Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Published by Henry Holt & Company, 272 pages, $27
Fierce and emphatic from the first page, Julie Lythcott-Haims’s elf-searching memoir unrolls her own relationship to race and its evolving meaning in her world. The title is sharply ironic as white people increasingly claim to be “Real Americans,” and the book’s chapters include subsections ranging from one sentence to multiple pages.
Lythcott-Haims recalls her childhood as the biracial daughter of a black man and a white woman. Her father was a prominent doctor and she grew up in privilege while attending a mostly white school. As Lythcott-Haims struggles to find her identity, her hairstyles symbolically echo her shifting affiliations. One friend compliments her as seeming “normal, not black,” but on her locker, alongside friendly birthday notes, someone writes the n-word.
This brainy, intense woman went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and become a dean at Stanford. Her anxiety over her ambiguous skin tone increases when she marries a white man and has a darker son and a lighter daughter. She fears for her son’s safety and advises him on self-protective behavior, but she equally yearns for her daughter to identify as black, even holding her up to the sun while imagining she’d figuratively “tan” her skin and consciousness.
Later, when fellow biracial Harvard Law grad Barack Obama wants her on the campaign trail, she still questions her identity as a black person. Yet as black men are shot and incarcerated at alarming rates, her attention and outrage turn outward. With help from her black and biracial students, she embraces their common causes. Throughout the memoir, painful questions ring like ominous bells, hopefully raising alarm for all readers.
Page 214: “I realize that while a white man talking to himself in this town is a tech genius in this white man’s eyes I am likely homeless or crazy in my ripped Harvard Law School T-shirt I must have gotten from Goodwill and when I get to the checkout lane I try to perform the part of a white person so they don’t ask me for an ID.” ◆