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Split Decision

David Matthews' New Memoir Recounts Learning That It Does Matter If You're Black Or White

Okan Arabacioglu

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/14/2007

David Matthews never planned on writing nonfiction, least of all about himself. "I just felt that everybody's got some sob story," says the 39-year-old aspiring screenwriter over the phone from his home in New York. "And for me, great stories are ones that you invent and they're heroic and they're not just about some kid in Baltimore."

That's exactly what Matthews' recently released memoir, Ace of Spades (Henry Holt), is about: growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s and early '90s. Granted, Matthews isn't just "some kid," although that self-dismissal is indicative of the book's self-deprecating tone and candidly brutal honesty. Matthews was born to a prominent African-American journalist father and a white Jewish mother, who left them early in his life. He and his father eventually settled in Bolton Hill. The biracial Matthews is as white-looking as any "Caucasian," even though, as he notes in Ace's first few pages, his birth certificate says "Negro."

The fact that Matthews could be simultaneously considered both and neither black or white--what Matthews calls a genetic "fluke"--is what makes his story fascinating. Any Baltimore resident knows that race is a factor in how people interact whether they admit it or not. Matthews almost seamlessly moves between black and white--almost, that is. The book's real power comes in how he eloquently and convincingly illustrates how race in America is an arbitrary construct imposed to establish and maintain societal power relationships, a social lie that we accept as biological fact.

"The book thing came about quickly and by surprise," Matthews says. Over the phone he sounds as omnivorously and casually intelligent as his writing. He could be that guy you went to college with who studied a little bit of everything and somehow retained it all. "I thought these race stories--Rebecca Walker, James McBride--I thought they were just a waste of time and indulgent and who's interested in any of this stuff?

"But after I sold the book and while I was writing it Katrina happened, and that opened my eyes," he continues. "I guess I had sort of thought that, well, Racism? Kind of over. And [Katrina] really opened my eyes to the fact that there are huge, shifting populations that are actually affected by race in this country."

Ace reveals a young boy and man not so much hiding from race as constantly having to re-navigate it. Matthews was born in 1967 in Washington, D.C. His light-skinned paternal grandmother, Mae Jones, came to Baltimore and resided at 1838 Druid Hill Ave., the home of Norma and William Marshall. (The Marshalls often provided rooms for young African-American ladies and were active in the community; their son Thurgood, as Matthews notes, "dabbled in the law.") Jones worked, briefly, for The Sun as a society reporter--until she found out The Sun didn't hire blacks. She decamped to the Afro-American as its society page editor. Matthews' paternal grandfather, Ralph Matthews Sr., was also an Afro reporter and eventual managing editor of its East Coast branches.

Ralph Sr. eventually left Jones to raise Matthews' father by herself. Ralph Matthews Jr., also light-skinned, graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, attended Syracuse University, graduated from Morgan State University, and was part of that generation who invented "cool" in the 1950s and '60s. He worked for a number of black publications in New York and hung out at jazz spots with people like James Baldwin, wrote puff pieces about upstarts like Miles Davis, and eventually helped found a newspaper, New York Citizen Call, through which he befriended Malcolm X.

Matthews--who notes in Ace that both his grandmother and father had the opportunity of passing for white but rejected it--knew some of his family's history but had to revisit his father to get the particulars. "My dad is sort of a natural raconteur, so ever since I was born I've always listened to all the stories about all the people he had known and hung out with," Matthews says. "So, you know, it was like, `That's great, Dad, Malcolm X and you were blah blah blah. Got it.' I was a kid--I didn't know better."

Race Matthews did know--or, at least, feel. He felt it in comments he heard from his grandmother about darker-skinned African-Americans after he and his father, then the Afro-American's managing editor, moved to Baltimore in 1977 from Adelphi, in Prince George's County, where his father moved with his second wife. And in Ace Matthews describes his first day at the majority black Mount Royal Middle School:

Presented with not only the opportunity but an exigent need to choose a racial identity, I froze. . . . The choice was both impossible and necessary: identify myself or have it done for me. . . . Those first few moments in the hallway had alerted me to the importance they (and to a larger extent, Baltimore, and even larger extent, America) placed on white or black. Pick one.

This came to its illogical head in the cafeteria, when Matthews--confronting a "sea of black faces surrounding an isthmus of white kids"--chose to sit with the kids who "most looked" like him. He writes: "That was it. By the code of the cafeteria table, which was just as binding in that time and place as the laws of Jim Crow or Soweto, I was white."

