Although I was fortunate to have incredible instructors for all my classes last semester, none of my teachers could compete with the humor and vivacity of my ear training professor, Carolyn Wilkins. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out that she was releasing a book and hosting a book signing – I had to be there!
And, not surprisingly, Carolyn Wilkins was equal parts poignant and hysterical at her book signing, explaining the back story of and reading excerpts from her book, Damn Near White: An African American Family’s Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I think the inner book jacket does a great job summarizing the more salient topics of Wilkins book:
Carolyn Wilkins grew up defending her racial identity. Because of her light complexion and wavy hair, she spent years struggling to convince others that she was black. Her family’s prominence set Carolyn’s experiences even further apart from those of the average African American. Her father and uncle were well-known lawyers who had graduated from Harvard Law School. Another uncle had been a child prodigy and protégé of Albert Einstein. And her grandfather had been America’s first black assistant secretary of labor….
Damn Near White is an insider’s portrait of an unusual American family. Readers will be drawn into Carolyn’s journey as she struggles to redefine herself in light of the long-buried secrets she uncovers. Tackling issues of class, color, and caste, Wilkins reflects on the changes of African American life in U.S. history through her dedicated search to discover her family’s powerful story.
Wilkins explained that her book is written similar to a mystery-detective novel because the reader gets to follow Wilkins’ journey to reconnect the dots of her family’s past after her Aunt Marjory dies, the previous unofficial Wilkins family history-keeper. Again, quoting from the book jacket,
Carolyn learns that her great-grandfather John Bird Wilkins was born into slavery and went on to become a teacher, inventor, newspaperman, renegade Baptist minister, and a bigamist who abandoned five children. And when she discovers that her grandfather J. Ernest Wilkins may have been forced to resign from his labor department post by members of the Eisenhower administration, Carolyn must confront the bittersweet fruits of her family’s generations-long quest for status and approval.
I asked Carolyn at the book signing if she felt her book was filling a literary void, and she answered yes, citing the lack of information and celebration for her grandfather’s achievement becoming America’s first black assistant secretary of labor as one of the primary reasons for writing Damn Near White. And I think anyone would agree after reading only a few chapters that Carolyn has contributed a great deal to the literary world with her unique, passionate voice and story for others to learn from and enjoy.