She had spent the previous ten years doing what she loved. She traveled the world, working in the
distant villages of Asia and Africa, helping women buy a sewing machine or a milk cow or an education that
might give them a foothold in the world’s economy. She gathered friends from high and low, took long
walks, stared at the moon, and foraged through the local markets of Delhi or Marrakesh for some trifle, a
scarf or stone carving that would make her laugh or please the eye. She wrote reports, read novels,
pestered her children, and dreamed of grandchildren.
We saw each other frequently, our bond unbroken. During the writing of this book, she would read the
drafts, correcting stories that I had misunderstood, careful not to comment on my characterizations of her
but quick to explain or defend the less flattering aspects of my father’s character. She managed her illness
with grace and good humor, and she helped my sister and me push on with our lives, despite our dread, our
denials, our sudden constrictions of the heart.
I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different
book-less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in
my life. In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder. I won’t try to describe how
deeply I mourn her passing still. I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known,
and that what is best in me I owe to her.
I ORIGINALLY INTENDED A VERY different book. The opportunity to write it first arose while I was still
in law school, after my election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, a legal periodical
largely unknown outside the profession. A burst of publicity followed that election, including several
newspaper articles that testified less to my modest accomplishments than to Harvard Law School’s peculiar
place in the American mythology, as well as America’s hunger for any optimistic sign from the racial front-a
morsel of proof that, after all, some progress has been made. A few publishers called, and I, imagining
myself to have something original to say about the current state of race relations, agreed to take off a year
after graduation and put my thoughts to paper.
In that last year of law school, I began to organize in my mind, with a frightening confidence, just how
the book would proceed. There would be an essay on the limits of civil rights litigation in bringing about
racial equality, thoughts on the meaning of community and the restoration of public life through grassroots
organizing, musings on affirmative action and Afrocentrism-the list of topics filled an entire page. I’d include
personal anecdotes, to be sure, and analyze the sources of certain recurring emotions. But all in all it was
an intellectual journey that I imagined for myself, complete with maps and restpoints and a strict itinerary:
the first section completed by March, the second submitted for revision in August….
When I actually sat down and began to write, though, I found my mind pulled toward rockier shores.
First longings leapt up to brush my heart. Distant voices appeared, and ebbed, and then appeared again. I
remembered the stories that my mother and her parents told me as a child, the stories of a family trying to
explain itself. I recalled my first year as a community organizer in Chicago and my awkward steps toward
manhood. I listened to my grandmother, sitting under a mango tree as she braided my sister’s hair,
describing the father I had never truly known.
Compared to this flood of memories, all my well-ordered theories seemed insubstantial and premature.
Still, I strongly resisted the idea of offering up my past in a book, a past that left me feeling exposed, even
slightly ashamed. Not because that past is particularly painful or perverse but because it speaks to those
aspects of myself that resist conscious choice and that-on the surface, at least-contradict the world I now
occupy. After all, I’m thirty-three now; I work as a lawyer active in the social and political life of Chicago, a
town that’s accustomed to its racial wounds and prides itself on a certain lack of sentiment. If I’ve been able
to fight off cynicism, I nevertheless like to think of myself as wise to the world, careful not to expect too
And yet what strikes me most when I think about the story of my family is a running strain of innocence,
an innocence that seems unimaginable, even by the measures of childhood. My wife’s cousin, only six
years old, has already lost such innocence: A few weeks ago he reported to his parents that some of his
first grade classmates had refused to play with him because of his dark, unblemished skin. Obviously his
parents, born and raised in Chicago and Gary, lost their own innocence long ago, and although they aren’t