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BOOK REVIEW

Exploration of race blends memoir with family history

By Steve Weinberg
November 11, 2010

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Carolyn Marie Wilkins is a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and a performing jazz musician. One of her brothers, David, is a Harvard University Law School professor, and other family members have graduated from Harvard Law. But her ancestral roots exist far from Boston. When she began to research those roots, she found lots of surprises.

Truly intelligent human beings understand that race is a social construct. Yet in our society, even after the election of an African-American president, skin color matters.

Growing up among Chicago’s light-skinned African-American elite, Wilkins realized later that she possessed only a limited idea of what it meant to identify as black when she could have passed as white.

Referring to her intellectual achievements, her fair skin, and her race, Wilkins adopted this rhyme for herself: “Light and bright perhaps, but definitely not white.’’ In her book — part memoir, part essay on race relations, part dual biography of her paternal great- grandfather and grandfather — Wilkins wrestles with her light-skinned identity, perhaps amplified by her marriage to a Caucasian male.

In high school and at college during a black power era, she tried to rethink the meaning of race when challenged by blacks and whites alike. “Some of the other black students accused me of ‘talking like a white girl.’ After this incident, I carefully developed two separate vocabularies, one for dealing with white teachers and schoolmates and another that (hopefully) would enable me to be ‘down with the brothers.’ ’’ At college, Wilkins found herself ignored by black students “until they figured out that despite my light skin, I was indeed one of them.’’

Wilkins decided that calculating who she was meant looking beyond her parents — her mother, with a master’s degree in musicology; her father, a lawyer — to great-grandfather John Bird Wilkins and, more so, her grandfather J. Ernest Wilkins.

Born into slavery, John Bird Wilkins became educated enough to shake up the Baptist church as a renegade minister, write and edit for a newspaper, invent original devices, and find time to practice bigamy as the patriarch of two families. One of his sons ended up as a national newsmaker and the primary target of Carolyn Wilkins’s intense curiosity.

J. Ernest Wilkins, born in 1894 in Farmington, Mo., broke barriers to enter the University of Illinois, served in World War I, graduated from University of Chicago Law School, and eventually earned the attention of President Eisenhower, who appointed him assistant secretary of labor in Washington, D.C. No African-American had previously served that high in the Labor Department.

As Carolyn Wilkins researched her grandfather’s Labor Department accomplishments, she became obsessed about learning why he was dismissed from the post while Eisenhower still served as president. Was racial prejudice to blame? Providing the answer in this review would constitute a spoiler. But J. Ernest Wilkins did not fade away. Appointed to the original federal Civil Rights Commission, he continued working on behalf of equity for all Americans until his death in 1959.

Carolyn Wilkins’s interesting and inspirational quest, which began with a box of family scrapbooks, transformed her into an archive detective with a passion for genealogy. Maybe other readers will follow her path to learn more about who and why they are.

Steve Weinberg can be reached through his website at www.steveweinbergwriter.com.

DAMN NEAR WHITE: An African American Family’s Rise From Slavery to Bittersweet Success By Carolyn Marie Wilkins

University of Missouri, 186 pp., illustrated, $24.95