ve learned a lot more about myself now being the author of this book, as I get questions and hear commentary from others; but those newer knowings are deepenings and nuances as opposed to stark truths.) I read Clifton in 2005 and it would be three to five years later that I unpacked my ugliest truths of my identity with an executive coach (truths like, as a child I: 1) hated being Black; 2) feared other Black people; and 3) wanted to be what white people wanted. Speaking the truth to my coach was not just catharsis but release, and relief. Then self love and love of all Black people flooded into me. Writing the book was more of a question of, “Okay I know this is true for me, but do I really want to share this with others?” More often than not, the answer was “Yes.”
L.L.: You have two teenaged children, a boy and a girl. How do you hope the world is different for them? Oh, this is a huge question! How do you hope they see race?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well we’re not post-racial and probably won’t be in their lifetimes, so my job is to equip them to love themselves in an America whose founding, economy, history, systems, narrative, and policies right up to the present exist on a framework of whiteness. My husband is white and Jewish. Our son is unambiguously a man of color. Our daughter passes for white to many people. As a result they will confront racism differently. My son has to love himself regardless of the prejudice against brown skin which is out there, and he has to know how to conduct himself out there so as not to incur the attention of racist law enforcement officers or civilians. My daughter, too, has to love herself regardless of what others think, and carrying the privilege that comes with skin perceived as white, when she overhears people saying racist things about Black folk I hope she’ll be so self-loving that she will call them out and claim me, her Black mother, all the way back to Sylvie, her slave ancestor, rather than act as if these words are not about her.
[Julie mentions a woman, a mother in REAL AMERICAN who is raising two black children and three white. Her post is incredibly powerful and I am grateful to have come across it in REAL AMERICAN. You can read it here.]
L.L.: Julie, I could probably ask questions all day, but I will stop here. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Sometimes an audience member asks who the book is for. Drawing ever wider circles of potential audiences for the book, I tell them the smallest circle is Black or biracial people whose heads may nod up and down toward certain passages in the book because they’ve felt what I have felt. (And, I have to say, my book tour was filled with interactions with Black folk, particularly Black women, who did in fact have this reaction often expressed with choked-back tears.) The next larger circle are all the other people of color who can relate. The next circle is anyone who has been made to feel like “the other” in America. And finally, the outermost circle is anyone willing to feel compassion for “the other” and to turn that compassion into radical ally-ship so as to make this country a better place.
L.L.: It’s been a pleasure! Thank you.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Thanks for your fabulous questions, Leslie.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of REAL AMERICAN, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I’m interested in the human experience, and I write non-fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry with the aim of helping humans thrive. I hold a BA in American Studies from Stanford University, a JD from Harvard Law School, and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. I am a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. I live in Silicon Valley with my partner of close to thirty years, our two teenagers, and my mother.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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[Cover and author images courtesy of Henry Holt Publishers and used with permission. GOOD WOMAN cover image retrieved from Amazon, image of ‘race face’ from, ‘girls who dream have vision’ from Pinterest, no source noted, English writing structure retrieved from, white parents with black children retrieved from, black mother with white mother from,; all on 3.21.18]
LESLIE A. LINDSAY….ALWAYS WITH A BOOK.
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“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ~Toni Morrison