Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Gregory Howard Williams’s memoir, Life on the Color Line, begins with the sudden transformation of the author’s life at the age of ten. Williams, whom the family calls “Billy,” has been brought up in a life of comfort as a white child in Virginia. After his father falls victim to alcoholism and his mother abandons him and his younger brother, he learns that he is biracial. These events catapult him into a life of poverty.

Early in his childhood, Williams’s father, who passes as an “Italian,” owns a raucous beer joint outside Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The extremely bright senior Williams, a man with the Midas touch, drives a Cadillac and finds numerous ways, legal and otherwise, to make money. Williams’s white mother helps run the bar and cares for Billy and his three younger siblings. In time, the family leaves their home in the back of the bar and moves to a wealthy neighborhood. Unfortunately, as the family’s wealth increases, so does the father’s drinking. He spirals out of control, and the family finally loses everything. Billy’s father physically abuses his mother, until she runs away, taking her two youngest children with her. She leaves behind Billy and his younger brother, Mike. Their father takes them by bus to his hometown, Muncie, Indiana.

Desperately missing their mother, the traumatized children are literally starving. They are happy, though, to be in Muncie, because they have spent happy summers there with their maternal grandparents. However, their father, who is known in Muncie simply as “Buster,” explains that their lives in Indiana will be very different, because in Muncie they will no longer be white. The incredulous Billy, whose name at this point changes to Greg, is deeply disturbed. After all, his whole identity is based on the proposition that he is white.

The boys do not have...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Arenson, Karen. “Ohio Law School Dean Is Named as New President of City College.” The New York Times, March 27, 2001. This article, which praises Williams for his many achievements, draws material from Life on the Color Line.

Broyard, Bliss. One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Like Williams, Broyard was raised as white then discovered that her father, the writer and critic Anatole Broyard, was biracial.

Katz, Ilan. The Construction of Racial Identity in Children of Mixed Parentage: Mixed Metaphors. London: Jessica Kingsley, 1996. Utilizes in-depth interviews with interracial families such as Williams’s to illustrate the social and psychological development of racial identity and difference.

Neale, Gay. Review of Life on the Color Line, by Gregory Howard Williams. Inquiry 1 (Fall, 1998): 80-81. Remarks that Williams’s tone of detachment is central to the success of the book.

Newman, David M., and Elizabeth Grauerholz. Sociology of Families. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2002. Utilizes Life on the Color Line to illustrate the sociological impact upon families of being multiracial.