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Lythcott-Haims’ ‘Real American’ an evocative memoir

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Julie Lythcott-Haims honestly explores intense personal and political questions about race in her new book. (Courtesy Kristina Vetter)

Julie Lythcott-Haims, born in 1967 to a white woman and black man, opens her memoir with the provocative imploration: “Ain’t I a Real American?”

“Real American” happens to be the title of the book by the Bay Area-based Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford University dean and author of the best-selling anti-helicopter-parenting manual “How to Raise an Adult.”

Here, her entirely personal story is riveting.

Written in connection with earning master’s of fine arts at California College of the Arts — following a law degree from Harvard and undergraduate degree from Stanford — the book combines journaling, poetry and no-nonsense prose as Lythcott-Haims describes the challenges and difficulties of growing up in upper middle-class America with medium-brown skin and wooly-textured hair — a look too that, too often, prompted the query, “What are you?” (That was in kindergarten or first grade.)

Lythcott-Haims — whose father George, a prominent American pediatrician and official in President Jimmy Carter’s administration who married her mother, Jean, a British teacher, in Africa — struggled with the question herself, from childhood days living in white neighborhoods, through school at elite institutions, and even as a staff member at Stanford.

She captures the complexities and seeming contradictions of her life (and shares her feelings) in compelling, evocative scenes. When Julie was 6, her white mother – who went to lengths to call her family black — reached for her to read the picture book “The Snowy Day” because a black child is on the cover.

Or when, as a young teen, her across-the-street neighbor friend Lisa shared that her sister at first thought her dad, out mowing the lawn, was the black gardener.

In high school, her best friend Diana, while watching “Gone With the Wind” on the VCR, told her she thought of her as “normal,” not black.

Her black hair was an ongoing challenge (she was called Bozo the Clown once), yet she started to date a white Mormon boy her sophomore year.

A racial slur written on a sign wishing her a happy 17th birthday on her high school locker had reverberations for years.

In a civil rights class in college, she correctly answers a complicated question posed by her Stanford professor, calling it the starting line of her efforts to be better than whites expect black people to be — a race she would run for 20 years.

She meets, and later marries Dan, a white Jewish man, who likes her curls; she calls him a “gift.” They eventually marry. They have two children, she becomes a corporate lawyer, a job she dislikes, before joining Stanford’s administration, where she works helping new students, from 2002-12.

In the 21st century, she experiences a few turning points.

After a professional review in which she’s told she’s too emotional and aggressive, she lets go of her self-loathing of being black; a 2009 party in Palo Alto (a fund-raiser for her kids elementary school at a private home) where a white woman showed up in blackface, leaves her angry, and on a clear mission of truth telling and reconciliation, because, she says, America “owes black people a debt of contrition and recompense.”

“Real American: A Memoir” represents a solid contribution to that effort.


Real American: A Memoir
Written by: Julie Lythcott-Haims
Published by: Henry Holt and Company
Pages: 288
Price: $27
Note: Lythcott-Haims is slated to speak with Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?,” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.

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