Book Review: Wil Haygood on 'I'm Down' by Mishna Wolff

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009


By Mishna Wolff

St. Martin's. 273 pp. $23.95

When I was growing up in the Bolivar Arms housing project in Columbus, Ohio, there was one white family among the 160 or so households. They lived just across the curved pavement from our apartment. There was a noticeable sway among the members of this white family, and perhaps it would have been so with any family thrust into an overwhelmingly minority role. It showed in their eagerness, even passion, to act black, to prove that they belonged in this environment. They listened to soul music and adopted speech adorned with black hipster dialect. The daughters dressed in outfits as outlandish as the clothing worn by my own "Soul Train"-loving sisters. It became hard, in time, to convince them that they were not black.

It is that complicated human dynamic -- of being white in a black world -- that Mishna Wolff describes in her memoir "I'm Down," a tale of coming of age in south Seattle under the tutelage of John Wolff, her father. John hung around black people, had black girlfriends and married a black woman. "He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esque sweater, gold chains, and a Kangol -- telling jokes like Redd Foxx, and giving advice like Jesse Jackson," Wolff writes.

One admires any child who gets through a difficult childhood; the reading of such a chronicle, if told well, can be arresting. But, unfortunately, little of dramatic interest happens in the life of young Mishna. She misses no meals, suffers no trauma, feels no danger from any corner. Her parents divorce, but she gains acceptance into a white school, all the while continuing to live in her black neighborhood. There are petty little-girl-little-boy arguments.

"I was a honky. I couldn't dance. I couldn't sing," Wolff writes, somehow believing this to be a portal into a childhood worth telling about.

In her effort to explain what it was like living around blacks, Wolff too often comes close to mimicking a tired TV sitcom. Even though she writes, "I claim none of this as gospel. That being said, most of this stuff is totally true," long riffs of quoted dialogue beg suspicion and begin to grate.

Wolff's tale comes alive only when she writes about her primping father or one of his love affairs with black women. Here is little Mishna taking a peek into her father's basement: "As I cracked open the door, I was immediately blinded by bright light. And when my eyes adjusted I saw that the floor of the 'office' was a forest of marijuana plants. Thirty or more marijuana plants in perfect rows with grow lights poised over them like it was time for their close-up. Whatever I thought of my dad's parenting abilities with us, he certainly knew how to daddy some weed." This is funny and far more insightful than what has come before it.

And here is Mishna on her father taking her and her sister to the home of a girlfriend: "On Wednesday night Anora and I got ready for dinner at Dominique's house and Dad put us in our gold chains that we were allowed to wear only to church. We had started going to an all-black Baptist church after the divorce and Dad usually let our gold out of his desk only on Sunday because he said, 'If you wear gold every day, it loses its class.' " John Wolff comes off as a decent man, flawed for sure (he hides a .357 magnum in the house), but resilient.

But what made him so desirous of living in a black world? And what did his black friends think of him? Mishna Wolff suffers, like many memoirists of late, from a reluctance to do some old-fashioned reporting to solidify her memory as she steps back into that tricky tunnel of time. Throughout "I'm Down," one keeps waiting for pop-culture references, for details of a child sensing a world rotating around her. But there is often little indication of what year we're in.

Only John appears in living color. Mishna can hear her father before he sees her: "I knew immediately it was Dad. The blaring rhythms of Kool & the Gang came wafting up the block long before he did. And my classmates looked curiously at each other, wondering where the loud music could possibly be coming from. And then he came into sight behind the wheel of the car we referred to as 'the boat' crammed with all his buddies: Big Lyman, Delroy, Reggie Dee, and Eldridge."

Wolff's story pales when it comes to her father. He's as "down" as they come.

Haygood is the author of, among other books, "The Haygoods of Columbus," a memoir. "Sweet Thunder," his biography of Sugar Ray Robinson, will be published in October.

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