I remember wandering around Borders a couple of years ago, on summer holiday in the States, looking for something different to read. I ran my eyes along the shelves combing for a good book to read and I happened upon I’m Down. The book is pitched as: “Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black. “He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esque
sweater, gold chains, and a Kangol—telling jokes like Redd Foxx and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn’t tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried,” writes Wolff. And so from early childhood on, her father began his crusade to make his daughter down.”
“Unfortunately, Mishna didn’t quite fit in with the neighborhood kids: she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t sing, she couldn’t double Dutch, and she was the worst player on her all-black basketball team…..”
Reading this book infuriated me and made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Her description of poor black people was stereotypical and put accent on the worst traits of this community. I don’t think that all poor black people fight,insult each other, and neglect their children and I certainly don’t think it’s a howling laugh. Unfortunately, those traits are accentuated through a good part of the book. She makes it sound as if it’s the main reason for her problems. Her real problem was her dysfunctional family.
In essence, her problem wasn’t fitting into the black community, it was her not having an identity of her own. Her problem was with her father. She just happened to be living in a poor black neighborhood. Moreover, I’m almost sure that if a black person would have written this book, no publisher would have wanted to sign it on. The attraction was mainly that she was white and living in this poor black neighborhood recounting so-called funny episodes of her life interacting with black children at school.
Wolff attempts to write about her life in a comical fashion, but I didn’t really find it funny at all. If you decide to read this book, it’s basically a memoir about a dysfunctional poor, white family living in a poor black neighborhood. White people may find this funny or interesting to read but as a black woman I find it slightly offensive. It reminded me of modern-day blackface without the make-up. For example at one point in the book, Mishna learns to “cap” (=insulting someone in a playful way) at camp and then she starts capping her father. Her father was annoyed by it so he said, “I’m not about to take it from my daughter in my own home…..I take it from the Man everyday.” (I’m Down p. 33) Really? Ugghhhh! There were a lot of other phrases and incidents in the book like that. Another thing I didn’t like is the way she recounts the story as she’s nine but it sounds too much like an adult, although it’s quite clear early on she seems to be clueless about lots of things. I rate this book a one star. If you’re interested shes apparently planning to write a second part to I’m Down, which will begin where I’m Down left off. I’m not sure about the release date.
If you’re interested in more information about Mishna Wolff and her story, watch the You Tube clip below where she’s speaking at a university in Florida about her book and life. I found it a little painful to watch because she seems so awkward and strange. Happy reading……