Finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction
A memoir of astonishing delicacy and strength about race and physical beauty.
Kym Ragusa's stunningly beautiful, brilliant African American mother turned heads as she strolled the streets of West Harlem. Ragusa's white, working-class, Sicilian American father, who grew up only a few streets away in Italian East Harlem, had never seen anything like her. At home, their families despaired at the match, while in the streets the couple faced taunting threats from a city still racially divided.
From their volatile, short-lived pairing came a sensitive child with a filmmaker's observant eye and the intangible gifts of an exceptional writer. Both Italian American and African American, she struggled to find a place for herself as she grew, and, in this book, she brings to life the two families and the warring, but ultimately similar, communities that defined her.
Through the stories and memories of her maternal ancestors, Ragusa explores her black family's history, from her great-great-great-great-grandmother, who escaped from slavery in the South, to her grandmother, a journalist for the society columns of black newspapers, to her glamorous mother, who became a fashion model in Europe. Entwined with these are the stories of Ragusa's paternal ancestors: her iron-willed great-grandmother, who came to New York from a small village in the mountains of Calabria; her grandmother, the first to be born in America, who struggled to fit in both in her Italian community and later in the American suburbs; and, finally, Ragusa's father, a Vietnam veteran.
At the center of the memoir are her two powerful grandmothers, who gave her the love and stability to grow into her own skin. Eventually, their shared care for their granddaughter forced them to overcome their prejudices. East and West Harlem, the Bronx and suburban New Jersey, rent parties and religious feste, baked yams and baked ziti—all come vividly to life in Ragusa's sensuous memories and lyrical prose, as she evokes the joy, the pain, and the inexhaustible richness of a racially and culturally mixed heritage.