Gregory Howard Williams

Posted in Audio, Autobiography, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Virginia on 2022-04-05 00:50Z by Steven

Writer Gregory Howard Williams’ “Life on the Color Line”

Fresh Air with Terry Gross
WHYY FM, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Terry Gross, Host

Williams spent the first ten years of his life believing he was white in segregated Virginia, and that his dark-skinned father was Italian. When his parents’ marriage ended, his father took him and his brother to Muncie, Indiana, where the boys learned that they were half black. Williams’ new memoir “Life on the Color Line” is about the struggle and repression he faced growing up between the races. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “(an) affecting and absorbing story.”

Listen to the interview (00:23:10) here. Download the interview here.

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Americans Color Outside the Lines

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2022-01-19 02:36Z by Steven

Americans Color Outside the Lines

The Dispatch

Chris Stirewalt, Contributing Editor

Photograph By Marlin Levison/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Even today, bigots and the progressive proponents of race science hold fast to the idea of fixed race and ethnicity. Thankfully, Americans largely ignore them.

In his autobiography, Life on the Color Line, Gregory Williams tells the story of discovering at the age of 10 that he was black—or at least that the world saw him that way.

Williams, who would go on to serve as president of both City College of New York and the University of Cincinnati, was raised as a white boy when and where it really mattered: rural, central Virginia in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But when his parents’ marriage broke up and his mom ran off, his no-account, alcoholic father could not manage to care for his two sons. So, Williams’ dad moved them to his hometown of Muncie, Indiana. It was on the bus trip there that Williams’ dad told his boys that he was not the Italian-American called “Tony” who ran a roadhouse west of Richmond but a light-skinned black man from the wrong side of tracks in the industrial Midwest. “Miss Sallie,” the black woman who had worked at the family bar for a time, was really the boys’ grandmother.

Ultimately abandoned by both of his parents, Williams found himself brutally rejected by both cultures. And what a time to live on that line. In 1954, the year after he arrived in Muncie, the Supreme Court struck down school segregation laws. Segregationists had warned after Harry Truman integrated the military six years earlier that the federal government was intent on the mixing of the races—and ultimately making intermarriage appear to be normal, leading to the dilution of the white race. The blending of children in classrooms was to them just the next step in the demise of America’s dominant white culture by miscegenation. Williams remembered a Klansman on television saying the court was trying to encourage race mixing and the rise of the “bestial mongrel mulatto, the dreg of human society.”…

Read the entire article here.

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“This damned business of colour”: Passing in African American novels and memoirs

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-04-24 03:26Z by Steven

“This damned business of colour”: Passing in African American novels and memoirs

Lehigh University
230 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3167071
ISBN: 9780542026218

Irina C. Negrea

Presented to the Graduate and Research Committee of Lehigh University in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English

The topic of this dissertation is an analysis of racial passing, as depicted in the novels The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson, and Passing by Nella Larsen, as well as in the memoirs The Sweeter the Juice by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, Notes of a White Black Woman by Judy Scales-Trent, and Life on the Color Line by Gregory Williams.

Starting from the premise that passing is a complex phenomenon that reinforces and subverts the racial system simultaneously, this dissertation focuses on the subversive side of passing that comes to light especially when the passer is found out—a side that becomes obvious in the reactions it provokes in white racists: horror, fear, disgust, and insecurity.

One other new element that this dissertation brings into the field is a classification of passing that can be used as a tool for the analysis of similar literary works. The majority of passers fall into one of two categories: identificatory and performative. Identificatory passing is predicated on the passer’s identification with the white ideology. It is permanent, and the passer breaks all ties with his/her African American ancestry. At the other end of the spectrum is performative passing, based on the view of race as performance—a matter of props, makeup, and/or behavior. The passer crosses the color line and “acts” white, but in most cases, s/he does not break his/her ties with his/her African American roots and community. Rather, the performative passer tries to acknowledge both his/her racial identities, refusing to be boxed in one narrow racial category. These types of passing do not exist in a “pure” state; there are characters who start as performers of race and end up identifying with whiteness, for example, but the two basic types exist, in one combination or another, in all the stories of passing ever written. These two different types of passing engender different types of subversion of the racial system, and they are discussed as well in this dissertation.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter I: “Gone Over on the Other Side:” Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars
  • Chapter II: “They Wouldn’t Know you from White:” The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
  • Chapter III: “They Always Come Back:” Nella Larsen’s Passing
  • Chapter IV: The Family’s “Heart of Darkness:” Passing in African American Memoirs
  • Bibliography

Purchase the dissertation here.

