I'm Down: It's Black, It's White / It's Tough For You / To Get By

Mishna Wolff, a former model, now a writer, had an unusual childhood. Not only did she grow up in a poor black suburb of Seattle, but her dad, white as the day is long, believed he was black as well.

Mischna was the product of two hippie parents who moved back into her father's parents former house in the Rainier Valley area. Within a year her father had cut and permed his hair, developed an obsession with sneakers and joined an all-black men's club. A divorce was not far behind and Mishna and her sister began to navigate life alone with dad.

The memoir is partly a look at the general cruelty (albeit really funny cruelty) of kids. Following the divorce Mishna is put into a summer day camp where she is the only white child. The kids torment her until she learns the essential skill of "capping" i.e. rolling off really great one-liners. An example: "Your mama's so lazy, Jesus will come back before she finishes your hair" (to a girl with only a half head of cornrows).

Mishna's experiences also highlight the specific values of these poor neighborhoods. Mishna and her friends are often left to fend for themselves. As she describes it, many parents in the neighborhood saw their kids as channel changers and beer fetchers. Mischna's sister is caught smoking by her teacher at the worldly age of five. When Mishna gets in a fight all her dad asks is, "Did you let her know?" i.e. did you take her out.

I guess the knee jerk reaction would be horror but the fact of the matter is that this is a culture where children aren't coddled by overprotective helicopter parents. The children are treated like adults, not hapless tadpoles.

However, these values can prevent "getting out." Misha, who is sent to a school for gifted children at her mother's insistence, tries again and again to get her father to take her academics and extracurricular activities seriously. Instead, he insists on enrolling her in ever sport known to man including track, basketball and swimming, which all threaten to eat into her homework time.

For the other children in the neighborhood, sports is seen overwhelmingly to be the only way to escape from the cycle of poverty (ex. basketball or hip hop dancing). Because Mischa is unable to perform well at sports she begins to suffer anxiety attacks. Even though she's intelligent, she's given no indication at home that this gift is of any use.

I can't recommend this hilarious, insightful and well-written memoir enough. I read it, no joke, in 24 hours. While Mishna's relationship with her father is aggravating as it highlights some of the more self-fulfilling values of impoverished families, his love and support for her become just as apparent. A wonderful portrayal of both family dynamics and racial prejudice.

Im Down: A Memoir/Mishna Wolff / St. Martin's Press / HC, 2009 (PB out in June 2010)

3 comments:

Luanne said...

What a fascinating memoir!

brichtabooks said...

This sounds so interesting! It makes me think of the one white kid in the school I teach at, where all the other kids are black. Thanks for sharing!

B.Kienapple said...

Hi Julie! Did anything I mention about the memoir ring true to you? Hope if you read it to hear your feedback.

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