Baltimore, Maryland seems to be on my brain lately. First, I binge watched The Wire, then I reread David Simon’s 1997 book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Finally I plunged into Jess Row’s provocative book, Your Face in Mine: A Novel.
For someone who has been “complimented” for being well spoken, learned the useful art of “shifting” for the comfort of myself and others, and have heard that my cries of inequality have been attributed to race instead of the gender politics I navigate, the idea of being able to reassign to a more “fitting” race was interesting to me. Jess Row examines what happens when a person who feels no connection to his OWN ethnic background can change to one he feels more connected with through racial reassignment. Using the same ideas behind gender reassignment, racial reassignment is a reality. Shedding your past, undergoing an intense dialect training, and cosmetic surgery, you too can become a blonde, Asian, Brazilian, or African American.
Kelly Thorndike has returned to his hometown of Baltimore to manage a struggling NPR affiliate, and cope with the death of his wife and daughter. While he tries to regain normalcy in his life, he runs into Martin Wilkinson, a friend from high school who has changed in more ways than one. Martin’s appearance in Kelly’s life brings back memories of Kelly’s high school days, when Kelly, Martin, and their deceased friend Alan were starry-eyed kids, playing in a band, preparing to take on the world. Martin has been always the oddball friend, and now Kelly sees that his oddness was not just a phase, but who Martin really was all along.
I struggled with the book. As a born and raised African American, I felt that somehow I betrayed my people by agreeing with the things Martin Wilkerson said. As I read, my mind kept drawing to the fact that African American Martin Wilkerson was actually Jewish Martin Lipsky and Jess Row was composing the words and thoughts of the man. Martin was able to bypass the rites of passage that African American men live through: Driving while black, the inherent racism that is passed down generationally, the disenfranchisement of a people. He didn’t grow up with that heaviness on his shoulders. He was able to skip the things that make a person of COLOR who they are and just be. He looked at the world through the eyes and experience of a white man in an African American’s body. By undergoing racial reassignment, Martin never grew up with the weight of a history wrought with unfairness, or his “initiation” the first time someone sneers the N word with pure hate. Bobbing along to hip hop, knowing the words of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and feeling more attuned to one culture does not an African American make.
During a conversation with another classmate, Kelly feels guilt for wanting to leave Baltimore the first chance he could. Looking at the blight in my own neighborhood, I don’t blame him. Why would anyone want to stay in a neighborhood that’s depressing, filled with a heaviness of no hope, and stained by poverty? Why would anyone want to stay in a place that makes them unhappy and miserable, playing the martyr to die on other people’s hills?
Not knowing what to expect when I began the book, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the story. Discussing the story with others, many joked they would consider it if this was indeed a reality. As a person who has had her race questioned due to music choices, voter’s registration, and how well I speak (aka my work voice), I can understand HOW a person could think he was born the wrong race. But does skin color really define a person?
Jess Row explores this question and others in this captivating story of youth, identity, and a person’s place in life.
Your Face in Mine will be available in August 2014.
This post contains affiliate links. I also received a review copy complimentary, but that did not affect my review of the novel.