The American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams lives in the tenth arrondissement of Paris with his French wife, Valentine, and their two blond-haired, blue-eyed children––a family situation that the 38-year-old descendant of African slaves could scarcely have imagined while he was growing up.
His father was born into segregation, married a white woman, and joined her in raising a black family. There’s no such thing as “half white,” they told their sons, since “black” is less a biological category than a social one. “We were taught from the moment we could understand spoken words that we would be treated by whites as though we were black whether we liked it or not,” Williams recalls, “so we needed to know how to move in a world of black men.”
The lesson was reinforced in the town of Westfield, New Jersey, where Williams’s brother was mocked as a “monkey,” Williams was called a “nigger” by a fellow third grader at Holy Trinity Interparochial School, and a blond-haired girl who sat behind him in class wondered why his hair didn’t move like hers.
His new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, begins on the night his daughter was born. “A year before Valentine got pregnant, I published an essay in the New York Times defining my future children as unassailably black,” he wrote, words that later made him wince, because Marlow’s birth changed everything. “The sight of this blond-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me—along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine,” he explains. “The reality of Marlow’s appearance had rendered my previous ‘one-drop’ stance ridiculous in my own eyes. When I look at my daughter now, I see another facet of myself, I see my own inimitable child. But I also know that most people who meet her will––and will want to––call her ‘white.’” The same could be said for his 15-month-old son, Saul.