GLENWOOD SPRINGS — An annual reading program at Colorado Mountain College is offering community members throughout the six-county college district to earn up to $250 in prize money for an essay about the book featured in this fall’s program — “I’m Down — A memoir.”
The book, by Mishna Wolff of New York City, details her years growing up in predominantly black neighborhoods in south Seattle, Wash., going to mostly-black schools, playing on sports teams that were all black except for her, and being raised by her single white dad who, in her words, “truly believed he was black ... he walked like a black man, he talked like a black man, and he played sports like a black man. You couldn’t tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried.”
The contest, entitled “Beyond Cultural Identity: Overcoming Obstacles and Making Connections,” offers cash prizes of $250 for first place, $150 for second and $100 for third, making six prizes in total for in two different categories — art and creative writing.
The deadline for submitting entries in either category is Nov. 29, according to the college.
Books are available through all branches of the Garfield County Library system, for sale at Book Train in Glenwood Springs, and at the Spring Valley Campus book store.
This is the seventh annual Common Reader Program conducted by the school, according to Jane Szuchs, instructional chair of the Developmental Education and College Success department at the district. Szuchs said the author has been making the rounds of CMC campuses, and will be at the Aspen campus at 10 a.m. on Monday and at the Spring Valley Campus at 7 p.m. that same day, talking about her book and her life, and signing copies of the book.
From the opening words of the book, Wolff makes it quite clear what has driven her to write it: “I am white. My parents, both white. My sister had the same mother and father as me — all of us completely white. I think it’s important to make this clear, because when I describe my childhood to people: the years of moving from one black Baptist church to the next, the all black basketball teams, the hours having my hair painfully braided into cornrows, often the response is, ‘So, who in your family was black?’ No one. All white.”
From there, she describes growing up in a part of Seattle “that your average white person, at the time, wouldn’t have gone to without a good reason.”
She explained that her grandparents moved to the area when it was predominantly white and Asian, and stayed over the ensuing years despite its changeover to mostly black residents.
“And as the neighborhood got blacker, so did my dad,” she wrote.
When dad and mom, who tried their hand at being hippies but ultimately gave it up, got around to having kids, it was in the same neighborhood dad had grown up in.
And the return to his roots meant getting back to being as black as he could, and insisting that his two young daughters follow his lead.
The trouble with that, Wolff wrote, is that “I was a honky. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t Double Dutch — the dueling double jump ropes scared me.”
She tried, and to some extent succeeded in fitting in, partly by adopting the street-wise techniques of “insult-comedy” as a conversational weapon.
But when her mother, having divorced dad, sent Wolff to an elite white school, she found herself ostracized for the very attributes she had tried so hard to master as a survival technique in her old ‘hood.
And it goes on from there, over 173 pages of prose that is both funny and serious, as it explores the nature of cultural identity in the United States.
Wolff, it turns out, quit high school and embarked on a life that included fashion modeling and stand-up comedy, before becoming a Screenwriting Lab Fellow of the Sundance Films enterprise in 2009, the same year she wrote this book.
“It’s a great book,” said Szuchs, who founded the Common Reader Program at CMC seven years ago.
The book was chosen by a vote of 85-69 among the faculty and staff of the college, Szuchs said, maintaining that “I’m Down” probably was chosen over a somewhat darker book because “people were looking for a read that had some levity and some humor to it” after a year of turmoil in the college.
The two appearances on Monday will be at the CMC Campus in Aspen at 10 a.m., in room 220, and at 7 p.m. at the gymnasium in the Student Services Building at the Spring Valley campus near Glenwood Springs. Copies of the book will be available for sale at both events.