Caille Millner’s memoir isn’t warm and cozy, and after completing its 245 pages, readers won’t necessarily feel particularly close to her. Yet at the same time, the journey the extraordinary young woman describes with razor-sharp prose and insight in “The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification” (Penguin Press, $22.95) is thoroughly unique, engaging, and, most of all, thought-provoking.
Millner, though an extremely successful student (she went to Harvard) and professional (today she’s an editorial writer in San Francisco), has never felt like she fit in. Her story, basically, is about what it’s like to be an inquiring, defiant, confused, educated light-skinned black person who grew up not being around black people most of the time.
She was born in 1979 to tough parents who made a conscious effort to better their children’s lives. Her first years were spent among primarily Catholic Latinos in east San Jose. Later, when she was in middle school, her parents moved the family to the upper middle-class suburb in the Almaden Valley, where, for the first time, she faced rejection, from both her new classmates and her friends from the old neighborhood.
Millner’s story isn’t a chronological, year-by-year account of her life. Instead, she focuses on various meaningful episodes or people she encountered that invariably had an effect on her (however, in all of the cases, it’s not immediately clear exactly what the effects were).
One early, notable episode was when, at age 16, she had a article published in the San Jose Mercury News Sunday magazine about the struggle of being a black person in a white high school. The story was met with resistance, to the point where she registered a threatening letter she’d received with the police.
The confrontation didn’t deter her from winning academic awards and getting into Harvard, where she was both fascinated and repelled by the sense of entitlement she witnessed there, particularly in the paradox of people who were simultaneously wealthy and trying to bring about social change.
Other adventures include her work as a teen writer at San Francisco-based Pacific News Service, where she found a sense of home among the motley crew of mostly outsiders. Years later, she describes in poignant detail meeting with a friend from that time, only to realize the deep divide between them.
Despite her academic success and clear gifts as a writer, Millner is no goody two-shoes. She writes long passages about her drug dealer, or about stirring up trouble trying to stop gentrification in a South African town where she lived and worked as a freelance journalist.
While the narrative is at times oblique, the erudite Millner tells her story with style, grace and truthful self-analysis. It’s a tale that has lessons for anyone interested in combating racism and nurturing cultural awareness.