Mishna Wolff’s ‘I’m Down’

No it's not a real 'fro. Mishna's hair was Photoshopped. Cover art courtesy of St. Martin's Press

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Who are we? This review is part of a continuing focus on the issues of identity—such as struggling to fit in, having a sense of place, and practicing tolerance.

Humor as healing force
An unhappy childhood has led to the birth of many a comedian. For the comic, laughter is validation and a way to transform pain into something positive. For the audience, laughter is refuge against difficult days and, perhaps, difficult lives.

I’m Down is an insightful exploration of what governs identity, because cultural immersion and socioeconomics trump skin color in Wolff’s story about growing up white in an all-black neighborhood. This sassy yet serious book should be required reading in high school and college sociology classes.

Wolff grabs the reader by the collar from her very first paragraph.

I am white. My parents both white. My sister had the same mother and father as me—all of us completely white….White, white, white, white, white, white, white, white. I think it’s important to make this clear, because when I describe my childhood to people: the years of moving from one black Baptist church to the next, the all-black basketball teams, the hours having my hair painfully braided into cornrows, often their response is, ‘So…who in your family is black?’ No one. All white.

Too cheap to be racist
Seattle’s Rainer Valley was “a white and Asian neighborhood,” Wolff says, when her father moved there as a child in the 1960s.

“That was before school busing programs, when middle-class white people started moving out of the cities and into the suburbs, because ‘you know.’ My grandparents were too cheap to be racist. You don’t sell when the market is down. And as the neighborhood got blacker—so did my dad.”

Despite briefly living as a hippie—a time during which he met Mishna ‘s mother—John Wolff was drawn back to the hood by his black acculturation and his parents’ offer of their house for free. So John moved his family to his childhood home when Mishna was about ready to enter elementary school. And as he slipped back into the lives of his high school friends, his wife slipped away. The girls eventually spent weekdays with their dad and weekends with their mom.

Without a wife to counter his questionable decisions, John rented a bulldozer and began an ill-fated home renovation project that left his house in greater disrepair than any other house on the block. He began to outdo his neighbors’ poverty by drinking and playing cards with buddies during the days, seldom working, and keeping little food in the house. In short, John out-ghettoed the ghetto.

Dreams of honkyness
Meanwhile, little Mishna Wolff yearned for a more conventional home life, including regular meals prepared by adults.

Wolff also struggled with the rough and tumble play of her neighborhood and longed to feel like she belonged. Unlike her little sister Anora, who immediately fit in with the neighborhood kids, Wolff felt like a “honky” instead of a “sister” at the age of 6.

She didn’t understand how she could fit in and still follow her father’s command of “You be you.”

I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t double Dutch—the dueling jump ropes scared me…. If I could have picked my family, they would have been honky professors…. They would talk in gentle honky voices and when they made a chicken they would THROW OUT THE GIZZARDS.

This is reminiscent of standup comic Brian Copeland’s memories of being the only black child in an all-white school in northern California where the students ostracized him after it became apparent that he was a good student instead of a good athlete. Copeland is the author and star of Not a Genuine Black Man, a one-man stage show that he eventually transformed into a book. It concerns growing up black in a once all-white California suburb east of San Francisco.

“At recess,” Copeland wrote, “when the boys chose teams to play kickball, basketball, or soccer, initially I was one of the first boys picked. Their exposure to blacks had come primarily from watching Wilt Chamberlain, Hank Aaron, O.J. Simpson, and the like on television. It was their assumption that all blacks were good athletes. My ineptness soon became apparent. I couldn’t hit. I couldn’t kick. I couldn’t throw. I couldn’t make a basket. In football, I couldn’t throw or catch a spiral.”

Two sides of same coin
I wonder whether Wolff has crossed paths with Copeland, a San Francisco radio talk show host and a well-known member of the West Coast comedy scene.

A perverse sort of similarity arises between Wolff’s father and Copeland’s mother. While it seems like Wolff’s father was trying to out-do his neighbors for being down and out, Copeland’s elegant mother was definitely striving to out-white the whites who surrounded yet shunned her family. This included taking her family out for brunch, which was, at that time, a new ritual of the upwardly mobile.

Wolff and Copeland are two sides of the same coin, children who suffered from the isolation created by racial intolerance.

While Copeland cringed as classmates dubbed him “Brillo head,” Wolf pretended to be invisible after being called “marshmallow t_ _ _ ” and “Wonder bread.” Both were regularly goaded into playground fights.

And both learned how to be funny to combat their many detractors.

Two books, one city?
Copeland’s play led to his 2006 book Not a Genuine Black Man: Or, How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs, which was the 2009 choice for the “Silicon Valley Reads” program. It is also classroom reading at a number of California schools and colleges.

The Silicon Valley program, which encompasses communities in the high-tech Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco, is similar to the “One Book” program of the Library of Congress Center for the Book.

One Book communities throughout the nation each select one important book per year to encourage residents to read and discuss.

Both Seattle and San Leandro—the site of Copeland’s difficult childhood—should be brave and select these authors’ memoirs as One Book selections sometime soon. Better yet, they should adopt both books for back-to-back discussion about culture, identity, and the hurtful impact of prejudice.

Maybe a whole lot of One Book communities nationwide should decide to do the same and declare a “Two Book” celebration of what America’s many cultures have in common versus what divides us.

