The Color of Life:
A Journey toward Love and Racial Justice
Paperback: Zondervan, 2019
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Reviewed by David Swanson
On October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi for his final year of college. What should have been a straightforward process involving applications and recommendations was anything but easy. Riots broke out on campus two nights before the arrival of the 29-year-old incoming senior. The possibility of the first African American student at Ole Miss was significant enough to draw concerted opposition from the governor of Mississippi and intervention by Robert Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General. Reflecting later, Meredith, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, remembered his time at the university as a war, one which he won by forcing the federal government to intervene to defend his civil rights. This was a war against white supremacy and Meredith was willing to lead the charge, no matter how violent the response.
It is impossible not to think about Meredith regularly while reading The Color of Life and not only because the author regularly weaves his story through her narrative. Cara Meredith is the daughter-in-law of the civil rights icon, married to his son James. Also, she is white.
As a person, Meredith – the author – will likely seem familiar to many of her readers: A former youth worker for a Christian ministry, her growing awareness of racial injustice and her own privilege mirrors that of many other moderate white Christians over the past few years of visible racial injustice and upheaval. In fact, this sort of story about a white person’s racial awakening has become common enough that it’s worth wondering whether we need one more retelling. We do. Or rather, we need this story.
The Color of Life is a memoir about growing up in a loving family whose engagement with race was to studiously avoid it. There were exceptions of course, as there all in white families who assume a colorblind response to this most fundamental aspect of American life. Meredith’s father, for example, forbade the family from watching The Cosby Show because he thought it portrayed white people as villains. The author expertly weaves moments like these from childhood, adolescence, and her adult years as a teacher and youth worker together with the more recent story how an online dating website led to life with the son of a civil rights legend.
The book succeeds for many reasons. For starters, Meredith chooses vulnerability as she narrates her growing awareness of inequity and racial privilege. As she reflects on her contented childhood though her newly acquired experience and knowledge, she realizes the significance of race in her own life, as well as in the lives of her neighbors and classmates of color. She thinks as well about the racialized structures that contributed to the segregation her “colorblind” family took as a normal – and neutral – reality. She recalls her days in youth ministry and confesses,
I didn’t ask, when Latinos made up only twenty percent of the student body, why ninety percent of the school’s failing students in the after-school tutoring program were Latino. I didn’t ask, when African Americans made up only seven percent of the student body, why ninety-eight percent of out-of-school suspensions involved the same students. I didn’t ask not because I didn’t believe it my place to ask but because I didn’t see the problem in the first place. (47)
This sort of honesty is especially refreshing given a tendency among some white authors and speakers to make themselves experts about racial justice and reconciliation. It’s a tendency I’ve been prone to myself, an exercise in self-righteousness that Meredith thankfully and, helpfully, avoids.
Her willingness to share openly about her missteps as she grew to understand how racial privilege had blinded her to the concerns of her new husband made me cringe at times. Referring in blog posts and articles to James as her “Hot Black Husband” and their first child as “Little Caramel” — a reference to his biracial identity — will elicit grimaces and groans from many readers, yet these embarrassing admissions are crucial for what Meredith accomplishes in these pages.
Many white people have internalized the idea that the only thing worse than being a racist is being called a racist. As Daniel Hill, Ken Wytsma, Jennifer Harvey, and other white authors have noted, this fear keeps many white people from opening ourselves to conversations about racism and privilege for fear of being ostracized and shamed. By choosing to disclose some of the more tender and awkward moments in her own journey, Meredith signals to her white readers that this journey is open to everyone— no previous experience or threshold of woke-ness required. Rather than leading to debilitating shame, we find that confessing our racial blindness, prejudices, and even racist complicity can lead to greater courage and more authentic community.
Another reason The Color of Life works as an onramp to the journey toward racial justice is how Meredith slowly reveals the lived experience of racial privilege. It can be a delicate thing to engage people who believe they have worked hard for everything they posses with the concept of privilege, in which something as arbitrary as race can serve as an accurate predictor of, say, wealth or health. By reflecting on the things she overlooked about her family’s experience as well as the eye-opening conversations she would later have with her husband and father-in-law, the author invites us to consider how racial privilege has impacted our own understanding and experience of racial injustice.
What sort of experience is necessary for white people to have our eyes opened in the ways Meredith’s have been? Can her relationship with James and his extended family be translated to our own various privileged starting points? For me, these were some of the questions provoked by this thoughtful book. I want to believe that not every white person needs to have an intimate cross-racial relationship like that of Cara and James to come to the same kind of awareness and transformation as Meredith has. Since our segregated country precludes many of us from reasonably expecting those kinds of relationships, books like this one become even more important.
Finally, it’s important to notice that while The Color of Life is mostly about a white woman’s awakening to race, the subtext tells of her black husband’s patience. Time and again James answers his wife’s stumbling questions and tolerates her awkward growth into a knowledge that approaches what he has understood his entire life. In their relationship we are reminded of the larger relationship of white churches to churches of color. How often have these congregations and their members been patient with the white church down the road or across the tracks? Despite our blindness to their struggles and disinterest in their joys, oftentimes churches like these stand ready to extend to us the right hand of fellowship. May it be that many white Christians follow Cara Meredith’s humble and courageous lead. May the same be true of our churches.
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville community and the author of a forthcoming book with InterVarsity Press about the intersection of race and discipleship. Read more from David at dwswanson.com.