Friday, March 2, 2012

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff

   When you hear something described as "Black and White," it is often synonymous with the idea of something that is definitive or objective.  But for Mishna Wolff, the terms Black and White are anything but definitive - they are confusing and emotionally charged terms.  Mishna and her family may have been legally required to check the "Caucasian" box on official paperwork, but her single father made it clear from an early age that their family would identify with Black culture.  Anora, Mishna's younger sister, fit right in with the kids in their low-income, all-Black neighborhood, but Mishna was never quite able to blend in the way her sister did.  In fact, she stuck out like a very white, very sore thumb.  She wasn't a good dancer, she was terrible at Basketball, and her musical preferences rarely included R&B or Hip-Hop.  But Mishna's father was convinced that they were a Black family, so he did everything in his power to convince his daughter to "get with the program," or rather, get "down."

   I'm Down is a book about racial and cultural identity, but it's also about Mishna's strained relationship with her father.  Because she was "painfully white," she spent a great deal of time trying to impress her Dad, who thought that his children should develop the exact same sense of identity as his own.  But Mishna, unlike her sister, was never able to seamlessly blend into their Black community, and as a consequence, she was never able to blend in with her own family.  This caused declarations failure, disappointment, and even accusations of racism - all directed at a very young and very stressed out Mishna.

   But despite John Wolff's frequently voiced disappointment in his own daughter, all she wanted to do was please him, which often meant pretending to be someone she wasn't.  I'm Down is a very funny and entertaining memoir, but it's also heartbreaking and probing.  When your sense of self clashes with your family identity and cultural identity, it's impossible to determine what is "Black and White."  Wolff's memoir begs the question: Why is it so important that we choose one over the other?

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