The Skin Between Us: A Memoir of Race, Beauty, and Belonging

The Skin Between Us: A Memoir of Race, Beauty, and Belonging

by Kym Ragusa
     
 

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A memoir of astonishing delicacy and strength about race and physical beauty.
Kym Ragusa's stunningly beautiful, brilliant black mother constantly turned heads as she strolled the streets of West Harlem. Ragusa's working-class white father, who grew up only a few streets (and an entire world) away in Italian East Harlem, had never seen anyone like her. At home

Overview

A memoir of astonishing delicacy and strength about race and physical beauty.
Kym Ragusa's stunningly beautiful, brilliant black mother constantly turned heads as she strolled the streets of West Harlem. Ragusa's working-class white father, who grew up only a few streets (and an entire world) away in Italian East Harlem, had never seen anyone like her. At home their families despaired at the match, while in the streets the couple faced taunting threats from a city still racially divided—but they were mesmerized by the differences between them.
From their volatile, short-lived pairing came a sensitive child with a filmmaker's observant eye. Her two powerful grandmothers gave her the love and stability to grow into her own skin. Eventually, their shared care for their granddaughter forced them to overcome their prejudices. Rent parties and religious feste, baked yams and baked ziti—Ragusa's sensuous memories are a reader's delight, as they bring to life the joy, pain, and inexhaustible richness of a racially and culturally mixed heritage.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Documentary filmmaker Ragusa, now 40, discusses her "complex heritage"-her mother is African-American, Native American, Chinese and German; her father is Italian-American-in a memoir that's refreshingly intent on creating compelling portraits and contextualizing family history rather than rehashing a personal, emotional journey. While there is talk of Ragusa's coming to terms with "in-between skin" and growing up "biracial" in color-divided 1960s and '70s New York City, this contemporary account of trying to fit in glints with vibrant portrayals of runaway slaves, turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants, interracial flappers, '60s civil rights activists, '70s "black is beautiful" models and '80s suburb seekers. Ragusa writes with a confident, curious narrative voice prone to poetic visual images; readers meet "honey-colored" children, see "blocks of burned-out, boarded-up buildings" and visit neighborhoods with "steam like hot hangover breath hissing from manhole covers." She links the various accounts by a central meditation on how "the stigma of skin color" interacts with ideas of beauty and belonging. The recurring discussion sometimes lacks structure and cohesion, but its modesty ensures that it always comes across as fresh, honest and important. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A refreshing debut memoir about growing up in between races and in between families. Ragusa's African-American mother and Italian-American father had a torrid fling that petered out after their daughter was conceived. As a child, she was shuttled back and forth between Harlem and New Jersey, living sometimes with maternal grandmother Miriam, sometimes with dad and his extended family. Indeed, this narrative of childhood isn't so much about the author as it is about the people who raised her. In a loving, humanizing portrait of her Harlem apartment building, for example, Ragusa writes, "The women in the building literally kept it functioning": cleaning the hallways, watching each other's kids, taking the landlord to court when necessary. She knew her maternal great-grandmother only as an old lady, but drawing on photographs, a preserved flapper dress, census records and her grandmother's stories, she is able to recreate the life and times of a bold, ballsy Harlem Renaissance hanger-on who went through husbands with an ease that rivaled Elizabeth Taylor's. Ragusa is sensitive to the political implications of her life story. She feels ambivalent about light-skinned Miriam's ability to hire a darker-skinned woman to care for her as a baby: "How do I speak of this without shame? I began my life within the shadow of a past that is impossible to escape." When it comes to her parents' failures-her father was a drug addict; her drop-dead gorgeous mother moved to Italy to follow a successful modeling career and a man, leaving Kym with Miriam-Ragusa is stunningly generous. She never sugar-coats, but neither does she indulge in rancor or endless complaining about dysfunctional family dynamics. Thebook occasionally meanders, the ending is abrupt and the author has a tendency to rely on descriptions of photographs to move the story along. But these are forgivable missteps from a first-time author whose footing will be surer in the future. Satisfying and surprising.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393058901
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
05/08/2006
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
327,596
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Meet the Author

Kym Ragusa is a writer and documentary filmmaker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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