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Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2011-09-16 03:19Z by Steven

Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black

Plume, an imprint of Penguin
February 1996
304 pages
5.35 x 7.95in
Paperback ISBN: 9780452275331
ePub eBook ISBN: 9781440665813
Adobe eBook ISBN: 9781440665813

Gregory Howard Williams, President
University of Cincinnati


  • Los Angeles Times Book Prize
  • Friends of American Writers Award: Nominee
  • Melcher Book Award: Nominee

A stunning journey to the heart of the racial dilemma in this country.

Table of Contents

  1. Acknowledgments
  2. The Open House Cafe
  3. The Midas Touch
  4. “Captain of My Soul”
  5. Rooster
  6. Learning How to Be Niggers
  7. Bob and Weave
  8. “Saved”
  9. Hustling
  10. Politics and Race
  11. The Color Line
  12. Accept the Things I Cannot Change
  13. Choices
  14. Go for It!
  15. Big Shoulders
  16. Persistence
  17. Teammates
  18. “Born in the Wilderness and Suckled by a Boar”
  19. State of Indiana v. Gregory H. Williams
  20. Mike: Like a Moth to Flames
  21. Tottering Kingdoms and Crumbling Empires
  22. Your Truly Mother
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University of Cincinnati president has a unique perspective on his life as a black man

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, United States on 2011-09-15 22:00Z by Steven

University of Cincinnati president has a unique perspective on his life as a black man

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Karen Farkas

CLEVELAND, OhioGregory Williams says that in the five decades since he learned he was black and moved into a tarpaper shack with his black grandmother instead of a middle-class home with his white grandmother, the nation has made great progress in inclusion and diversity.

But much still needs to be done, the University of Cincinnati president told the audience at the City Club of Cleveland on Friday.

“Certainly there is less rigidity in America’s color line today than there was in the 1960s,” he said. “We live in a time, thankfully, where the ‘multiracial’ population is growing and barely raises an eyebrow these days. Yet all of us can be yanked back across the line by a look, a so-called ‘joke’ or a tense reception in the so-called ‘wrong’ neighborhood.”

Williams, who has been at UC for two years, spoke of his life as a black man who looks white and his views on race and several times asked “Why is it taking so long?” to speed racial healing in the nation…

…Williams, who said he came to view himself as African-American, eventually wrote an award-winning and best-selling memoir, “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black.” He also earned numerous degrees, leading to a career in academia…

…Following his speech, a man in the audience asked why Williams didn’t try to live as a white man after he got older.

“In Indiana I was ostracized for being black, and if I abandoned those who were willing to stand by me, I’d have no principles at all,” Williams responded…

Read the entire article here.

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Being Black and White

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2011-01-29 22:16Z by Steven

Being Black and White

The American Prospect
E. J. Graff, Associate Director and Senior Researcher
The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

When I was 18, I learned, quite belatedly, that my father’s brother had married a black woman. The wedding took place in 1958—the year I was born, the year after my parents married. Instantly I knew that racism had kept me from knowing my uncle (by then dead of a heart attack), my aunt, my cousins. Instantly I knew I would have to find them. But it was one thing to discover that the deepest, most volatile division in the country ran right through my family; actually crossing that divide to claim kinship was, for a long time, too daunting for someone whose only experience with “diversity” was being the sole Jewish kid among her semirural Ohio high school’s 2,300 students.

And so it wasn’t until my thirties that I finally met my aunt and cousins. To my surprise, they treated me not just as a cousin but as a living symbol of racial reconciliation. Once we’d met, told stories, and compared features—we share a long jaw and sharp chin—I started to notice how arbitrarily I’d sorted the world around me into “black” or “white.” All around were black people who looked related to me. White friends had color in their families of blood or choice: a stepfather, a spouse, a sister-in-law, a dearest friend. I started to feel that every American whose family has been here more than a few decades is from a mixed-race family, that somewhere out there—however near or far—we all have relatives of the “other” color. African Americans know this, of course, often down to the name of at least one plantation owner in the family tree. But for a white girl in a color-bound world, this was news.

As it happened, the insight that was striking me so personally—that the color line is drawn in shifting sand—would soon strike the culture. In the past few years, the headlines have been full of such things as the 2000 census’s mix-and-match option; genetic evidence that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (his dead wife’s half-sister and slave) left a widening delta of descendants; and the ascending god Tiger Woods’s refusal to reject his plural ethnicity. And since 1995, a number of mixed-race memoirs have hit our shelves, opening discussion of a new identity: biracial writers who have a black parent and a white one. These authors grapple with the sense that they don’t quite belong anywhere, that they aren’t fully claimed by either race. But their wide range of experiences reveals how deeply racial identity, like any identity, is affected not just by society but also by family, character, time, and place…

Read the entire article here.

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