Life on the Color Line

by Gregory Howard Williams

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Student Question

In Life on the Color Line, how did Gregory Howard Williams understand his racial identity as an adult?

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To answer this question, I've divided up the book's chapters into five parts. Each part has a summary of what happened in that chapter of his life and how he came to grips with being colored. The first four parts were about him as a child; the last part was about him as an adult. In Part I (Chapters 1-4), he discussed how he was able to cope with the realization that his father was an African American man and how he came to grips with being colored. Part II (Chapters 5-7) is about his arrival in high school and his struggles with fitting in. When applying for a job at the Sheriff'

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Gregory Howard Williams came to grips with being colored well-before adulthood.  The revelation by his father of his and his siblings’ racial heritage was dropped like a bomb on him as a child.  In Chapter Four of Life on the Color Line, Williams describes his initial reaction to the news that his dark-skinned father was not from the Mediterranean areas of Italy, but was African American:

“I saw my father as I had never seen him before.  The veil dropped from his face and features.  Before my eyes he was transformed from a swarthy Italian to his true self – a high-yellow mulatto.  My father was a Negro!  We were colored!”

For the rest of his days (up to the present), Williams has had to contend with his mixed-race heritage and the difficulties society has had in placing him and others like him in the appropriate racial box.  Living as a white-skinned boy in the heavily black community of Muncie, Indiana, he and his brother Mike – their other two siblings having been taken by their mother in their parents’ divorce – had to struggle for acceptance in two different communities, neither of which wanted them.  To whites, they were colored; to blacks, they were whites no different than those who oppressed them.  In one particularly telling passage in Chapter 8, Williams describes the emotional challenges they faced in the deeply racist South.  Williams and his brother Mike were learning to become self-sufficient, their father having long since descended into the world of alcoholism and depression.  Williams also became increasingly agitated regarding his inability to fit into the black world in which he and his brother now existed.  Having watched a leader of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter interviewed on television raging against the mixing of races in light of recent Supreme Court decisions ordering desegregation, Williams came to the realization that he “was the Klan’s worst nightmare. . .I was what they hated and wanted to destroy.”

As he grew and matured, Williams continued to find life as a black student difficult.  High school continued to represent challenges to this white-skinned African American alienated by both sides of the color line.  Warned away from talking to a white girl whose locker was near his by a football teammate whose sister the girl turned out to be, Williams is stunned to hear his supposed “friend” call him “nigger” and threaten to “kick your black ass.”

Adulthood, which coincided with enormous racial tensions across much of the country, was no easier, as his mixed-race heritage continued to haunt him.  In a major surprise for the young man abandoned by his Caucasian mother following his parents’ divorce, she approaches after a ten year absence.  Bitter over her having left him and Mike and exhausted by studying law and working on a doctorate while holding down jobs, including as a law enforcement officer, he is unreceptive to his mother’s entreaties, and those reservations are justified when her offer to reconnect and bring Mike and him to her and her second husband’s home in Virginia includes one huge qualification:

“We could reenter her world if we rejected the one we had lived the past ten years. . .Gaining acceptance into her world required that we deny our black heritage . . .We were to forget we were ‘colored boys’.”

When applying for that job with the Sheriff’s Office, he became entangled in racial politics, needing the support of local black Republicans, who give it, but being attacked by others for his white skin, which one African American minister suggested enabled the newly-elected sheriff to only give the picture of a desegregated force by hiring a “black” deputy.  Williams’ life was dominated by his heritage, but he came to grips with it because he largely had no choice.  The alternatives were unattractive to a highly-intelligent, highly-motivated individual who aspired to better things.  

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