bitter-the two of them being as strong and proud and resourceful as any parents I know-one hears the pain
in their voices as they begin to have second thoughts about having moved out of the city into a mostly white
suburb, a move they made to protect their son from the possibility of being caught in a gang shooting and
the certainty of attending an underfunded school.
They know too much, we have all seen too much, to take my parents’ brief union-a black man and
white woman, an African and an American-at face value. As a result, some people have a hard time taking
me at face value. When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is
usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I
began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments
they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am.
Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose-the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of
the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds. And if I were to explain that no, the tragedy is not mine, or at
least not mine alone, it is yours, sons and daughters of Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, it is yours, children
of Africa, it is the tragedy of both my wife’s six-year-old cousin and his white first grade classmates, so that
you need not guess at what troubles me, it’s on the nightly news for all to see, and that if we could
acknowledge at least that much then the tragic cycle begins to break down…well, I suspect that I sound
incurably naive, wedded to lost hopes, like those Communists who peddle their newspapers on the fringes
of various college towns. Or worse, I sound like I’m trying to hide from myself.
I don’t fault people their suspicions. I learned long ago to distrust my childhood and the stories that
shaped it. It was only many years later, after I had sat at my father’s grave and spoken to him through
Africa’s red soil, that I could circle back and evaluate these early stories for myself. Or, more accurately, it
was only then that I understood that I had spent much of my life trying to rewrite these stories, plugging up
holes in the narrative, accommodating unwelcome details, projecting individual choices against the blind
sweep of history, all in the hope of extracting some granite slab of truth upon which my unborn children can
At some point, then, in spite of a stubborn desire to protect myself from scrutiny, in spite of the periodic
impulse to abandon the entire project, what has found its way onto these pages is a record of a personal,
interior journey-a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a
black American. The result is autobiographical, although whenever someone’s asked me over the course of
these last three years just what the book is about, I’ve usually avoided such a description. An autobiography
promises feats worthy of record, conversations with famous people, a central role in important events.
There is none of that here. At the very least, an autobiography implies a summing up, a certain closure, that
hardly suits someone of my years, still busy charting his way through the world. I can’t even hold up my
experience as being somehow representative of the black American experience (“After all, you don’t come
from an underprivileged background,” a Manhattan publisher helpfully points out to me); indeed, learning to
accept that particular truth-that I can embrace my black brothers and sisters, whether in this country or in
Africa, and affirm a common destiny without pretending to speak to, or for, all our various struggles-is part of
what this book’s about.
Finally, there are the dangers inherent in any autobiographical work: the temptation to color events in
ways favorable to the writer, the tendency to overestimate the interest one’s experiences hold for others,
selective lapses of memory. Such hazards are only magnified when the writer lacks the wisdom of age; the
distance that can cure one of certain vanities. I can’t say that I’ve avoided all, or any, of these hazards
successfully. Although much of this book is based on contemporaneous journals or the oral histories of my
family, the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me. For the
sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some
events appear out of precise chronology. With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the
names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy.
Whatever the label that attaches to this book-autobiography, memoir, family history, or something else-
what I’ve tried to do is write an honest account of a particular province of my life. When I’ve strayed, I’ve
been able to look to my agent, Jane Dystel, for her faith and tenacity; to my editor, Henry Ferris, for his
gentle but firm correctives; to Ruth Fecych and the staff at Times Books, for their enthusiasm and attention
in shepherding the manuscript through its various stages; to my friends, especially Robert Fisher, for their
generous readings; and to my wonderful wife, Michelle, for her wit, grace, candor, and unerring ability to
encourage my best impulses.