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Colored People: A Memoir

Colored People book cover

Colored People is as much an autobiographical account as it is a biographical, if eccentric at times, story of the Colemans (the author's mother's family) and the Gates (the author's father's family). Mr. Gates tells of his formative experiences and anxieties from childhood to adolescence to adulthood in Piedmont, West Virginia, population 2,500, at a time when the racial order of segregation was about to change. He describes childhood with his playmates, school experiences following integration, and his fears and anxieties about finding a girlfriend. It is also the story of a company town that lost its deeply ingrained way of life as desegregation took hold. The book ends fittingly with the sadness of producing the last (and segregated) company picnic.


On Segregation
"Before 1955, most white people were only shadowy presences in our world, vague figures of power like remote bosses at the mill or tellers at the bank." (Colored People, 11)

"Actually, I first got to know white people as 'people' through their flickering images on television shows." (Colored People, 20)

"Lord knows, we weren't going to learn how to be colored by watching television. Seeing somebody colored on TV was an event." (Colored People, 22)

"What was special to us about Amos and Andy was that their world was all colored, just like ours. Of course, they had their colored judges and lawyers and doctors and nurses, which we could only dream about having, or becoming -- and we did dream about those things." (Colored People, 22)

"The TV was the ritual arena for the drama of race." (Colored People, 27)

"That day was a revelation. Doctors and dentists, lawyers and pharmacists; Howard and Talladega, Harvard and Radcliffe - all of these careers and all of these schools were in my grandparents' living room that day, and each had a Gates face attached to it. ...actual brown and tan and beige people." (Colored People, 69)

"Only later did I realize that for many of the colored people in Piedmont ... integration was experienced as a loss." (Colored People, 184)

On Self-Discovery
"Something never named ended my friendship with Linda when we were about eleven. The strictures of race had entered our lives, catching us unawares." (Colored People, 106)

"Watching myself being watched by all the white campers, I experienced that strange combination of power and powerlessness that you feel when the actions of another black person affect your own life." (Colored People, 149)

© 1994, Alfred A. Knopf. Colored People: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1994.


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