Black Like Me: A Pittsburgh native’s memoir of racial identities lost and found

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-09-11 01:09Z by Steven

Black Like Me: A Pittsburgh native’s memoir of racial identities lost and found

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bill O’Driscoll

Sarah Valentine, author of
Sarah Valentine

Of all the racist things people do, living out white privilege might be the most insidious. White privilege is not just the assumptions that get white people treated better by employers and loan officers. It’s also the mental architecture that permits white people to avoid thinking of themselves as “white” — even as whiteness is assumed as the norm, and everyone who lacks it as “other.” White privilege is most potent when it goes unconsidered.

It will be nearly impossible to avoid considering white privilege after reading “When I Was White: A Memoir.” Author Sarah Valentine is that rare person who has lived both with white privilege and without it, and her account is moving and analytically rigorous.

Literature has given us light-skinned blacks who “passed” as white, from famed critic Anatole Broyard to figures in the poetry of Pittsburgh-based poet Toi Derricotte. Ms. Valentine’s story is something else again. She was born in 1977, and grew up mostly in the North Hills, one of three children in a tightly knit Catholic family. Her parents were white, and so, therefore, was she — until she learned, at age 27, that her biological father, whom she never knew, was African American…

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‘When I Was White’: Sarah Valentine’s memoir considers the meaning of racial identity

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-08-17 01:27Z by Steven

‘When I Was White’: Sarah Valentine’s memoir considers the meaning of racial identity

The Chicago Tribune

Julia M. Klein

'When I Was White’: Sarah Valentine’s memoir considers the meaning of racial identity
Sarah Valentine’s intriguing memoir, “When I Was White,” considers the meaning of racial identity. (St. Martin’s)

“For a long time,” Sarah Valentine writes, “I felt like a bundle of fragments, and I wanted to be whole. I wanted to be able to write a family history that answered all my questions and filled in all the blanks, but all I got were different versions of the past and an incomplete, unfulfilling present.”

This revelatory admission comes near the close of Valentine’s intriguing, if never entirely satisfying, memoir, “When I Was White.” But it could well have served as its opening — a warning to readers that neither a slick solution to the puzzle of racial identity nor a definitive unraveling of the specific mystery of Valentine’s origins would be forthcoming.

A former visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Northwestern University, Valentine grew up in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs, the bright, athletic, dark-hued child of two white parents. To many observers, she was self-evidently of mixed racial heritage. But her family regarded her as simply their (white) daughter — so much so that when black classmates asked her out, her mother cautioned her against “interracial” dating…

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‘When I Was White’ Centers On The Formation Of Race, Identity And Self

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-08-08 23:33Z by Steven

‘When I Was White’ Centers On The Formation Of Race, Identity And Self

National Public Radio

Hope Wabuke

When I Was White: A Memoir by Sarah Valentine, Hardcover, 292 pages

When one thinks of American blackness, there is the unsaid ugly truth that nearly all American blacks who have descended from the historical African diaspora in America have one (or several) rapacious white slave owners in their family tree at some point.

Here, in the early days of the United States, was the invention of racism for economic necessity. From 1619 until 1865, white male Americans chose to breed a black enslaved workforce through the state-sanctioned rape of black women to build the new nation and support their white supremacist class. Race became the single unifying identifier — determining everything about one’s life starting with this most basic division: enslaved or free.

The American law was that the “condition of the child followed that of the mother,” backed up by the “one drop rule,” the legal framework that dictated even one drop of blackness made an individual black, never white. The idea of blackness as a pollutant, a taint that would erode the purity of whiteness, was seized by politicians around the world then — and now.

Because of this legacy of sexual violence and anti-blackness, black and white mixed individuals have long been considered black in America.

To a much larger degree than many people would like to admit, race still determines a vast part of one’s life — social networks and mobility, birth and other medical care, employment opportunities and so on. Indeed, there is an entire genre of literature and film, popularized in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, composed of blacks “passing” for white to avoid this racism. Some of the most famous examples are Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing; James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 opus, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; and the 1959 film The Imitation of Life.

Sarah Valentine, the author of the memoir When I Was White, did not choose to pass for white; her mother made the choice for her. So Valentine was raised as white by white parents in white middle-class communities — only to discover as a young woman that her biological father was actually black. As Valentine endeavors to explore what her new identity means to her, she searches for ways to connect to her blackness. For Valentine, learning that she is black is to reject whiteness; she cannot comprehend how the privileges of whiteness can be held hand in hand with the racism the black body is subject to…

Read the entire review here.

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When I Was White, A Memoir

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2019-08-08 23:08Z by Steven

When I Was White, A Memoir

St. Martin’s Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
304 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9781250146755

Sarah Valentine

The stunning and provocative coming-of-age memoir about Sarah Valentine’s childhood as a white girl in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and her discovery that her father was a black man.

At the age of 27, Sarah Valentine discovered that she was not, in fact, the white girl she had always believed herself to be. She learned the truth of her paternity: that her father was a black man. And she learned the truth about her own identity: mixed race.

