restricted access 78 A Review of Life on the Color Line
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78 A Review of Life on the Color Line MARTHA CHAMALLAS AND PETER M. SHANE In 1954, at the age of ten, Greg Williams took an unforgettable journey to Muncie, Indiana. Until that time, Greg and his younger brother Mike had lived in Virginia as white children. Their mother was white, and their father (then called Tony, later Buster) told everyone that he was Italian. But when the marriage broke up and Tony's financial ventures failed, he pushed Greg's life over the color line. He moved the boys to the black section of Muncie, where he had been raised. "In Virginia you were white boys," he told Greg and Mike. "In Indiana you're going to be colored boys" (page 33). Life on the Color Line is Greg Williams's compelling memoir of his childhood and adolescence . On one level an intensely personal account of a young boy's discovery of himself and of a son's coming to terms with his father, at another it is a slice of American social history during the '50s and '60s, a documentary of the cruelties inflicted by racial hierarchy . Most profoundly, the memoir is a meditation on the social construction of identity, exploring the complexity of the meaning of race and racial identity. Gregory Howard Williams, now the dean of the Ohio State University College of Law, was our colleague on the University of Iowa law faculty for twelve years. One of the first observations white people often make about Greg is that although he looks white, he is "really " black. It now seems startling to us that, over the years, we never understood how revealing that description was of Greg's identity. At Iowa, Greg's blackness was shown by his actions, interests, and affiliations. When he was director of admissions, he recruited record numbers of African-American students to law school and worked hard to find financial support for them; as an associate vice president, he exerted behind-the-scenes pressure to encourage departments to diversify their faculties; and as a classroom teacher, he taught about race and the criminal justice system. But occasionally someone who did not know Greg or who was unaware of his work would be astonished to learn that he was black and would question what it meant to "be" black and yet look like Greg Williams. Life on the Color Line responds to that central question of identity. For the first ten years of his life, Greg (who was then called Billy) lived in Virginia with his parents, his brother Mike,.and a younger brother and sister. Neither parent ever told the children about their background. Life was not easy for Greg: his father drank heavily and brutalized his mother. Tony's financial fortunes rose and fell as quickly as his moods. One year he made over $50,000, had an exclusive townhouse in Alexandria, and drove a Cadillac; the next year he was penniless and totally incapable of providing for his children. The major trauma of Greg's childhood occurred when his mother abandoned him and Mike, taking the younger children with her as she fled from Tony. Greg and Mike were vir46 J. OF LEGAL ED. 1 (1996). Originally published in the Journal of Legal Education. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material 494 Martha Chamal/as and Peter M. Shane tually left to fend for themselves. Shortly before they left for Muncie, their situation was desperate: their clothes were tattered and dirty, they were hungry all the time, and they were devastated by their inability to understand why such terrible things were happening to them. Greg recounts how the brothers coped with their fear and emotional deprivation: When school started in September, my hand shook with doubt as I penciled her name over "Mother" on my enrollment form. Reaching into my book bag, I grabbed an ink pen, and I traced over "Mary Williams" so she couldn't sneak into the school at night and erase her name. Homework kept me occupied, but Mike lost interest in school. Every evening he sat perched on the tavern steps like a motherless bird, eyes darting up and down Route 1, hoping Mom would arrive in the next car drifting into our parking lot (25). Even before Greg crossed the color line, the pain of rejection was a central force in his life, Greg began his life as a black boy when Tony decided to leave the boys with his mother in Muncie. [See Chapter...