Written by on June 30, 2009

I’m Down: a Memoir

39027249.JPGI got sucked in by the cover and the concept on this one. Plus, it seemed like a perfect counterpart to Sag Harbor, which featured a black teenager who lived in a mostly white world during the school year. From the jacket flap:

Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black. “He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esque sweater, gold chins, and a Kangol — telling jokes like Redd Foxx and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn’t tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried,” writes Wolff. And so from early childhood on, her father began his crusade to make his white daughter down.

The book has plenty of the fish-out-of-water humor that the cover promises — watch an Amazon video of Wolff reading from a chapter called “I’m in a Cappin’ Mood” here. (Wolff’s bio on Barnes & Noble’s website describes her as a comedian, and this video is no dry author reading. It’s more like a standup routine).

mishna_wolff.jpg But the book also delivers on a deeper level. Although we never learn how Mishna’s dad got the way he is, we experience her own discomfort vividly. Mishna eventually gets to attend a rich white school, where she feels every bit as out of sync as she does trying to be “down” with the black kids. She wants to study violin, but only by telling her father all the tenor saxes were taken is she allowed to do so. He pressures her to participate in sports, and she eventually does well at basketball and swimming, but it’s almost over his objections that she accomplishes anything academically. It’s only by moving in with her mother (who previously only had her on weekends) that she’s given the space and support to get anywhere with her classes. Her dad ignores her pleas to be left alone to do her homework. The phone call Mishna makes to tell her dad she won’t be coming back is heartbreaking, and is one call we feel her mother should make for her. There’s really a sense that he has run roughshod over the whole family, that the only way out from under his will, even for Mishna’s mom, is to leave. And if that’s difficult and sad for a teenager to accomplish, it’s tragic for her father to live with, even if he earned it.

author photo: Don Sercer

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