And so Sarah began the difficult and absorbing journey of changing her identity from white to black. In this memoir, Sarah details the story of the discovery of her identity, how she overcame depression to come to terms with this identity, and, perhaps most importantly, asks: why? Her entire family and community had conspired to maintain her white identity. The supreme discomfort her white family and community felt about addressing issues of race–her race–is a microcosm of race relationships in America.

A black woman who lived her formative years identifying as white, Sarah’s story is a kind of Rachel Dolezal in reverse, though her “passing” was less intentional than conspiracy. This memoir is an examination of the cost of being black in America, and how one woman threw off the racial identity she’d grown up with, in order to embrace a new one.

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The Divine Auditor

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, United States on 2015-07-09 01:51Z by Steven

The Divine Auditor

Prarie Schooner: Stories, Poems, Essays, and Reviews since 1926
Volume 87, Issue 2 (2013 Summer)

Sarah Valentine, Visiting Assistant Professor of English
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

It is still dark when my cell phone begins to buzz. When I flip it open, my mother’s voice comes through a connection often interrupted by the apartment building’s iron girders. We make some awkward small talk and then she says:

“I guess you want to talk about the email you sent me last week.”

“Yes,” I whisper, trying not to wake my boyfriend, Zoran, who is asleep beside me. I glance at the clock and realize it is 6:30 a.m..

“Before I say anything,” she says after a long pause, “tell me if you think we’ve always loved you.”

I begin to tear up at this, and I feel my body grow weak. I know what is coming.

“Of course,” I manage.

She too begins to cry and through sobs tells me a disconnected story about when she was at a spring break house party as a sophomore in college. Someone put something in her drink… She woke up the next day knowing something had happened, someone had taken advantage of her.

“Are you saying . . . you were raped,” I ask, trying to soften my voice as I do so. She cries and does not answer. “Was he . . .” I continue but cannot finish the sentence.

“Yes,” she says. “He was African American.”

“He was black . . .”

“He was,” she says.

“Who was it?” I ask, clambering over Zoran in my underwear, taking the phone into the hallway so as not to wake him.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t remember.”

Now I don’t know what to say. I want to know more, but her crying, her hurt sounds make me afraid to push. I know that I am sounding harsh when I speak again, but I can’t help it. She doesn’t know who it was, but she knows he was black. She knows that. How does she remember that? But I don’t ask her that.

“Why are you only telling me this now?” I say.

“Because you asked. I have to go, I’m going to be late,” she says.

Then she hangs up and goes to her shift at the hospital.

I stand there shivering in the dark. I cannot decide which is more shocking; that I was conceived in rape or that my father is not the man I’ve grown up with, but some black guy my mother went to school with, whose name she does not remember, who may or may not have drugged her. I have so many questions, but it is this that sticks in my head: both of my parents and my two younger brothers are white. After years of suspecting I was not, finally at the age of twenty-seven I gathered the courage to ask my mother about it. And this is how she tells me. I don’t even know if my father knows. I mean the man I have called my father for twenty-eight years. Is this a secret from him, too? Sadness mixes with anger and disbelief. But there is also a sense of resolution; so I’m not a freak of nature. There is a rational explanation for me after all. This is what I tell myself, but none of it is rational. My brain is still trying to make sense of it all…

Read an excerpt of the essay here.

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When I Was White

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, United States on 2015-07-06 18:24Z by Steven

When I Was White

The Chronicle Review
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Sarah Valentine, Visiting Assistant Professor of English
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Sarah Valentine as a girl, with her two brothers (Source: Family photo)

Rachel Dolezal’s recent unmasking as a white woman living as black sparked a debate about the legitimacy of “transracial” experience. I cannot speak for Dolezal or anyone else, but I can state for a fact that racial transition is a valid experience, because I have gone through it.

While most people would look at this photo and see a black girl, two white boys, and a very surprised cat, they would be wrong. The girl in the photo is white, just like her brothers. I was raised in a white family from birth and taught to identify as white. For most of my life, I didn’t know that my biological father was black. Whenever I asked as a child about my darker skin, my mother corrected me, saying it was not dark but “olive.” When others asked if I was adopted, my mother ignored them. Eventually everyone, including me, stopped asking.

When, as an adult, I learned the truth of my paternity, I began the difficult process of changing my identity from white to black. The difficulty did not lie in an unwillingness to give up my whiteness. On the contrary, the revelation of my paternity was a relief: It confirmed that I was different from my parents and siblings, something I had felt deeply all my life.

The dilemma I faced was this: If I am mixed race and black, what do I do with the white sense of self I lived with for 27 years, and how does one become black? Is that even possible? Now, you may say that the rest of the world already saw me as black and all I had to do was catch up. True. But “catching up” meant that I had to blow the lid off the Pandora’s box of everything I thought I knew about myself and about race in America…

Read the entire article here.

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