A master of capping & roasting
As Wolff became more accustomed to her neighborhood, she discovered that her sarcastic sense of humor was her best defense.

During a summer spent at a government funded daycare center, she mastered the art of capping, which is somewhat similar to cracking “yo’ mama” jokes.

A “cap” is a verbal barb that you toss at someone to “roast” him. The object is to cap your critics before they cap you. Then, if they do cap you, you need to out-cap them so you can avoid being roasted. Hard to follow? To hear a podcast from Wolff’s chapter about capping, click here. Meanwhile, here is a summary of one such experience.

After practicing her capping technique all weekend, Wolff entered the daycare center with a copy of Highlights magazine in hand, looking like a nice bit of comic prey. But in truth, she had become the predator.

Jamal opened the fray by smirking and saying, “Morning Mush-na.” Then, Caprice said, “Look at her. She’s such a cracker, if she has a bowl of soup she dunks herself.” Jamal followed up by delightedly crowing, “She dunks herself!”

Then Wolff astounded the other children by pouncing on Jamal with this cap: “Am I being talked to by a burnt chocolate chip cookie?”

“The cap came out of my mouth before I thought it through and was an amalgamation of things I had heard around, so it surprised me when a girl named Myvette shouted, ‘It’s true! He dark!’ And I realized I had just told a ‘He’s-so-black joke.’”

Fitting in for awhile
Wolff’s sarcastic daring made her worthy of group membership.

“That summer,” she writes, “I learned Uno, and Chinese jump rope, and Chinese checkers, and Chinese jacks and Double Dutch. I learned hand-slapping chants that had the N-word in them—I had no idea what I was saying… none of us knew….”

When she returned to her neighborhood school in the autumn, “It seemed third grade …consisted of capping or fighting, so I decided to major in capping and minor in fighting—knowing that I could switch it up later, should my left hook improve. My classes were crowded and rowdy, which meant I could use class time to come up with new caps.”

But it was her gift for sarcasm and high scores on IQ tests that eventually sealed Wolff’s fate as a girl without a childhood country.

Although Wolff’s mother had her continue living with her dad, she made arrangements for Mishna to attend a program for the gifted at an all-white school. The program bore the unfortunate acronym “IPP” and made Wolff feel just about as popular as a kid who wets her pants.

Pretending to be wealthy
Overwhelmed by her new classmates’ playground talk about being bored by repeated trips to London and Disneyland, Wolff eventually decided to pretend to be wealthy in order to fit in.

I thought, I’ll just try to be like my family when I’m at home. And when I’m at school I’ll act like school people.” After all, if she could learn to cap and fit in at daycare, Wolff reasoned, “I can fit in anywhere. When I’m around these people, I’ll just pretend to be rich and normal in that white kinda way!

Over time, Wolff discovered that there probably is no such thing as “normal” and that the children of the wealthy aren’t necessarily happier. She was confounded to discover that some wealthy kids even dressed like homeless people.

Wolff also discovered how to juggle a demanding load of homework and violin practice while bearing up under her father’s disparaging comments about her academic life and putting up with an unfriendly stepmother, who treated her like she was a snob.

Running, passing, lapping, hoping
To placate her father, who had been a high school athlete, Wolff participated in neighborhood activities such as running track and playing basketball on otherwise all-black teams. Her father was always there to cheer her on, but she felt inadequate and out of place.

Eventually, the tall, lanky Wolff was discovered by a swim coach, who talked her into five-hour a day practices. Discovering that she was good in the pool, Wolff imagined that it might be her ticket to a college scholarship. Not so.

In an e-mail interview, Wolff wrote that “I didn’t go to college, in fact I didn’t even finish high school, but more of that in the next book.”

These days, Wolff lives far from the Rainier Valley. Her lively sister, Anora, who plays a major role in I’m Down, remains her “best friend.” They live in Los Angeles.

Wolff’s memoir makes it clear that although life in her father’s home became unbearable for her, she regretted leaving her sister behind when she chose to move in with her mother at the age of 15.

It is also clear that the risk-taking both sisters learned in childhood has served to make them the kind of people who reach for the stars. Mishna is a former model as well as a comedian and author. The equally beautiful Anora is turning her childhood love of song, dance, and performance into an acting career.

Seeking identity: “You be you”
Wolff  said she now has a good relationship with her father and mother.

“The relationships have all become much more comfortable now that I’m grown up and I can just leave when I’m done with a visit,” Wolff said. “There’s also a strange shift that took place when I stopped seeing my folks as parents and started seeing them as people. It became much easier to accept their flaws.”

I asked Wolff if she still has difficulty with her father’s frequent advice of “You be you” and when she began feeling comfortable with her identity.

“Who doesn’t have difficulty with that direction,” she wrote. “I mean look who tells you to be yourself. Fashion magazines and deranged celebrities. In our self-improvement obsessed world, I see self-acceptance as an ideal, like inner peace. I know I’ll get knocked off the beam, but ultimately I can’t be happy looking for other people’s approval….”

Well, Mishna, I know you don’t need it, but you’ve got my approval. So, you be you and find your past a little bit more, then please write a second book. There are teenagers, parents, teachers, social workers, and a whole lot of other folks out there who need it.

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