Dear Julie – Thoughts on ‘real american’ by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Dear Julie,

I heard you speak. And then I went to buy your book. The line to have it signed was very long, so I decided I’d be okay without that part.

I read some before going to bed, a little more after waking up. I read during a good portion of my long haul flight back to Central Europe. After I got back to my apartment and caught up with my husband on the phone, I sat in my big chair in the living room and read until I finished the book.

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This is not my normal MO. I read a lot and I often read a couple of books at a time. real american made me change. real american compelled me to take it all in in the most concentrated form I could manage. And yes, you had me at the talk. “Killing me softly”.

I suppose because there are some parallels. We’re about the same age. I also have a couple of degrees from elite institutions. I know all about that OREO dynamic. I lived it throughout my school life and maybe even now, but no one calls it that among adults. Instead I’ve referred to myself as Sister Assimilation which captures my lived Blackness in predominately white spaces. I’m not biracial but my two sons are. I have experienced and enjoy quite a bit of privilege. I’m Black. I’m a heterosexual woman. I have a husband and an ex husband, both of whom are white. I work in education and no surprises here, I write.

I feel you.

When you describe getting ready for and attending the cotillion ball with your older brother –

“In the mirror I see that I’m playing a part in a play and am not sure I know my lines.”

I’m not used to feeling ugly but that night I feel not only ugly but downright homely… It’s like my hair is getting drunk and making a scene and I can’t do a damn thing about it.” p. 73

Of course I am reminded of all the ways I struggled with feminized beauty ideals that were not meant for me to fit anyway, where my hair was just the tip of the iceberg.

You talk about your work as Dean of Students at Stanford Law School and dealing with the parents of a student who committed suicide. You are very pregnant and sitting with 2 or 3 other administrators meeting with this grieving family. When your boss encourages you to consider going home as it is getting late, you tell us this:

“I learned that night that bearing witness to the suffering of another human being is the most sacred work we can do.” p.150

I can’t remember ever having set out this idea of bearing witness and what I want to do with my life. On the other hand, my online handle is edifiedlistener and listening is my calling. Even if I know I don’t do it well or generously all the time, I am aware of its power to heal, to offer respite, to harbor others. I try. again and again and again. In listening to your story, I dare to touch some of the rough parts of my own. Bearing witness can be catching.

Oh and these children – a brown boy and very light skinned girl – both yours. Who will they become? Who will they be allowed to be and in which contexts? Your questions, concerns and guilt speak to me in ways no other author or friend has done so far. My two brown boys and their distinct white daddies populate and punctuate my life with a host of thoughts and emotions. One son is of age and doing his thing in the world. The other is still at home, young and ambitious and athletic. They are 13 years apart these brothers who further identify as Austrians, as Bilinguals.

My blackness is clear to me and them. They see themselves as brown and grasp that there are disparities in experience based on skin color, not as obviously in Austria to our eyes so far, but certainly in the US. But as a parent we have to ask, how much knowledge is enough?

You describe giving our Black sons “The Talk” – listing all the details they need to keep straight when confronted by police.

How not to defend themselves even when they have done nothing wrong. How not to reach into their pockets for anything, not even to turn off their music. Please, baby, remember: do not reach into your pocket to turn off your music.

We teach them this while trying to also teach them to love themselves and not be ashamed of their beautiful black bodies. Of their selves.  p.210

I have so many questions.

Julie, I’m writing this and it feels so easy. Like, I’m fine, let me tell you how wonderful your book is. I am so happy to do it. And yet, there’s a whole other layer to our conversation that was palpable when you spoke to so many of us who were in our own hearts having our “killing me softly” moments because we felt so seen, so crisply articulated. I, as the Black girl who struggled to be Black enough and girl enough at the same time. I, as that fiercely intelligent and well spoken child who was a source of astonishment and dismay when I outpaced my white classmates – particularly in writing. I, as that perfect integrator, friend to all, so as not to be caught fully alone which felt like a constant unspoken social risk. I, as the convenient comfortable black colleague who is so affable, flexible I could never be identified as the Angry Black Woman.

I heard all of that in your voice – all the emotions you carried and laid bare for us. And in that large assembly of school folks of color, I was allowed to feel whole and understood and that I belonged.

There’s a manuscript that’s waiting to be finished. Your talk and your book will help me get it across the finish line. I hear you rooting for me. It’s time for me to share more of my stories. It is time.

Thank you for everything.

Sherri

 

 

Julie Lythcott-Haims, real american: a Memoir, St. Martin’s Griffin. NY, NY. 2017.

 

6 thoughts on “Dear Julie – Thoughts on ‘real american’ by Julie Lythcott-Haims

  1. Wendy Menard says:

    Sherri – thank you for this beautiful post; you have not only given me a recommendation for clearly a wonderful book, but you have shared your story, and in doing so, allowed me to even more clearly see how racism and power define us all in insidious ways, but in ways that also create brilliance for those who defy its attempted constraints. It is not your job to educate me, but your writing always does. I love your blog, and look forward to your book (after reading “real american”!).

    • Thank you, Wendy, for your kind words. I am here for all of us to learn, myself included. I’m very glad if my writing is a help to you. And it is very nice to feel understandable to others.

  2. jcareyreads says:

    You have left me with a lot to think about. Thank you for this thoughtful piece and sharing this title.

  3. Dana L Buhl says:

    Hi Sherry. Oh my goodness this is incredible! Reading your reflections, knowing you as teenagers in one of those academic settings you describe, and preparing to host Julie at First Unitarian Portland this coming Spring…I feel so lucky to be a witness to this opening conversation between two thoughtful, engaging, passionate and powerful women.

    Heather — a fellow parent, friend and congregant at First Unitarian where I’m now the Director of Social Justice — recommended we consider asking Julie to be our upcoming Sewell Social Justice Lecturer. Heather had recently read Real American and was deeply moved as a bi-racial woman raised by a white mother, as a mother herself, and as a teacher. We are fortunate that Julie accepted our invitation. And now, as I read what you shared, I am moved by the profound ripples that Julie’s writing created, and by the ever widening and intersecting ripples of reflection by those who she touches. I would love to know some of the questions you would want to ask Julie if you could sit with her for an afternoon.

    As a white mother parenting a white child, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about the impact of racism expressed through these incredibly personal stories. It deepens my commitment to keep learning, listening and working for justice.

    Thank you for taking the time to write. Thank you for bringing your synchronous experiences forward. Thank you for sharing your heart, your mind, and the tender places. I don’t “do” Twitter very much, but I’m super glad I just found this through a search in my email.

    With respect and love,
    Dana

    P.S. To expand the circle wider, it was through Steve Phillips FaceBook post that I made the connection to Julie. She commented on one of Steve’s posts as our Lecture Committee was in the process of trying to reach out to her. I am so very blessed to know such good people!

  4. Dana L Buhl says:

    And oops…I meant Sherri, not Sherry 🙂

    • Dana,
      What a thrill to read your comment! You will LOVE Julie Lythcott-Haims. She is the real deal and for me she came out of nowhere. I hadn’t heard about real american before which surprised me after her talk. I still wonder why. And kudos to you for pressing on the path to greater justice. Your efforts are sorely needed and deeply appreciated.
      Please let me know how the talk goes. And please give Julie my best!

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