Life on the Color Line

by Gregory Howard Williams

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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 much time to assimilate the revelation of their racial identity, because they are instantly thrown into survival mode. Since their new home does not have indoor plumbing, the young Gregory is forced to face a vicious rooster in order to get to the outhouse. This is only the first of numerous battles. Other problems quickly appear: hunger, violence, oppression, discrimination, and intolerance.

Throughout his childhood, Williams is attacked by poor white boys for being black and by poor black boys for being white. After a basketball game, a group of boys from the opposing school throws garbage at him and his team. In high school, a particularly caring teacher informs him that he is to receive an academic prize for outstanding achievement. However, he is passed over and subsequently devastated when the issue of his color comes to light. He and his brother are passed from their Aunt Bessie to their scowling, alcoholic Grandma Sallie, who, it turns out, once had to pose as the family’s maid in Virginia. Despite numerous attempts to stop, their father continues to drink, and he gambles away what little money he earns.

Williams’s memoir, however, is not all darkness and shadow. At times, light shines upon the dark Muncie streets. Eventually, a neighbor named Miss Dora provides a home for the forlorn youngsters. Although her resources are scarce, she manages to feed Greg and Mike, and her love and devotion make up for the lost love of their mother. At the end of the book, Mary Williams returns to Muncie naively to claim her boys and return them to the white world, as if the ten years since her abandonment had never passed. However, as the deeply emotional Williams realizes, it is simply too late, and Miss Dora,...

(This entire section contains 764 words.)

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whom he calls his “truly mother,” is the only mother he will ever need.

Ultimately, what saves Williams is his strong sense of self-worth and his work ethic. Moreover, while Williams the author does not hold back in depicting his father’s major character flaws, he does give credit where credit is due. Somehow, between bouts of drunkenness, womanizing, and petty crime, Buster Williams managed to impart to his son the idea that Gregory could become the person Buster dreamed of becoming himself.

In time, Gregory claws his way through the racist Muncie schools and gains admittance to Ball State University, where he flourishes academically and personally in spite of long, grueling hours spent working menial jobs to pay his way. There is no financial assistance. In time, he becomes a much-admired police officer, a lawyer, a professor, the dean of the Ohio State University College of Law, and the president of City College, New York.


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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.


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