Self-Portrait in Black and White
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Pub Date 15 Oct 2019
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A meditation on race and identity from one of our most provocative cultural critics.
A reckoning with the way we choose to see and define ourselves, Self-Portrait in Black and White is the searching story of one American family’s multi-generational transformation from what is called black to what is assumed to be white.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a “black” father from the segregated South and a “white” mother from the West, spent his whole life believing the dictum that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person black. This was so fundamental to his self-conception that he’d never rigorously reflected on its foundations—but the shock of his experience as the black father of two extremely white-looking children led him to question these long-held convictions.
It is not that he has come to believe that he is no longer black or that his daughter is white, Williams notes. It is that these categories cannot adequately capture either of them—or anyone else, for that matter. Beautifully written and bound to upset received opinions on race, Self-Portrait in Black and White is an urgent work for our time.
About the Author: Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Self-Portrait in Black and White, Losing My Cool, and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He is a 2019 New America Fellow and the recipient of a Berlin Prize. He lives in Paris with his wife and children.
“Thomas Chatterton Williams has the essential things a writer needs—command of language, complexity and depth of thought, and, maybe above all, courage. In Self-Portrait in Black and White he sticks his neck way out in pursuit of unfashionable, necessary truths. This book brings a blast of fresh air that will change your thinking about race in America.” - George Packer, author of Our Man and The Unwinding
“Thomas Chatterton Williams’ Self-Portrait in Black and White is a gorgeously written and deeply knowledgeable account of fatherhood, identity, and race. Tender and probing, respectful of intellectual disagreement and of the raw emotions these subjects can stir, it nevertheless proceeds fearlessly and rigorously toward his own original and challenging conclusions. This is a book that will surely provoke, inform, and move readers, regardless of where they stand on the political and philosophical divide.” - Phil Klay, author of Redeployment
“How does anyone confront a history that demands what they believe about themselves is different from what’s required to love their children? The answer, and path to it, is complicated. But here is a son embodying the lessons of a father. Some will walk away from this believing that black, like white, is a social construct that needs to be abandoned—but all will walk way knowing that a father’s love cannot be quantified by anything as whimsical as skin complexion.” - Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Felon and A Question of Freedom
“In fifty years, smart students will be writing senior theses seeking to understand why anyone in the early 21st century found anything in Self-Portrait in Black and White at all controversial. For now, curl up with this book to join a conversation on race about progress rather than piety, thought rather than therapy.” - John McWhorter, author of The Creole Debate