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Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 272 pages; $24.


Open House gathers observations, reminiscences, anecdotes, and commentaries by columnist Patricia Williams. Written with wit and insight, she relates stories about her life as a lawyer, scholar, writer, African-American, descendant of slaves, mother, and single, fifty-something woman. She tells us of her Great Aunt Mary, who crossed the color line one day, while boarding a train; about her Best White Friend, who believes that the only thing standing between the author and an eligible husband is a makeover; about the day she and her family learned how to eat watermelon without fear of racial judgment; and about why she worships Oprah. She also tackles serious subjects, such as cloning and the legacy of slavery and privacy issues in the cyber-age, all with humor and originality.


From Publishers Weekly: With a résumé that includes degrees from Wellesley and Harvard Law School, a law professorship at Columbia, a column in the Nation and a trio of books, Williams would seem to have enough material to fill several volumes of memoirs. In this thought-provoking, unconventional one, she combines family history with discourses on everything from race, class, and slavery's legacy to why she likes O magazine. One chapter, "The Kitchen," begins with an account of buying herself a cappuccino maker, moves to a consideration of homelessness in New York City, continues on to detail her father's heritage, segues to thoughts on why African-Americans give their children unusual names, returns to cappuccino and her sophisticated godmother, makes its way around to trying to cook a turkey and on from there to other food anecdotes and a description of sharing cinnamon toast and steamed milk with her young son.... The book's most affecting parts are the rich, loving stories about Williams's family, from those born into slavery to a grandfather who graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1907.

From Booklist: Williams recalls a vivacious great-aunt who was indentured as a young girl, later passed for white and married a wealthy white man, and eventually reclaimed her racial identity and settled into a life as the family's grande dame. Williams's participation in Anna Deveare Smith's Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue provokes her to recognize her hidden talents and longings. The trend toward minorities, most notably Michael Jackson, using plastic surgery prompts observations about standards of beauty. She reveals her experience as the mother of an adolescent adopted son....


Patricia J. Williams, born in 1951 in Boston, is a recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" award, a columnist ("Diary of a Mad Lawyer," The Nation), and a professor of law at Columbia University. Her previous books are Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, Alchemy of Race and Rights, and The Roosters Egg. She contributes regularly to Ms. and The Village Voice. She lives in Manhattan and Martha's Vineyard.


Professor Williams and I spoke late one afternoon. Her son was home from his Manhattan school and busy with a friend. Occasionally, I heard -- here in warm, still day-lit California -- the noise of two boys whooping in Williams's twilit Manhattan apartment.

I said that I was fascinated by Ms. Williams's recounting of African-Americans' lives in 19th- and early-20th-century Boston, the city where Ms. Williams was reared. "Few people," I said, "have so much documentation of their family as do you."

"It's partly," Ms. Williams said, "because my godmother died and left me an apartment full of letters and documents. I couldn't even put it all in the book, but it got me musing. This book is the musing upon how fortunate I was to have this older generation's influence. I could move from where I am to where my mother was, to where my grandmother was, to where my great-grandmother was. I could figure out a rationale for the paths that led back forward in time to where I am."

The professor writes about her family and her family's friends' educations.

"Every major challenge on behalf of constitutional rights," she said, "every civil rights advance -- not just for blacks, but all people in this country, of the 20th Century -- has been around education, has been access to education. It has been begging, screaming, suing, chewing, clawing our way into grammar schools, high schools, graduate schools, colleges, universities.

"So the theme of education goes through this book. And since I wrote the book, Bill Cosby expressed his concern about black youth becoming too anti-intellectual. But I think actually his critique was one of American culture at large being genuinely anti-intellectual. Blacks become the scapegoat for that, but this is a genuinely anti-intellectual moment in our history."

I said, "I do think that there's an unconscious way in which pathologies are rushed by the majority culture into the black community and dropped there."

Professor Williams added, "I also think [these pathologies are] internalized in the black community."

I suggested that media carries more news about black violence than about more commonplace black lives.

"Yes, the commonplace. That's why I kept talking about Oprah, because she really did, in some ways, open up the notion that, yeah, you can be a little overweight and you can be a little of this and you can be a little of that -- and it's okay. You're just normal. This is life. You don't have to be spectacularly beautiful -- you just go. I keep thinking of her as significant in her protection of a space to be banal."

We talked, then, about the professor's essay on African-American naming. "Within the black community, it's a little bit like playing the dozens, or the 'signifying' that Skip Gates first made famous when he testified in a trial about the early versions of rap -- that you turn a meaning upside down. This was a very literal, rather than playful act, this business of naming. We went through a period in our history when you didn't call blacks by their last name. Because they didn't deserve it and because they were owned by somebody else.

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