Monday, January 21, 2013

Author Spotlight: Carolyn Marie Wilkins

This insider's portrait of an unusual American family was called one of the 25 reasons academic publishing is sexier than you think by Library Journal. Carolyn Wilkins relates her struggles to redefine herself in light of the long-buried secrets she uncovered through her search to discover her family's story. She grew up defending her racial identity because of her light complexion and wavy hair, yet her grandfather had been America's first black assistant secretary of labor. Carolyn's quest unearths her family's generations-long quest for status and approval.
DAMN NEAR WHITE: An African American Family’s Journey from Slavery to Bittersweet Success


Q: What does “Damn Near White” mean, and why did you choose this title?
“Light, bright, and damn near white” is a saying that has long been used among black folks to describe people of a certain skin color. Mostly it’s used as an epithet to describe folks who are so light they have forgotten their identity as African Americans.  The irony is that the people I write about in this book, although they possessed light complexions, were firmly anchored in the African American community of their era. Damn Near White is a book about my family. Naming my book Damn Near White reflects the way people have described us, while at the same time poking fun at this description.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?
People are always asking me about my racial background. “Are you biracial?” “Are you Hispanic?” The fact is that my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are African American. You actually have to go a long way back in my family tree before you find any white people. Yet we are all very fair-skinned, and our experiences have been different from those typically described as African American.

I wanted to discover more about my family history both to address the questions I was constantly getting from other people and to satisfy my own curiosity, so I began to do a little research. The more that I found out about my ancestors, the more curious I became. As I dug more deeply, I began to uncover some pretty surprising details.

After a couple of years of me telling these stories around the Thanksgiving dinner table, my sister-in-law Ann Marie Wilkins suggested that these stories would make an interesting book. Damn Near White is the result of this process.

Q: You say that your family’s experience was different from what most people think of as “typically” African American.  Can you tell me about that?
I come from a very distinguished family.  My grandfather, J. Ernest Wilkins, was a remarkable man who defeated the odds stacked against blacks during the era of segregation and achieved national prominence. In 1954, President Eisenhower appointed him to the position of United States assistant secretary of labor. He was the highest-ranking African American official in government, and the first black man ever to be named an assistant secretary of labor. 

 Two of his sons, my father Julian and his brother John, graduated from Harvard Law School in the 1940s.  His third son, my uncle Ernest, was a prodigy who received his PhD from the University of Chicago in physics at the age of nineteen and studied with Albert Einstein at Princeton.

In 1957, after only three years on the job, my grandfather resigned abruptly from his position at the Labor Department. Shortly thereafter he died from a massive heart attack. No one in the family had ever been able to give me a satisfactory answer as to why he resigned or whether the stress of resigning contributed to his death three months later.

This book describes my quest to discover the answers to these questions and to my own issues of racial identity. 

Q: Were you able to find any ancestors from the 19th century? I am assuming that as an African American, you had some slaves in your family tree?
Actually, the full title of my book is Damn Near White: An African American Family’s Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success. My grandfather’s father, John Bird Wilkins, was enslaved, most probably in Oxford, Mississippi. My great-grandfather was quite a ne’er-do-well.  He abandoned my great-grandmother and her five young children for another woman when my grandfather was only two.  John Bird Wilkins had at least ten other children that I was able to find and at least three common-law wives.  In an age when most people lived and died within a ten-mile radius, my great-grandfather traveled all over the South and the Midwest. He was an inventor, a teacher, a journalist, and a Baptist minister who enraged his congregation with his unconventional religious philosophies. It took me a few years and the assistance of a professional genealogist to unearth all the facts, but it is such a fascinating story that I devote quite a bit of space to him my book.

Q: Can  you tell me more about your background?
I am a musician. I studied classical piano and orchestral percussion at Oberlin Conservatory. I also have a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music. After spending some time overseas playing with the Singapore Symphony, I returned to the States where I worked as a freelance percussionist in Pittsburgh and Chicago before moving to Seattle, Washington. There I became interested in jazz and after several years of study, began to sing and play jazz piano full time.

Q: What is your “day job”?
My day job is Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston where I teach piano, ensembles, and ear training to aspiring young musicians.  I love it.

Q: How have people reacted to the book so far?
Whenever I talk about the book, I find that people become very interested. Regardless of their race or ethnicity, people these days are interest in exploring their family history. Our elders are dying, and unless we take steps to preserve their stories, they will be lost. I have grappled with issues of race, class, and color throughout my life. Working on this book gave me a chance to explore how my family’s history has shaped me and given me a chance to see myself from a much broader perspective.

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