Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America by Zachary R. Wood.
Dutton imprint, Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Adult memoir, 238 pages.
Lexile: 1040L .
AR Level: not yet leveled.
The story of a young man who moved between abusive and loving but impoverished home life and mostly-white educational institutions that gave him access to another world but rejected or exceptionalized his race.
I picked up this book with only the vaguest idea of who Zachary Wood was, perhaps having read one of his articles but not yet having cemented the name and the ideas together in my mind. After all, in 2020 most of us are focusing on hate speech rather than free speech, when we aren’t simply trying to stay alive.
Honestly, the main reason I grabbed this was because I assumed the subtitle indicated a biracial author. Wood is African American or Black, not biracial – he has spent much of his short life moving between black and white environments though.
This moves fairly straightforwardly through Wood’s life from his earliest memories through his college life. It starts with his troubled early life with a mentally ill mother who was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, later rediagnosed with schizophrenia and had bouts of both depression and mania.
For all the issues that he had with his mother, Wood is very straightforward about not just the abuse, but also the positives that he gained from her – his poise, his ambition, his ability to remain calm and focused in extremely challenging situations. He is clear that he had to get out of her house, but he also emphasizes their mutual bond.
His early story is also about how he got out – telling people repeatedly and then taking it back. How her treatment of him changed as the circumstances did (no longer hitting him as he got older, comparing his genitals to her boyfriend’s when he reached puberty). He was eventually released to his father’s custody and moved from Detroit to the area near Washington D.C. between eighth and ninth grade.
Yet this is also the story of his educational journey, which his mother alternately encouraged and imperiled. She set him down the path of attending PWIs (primarily white institutions) and spent countless hours coaching him on how to present himself and navigate tricky situations in both his worlds. At the same time he also saw her as overreacting to comments and events he viewed as harmless or misunderstandings.
Wood didn’t always have access to his father, but his maternal grandmother and her husband, and his father’s family when he was around them, were also supportive. His father was already living in desperate poverty, but chose to prioritize his children’s education beyond any reasonable expectation. Wood’s father’s steadfast refusal to dwell on any negative and his lack of engagement in the intellectual pursuits that consume Woods challenge their relationship, but his consistency and practical support are crucial.
Uncensored is definitely an adult book (although like most adult reads it could be suitable for mature teens also). Racial slurs, swear words, physical/mental/emotional/sexual abuse, threats of violence, community violence, and child abuse all occur in-text. A domestic violence scene is vividly recounted from a four year old’s perspective – there is some disagreement as to whether it occurs as his mother related but it’s still important to mention for trauma survivors.
Several scenes of a female instigating abuse against a male in a romantic relationship occur. Microaggressions and outright racism occur and are not always challenged in-text. I definitely felt at times that Wood was catering to his white audience somewhat like Matthew Henson did in his autobiography.
If you are reading this for Wood’s side of the story involving the Uncomfortable Conversations group at Williams College, then you might be disappointed to learn that only starts about 200 pages in. I found this the weakest part of the story as the narrative is suddenly slower, with less salient detail. However, I also assume that Wood was trying to avoid duplicating material from his many prior essay and interviews around this topic.
Even at the weak points, Wood is a gifted writer, and this was significantly better composed and more interesting than I would have expected from anyone in their early 20s, especially someone majoring in a subject other than English.
If I had read this book when it was first published, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much. Reading it in 2020 in the midst of a highly divisive political election, it feels extremely timely. Wood’s choices may have been harmful or helpful, they might have been many things. He doesn’t write this to enter into an argument (although one could certainly react that way).
He has a quiet confidence in his own actions and opinions that allows him to be open to other views. This book reads as his way of laying out his own views for those who might be open to them. While I didn’t always agree with Wood, I consistently respected his style of encouraging dialogue and his points about the urgent need to bring liberals and conservatives into conversation if the US is to move forward in healing from racism and other evils. Recommended.