It is a truth universally acknowledged that just because someone has an interesting background it does not that he can write an engaging memoir. It is also true that when someone has an interesting history and can write, his memoir can be extraordinary. Richard Rizzo's Invisible Colored White: Being White in a Black World falls into the second category.
Rizzo was born in Brooklyn to an Italian-American family, and spent the first nine years of his life in Bensonhurst, an Itallian/Jewish neighborhood. His parents divorced shortly after his father returned from WWII, "but that wasn't a big thing"—his father lived nearby in the house he'd been born in.
In 1949, Rizzo's mother, Rose, joined the Communist Party and fallen in love with one of its leaders, Pettis ("Pete") Perry. "My mother had said that a white person and a Negro couldn't get married in New York City . . . There probably weren't any laws against it in1949 in New York but that doesn't mean inter-racial marriages were common. According to an article I read recently in the Journal of Family History only 150 inter-racial marriages were performed in the entire U.S. during the decade of the 40s." Rose and Pete were married in Connecticut.
Pete, Rose, and Rizzo moved into an apartment on the fringe of Harlem at 138th Street and Amsterdam Avenue—and Rizzo began to see their situation through the eyes of the white people with whom he'd grown up. "We were freaks in their eyes: something so difficult to imagine, and so revolting, that just the sight of us was intolerable. I began to realize that strangers were looking away, and not seeming to notice us, when we were out in public. People who didn't avert their eyes were even worse; they would make no attempt to hide their hostility and disgust."
Because school was such a trial (in his Harlem elementary school, Rizzo and a friend, cutting class, discovered the body of a student hanging in the boy's room), he was truant so much he barely squeaked through high school. Although his mother and stepfather were committed Communists, and although Rizzo found things to admire about the Party, it never took. By watching Pete, "I had seen what it meant to be in the Party: it was all about discipline, jut just the obvious kind (being able to hold your liquor or whatever), being in the Party demanded mental discipline. Your mind had to lock itself into the Party's program. It wasn't just the literal political plan (the flip-flopping, top down, group consensus) that you had to agree with; you had to close off consideration of all peripheral possibilities."
Invisible Colored White has 52 short chapters—some no more than
three pages—organized by "Childhood," "Youth," and "Identity." Rizzo
shows us his fears and experiences living in Harlem, visiting his father
and Brooklyn relatives, his life as one of two white children in public
school, his grandmother's funeral (at which his grandfather cleared the
funeral home doorway of racists so Pete and Rose could enter), his
visit to the Federal Prison in Danbury where Pete was serving a
three-year sentence for sedition. The family moves to California and Rizzo compares and constrasts his life in NY with life in LA and Rizzo participates in civil rights demonstrations—each vignette crisp and sharp.
At the end of this engaging and masterly memoir, Rizzo writes, "Rose's decision to marry Pete provided me with a unique vantage point from which to watch the unfolding of American history. Luckily my desire for invisibility—probably a necessary survival mechanism given the situation—didn't make the suffering of others invisible to me." Fortunately for readers, Rizzo has been able to communicate the scenes, stories, people, and ideas that he encountered along the way.