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A QUESTION OF IDENTITY ACROSS THE COLOR LINE

LIFE ON THE COLOR LINE:
The True Story of a White Boy
Who Discovered He Was Black
By Gregory Howard Williams
Dutton
285 pages, $22.95

Not since the classic "Black Like Me," in which white author John Griffin changed his pigmentation and stepped into a black world, have the issues of race and identity been explored from a place so close to the heart.

Moreover, Gregory H. Williams' tale of his childhood, first as a white child in segregated Virginia, then as an abandoned black youth in Muncie, Ind., tells more about this society and race than any interloper across the color line could reveal.

Williams' story arose from family and community -- enduring themes of American biography. His father -- the product of an affair between a black housemaid and her white employer -- passed himself off as a swarthy Italian, and ran a cafe-bar business close to a large military base during the Korean War. Williams' mother was white, and for a while the family prospered as Williams' father, James Anthony "Buster" Williams, hid his identity and devised clever business schemes.

Alcoholism, domestic violence and infidelity eventually took their toll on Williams' parents. He clearly blames his father for deteriorating circumstances that shattered their family, sending a younger brother and sister off into a strictly white world with his mother, while relegating 10-year-old Williams and his 9-year-old brother, Mike, to life on the colored side of segregated Muncie.

The late Buster Williams is a major character, looming large and often threateningly in the lives of his sons. He was an alcoholic, the son of an alcoholic mother. Williams tells of finding him in the street after he had been tossed into the gutter from a tavern. The father played sly head games to get his sons to work for him, and contributed only a pittance to the children's well-being.

Nevertheless, it becomes obvious late in the book that Williams loved his father deeply. He credits his father with encouraging him to pursue his education. Buster Williams comes across as a brilliant, frustrated man who unfortunately succumbed to the pressure of society and his own inner weakness.

Dora Terry, a church-going black woman, took Williams and his brother into her home, and raised them with meager means.

It is this woman whom Williams regards as "truly mother," as he describes the very old African-American custom of a community taking care of its own. In Muncie, Williams and his brother were well-known, partly because of their father's affability, which endeared him to everyone from political shakers and movers to winos, pimps and hustlers.

Williams' father shared a stage with President John F. Kennedy during a campaign stop in Muncie. Bold and confident, the longtime Republican embraced the future president, creating a lasting image for his son. In the same pages, Williams recognizes his father as the obviously intoxicated man in an Army helmet and military fatigues directing traffic in the middle of the street and praising Fidel Castro's victory in Cuba.

Williams was consistently praised as his father's success story -- the son who would be a lawyer. On the other hand, Michael was encouraged to follow the example of his wily and irresponsible father.

The results are almost predictable. Today, Williams, a graduate of Ball State and George Washington universities, is the dean of the Ohio State University College of Law, in Columbus, Ohio. His brother reportedly struggles with a handicap inflicted in a barroom brawl, but is on the road to a better life.

The narrative is captivating, but Williams never explains directly -- and perhaps he can only approach it indirectly -- why he succeeded while his brother succumbed to the aimless attractions of the street.

Color played a significant role in their lives. Rejection met them in segregated communities, with only Miss Dora's patience and love as a balance to a hostile environment.

As for Williams' biological mother, she abandoned her sons and failed to contact them for years, though she knew where they were. The memory brings out an aloofness in Williams, and an unspoken bitterness.

Perhaps this is the same emotion that gets caught in our throats whenever we confront the issue of race.

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