Mishna Wolff's I'm Down recalls a cross-cultural childhood

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      By Mishna Wolff. St. Martin's Press, 288 pp, $30.50, hardcover

      “You need to get out and make friends with the sisters,” Mishna Wolff's father commanded her when the author was six years old. This Kool & the Gang–loving, 'fro-headed soul man is easily the most outsize presence in his daughter's amusing, candid memoir of her girlz-in-the-'hood South Seattle upbringing, I'm Down. Wolff had a problem, however: “I couldn't dance. I couldn't sing. I couldn't double Dutch.”¦This was unacceptable to my father, and so he began his crusade to make me ”˜down'.” The twist? Both Wolff and her Black Panther Party–volunteer father are honky-ass crackers. They're white.

      Wolff had one of those childhoods in which the eccentricities of the parents are visited upon their hapless kids, creating potentially juicy memoir material. After all, shouldn't something lucrative come from suffering wacko progenitors? In the case of this humorist and former model, when her mother divorced her domineering husband to “work on herself”, Wolff and her little sister, Anora, were left with a chronically unemployed father who “truly believed he was a black man”. They were left in shitsville.

      In a mashup of child's-eye view and adult-brained deadpan humour that's not quite incisively witty, Wolff chronicles life as a poor white girl in a poor black neighbourhood. With Daddy Wolff prodding her to “fight for her shit,” she goes from getting beat up by tough little kids who call her “Wonder Bread” to joining an all-black basketball team called the Satin Dolls.

      Wolff initially buoys things with light anecdotes about her whitey self trying to hang with the brothers and sisters. She learns to “cap”, a schoolyard game of insult one-upmanship. She negotiates her father's black girlfriends, wishing he'd stay with the one who at least knew, unlike Daddy, “that there were three meals in a day”.

      In the end, the author runs out of juice while not offering any stirring insights into her black-and-white childhood. Wolff really seems preoccupied with the intriguing, self-absorbed man she never felt “cool enough” for—her father—but she can't get a grip on him, either. As they'd say in the 'hood, “Daaang!”