Monday, August 17, 2009

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff

In college I had an acquaintance with a life experience very much like Mishna Wolff's. Mishna, like my friend Sarah, was white and raised in an all black neighborhood by white parents. Mishna grew up in Seattle, Washington. Sarah grew up in rural Mississippi. Unlike me, who grew up in an all white suburb and went to an all white high school, Mishna and Sarah both spent a great amount of their growing up years considering questions of race in ways that most of us have not.

When Sarah first told me about growing up in Alcorn, Mississippi, I asked her what it was like to leave rural Mississippi and arrive at Northwestern which is a predominantly white upper middle class university. Sarah said something funny like "white folk can't dance, play basketball or do hair." We also talked about academic preparedness. Sarah admitted that her black high school alone would not have prepared her for college work. She had an active reading and writing life outside her high school classroom thanks to her parents who were college professors. I did not ask her much more than this as race is often an awkward topic. I would hate to appear racist by asking the wrong question.

I always regretting not knowing more of Sarah's story. So when I spotted I'm Down by Mishna Wolff, a white girl whose white father, convinced he was black, raised her and her sister in a black neighborhood, I snapped it up and enjoyed every page of it.

Mishna tells her tales about being white in a black world with humility, humor and grace. The earliest chapters are the best. She learns how to fit in at summer camp by learning how to cap. She struggles with her father over what sports to take up by virtue of how black the sports are. Black people don't ski. It's too cold. She finds she has a hard time fitting in when she gets accepted to a predominantly white private school. Poor Mishna does not really fit into a white world or a black one.

In later chapters as Mishna begins to get a sense of both worlds and how to survive in each, I was amazed that her father and stepmother begin putting her down for her activities and honors which will in the end help her get ahead and get out of poverty. They accuse her of being snooty and elitist. They try to force her to quit activities so she can take up a minimum wage job at age 14. I fear that may be the biggest battle we fight when trying to overcome poverty, a sense that doing things like reading or playing an instrument or playing on a team is some how elitist. Accusing a 14 year old of snobbery when she likes to read is a good way to get someone to stop reading.

If the subject of race and class interests you or you like well told stories, you should enjoy this sweet memoir.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I went to school with Mishna and though the sentiment is wonderful, her depiction of going to a rich, white prep school is not true. I knew Mishna at Washington Middle Scool. Have been to ber mom's house when she lived off Yesler. And if the high school she is speaking about was garfield, the only school to have the IPP progam in seattle these schools were predominately black and poor. I'm all for creative license, but not in a memoir. Check a yearbook out from either school between 1987 - 1993 and you'll see it was all black.