turning white: a memoir of change, by lee thomas.
i brought four books with me to detroit over the christmas holiday, but picked this book up at a border’s when i took my daughter there to get a book for school. its cover grabbed my eye (great cover), and i noticed it was under a “local author” sign. lee thomas, the author, is a detroit area news anchor. this is the story of his wrestle with vitiligo (pronounced vih-til-EYE-go), a skin disease where one’s pigment disappears, over time. apparently, 1 – 2% of the population have this (according to the book), but it’s hardly noticeable on people with lighter skin tones. of course, for an african american, like thomas, it means he’s “turning white.”
it’s a compelling issue, and seems to set the mind wandering on a multitude of questions and issues, like:
– what does it mean to the identity of a black man to slowly turn white?
– what if that black man makes his living in a context that is constantly focused on his face, and broadcasting that face to millions of people?
– what role does any of our skin color play in our identity? what’s the interplay of skin color, enculturation, and other factors?
– would it be better for the author (or another with the same disease) to suddenly and completely change skin color, or to gradually change, in splotches (it’s not a gradual overall lightening, but more like growing patches of whiteness)?
unfortunately, the book doesn’t address any of these questions. to thomas’s credit, he says right from the start, that this is a book about a black man’s skin, and not at all about race. but i was frustrated, on almost every page, by his unwillingness to go there. it seemed like an opportunity squandered, to address race from a completely different place. it was either a cop-out, an overly careful political-correctness (career cautiousness), or simplicity that would lead one to omit what could have been something so central to the issue (or, at least, that’s what i was thinking as i read).
also, the book is horribly written and edited. really, i haven’t seen a book go to print in a long time that is this poorly written and edited (and i’ve come, given my role, to blame that primarily on the editing, not the author — some can write and some can’t, but an editor’s job is to not let the author reveal that he’s a crappy writer).
so, yes, the book was deeply dissatisfying on multiple levels. but, somehow, i’m still glad i read it, because it’s a real guy’s story, dealing with a real life issue, that has all kinds of implications that caused me to think (whether the author was willing to think about those issues or not).