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Living Between Black and White

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‘Flannery O’Connor once said, if you manage to survive childhood then you’ve got material to write about for the rest of your life. I think that’s true. Nobody has an easy time of it growing up. It stinks for everyone everywhere in its own unique way,” says Emily Raboteau. Raboteau has written a novel about her own childhood as the daughter of Albert Raboteau, a professor of religion at Princeton, and Katherine Murtaugh, who teaches second grade at Princeton’s Community Park school.

Today, Raboteau is a professor of creative writing at City College of New York in Harlem. She will discuss her new novel, “The Professor’s Daughter,” on Thursday, March 30, at Princeton Public Library.

The novel, which follows main character Emma Brodreaux’s growing awareness of the complexities of race in America, is filled with instantly recognizable images of events familiar to Princetonians. One is the November, 1990, incident in which Bruce L. Miller, a Princeton University student, climbed on top of the Dinky, the shuttle train between Princeton and Princeton Junction, and touched an 11,000-volt power line. His left arm and both legs were later amputated. On the night of the accident, Miller allegedly attended parties at SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon), Campus Club, and Cottage Club. Raboteau says: “My teachers used the dinky accident as a cautionary tale about the dangers of drinking, when my classmates and I were in middle school. In my case it worked. That is, I didn’t drink. And it left an imprint on my imagination.”

Emma, like the author herself, is the only daughter of a mixed-race marriage between an African-American father and white mother. Says Raboteau: “I wanted to write the book that I needed to read when I was a teenager struggling with the issues of identity. The question ‘what are you?’ made me feel like there was something wrong with me, like I made people uncomfortable. It took the seven-year process of writing this book to enable me to decide there was nothing wrong with me — that it is society’s issue.”

The novel incorporates events from Raboteau’s own family’s unique history. In the book, as in real life, the grandfather, Albert the first, was murdered before the father, Albert II, was born. (Raboteau declines to give details of her own grandfather’s death, but in the book, the grandfather is a star in the Negro Baseball League and is set on fire on homeplate when the stadium is empty, then hung from a tree for all to see. His wife chops the tree down and goes into labor with Emma’s father.)

Several scenes in the book poignantly reveal the subtle and not so subtle racism the main character encounters:

“The winter of my eighth birthday was the season of the Stork Baby. My mother took me with her to Toys R Us to buy me one for Christmas. The shelves were bare and when my mother asked the clerk, she said there was a 2 week wait – unless we wanted a black doll. ‘You can get a black doll today.’

My mother asked, do you want a black doll, Emma.

‘I’m not sure,’ I said.

It didn’t seem as good.

Another scene is based on a true event that happened to Raboteau’s grandfather:

“The lighting of the Christmas Tree in Palmer Square was to occur that night, the fourth night of the hunt. That afternoon, Lester won another Guggenheim. He chose to celebrate with my father and Bernie over a plateful of oysters at the Peacock Inn. The maitre d’ asked to see their money before he brought the food.”

Says Raboteau: “I didn’t want to write an expose — I wanted to honor my family. I believe my parents were very brave to come together in the first place and raise us in a society where such a marriage is under constant scrutiny. When they divorced, people automatically thought there was a racial divide that couldn’t be breached — even after a 19-year marriage. And, people always want to know if my father’s second wife is black.” (She is.)

Raboteau, who is not yet married, graduated from Yale with bachelors in English in 1998, and earned an MFA from New York University in 2002. She returns to Princeton often to visit her parents.

On being raised a professor’s daughter, Raboteau says, “It’s shaped my intellect and given me a sense of humor about the world of academia — the big egos, the esoteric language, the sheltered lives. Now that I’m a professor myself, I’m even more inside that circle than I was as a child. I can only rib it so much before I’m ribbing myself.”

While her book has enjoyed good critical reviews, Raboteau is frustrated that the book has been, in her view, “ghetto-ized.” “Because a book was published a few years back called ‘Caucasia,’ we had a hard time selling the novel. But, while books about and by African Americans may seem similar they aren’t, and we aren’t.

“I find it ironic that a book exposing the way people categorize each other based on race has been categorized itself based on race. Labeling the book in such a way cuts readership by 85% because it only gets displayed in the race section. If my friends couldn’t find my book in either the new fiction or literature sections, readers browsing for their next purchase wouldn’t even think to ask for it.”

Raboteau says ghetto-izing a book is a negative on several fronts. “It’s a bit destructive in terms of sales but it’s awful for everybody who is ghetto-ized because it’s limiting. If books that are thought to only appeal to black readers are going to be separated, they should at least cross-listed.”

Next up on Raboteau’s agenda is finding a publisher for “The Bird Who Swallowed the Moon,” a children’s book she created with local artist Nim Ben-Reuven. She’s also conceiving a novel she says will take four years to complete, about a severely autistic, nonverbal boy.

“It’s filled with strange episodes, and I’m at the very beginning. When I started ‘The Professor’s Daughter’ I thought I was writing a series of short stories. I still don’t really feel like I know how to write a novel. It’s like scaling a mountain — I have to think of it in small discreet units. That’s how I’m approaching this second one.”

Raboteau says she mostly encounters racism before people realize she is black. “White folks sometimes betray their prejudice in my company, assuming that I share their attitudes. They will say things like, ‘parts of Brooklyn are safe, but there are still a lot of black people there.’ Or, ‘waiters shouldn’t waste their time because black people don’t tip.’ But I get it from the other side, too. When black folks understand that I’m black they sometimes feel free to lambast white people in a way they wouldn’t if they perceived me as white.”

When asked if Princeton is a better place than most to raise children of a mixed-race marriage, Raboteau — who recently moved from Brooklyn to Harlem — says, “I’m not sure because I didn’t grow up anywhere else. But I can say it was hard not to see many other people who looked like me and my brothers, and that I will raise my own children in a more diverse environment.”

Emily Raboteau, Thursday, March 30, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. The author, who grew up in Princeton, will discuss her first novel, “The Professor’s Daughter.” 609-924-8822.

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