"I've always had these sort of these apocryphal moments--like the cafeteria," Matthews says. "And how many times in anybody's life are you presented with a moment--a literal moment--where the seconds are ticking down and you have to choose something right now? Usually those things are sort of slow--you get into bad relationships, and three years later you look around and go, `How did I get here?'

"But in Baltimore it was very survival oriented," he continues. "So I always had these moments--and I could always reflect on it later. But in terms of writing the book it was tricky, because I didn't want to write a book that was you are here in the moment with me book, which is the James McBride, or the James Frey model even, before anybody knew that that was all made up."

Matthews purposely avoids the experiential memoir. "That's the thing that I hate about memoirs," he says. "How do you remember what your mom or dad or whatever was wearing when you were 4 years old and everything you did that day and what the air smelled like? If I remember a feeling I'll do it, but in general, I'm going to give you little snapshots and then step away from it and comment and dabble in it. The voice I chose was the guy who is in his late 30s who is consciously constructing his childhood for you as a 38-year-old man."

Today's Matthews recognizes what he's writing: a story of passing. "Passing stories" dot literary history, but rarely the nonfiction realm. Fictions of black-to-white passing appear in the 19th century and become a bit more prevalent in the 20th century: Nella Larsen's Passing, James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life, which was made into a couple of movies, and Elia Kazan's 1949 Academy Award-nominated Pinky. All lean more toward melodrama in order to dramatize race relations.

In more recent years passing stories have crept into mainstream publishing. Rebecca Walker's 2002 Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self and James McBride's 1996 The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother explore growing up and living biracial, while Philip Roth's 2001 The Human Stain offered a typically Rothian look at masculinity and American foibles through the prism of Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who passed for white.

None of these stories, though, resonated with Matthews. He read both McBride and Walker's memoirs, and "the thing that struck me and really got me motivated to do this was that there's no story I can think of in nonfiction that is my story," he says. "When you turn over the book and you see Rebecca Walker and you see James McBride you see a black person. They're light-skinned, sure. And I realized that all these people with this cultural confusion, it was self-imposed. And mine was always the cultural confusion of, `I could be whatever I wanted and no one ever knew.' It's a phenotypic genetic fluke to be able to walk into a room and convince someone that you're something else, because then you get to hear what America, either black or white, really thinks when they don't know that, essentially, the enemy is in the room."

In Ace, Matthews reports back from both sides of the fence, and it's a casual, nuanced story. Race as Matthews experiences it is more learned than innate, something with which he had to contend when moving to Baltimore. And yes, Matthews is more than acutely aware of its social baggage. Matthews modeled Ace on more arcane forms--such as Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther--both to avoid the usual memoir style and because he knew "that once someone read the blurb--you know, `black kid from Baltimore who does blah blah blah'--they'd be expecting some Def Poetry Jam-tinged hard-knock bullshit story, and I wanted to do it another way. This is actually a fairly classically structured and very--I hate to use the word literary and I don't mean it in a bad way--but a literary book."

That quality helps Ace maintain its engrossing pull. Matthews moves freely from re-creating his story to commenting on it, tossing off anecdotal asides, such as this spot-on remembrance of bicycle theft: "In contrast to other cities, bikes in Baltimore were not stolen while inadequately chained to lampposts or absentmindedly left in front yards, but rather while the owner was riding it."

Such droll humor often takes the knife-point edge off his childhood. "That's something I hadn't really thought of consciously, but I guess you're right," Matthews laughs at the observation. "I have always been sort of a blow-hard and I had always told these stories about Baltimore, but people outside of Baltimore really don't have a comprehension of what Baltimore is like."

As an example he shares a story about his most recent visit to Baltimore. 20/20 wanted to do a segment with him, and he came back to his old neighborhood for the first time since he left in 1993. "They wanted to show, you know, the author going back to his neighborhood, walking around or whatever," he says. "And I was a little afraid. I'm thinking, Fuck--you know what's going to happen? I write this book about the nightmare that is Baltimore and I'm gonna get back there and it's gentrified and it's all beautiful and it's great.

"Well, Baltimore didn't disappoint me because I went back to my old neighborhood, and it was about 20 times worse," he continues. "It was like a set decorator had come to my old neighborhood and put out broken malt liquor bottles, and it was raining, which was perfect. It was just a war zone. And the camera guys tried to shoot right in front of my old house where I grew up. They were in a van. And these guys storm the van. And the driver was like, `Go, let's get the fuck out of here! I just got back from Afghanistan and I wasn't this scared.'"

He chuckles over the receiver. "And I'm like, `There you go: Baltimore, my hometown.' But inside I'm thinking, Good. Let some Smoking Gun motherfucker try to do a James Frey on me. They'll be like, `Yeah, he lied. It's actually much worse than he said.'"

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