UC MagazineUniversity of CincinnatiUC Magazine

UC Magazine

Campus reviewers call UC President Gregory Williams' book brave, eloquent, hopeful

When President Gregory Williams' book was published in 1995, the New York Times called it a "brave memoir." As its power hasn't dimmed, we asked three people on campus at the University of Cincinnati to describe their impressions, as well. Their reviews follow:

Gregory Williams had no reason to believe that his father's alcohol-soaked words would prove prophetic, but believe he did: "One of these days, people won't believe you lived at 6011/2 Railroad Street and didn't have a pot to piss in," his father told him.

As I read Williams' memoir, I marveled at the true story's plot twists and turns and the nearly inconceivable challenges our new UC president faced establishing his identity amid racial ambiguity. As I absorbed the vivid details that brought the story to life, the writer and journalist in me took note: This man can write.

With thoughtful attention to scene, dialogue and plot development, Williams introduces us to the wide range of people who shaped his youth and young adulthood. He paints them neither as villains nor heroes, but as humans -- complex, creative, conflicted and sometimes even criminal.

Baring emotional wounds is never easy. Doing so eloquently is even less so. But by doing just that, Williams uses his personal journey to offer important insights into issues of race, identity, family and, ultimately, understanding.

-- Elissa Sonnenberg, A&S '88, assistant director of UC's journalism program

It seems to me that in today's tell-all culture, bookshelves are weighty with memoirs of every stripe, most of which apparently require a rotten childhood at their cores. After all, didn't Frank McCourt say that a happy childhood is hardly worth your while? McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," however, distinguishes itself as exceptional autobiographical literature. For me, so does "Life on the Color Line."

In my reading of the book, what appears most vividly is Williams' embrace of his escape-and-return life, an honest recognition of the pathos and humor of his past that now shapes him as an adult. There is always this tiny spark of hope, either from his father or inside himself, that things can be better.

That is what I held onto as I turned page after page of his gut-wrenching descriptions of the poverty, racism and deplorable parenting he experienced. It takes a fair measure of courage to go back in memory to such a childhood.

-- Kevin Grace, MA (A&S) '77, UC head archivist

In early November, UC's renowned pianist Awadagin Pratt played with acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell as part of the White House's "Evening of Classical Music." As President Obama and his family listened to the compelling strains of Maurice Ravel's gypsy music, "Tzigane," we might well have believed we had crossed over into some post-racial phase of our society. Boundary crossings frequently seem exotic to us, transforming our comfortably settled identity through the allure of new places and experiences.

What President Williams' memoir chronicles, by contrast, is the confusion, pain, bitterness and loss that so frequently accompany boundary crossings. Even as a 10-year-old, he pushed himself to the difficult choice "to dream." But as his book chronicles so much of the full context for that choice, we cannot escape a different dream reached in his final pages: "the hope that no child will have to experience what I did."

-- Wayne Hall, UC vice provost for faculty development

Related stories:
Writing memoir was life-changing

New president penned best-seller

More articles and videos about UC President Gregory Williams
Get your own copy "Life on the Color Line" from Amazon
President Williams' UC bio