Skip to Main Content
Skidmore College
First-Year Experience

Summer Reading Program 2006
Life on the Color Line
Why this book?

by Joshua C. Woodfork, Department of American Studies

Recently a good friend explained to me that when she reads a book which she finds herself enjoying she often pauses, leaving about twenty pages left, hoping to put off the inevitable ending to the experience: the finishing of the book. Similarly, I retorted that if I like a book I am frequently sad when I am done reading, and have a mini-mourning experience. Gregory Howard Williams' autobiography Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black (LOCL, Plume, 1995) is a book that may provoke similar reader response emotions. Williams grants readers an opportunity to take a chronological journey with him, as he relays his experiences from his boyhood through college.

My first encounter with Williams and the book came almost ten years ago, while I was in my junior year at a place similar to Skidmore College. I spent my spring semester as an exchange student at Howard University in Washington, DC. Howard is frequently mentioned throughout Williams' text as the place where Williams' father goes to school. Howard is recognized for its importance as an Historically Black College/University (HBCU) educating African Americans since Reconstruction. Like Skidmore, my college was predominantly white and I was thrilled to be exploring an urban city. I did not have a lot of extra money for socializing and therefore decided to attend book readings by visiting authors at local independent bookstores.

Gregory Howard Williams was on a book tour for LOCL. At this point, I was exploring my own multiracial background so the title of the book and the description greatly intrigued me. On the evening of February 28, 1996, I left my dormitory room to check out Williams' presentation at a downtown bookstore.

Williams read from his book and fielded questions. The audience was moved to tears. I was so struck by Williams' story and his manner that upon returning to my home school I lobbied for Williams' text to be the first-year book reading for the following year. The book was selected and Williams came and spoke. I had subsequently graduated, but was glad to hear reports of the successful reading of the book by the first-years and the visit. A decade later, I am now a professor at Skidmore. For my campus service, I ended up volunteering for the first-year book selection committee hosted by the First-Year Experience. After racist incidents on campus last fall, I considered my own undergraduate life. Williams' book seemed a natural nominee to our list of choices. Obviously, the book was selected.

Instead of listing all the reasoning for our selection of this text, we invite you to consider your own reading experience and to share your critique of the book. We are hoping that you consider this book as a catalyst for discussion and thought. We think it raises many issues related to your upcoming college experience, such as what does it mean to be a member of a community? What are the ways you have been privileged or disadvantaged? At ten years old, Williams claims that he chooses to "dream" over to "despair." How do Williams' dreams intersect with his realities? Consider your own family of origin, schooling, and other experiences in charting your path to Skidmore College. How does your route compare with Williams' path to college? We invite you to address these ideas and other reactions and responses that you may have to LOCL during Orientation discussions when you arrive on campus. We also strongly encourage you to continue the dialogue and attend Williams' campus visit on September 20th.