'I'm Down': trying to breach the color line in 1970s-'80s Seattle
"I'm Down" is Mishna Wolff's memoir of growing up in the Central District and South End in 1970s-'80s Seattle, in a mostly black neighborhood with a father who was white but longed to be black. Wolff appears this week at Third Place Books and the Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Mishna WolffThe author of "I'm Down" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com). She will appear at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
by Mishna Wolff
St. Martin's Press, 273 pp., $23.95
BOOK REVIEW |
The fact that Seattle doesn't acknowledge its black side enough, and the meta-fact that the topic remains uncomfortable and even taboo in white Seattle conversations, are big parts of why Mishna Wolff's memoir "I'm Down" is required reading. The setting is pre-gentrification Central District/South End Seattle in the '70s and '80s, and racial friction is a major theme.
The other reason to read it is because it's laugh-out-loud funny.
And not "LOL" like a text message, which often isn't literally accurate. The book is excellent entertainment, and can be easily finished in one week's worth of bus rides to work or two very long baths. It begs to be loaned to your friends.
The story of Wolff's upbringing is colored (pardon the pun) by her family's blatant whiteness in a black area. "White Americans of European ancestry" is her family. "White, white, white, white, white, white, white." But her neighborhood is black, black, black, black, black, black, black.
"Right off M.L. King Jr. Way, I lived near the Langston Hughes Auditorium, not far from the Medgar Evers Pool, close to the Douglass-Truth Library[.]" As of 2008, we can add Garfield High School's Quincy Jones Performance Center to the black-centric list.
Wolff's situation is complicated by her dad's white-blackness. He is white, but appears not to know it, and the neighborhood seems not to care. In his short perm, "Cosby-esque sweater," gold chains and Kangol hat, he's an area figure, a man's man who taught everyone's kid how to throw a football. He plays dominoes and conducts critical hot-sauce tastings with his friends, all of whom are black, and has an easy way with women, all of whom are black except for Mishna's mom.
Mishna's younger sister Anora is similarly oblivious to any kind of cultural divide, and she casually hangs out with all the neighborhood kids, joins dance groups, fits in at school and, for whatever reason, happily lives as if her whiteness versus everyone else's blackness weren't an issue.
In a cruel twist, Mishna's whiteness gets conflated with her pronounced geekiness, and both are constantly shoved in her face. Ostracized, underestimated and outright hated, she's initially soft and awkward, then gets good at making fun of people, only to receive intermittent, low-grade respect. Understandably failing to see the irony in being persecuted for whiteness in hugely-white Seattle, she dwells in hell.
Mishna's Buddhist mom splits from her dad and moves to a different neighborhood. The book's poignant subplot is the unlikely occurrence (especially in the '80s) that Mishna's father retains custody, and even though Mishna would be happier living another life, she tries through sheer will to fit in where she doesn't fit. Sometimes, like when her dad makes her play basketball, the results are eventually rewarding. Other times it's unclear what his motives are, and his stubbornly executed integration plans often put Mishna way outside her comfort zone. Sometimes it's healthy. Sometimes it's sad.
The book stops being a comedy about halfway in. After that, it's still funny — Wolff, like Chris Rock, has a way with presenting brutal truths — but there's too much real life, and too little reconciliation between Mishna and her dad for "I'm Down" to fit neatly into any bookstore's "humor" section.
Andrew Matson is a music writer and blogger for The Seattle Times. He lives in the Central District.
The information in this article, originally published June 23, 2009, was corrected. A listing for a reading at the Elliott Bay Book Co. by Mishna Wolff, author of "I'm Down," said the reading is at 7 p.m. Saturday June 27. The reading will take place at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.