Living in a black and white world

By Caroline Leavitt
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2010

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To understand “Color Blind,’’ you must first wrap your mind around the memoir’s astonishing premise: In the 1970s and ’80s in Britain, black African children were routinely fostered to white families in suburban English neighborhoods, cherry-picked from advertisements in Nursery World magazine.

London-born to a Nigerian princess who decides she doesn’t have the stamina to raise a baby, 3-month-old Precious Williams finds a home in rural Sussex with Nanny, a 57-year-old white woman. Loving and welcoming, with a boisterous family, Nanny insists she’s colorblind, but her love for black people comes from a dubious source: her worship of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ and her yearning for a little Topsy all her own. Called Anita by her white family, Williams will grow up to forge her own identity as Precious, “the writer, the grown woman, the adventuress.’’ How she gets there is a serpentine road that’s as shatteringly moving as it is incredible.

Denied a strong sense of racial identity, Williams is taunted at school for being black and urged by her English family to try to blend in. “The key to surviving . . . when you’re black, is making whites believe that deep down you wish you were white yourself,’’ she writes.

Her mother, during her infrequent and cruel visits, criticizes her for being too white. Besides trying to figure out a racial identity, Williams struggles to map out the bonds of family. Her fierce need for her mother is enormous, even as her mother breaks promises, visits and calls only when she feels like it, and showers her with insults about her hair, her behavior, and her very slim chances of measuring up.

To her mother, Williams is “a doll that can be dressed up and shown off,’’ but when her mother finally does take her back to Nigeria, her cousins laugh at how white she seems, and Williams is soon returned. Buffeted back and forth between the white and black worlds, abused by her mother’s boyfriends, and never knowing where she fits in, she begins to feel like a “kettle so choked up with stagnant water that I can’t even come to a boil and release steam.’’ Who, then, is she? And what does that identity really mean?

This book is not so much a coming-of-age story as a harrowing coming-to-be tale. Williams peels back the layers of who she tries to be to get at who she really is. When she gets pregnant at 18 from a one-night stand, she decides to keep the child. But being a mother herself doesn’t hold any revelations about why her own mother abused her, and in fact, she soon realizes, with palpable sorrow, that she’s repeating her pattern with her own daughter.

To go to school, to kick down doors, to forge a life she’s desperate to live, Williams allows others in Nanny’s family to raise her child. What’s so fascinating — and truthfully, so disturbing — is that Williams makes no apologies. She doesn’t ask forgiveness for her absence, though she does offer an excuse: She’s yearning for her mother to love her so she can love her own child, a statement so haunting I wished Williams had given more pages over to her daughter’s life.

Still, against all odds, Williams claims her future. Gorgeously written with a fiercely honest voice, “Color Blind,’’ shows that who we are is shaped by how we are nurtured, even when our histories leave damage that is as much a part of us as our shadows.

Caroline Leavitt’s novel, “Pictures of You,’’ will be published in January by Algonquin Books. She can be reached at

COLOR BLIND: A Memoir By Precious Williams

Bloomsbury, 256 pp., $24