By Julie Lythcott-Haims
272 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $27
Earlier this year, the movie “Get Out” established a psychological purgatory called the “sunken place,” where black people who have been hijacked by white people are frozen in a Munch-like anguish, a silent scream.
But there also exists an anguished place for mixed-race people who can’t figure out where they belong, or how to talk about that confusion. In America, mixed-race identity tends to invite both curiosity and suspicion, largely because few have found a way to interrogate it without centering whiteness as the scale by which to evaluate blackness. Those who fumble at this examination are burned online. (For recent examples, Google “race and Tinashe” or “race and painting and Zadie Smith.”)
It’s with this trepidation that I approached “Real American,” Julie Lythcott-Haims’s new memoir about growing up biracial. But any fears that I initially had about the book were laid to rest by two gut-wrenching lines near the beginning that show the author intends to probe not her blackness but rather America’s perception of it. “I come from people who survived what America did to them,” she writes. “I’m so American it hurts.” Lythcott-Haims, the author of “How to Raise an Adult,” was the dean of freshmen at Stanford University, and she began writing poetry in 2007, after reading Lucille Clifton; the pacing of “Real American,” staccato at times, rushed and frenetic at others, infuses the book with a lyricism that hums with the frustration and sadness she felt growing up what she calls “un-Black.” Her feelings metamorphose into palpable anger and resentment as she reaches adulthood, and she finally begins to grasp the perversity of a system that tries to undermine black Americans from the moment they arrive in the world.
What sets Lythcott-Haims’s book apart from others is that she doesn’t seem to be contextualizing the experience for white people — she’s working through the issues that she’s faced all her life, unpacking them in an effort to isolate and extract them, as a surgeon might inspect a cancerous cluster of cells before excision.
The most moving parts of “Real American” come when Lythcott-Haims stares unflinchingly at her own self-loathing, writing about the racist encounters of her childhood that convinced her from a young age that there was something inherently wrong with being black.